We have made it! We are at the highest level of engagement: absorption. People who are absorbed lose track of time and space because they are so connected with what they are doing and what they are doing is not easy. In his book Flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi posits that people strive to find experiences in their life that they find optimal, which he terms “flow.” Flow is “the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.”[i] He goes on to say:
“Contrary to what we usually believe…the best moments in our lives, are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times—although such experiences can also be enjoyable, if we have worked hard to attain them. The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Optimal experience is thus something that we make happen. For a child, it could be placing with trembling fingers the last block on a tower she has built, higher than any she has built so far; for a swimmer, it could be trying to beat his own record; for a violinist, mastering an intricate musical passage. For each person there are thousands of opportunities, challenges to expand ourselves.”[ii]
These conditions of great focus and great challenge are those that create absorption. Our motivation during absorbing tasks comes from within because doing our best gives us an internal sense of gratification. In fact, when we are absorbed, even when we are told to stop, we resist because we feel like we are on the precipice of the success that we’ve been working so hard to achieve.
“Everyone has something in which they are absorbed…they call this their hobby” (Engagement is Not a Unicorn [It's a Narwhal], p. 95). Whereas when we are interested we want payment for our work, when we are absorbed, we are willing to pay to do the work. If you are cyclist, you spend money on your bike, helmet, etc. If you are an artist, you spend money on your materials and supplies. If you are a reader, you buy books. You get the picture. Hobbies can be very expensive in terms of both the cost for the necessary equipment, but also in terms of your time. To do the things we love to do, we have to find the time to do it. Furthermore, when we do these tasks, because we are only able to do them in our free time, we are generally not able to do the task as well as someone who is a professional (i.e., gets paid to do it). After all, professionals generally do the task forty or more hours per week and were generally formally trained to do the task. Compare that with someone who does the task as a hobby, you can see how it is often true that those who do the task as a hobby are not on par with those who do the task for a living. However, those who do the task for a living are not nearly as engaged (absorbed) in the task. Why not? Well, the fact that they have to do the task for compensation—which often requires tangential tasks like bookkeeping or perfection that are not required for those who are paying to do that task--means that there is added pressure for interested professionals as compared to those who are just absorbed enthusiasts.
This does not mean that all manifestations of absorption are positive. In fact, one is very harmful. Specifically, those who become so absorbed that they neglect their responsibilities or others are addicts. While addiction is a form of absorption, there are other ways that absorption can express itself. Think about, for example, when you are a novice who is just “trying on” a new activity…you think you might like hot yoga and so you enroll in a class, buy some new clothes, and off you go. If you give up on it after a while, that’s okay. Sometimes you have to kiss some frogs to find your prince. If you end up loving it, you move from being a novice to being an enthusiast. This means the task is not just something you do (verb), but something you are (noun). You are no longer someone who goes to yoga, you are a yogi.
It is for all the reasons described above that absorption is not possible for anyone with everything; though humans are wired to be curious and dogged, no one has the capacity to feel this way with everything. So, we can all exhale knowing that absorption in all subjects for any student is not possible and not the place we should aim (see the letters on interest to see where we should aim for all students every day). However, it is not just possible, but important, that we provide all students with opportunities in schools to tap into areas where they are already absorbed and explore areas that are new to them so that they may discover new areas to become absorbed. When I say things like this, it is easy to identify new areas in which students may become absorbed like sports and extracurriculars. This is true. However, I also want to point out that even though people are, of course, absorbed in things (like soccer, school plays, or student council), people are just as absorbed in feelings.
In other words, while human beings are passionate about tangible things like people or places, they are also passionate about ideas like democracy, decency, discrimination, or dishonor. You could tap into their feelings like the feelings of duty or a feeling about an event like disaster relief. When you allow people to connect to the things they already care about, they are more likely to care about what you want them to connect to. While you may not be able to help someone who is passionate about dinosaurs find absorption in the French and Indian War, that does not mean that there are no other entry points for making connections. That same person may care a lot about colonization or North American conflicts or the plight of indigenous people. If we are only seeing absorption as an opportunity to connect to specific things like hobbies, we say things like, “Bella likes soccer, but there’s no way to link soccer to what we’re learning about” and give up too easily on finding ways to engage students at the highest levels. On the other hand, if we broaden our entry points to feelings and ideas, we exponentially increase the possibilities for absorption. (Engagement is Not a Unicorn [It's a Narwhal], p. 174)
Put another way, “Adults do not create absorption. We empower students to use what they like in order to connect with what they are learning about. This is student-driven education” (Engagement is Not a Unicorn [It's a Narwhal], p. 185).
Finally, and it would be remiss of me not to point this out, with regard to absorption in schools, we certainly have some opportunities for students to become novices and enthusiasts (although I would argue we could and should do better). However, when I consider if there are ways in which schools create addicts, I have to admit that the most common opportunity schools create for addiction is the use of grades. Rather than focusing on and creating environments where the focus is on learning which will undoubtedly necessitate a complex cycle of success informed by trial and error, we give kids grades for their first attempts and expect perfection; there is no trial and error process—it’s one and done. So students get one try and when/if they don’t do it right the first time, the errors are scored as failing grades. Moreover, the majority of the time, these grades on the initial lack of perfection are averaged into a final grade even if the student has achieved success later. Think about it—we put percentages out of 100 on work from children as young as kindergarten as though a kindergartner (or any elementary school child) understands percentages and then we wonder why so many kids care about grades instead of the learning. We have created this addiction.
I feel like I’ve given you a lot to think about regarding absorption this week and that I owe you some ideas on how to create absorption. That’s next week. In the meantime, here are some questions to consider:
What is an example of a task that absorbed you when you were in school OR what is an example of a task you designed to lead to absorption for someone else?
What is a hobby of yours and would you say that you are a novice, enthusiast, or addict?
Do you think we need to explicitly teach students about intrinsic motivation so that they can recognize what it feels like and that they need to seek out that feeling? What is an example of how you could do that?
How can grades be re-imagined to allow for a focus on the learning rather than on the grades?
P.S. This week's Catch comes from Dave Schmittou, a professor of Educational Leadership at Central Michigan University, a former elementary school principal, former middle school principal, assistant principal, coach, and teacher. He's also an author (I love his book Making Assessment Work for Educators Who Hate Data but LOVE Kids) and host of the podcast Lasting Learning (the podcast I did with him was one of my favorites because I learned so much from him--check it out).
Dave caught Tara Martin. Tara is the author of multiple books including, Be REAL and Cannonball In. She is a speaker, a podcaster, and the right hand of Dave and Shelley Burgess. She has been an incredible friend, support, and sometimes even the push I need. She is always REAL and always amazing.
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[i] Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience (p. 4). New York: Harper & Row. [ii] Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience (pp. 3-4). New York: Harper & Row.