The more I explore informal affinity communities, like the Civ modder community, or the RPG Maker Community, the more intriguing I find them. While the communities are themselves interesting, I think there are lessons in these spaces for rethinking more formal learning environments. This post is an attempt to refine some of this line of thinking. For the last few weeks I have been trying to put my finger on exactly what that something is. There are lots of individual things, for example the way participants in these communities learn to give and take criticism is important. But, I think there is something much bigger here too.
Here is what I have for the moment. The most important thing that happens in these spaces is that participants experience what it feels like to commit to a project, invest in it, and over a long process, see it grow. At the heart of these communities, I think the real value is in their ability to let a participant chase their own interest and get a feeling for how pleasurable that interest chasing experience is.
Everyone needs to find Flow
This is fundamentally about experiencing a kind of motivation. Csíkszentmihályi calls these experiences flow. It’s a terrible name, but a critical concept. Flow is a kind of single-minded immersion in a task. It is a pleasurable experience, and it is a fundamental part of developing competence and eventually expertise in a domain. The idea of flow can get rather squishy, but it does describe the generic experience of developing competence and mastery across a wide range of domains.
What troubles me, is that I think many young people never get to experience flow in school, and if they do, only experience it in a single domain. I think places like the RPG Maker Community, and Civ Modders sites could serve as tools for schools to use to help give this experience to all students.
I will borrow an argument from my high school gym teacher as an example of what I think schools need to do in this area. My gym teacher frequently explained to the class that the real value of gym class was for for every student to feel what it is like to exercise frequently enough to be healthy. Without that gym class, many of the students would never have felt what being healthy/ fit was. Without that frame of reference, many students who never exercise would not have any idea of how good it feels to be healthy.
If students are not experiencing flow in schools there is a good chance that they will never have a frame of reference for how good it feels to develop competence in a domain they are passionate about. Schools do a reasonably good job at demonstrating some kinds of motivation to students. Every student experiences extrinsic motivation (do your homework or you fail the class), and many students internalize that carrot and stick, (If I do well on this assignment I will go out for ice cream). However, I don’t think many students get to feel what it is like to feel the kind of intrinsic motivation that comes from flow, and without ever knowing what that feels like, what it feels like to get lost in your work, what do those students have to compare their later experiences in work and life with?
There are places in schools that provide these kinds of experiences, like music and art classes, and theater and athletic programs. However, when students experience flow in a single domain, they are likely to attribute the positive experience associated with flow to the domain. For example, a student that experiences flow as a violinist may well become convinced that playing violin is the only thing that makes them feel that way. In this case, they become convinced that there is one thing that they can do. Beyond the need to have this kind of flow experience, I think we need to think about helping young people find that experience in a range of fields.
The Interest Driven Curriculum
When thinking about the value of the Civ Modder’s space, or the RPG Maker Community, what I find most striking is that these spaces and communities provide a powerful means to engage in flow experiences. There are a wide range of other interest driven communities like these. Flickr has hundreds of active photo pools where budding photographers can engage in the same kinds of experience. Galaxy Zoo has a very active community of participants exploring and teaching each other about astronomy. Places like fanfiction.net provide the same kind of experiences for writing about a range of characters from popular media.
Imagine if, for an hour or two a day, schools told students to chase their interests. Facilitators for this kind of experience could well send kids interested in making video games to explore the RPG Maker or Civ communities, Flickr for those interested in photography, fan fic for the kids excited about their pokemons. I think the best way to get students to experience flow is to let them chase their interests. These kinds of web communities provide a great place to get to feel that. At this point, those interest driven experiences of competence are only available to the students that discover them on their own. If we think that equity is one of the most important values of our education system I think we need to seriously think about how we can get these kinds of experiences in the schools.