Get into ‘the zone’

Published in the Bangkok Post’s Education on May 4, 2010

Establishing the proper ambiance in classrooms and schools can lead to greater creativity

Creativity flourishes in a non-threatening environment that is characterised by high levels of positive emotional experiences and responses. But happiness is not the only ingredient to consider when we think about redesigning schools to cater to the needs of a new, more challenging future, where fluidity in thinking and learning define success.

Creativity is closely connected to another key concept known as “flow” – a state of being that gives birth to vivid creative thoughts and super-human actions, as set out by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a Hungarian psychologist who literally wrote the book on the topic, which is titled Finding Flow.

When one operates in the state of “flow”, one is highly motivated, focused and totally immersed in the task at hand. Total preoccupation with the task makes all other daily routines and activities unimportant. Because of this focused motivation and highly dedicated execution of a series of deliberate, purposeful actions, the quality of products (in the form of ideas and/or actual creation of something) reflects originality, invariably surpassing the ordinary.

Bliss and creativity

Top athletes like Michael Jordan, a former NBA champion, refer to this optimal state of bliss that contributes to maximum achievement as being in “the zone”. Jordan once described the moment when he made a championship-winning last-second shot.

Jordan said that as soon as the ball touched his hands everything switched to slow motion, all the narrow alleys to the basket opened as wide as a street, he began to soar into the air and the basket became enlarged in size, so much so that he knew he couldn’t miss. There was no room in his awareness for conflicts or contradictions. He had full concentration on the task. He was in “the zone”.

Average people often get into “the zone” or feel “the flow” while performing music, playing cards, creating an object, formulating an idea, studying, or during an exam. Sometimes musicians and artists call this experience “aesthetic rapture”, while pious religious figures call it “ecstasy”. Many names. Same feeling.

Achieving this maximum state of comprehension and creativity can also occur when learning. Not surprisingly, being in “the zone” almost always occurs while the person is happy.

Doing it differently

One problem is that schools don’t often get it right. The focus by schools on providing happiness to students is hedonistic in nature. Educators often hold the view that fun events and activities are sufficient to provide students with positive feelings and energy. Sadly, this kind of happiness is short-lived. Once the event is over or if the event is repeated over and over again, it loses its influence to aid students in getting into “the zone”.

Schools need to look and act beyond external factors to make students happy. Indeed, says Csikszentmihalyi, one can be merely happy being in the sunshine, which is an external factor, but the happiness that follows from “flow” or that occurs when one is in “the zone” is of his or her own internal making, and that the growth during “flow” or while being in “the zone” leads to increased mental complexity and consciousness.

Educators need to acknowledge that true happiness (or the higher level of happiness) that leads to genuine creativity comes from within an individual – particularly when a student feels capable of and competent in doing something worthwhile.

Enemies of ‘the zone’

Unfortunately, there are hurdles to experiencing “flow” or being in “the zone” in the school system. The state of “flow” requires that one is not bound by time and space. In this sense, the nagging bell that announces the beginning and end of classes and the one-classroom-fits-all set-up are the enemies of ever getting into “the zone”. Consequently, students frequently feel unhappy, and their overall creative abilities are diminished.

Another reason for this impediment is regimentation: students go from maths class to science to English without being able to switch back and forth across subjects. While efficient, this is harmful to creative learning and the development of higher-order thinking. Creativity requires an opportunity to be able to look at a number of possible views and scenarios from different angles, before a tenable solution is conceptualized.

Drastic measures needed

It is clearly evident that it is easier to claim to teach creativity than to actually teach it. Schools and educators who are serious about teaching creativity need to reassess their traditional practices – they may need to do away with alarm bells between classes and confining learning within the four walls of the classroom.

They may need to actively engage in cross-curricular instruction and allow students the liberty and opportunity to regularly experience the state of “flow” in an unstructured, resource-full and supportive learning space. Only then will the clarity of a true champion emerge on the playing fields of life.

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