Body speaks

Scores of articles and books have been written about decoding body language. Advocates and specialists in this field claim that they could almost precisely match different movements, postures, gestures and facial expressions with actual psychological states of individuals at any given time. Their strong arguments for this precision influence the general public to attempt to understand others through a series of diagnostic-analysis aimed at matching what they see with what they think others are like.

Examples

For instance, body language experts say that when somebody displays brisk, erect style of walking, the individual is confident. When someone sits with legs crossed and foot kicking slightly, he is showing boredom. When someone crosses his arms on chest, he is displaying defensiveness. Touching, slightly rubbing nose indicates rejection, doubt and lying. Tilted head is indicative of interest in a person or subject. Biting nails indicates insecurity and nervousness.

Caution

While popularly accepted as useful in variety of settings, body language and its interpretation should be treated with caution at school and home. Before generalizing and applying what one reads about body language, it is appropriate to consider the following characteristics of body language to avert the irresponsible interpretation of the same.

Origin

Body language was popularized during the 20th century, at a time when efficiency defined success in industries. People were pre-occupied with doing as much as possible in as little time. Driven to saving time and increasing productivity, people took a shortcut in everything including their approaches to understanding people.

In a typical fast-paced industrial setting, a manager does not take too much time to determine who he wants as a line-supervisor. He relies on what he knows about body language and interprets candidates’ behaviors by the book. He does not spend time going through an elaborate process of truly understanding someone before appointing him or her.

It was behind this backdrop that body language became a popular topic along with concepts like time management and personal development in the 20th century.

Characteristics

The existing store of knowledge in the field of body language is not completely empirical. As such, there are rooms for relativity and subjectivity. The general population must remember that this is the underpinning truth about all psychological discoveries. Judgment about people’s psychological experiences should be reserved until the time when one has a complete picture of what is really happening.

Additionally, body language experts recognize that it is partly instinctual, partly learned. If this is so, body language could change without any warning. Matching it with specific interpretation could be misleading. It is highly possible that we may not be able to completely understand the unique meaning behind such instinctually driven behavioral nuances to the extent of making universal generalizations.

This is supported by the fact that body language is a subconscious reflection of an individual’s mental-emotional condition. It carries a myriad of conflicting meanings that are unique to individuals, their experiences and the context of such happenings.

Every individual reacts or behaves differently in different situations, under diverse mental-emotional conditions. In such cases, body language has to be interpreted within the framework of the context in which it is taking place. However, the context may not always be clear. Interpretation in this case would be difficult, if not misleading. On top of this, body language could reflect conflicting emotions or a progression of emotions. In all such cases the conventional diagnose-and-match method would not work.

Implication

Affective teaching and parenting require us to spend quality time with the younger generation to understand them better, instead of relying on literature about body language and generalizations about people and what they are like. Taking shortcuts may have worked in factories, but it would lead to utter failure if applied inconsiderately at school and home.

Stop labeling!

An age-old inspirational words of wisdom reads, “Don’t expect clean water from a well that was just dug up. It takes time for the dirt to settle before one could enjoy the freshness of clean water.”

Teachers and parents are always confronted with situations that require them to decide on whether or not a child or student needs to be assisted right away or given more time before he/she displays behaviors and attitudes that comply with the norm. In a typical school setting, non-compliance with status-quo (or norm) is shunned and almost immediately labeled.

Quick solution

Having worked with teachers and school counselors, I recognize such eagerness on an adult’s part to engage in systematic diagnosis and labeling of a child. Usually, adults in the helping profession such as teaching and counseling do not delay or reserve their judgment for a later time when it comes to dealing with perceived behavior, academic or social-emotional differences.

In close examination, I realize that adults do so to reduce the stress involved in constantly dealing with out-of-norm experiences of students. In other words, dealing with an “unknown” (or not-yet-labeled) out-of-norm behavior, performance and emotion of a child is more stressful and frustrating than dealing with a tentatively known or labeled condition.

In such cases an adult feels less apprehensive about a child’s condition and hence is more comfortable to deal with the crisis at hand. As erroneous as this sound, adults are able to discount their roles and responsibilities for the out-of-norm experience of a child when he/she is labeled as having significantly different experiences from his/her peers.

Believing that a child has an inherently imposed condition which adversely affects his/her academics allows teachers and parents to excuse themselves for failing to remedy the condition and/or situation. This allows them not to be too harsh on themselves. In this sense, labeling is and has been used for the convenience of adults more than to help any child to improve and develop holistically.

Rationale

There are many arguments against labeling children at school, home or even outside of the learning context. Two arguments deserve our immediate attention!

When we label someone, our sight, foresight and insight about that person become notably limited. For example, when we label someone as hyperactive, we look at the person from a narrow point of view and we expect him to behave in ways that typically characterizes a hyperactive individual. We do not care to pause and think of that person as being an individual with different talents, preferences, aspirations and strengths. All we choose to see is the features represented by the label itself.

The moment we label someone, we fail to see anything beyond that label. We deliberately close ourselves from exploring everything else about the individual. In the process of doing so, we miss all the more important and meaningful information that makes up the person’s true identity, experiences and potential.

Labeling creates a barrier in the minds of adults dealing with children/students. And most often, these barriers exist only in the mind of an adult (teachers and parents) and may not be present in the child’s mind. This explains why sometimes children unexpectedly surprise us with their tremendous capacity to create, innovate and problem-solve, especially when our biased expectations dictated otherwise.

Taking right action

Professionals argue that labeling is important to facilitate efficient communication among themselves in an effort to assist an affected child. At the same time, they also acknowledge the ill-effects of labeling. My personal take on this would be to stop labeling because the damage it causes outweighs the proposed benefit, added to the fact the so-called benefit is more for the convenience of adults rather than helping children/students.

Group effect

Making sure that students assimilate what they are taught is one of the most important preoccupations of teachers. When students are successful in assimilating knowledge, they are able to use them meaningfully, either to answer exam questions, or face real-life situations.

Yet teachers find this task daunting. Often, teachers believe that this is only achievable by a few select students in the class. The rest are usually thought to be incapable of absorbing and using what they are exposed to. This situation could be remedied and changed.

Teachers need to understand that learning is enhanced by systematically approaching and addressing the needs of the human psyche to operate in groups. Apart from bridging social-emotional gaps among students, learning in groups significantly improves students’ ability to acquire, extend and use knowledge instinctively.

The difference

This is supported by the research conducted by German-American psychologist, who is also recognized as the founder of social psychology, Kurt Lewin. The study was first of its kind as it assessed group decision-making on the attitudes of women toward certain foodstuffs. In his early investigation, Lewin divided a group of housewives into a lecture group and discussion group. The objective of doing this was to change the women’s attitude toward a set of food items which they do not normally eat.

The first group was lectured about the various nutritional values of the food items and how they could be cooked in appetizing manner. The second group on the other hand was asked to discuss the subject as a group with a nutritional expert. Each group was then asked how many of its members planned to try these food items. In addition, a follow-up study was carried out on the subsequent buying behavior of the housewives.

It was found that 3 per cent of those in the lecture group had cooked and served the food items, while 32 per cent of those involved in the discussion did so. The results of the study clearly reveal that people working in groups tend to be more persuaded about an idea or concept compared to when they are given a sales speech (or lecture).

Application

Persuasion involves a great deal of interaction with materials being discussed, examination and re-examination of one’s existing or prior knowledge and personal justification (either emotional and/or rational) for choosing to believe in or adopt a new idea. Group discussions improve the processes involved in the assimilation and usage of knowledge across subjects and learning environments.

Kurt Lewin’s research findings apply directly to educational setting, particularly to teaching and learning because attitude change involves cognitive, emotional and behavioral aspects. In other words, when people commit to discussing, thinking, arguing about a concept and eventually taking their own stand, their learning of that concept is more effective compared to when they are being lectured to by a so-called expert.

Additionally, a positive change in cognition (thinking) leads to changes in emotion and behavior. Group discussions improve students’ capacity to acquire and use knowledge meaningfully and also changes their feelings toward the subject, teacher, and overall learning process. The same is reflected in the succeeding positive behaviors displayed by students. Students whose attitude toward learning is positive tend to enjoy learning and behave in ways that bring about enduring success, academically and otherwise.

Shifting the trend

Teachers who encourage group discussions provide equal opportunities to more (if not all) students in a class to understand lessons and succeed in exams. As was seen in Lewin’s research, the 3 per cent (lecture group) versus 32 per cent (group discussion) result clearly shows why students who are lectured to tend to under-perform compared to students who are allowed to actively interact with study materials through group discussions.

Psychological weaning

Experience tells us that as students get older, parents and teachers let go of them and expect them to fend for themselves. While this is necessary to prepare students for independent thinking and living when they reach early adulthood, I am inclined to think that this sort of psychological weaning has to be done with extreme caution.

Origin

Like many other child-rearing practices, this too is passed down. Our parents/teachers were expected to fend for themselves by the time they were 13 or so. They did this to us when we were growing up and now we do the same with our own children/students. However, we need to examine the appropriateness of doing so from a psychological point of view, with the aim to significantly improve the quality of life.

A typical child’s life starts with close support and involvement from parents. At kindergarten and lower primary level, parents are more than eager to visit the child at school – sometimes more than once in a single day. They willingly attend parent-teacher conferences, academic meetings, workshops and social gatherings. However, as their children move up to upper primary, middle and high school, parents tend to reduce their level of involvement.

Cause

There is a psychological explanation for why this happens. Younger children deal with easier subjects and academic tasks. Hence parents find it very easy to handle children’s academic tasks at kindergarten and lower primary level. In fact many parents take pride in doing (under the guise of helping) kindergarten and lower primary level homework and projects for their children. They have no problem in doing this because their level of efficacy to handle simple academic tasks is high.

As children grow older, the subjects they learn at school get tougher. Parents, not wanting to look bad (because of their inability to help their children with higher level math, science, language, etc.), expect them to take responsibility for their own learning. This coincides with the fact that children at this age are supposed to take care of themselves in other areas such as personal hygiene, play, and time management. Most parents, if not all, possess low efficacy level when it comes to helping their children with more demanding academic tasks at school.

Hence the process of psychological weaning does not necessarily happen because parents/teachers want their children/students to become independent, functional member of the school and society. Rather, it is a way for parents/teachers to save their image as someone who is supposed to know more than the child. As a result, children suffer the consequence of the lack of support and involvement from parents/teachers at a time when they are needed the most.

Setting a balance

From a psychological point of view, lessons on independence are not taught by letting someone go completely. Effective parenting and teaching is knowing how to set a balance between letting go and sincerely supporting the youngster at the same time. It is a huge misunderstanding that as children grow older, they do not need the involvement of parents and teachers in their growth and development, be it academic, or otherwise.

In fact, the same amount of attention, support and involvement are required throughout schooling – this may even extend to college or university. While the form of support and involvement may change over time, they are in great demand throughout an individual’s life.

What matters

What parents and teachers need to understand and accept is the fact that showing support and involvement are not merely reflected in helping their children/students with academic tasks.  Contrary to this belief, and from a child/student’s perspective, the most important thing is for parents/teachers to simply be there for them – physically and emotionally!

The best school?

I am constantly confronted with parents who ask the question, “Which is the best school in Bangkok?” My answer has always been, “There is no such thing as the best school, anywhere in the world.” Instead, I direct parents to asking a more reflective question, “Is my child getting the best learning experiences at home and school?”

Unrealistic expectation

For parents, schools are supposed to guarantee children’s success, and the best school is believed to accomplish this more effectively than others. Paradoxically, schools do not magically produce successful individuals. In fact a lot of students from many so-called “the best schools” go straight for extra tutorials after school hours to re-learn what they were taught at school.

It takes a lot more than just schooling to produce successful people. Parents who do not understand this demand that the school turns their children into people like Albert Einstein, Bill Gates and Ben Carson, without spending one-on-one time with them.

Home before school

Research proves otherwise. Students who excel in education are those whose parents (not just teachers) hold the right attitude toward intelligence, learning and how the brain works. They believe that intelligence can be nurtured by providing stimulating environment and exposing the child to high quality learning experiences. They take an active role in shaping their children’s learning experiences way before they go to school.

They correctly understand that a child’s success depends more on themselves (parents) than on teachers at school; and that any significant progress should only be expected if and when they systematically and consistently reinforce behavioral patterns that would lead their children to forming constructive habits of mind.

Case studies

Such were the experiences of Edith and Ruth Lawrence. Both are classified as extremely successful individuals at a very young age. Both did not necessarily possess the gene set of a genius. And yet, because of what their parent(s) did when they were young, their intelligence and mental abilities were enhanced significantly.

Edith is the daughter of a New Yorker, Aaron Stern who decided to give his daughter the most stimulating environment he could think of. From the time Edith was born, he played classical music to her, spoke only in adult language (no baby talk) and taught her lots of new words everyday using flash cards.

As a result of all the exposure and stimulation, she spoke in complete sentences by the age of one. At the age of five, she had finished reading all the volumes of Encyclopedia Britannica. At six, she was reading six books a day and the New York Times. At the age of 12, she was accepted into college and at 15, was teaching higher mathematics at the Michigan State University.

Another case in point is Ruth Lawrence from England. After his parents put him through an enriched learning environment of music, educational toys and exposure, he managed to pass his Cambridge Ordinary Level examinations at the age of nine when the average age for sitting for the examination was and still is 16. At the age of ten, Ruth passed his Cambridge Advanced Level examinations and was accepted into Oxford University by the age of 12.

Asking the right question

A careful analysis of both cases reveals that the journey toward success and academic excellence begins at home, at a very young age. Instead of waiting for a school to make their children successful, parents should realize that they play a key role in making this a reality. As such, the first question that parents should be asking themselves is, “Am I ready to take responsibility for my child’s success, at home, before expecting the same from teachers at school?”

Cognitively-sound materials

To get the maximum result out of classroom instruction, it is necessary for teachers to understand the psychological processes that affect how a student learns. In other words, knowledge about the structure and working of human cognition serve as useful guide to enhance teaching and learning.

While utilizing a variety of creative and engaging teaching strategies go a long way to stimulate active learning, the materials presented to students play an equally significant role in how students acquire, process and assimilate knowledge. Engaging students in active learning without using appropriate, cognitively-sound materials is like successfully dribbling the ball up to the goalpost and not scoring a goal.

Research in cognitive psychology state that it is the interaction between the properties of materials taught and the manner in which they are delivered to students that determines the outcome of teaching and learning. This explains why textbook publishers go all the way out to make learning materials more interactive, colorful and approachable for students. While these are helpful, there are additional properties that determine successful learning. This is true particularly in the context of the level of complexity of learning materials under consideration.

Whether the materials to be learned are easy or difficult, learning is possible when the following are kept in mind.

Break it down

Breaking knowledge into reasonably smaller chunks enables effective processing of information in the working memory. Various research indicate that the working memory, where real-time mental activities take place, is very limited in capacity and duration. Only a limited bit of data is held in the working memory at any given time. As such, it is highly recommended that teachers present one idea at a time. This could be accomplished by presenting an idea and reinforcing the same with explanation, examples and further discussing about it.

When a teacher dwells in a particular idea for a longer period of time, the student would have had the opportunity to sufficiently interact with, make sense of, and eventually commit that piece of information to the long-term memory. Since the working memory is the first cognitive structure that is involved in learning, a sudden flooding of information will not help in the eventual acquisition of knowledge.

Most students get frustrated in the classroom when they are not given the opportunity to actively process each bit of information presented, before moving on to the next.

Connect it

Information that is successfully processed through the working memory is held in the long term memory. Paradoxically, the long term memory is immeasurably large with no known limits. Research by psychologist Adriaan Dingeman de Groot in the 1940’s indicate that the major difference between expert and novice chess players was not superior search moves or larger working memories. Instead, expert chess players possess enormous store of real game configurations in their long term memories. While playing, they draw out from a huge bank of stored board configurations and are aware of the best moves associated with each particular configuration.

Other psychologists investigating a wide range of problem solving areas also recognize that the long term memory plays a crucial role in higher order thinking and learning in general.

Teachers should activate and leverage on the long term memory by connecting what was already learned with what is to be learned. Regularly reviewing past lessons, connecting past lessons to each other, and building new knowledge upon existing understanding enhance the working of long term memory.

Tools

Both breaking down knowledge and connecting it with previous learning could be effectively done on a day-to-day basis through the use of tools such as advanced organizers, concept maps, mind maps and regularly-scheduled-short review quizzes/exercises that are fun and not graded.

Going all the way out!

Since social-emotional well-being directly relate to students’ academic achievement, schools should concretely commit to supporting it. This is particularly necessary for adolescents. Existing school structures rely heavily on school counselors to accomplish this goal. However, it is impossible for one or two counselors to authentically and comprehensively address all the social-emotional needs of adolescents.

There is a creative solution to this problem, already in use in several countries. The solution is a systemic implementation of Student Advisory.

Advisory explained

In a typical student advisory model, each student in the school is assigned a teacher or staff member to assist the learner to achieve academic and personal goals. A two-pronged approach is applied in the implementation of most student advisory programs; one-to-one interaction (personal coaching) as well as advisory classes (group coaching). While the former addresses students’ personal issues, i.e., their emotional well-being, the latter takes care of their need to connect positively with other peers.

Student advisory provides opportunities for adolescent learners to work closely with a coach. The idea of coaching learners is not popular outside of the realms of sports. However, it should be noted that anything that require skills-building involves coaching – hence, acquiring skills to overcome difficulties during adolescence definitely necessitates the need for “life-coaches.” While it may be a new idea within a school system, this practice is ardently advocated in Adult Learning Programs.

Social trends

The root of most academic problems is social-emotionally-based. Most adolescents have many unanswered questions about life, future, identity, relationships, physical changes, belief system, societal expectations and personal priorities. At the same time, they detach from parents and relate more closely with friends who are in similarly confused state of mind. As such, there is little or no opportunity for an adolescent to engage in constructive conversations with someone more experienced to help him make sense of things. This is where a coach at school could come into play, and do so effectively.

It is indeed shocking that most adolescents prefer relating to others through online means and hence expose themselves to greater danger of online abuses. Apart from consuming a huge chuck of study time, overuse of social media has made interpersonal skills a rare commodity that has to be taught to learners when they enter college/university or the world of work.

Student advisory offers the kind of emotional and social support needed during adolescence. Learners rely on face-to-face interactions that support the development of healthy and nurturing social networks within the school, across grade levels. It provides every student a specially allocated time to discuss about difficult social and academic situations by promoting peer recognition in an accepting environment. As a result negative peer pressure and its effects are prevented.

The cost

While student advisory does not cost any money, implementing it requires commitment of the highest degree from every member of the school. A systemic approach to implementation is crucial to its sustainability. If every member of the school does not buy into the idea, the program would fail. However, when successfully implemented, student advisory has proven to reduce instances of dropout, substance abuse and many other delinquent behaviors among adolescents. Additionally, it promotes self-esteem, strengthens social-emotional well-being, improves achievement levels and increases the overall accountability in the school.

Implementation tips

Ideally, a teacher or staff is assigned somewhere between ten to twelve students. In some cases, it may even go up to twenty in a group, depending on the student body. Different activities could be arranged for students during a student advisory class meeting (when students meet their coach as a group). Some examples are:

  • Advocacy – students share their problems and concerns and the coach advocates on the students’ behalf when appropriate
  • Forum – discussion about different aspects of day-to-day life at school
  • Building community – nurturing cohesiveness through in-house activities undertaken by the group; sometimes, this involves service learning and reaching out to the community outside the school
  • Reinforce academic skills or curriculum in a more relaxed environment (a coach may find it necessary to help his/her group in a particular area of learning)

Marshmallow effect

Perhaps the best things in life really do come to those who can wait

While it does not always provide specific tools to improve one’s life, psychology does help to create and increase awareness of factors that cultivate an effective and broad range of habits, attitudes and perspectives. Incorporating reputable psychological findings into your lesson plans can help you become a more effective teacher.

Time paradox

An example of such knowledge is found in the extensive work of Dr Philip Zimbardo (Professor Emeritus at Stanford University) and Dr John Boyd (research manager at Google Inc) in the area of time paradox.

This new science of psychology brings to light significant ingredients that determine an individual’s quality of life, which includes his or her performances at home, school and work.

Uneaten marshmallows

In the 1960s, psychologist Walter Mischel conducted the famous Marshmallow Temptation Study among four-year-olds. In this experiment, Mischel presented each child with a marshmallow.

He then told the child that he or she could either eat the marshmallow immediately, or wait and get an additional marshmallow as a reward.

As anticipated, some children yielded to the temptation and some others withstood it. Walter Mischel followed the progress of these children, monitored their school records, and surveyed and interviewed their teachers and parents until the students reached age 18.

Results

What he found has significant implications for education: children who had resisted the marshmallow temptation turned out to be more successful and emotionally balanced than those who had given into the temptation.

They were better-adjusted and more dependable.

More specifically, children who could delay gratification scored 250 points higher on the Scholastic Aptitude Test, worked well under pressure and when in groups, were significantly more confident, and possessed a number of other positive traits and habits.

The theory

According to Dr Zimbardo’s time paradox theory, individuals who could delay gratification are categorised as future-oriented, whereas those who could not resist are classified as present-oriented.

As revealed in the marshmallow temptation experiment, Dr Zimbardo argues that there are significant differences in people’s behaviour, attitude and approaches to life as a result of their “future” or “present” time perspectives.

He also sheds light on those individuals whose perspective is past-oriented. Various research studies confirm that an individual’s time orientation affects his or her quality and satisfaction of life, relationships, school and work performances, and a variety of other future outcomes.

As humans, we operate on all three time continua – past, present, future; but we are dominated by only one. This strong preference for one time orientation is formed over the years through biases that are influenced by our upbringing, educational opportunities, socio-economic background, religious conviction and geographical location.

Personal experience

I see this idea playing out in the lives of students at higher education institutions. Many would conveniently delay completion of their study program because they do not have the needed motivation to sustain them through the process of completing the thesis component. In contrast, students who are certain about their future goals do not waste time, make necessary sacrifices and complete their thesis no matter how difficult the process is.

Empirical studies point to the fact that students who hold past and present orientations under-perform at school and university while those who hold a future-orientation succeed and are invariably the top students.

Sadly, a majority of students that teachers come across at all levels of education have learned to be either past- or present-oriented, which poses huge problems in staying motivated, committing to long-term goals and learning for the sake of learning.

The good news is, time perspectives can be changed (unlearned and relearned) if students are made aware of the time paradox theory.

Decoding “success”

Through systematic and continuous use of various quantitative and qualitative research methodologies over the past few decades, psychologists have firmly established the fact that IQ alone does not account for one’s life success. Research data in this area is so strong that it is now empirically accepted that cognitive development is not the sole aim of schools.

Living proof

The evidence for this was found through a study conducted by Gregory Feist and Frank Barron among 80 PhD (science) students who took a battery of personality tests, IQ tests and interviews in the 1950s at University of California, Berkeley. When tracked down forty years later and assessed for success through their resumes, evaluation by experts in their own fields, and listing in the American Men and Women of Science, it was found that social-emotional intelligence were four times more important than IQ in determining professional success and prestige among these individuals.

A meta-analysis of data from various research over time and across cultures also reveals that IQ scores (which are believed to significantly correlate with school grades) account for as little as four percent and as high as twenty-five percent variance for success in job performance.

What researchers have consistently found is that while IQ scores and school grades could get people in to universities and good jobs, whether individuals succeed or fail thereafter is significantly determined by their abilities to, as Daniel Goleman puts it, “sense, understand, value and effectively apply the power and insight of emotions as a source of human energy, information, trust, creativity and influence.”

End result

As such, individuals who are able to handle frustration, control emotion and get along well with other people are invariably more successful, get and keep good jobs, are given promotions and live happier, fulfilling lives.

Although success is tangibly measured and used to guide decisions about people’s potential, the fact remains that we live in a social environment that is dynamic and not confined to measurable outcomes all the time. Hence, people who truly succeed in the long run are those who acknowledge that there is more to success than IQ and school/college grades.

Awareness in this direction will enable individuals to recognize the importance of spending time in self-reflection (introspection), learning impulse control, developing perspective taking skills, valuing intrinsic over extrinsic motivation, handling relationship better and recognizing and responding appropriately to others’ emotion (empathy).

Back to basics

It is time that schools take these research findings seriously and include the emotional aspect of learning more rigorously in mainstream curricula. This was the case in ancient schooling systems, regardless of how primitive they were – founded on the belief that focusing on developing strong emotional intelligence is the pre-requisite to producing clever individuals (unlike our education system that aims at making students clever and leaving emotional development to chance and natural causes, i.e. age and experience).

Tools

Schools could do this by engaging students in activities that are geared toward deliberately developing emotional intelligence. Starting the day with a gratitude exercise, where students focus their attention on at least three good things they have in life, and making verbal remarks about how grateful they are, are both an exercise that enhances introspective skills as well as increases a sense of appreciation and optimism.

Additionally, schools could incorporate technologies available from Institute of HeartMath (http://www.heartmath.org/) – a non-profit organization that has spent the last 18 years in studying heart intelligence and emotional management, and provides students with inexpensive, easy-to-use tools scientifically developed and tested to increase their self-awareness and emotional states.

Schools would also benefit from appropriate and intelligent use of strengths-profiling assessment tools made available by happier.com at http://happier.com/tools.jsp, another cutting-edge research organization that is founded upon the principles of positive psychology that advocates for positivity, personal happiness, healthy relationships, resilience and mindfulness.

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.