The concept of flow, a term coined by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, is also known as “the zone” and is defined as “the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity” (Flow in Wikipedia). It is this idea of “being in the zone”, being completely focused on a task, being totally motivated to do a specific task in a concentrated way. When someone is in a state of flow, they have managed to put their emotions completely in service of an activity such as performing or learning. When one is in flow, they enjoy doing that they are doing, they have a sense of losing track of time (Luxenburg 2011).
Luxenburg, in his video “The Flow Experience in Education I”, explains the following diagram based on Csíkszentmihályi). Luxenburg states that flow is the perfect balance between how difficult an activity is and the skill level of the student. If the challenge level is too high and the skill level low, then anxiety occurs on the part of the student. However, if the challenge level is too low and the skill level high in the student, boredom occurs. So the idea for instructors is to constantly strive to achieve that balance of maintaining challenge level and skill level to achieve flow.
Another interesting diagram shown by Luxemburg is the same diagram (also based on Csíkszentmihályi 1990) but with a more granular detailing of emotional/psychological state. Luxemburg basically summarizes the goal of video games as achieving for the player a constant state of arousal leading to flow leading to control and back again. As the player goes up the levels in a game, they are constantly pulled back into a state of arousal which eventually leads to flow which settles down to control.
I am fascinated by this idea of flow because it relates to me personally first and foremost as in how it applies to the creative process of music making. I have often experienced the state of flow and this timeless focus on creating music in my early years as a music composer in high school and later in university. More recently, and more closely related to education, I see how flow applies directly to the ways in which students in our Robotics classes engage with the activities, the programming and the building of robots. It really helps to break down the lessons in terms of challenge level and skill level, so I will spend the rest of the journal breaking this down, so applying flow to the planning and implementation of STEM activities for elementary school students. I’m thinking that especially the two diagrams of Csíkszentmihályi will be very helpful in understanding where students are at in their motivation and engagement with the materials, and how to improve their state of “flow” in the course.
Flow in STEM Robotics?
Students in the STEM Robotics program enter with a very low skill level in general (except for the occasional robotics fanatics or returning students who have already been exposed to robotics). They have no experience with the building materials, no experience with programming and some have very little experience even controlling a trackpad on a laptop. The challenge level is also a little beyond what they are familiar with, because they simply haven’t seen these products and software before.
Challenge levels are adjusted according to age and grade level. Students in kindergarten to grade 2 are given an easier set of building bricks, sensors and motors to use, as well as a simple programming block interface on the computer, whereas the Grades 3-8 students are given an interface which can in fact be used all the way up to university. The higher group of students are given a challenge level appropriate for their age but not so challenging as to cause anxiety, but not so simple as to cause boredom.
The trick is to catch students in this state of flow. It would look like students being so engaged in their problem solving, their set of tasks or the building of their robot, that they’ve lost all sense of time and in fact don’t want to leave when it’s time to go. They would be fully engaged without the instructors ever having to tell them what to do or to be on task. They will go from arousal (excited about the project they are about to do), to flow to control over what they are doing. At that point ideally the class would end and they would move on in the next class to yet a new, slightly harder challenge that will arouse their interest sufficiently.
Flow – Between Anxiety and Boredom
The research I have done on flow definitely leads me to be much more conscious of observing flow, anxiety, boredom, even arousal and control, in the students I teach. Particularly, I want to try to be much more intentional about guiding students into that state of flow, balancing challenge level with skill level. I imagine this would be hard with students with varying levels of skill. Perhaps grouping similarly skilled students together will allow me to move those students forward to that appropriate challenge level so they can achieve flow based on their skill level.
Arousing student interest in new projects would be key to maintaining that video-game like cycle of constantly gripping students’ attention with new and interesting challenges. This goal would significantly shape future curricular planning for upcoming courses, in that I will start intentionally planning for achieving flow through successively more difficult tasks. As students get more skilled at particular programming and building features, I need to be constantly challenging to push themselves further to improve their skill level. If I were to design a series of robotic missions that students have to complete, then those missions would have to be successively more challenging and would need to prompt students to use a variety of increasingly more developed skills.
I am excited about observing, encouraging and planning for flow in my students because I believe that ultimately students will be much more excited about the program, engage more deeply in the tasks and are so focused on play that they are not aware of what is going on around them (Luxenburg 2011).
Csikszentmihályi, Mihaly. (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Harper & Row.
Luxenburg, Avi. (2011). The Flow Experience in Education I. Retrieved from YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gffdtI6tWHs on November 22, 2015.
Wikipedia. Flow (psychology). Retrieved from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flow_(psychology) on November 22, 2015.
Is there such thing as being too positive or having negative consequences of thinking positively?? The following website explores these questions and much more-very interesting!! Link:
Excerpt from website:
Many writers extol the benefits of positive thinking, but few tell us of the disadvantages, and we hear even less about the benefits of negative thinking. They do not tell us we need a dash of negative thinking to season our thinking to avoid the extremes of positive thinking: unrealistic thinking, recklessness and positive apathy. They do not warn us that positive thinking alone — without the balancing negative — can lead to blunders in politics, business, education, wellbeing and health.
Yet other writers, such as Barbara Ehrenreich, do warn us that positive thinking led to many of the problems in America and in the Western world, such as the over-optimism about the Iraq War, and the Three Mile Island Nuclear Accident. Furthermore, Positive Thinking books sometimes make claims contrary to science and common sense. They sometimes use the insidious trap in positive thinking called the ‘white bear effect.’ They often exploit the self-developer’s unrealistic personal philosophy, particularly idealism, but ignoring realism and rationalism. The positive thinkers do not tell us that ultra-positive mentors may actually damage the ability of children to learn, even though psychologist Carol Dweck, for instance, has shown that in certain circumstances positive praise can have undesirable effects.
Furthermore, according to a number of researchers, such as Gabriele Oettingen, positive thinking without a negative balance hinders our ability and even our health. The craze for positive thinking overlooks the value of Negative Thinking. For instance, negative thinking can have unexpected positive effects on our memory, judgment and motivation. In business, some negative thinking — a critical evaluation of plans, makes companies more successful by preparing them for unexpected problems, and encouraging managers to plan for every possibility. In this article, I argue that to be effective, we need a sprinkling of negative thinking to balance positive thinking and to encourage action. First let us look at the meanings of the words positive and negative, because this confusion can cause problems.
What do positive and negative mean?
The word positive has various dictionary meanings, which lead to confusion, hypnotic effects and contradiction. First we look at its intended meaning and examine how it is normally used by positive thinkers.
The word positive as used in ‘positive thinking’ suggests imagining in detail and with full confidence something we want. For instance, we imagine sitting in a car we desire, we feel the steering wheel, smell the leather and think ‘This is mine.’ The word positive here means that we think in detail of something being present, we think of owning it with confidence. In addition we use the word to mean something desirable. This use of ‘positive’ puts us in mind of a joke from the earlier days of positive thinking:
Son: Dad I think I’m going to fail this course.
Dad: Now, Son, be positive!
Son: OK, Dad. I’m certain I’m going to fail this course.
The father uses the word ‘positive’ to mean ‘confident of some good result’, but the son uses it in the sense of ‘being clear and definite’. Both meanings are correct (exist in the dictionary)
Not surprisingly, we can sometimes be confused when reading the words positive and negative. For this reason they can be hard to understand because we do not know which meanings to apply. For instance, if we hear ‘She is HIV negative’, we know that the word negative means ‘no disease was detected’ and is a positive result in the sense it encourages a feeling of wellbeing. Things could get more confusing, though.
She could say, quite rationally, but at first confusing, ‘I feel very positive about this negative result, and I am glad it wasn’t positive.’
Because the word positive (and the word negative) can shift between different meanings, with one meaning implying ‘good’ and the other implying ‘bad they have within them a hypnotic effect. And from the viewpoint of ‘positive thinking’ where you need to avoid the negative at all costs, we have the irony that even the word ‘positive’ sometimes conceals a negative meaning! That is, the idea of ‘positive thinking’ contains the seeds of its own destruction, because it requires the denial of the negative, but covertly contains it within its own definitions.
Barbara Ehrenreich and the Negative Power of Positive Thinking
Barbara Ehrenreich in her book Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America claims that positive thinking — from self-help guides to motivational speakers has dangerously weakened American so that Americans have stopped being realistic about the world around them leading to not only personal misery, but also to national failure.
First she distinguishes between positive thinking and happiness. That is, by opposing positive thinking, she is not opposing happiness. She says, “Positive thinking is a specific kind of ideology which says you have to act cheerful and optimistic and upbeat – no matter how you’re feeling – if you want to get along in the world.” That is, positive thinking tells us to try and disregard our feelings and be positive, with a warning that thinking negative will bring about just the results we do not want.
Ehrenreich says that the positive thinking movement seems to have arisen from Calvinism, and has become standard in some churches. It has become part of corporate culture making big business a big supporter of positive thinking in human resource management. Positive thinking has both a religious and corporate form. In the secular form the universe is portrayed as a big mail-order department waiting for our orders (positive or negative thoughts). In the religious version, God is said to want you to be rich — God wants you to have a larger house. And you enlist him as a sort of personal assistant to get you those things you want. (But you have to make the payments and deal with creditors!)
The consequences are dire. Ehrenreich does not say that positive thinking is the only cause of the financial meltdown, but, she says, “Corporate decision makers were living in a bubble of forced optimism.” She says that from interviewing insiders, corporate and Wall Street and finance industry insiders that to be too negative was to risk being fired. They feared being the bearer of bad news. They did not want to be the one who says, “This business plan is going to get us in big trouble.” This is contrary to successful approaches to business planning, which require a search for possible problems and to plan how to handle them, and to monitor progress to detect problems.
She talks about George W. Bush, the cheerleader, whose positive thinking was detrimental to the nation, particularly with Iraq and the optimistic predictions of the welcome when the American troops invaded. Those officials with doubts were outcast. Once again we see the fear that people have of presenting a negative scenario: in business and government because they fear being sacked, and in secular beliefs, because they fear that their negative thinking will bring about the very thing they fear. But as we will see below in this article, the opposite is true — negative thinking is crucial to prevent unwanted things occurring.
Unless we utilize the power of negative thinking in business and in our personal lives, we may suffer the opposites of what positive thinking promises. For instance, governments that do not utilize negative thinking will end up with more Vietnams and Iraqs. And management that do not utilize negative thinking will end up with more ‘three mile island accidents’, and bank meltdowns.
Managers can use positive thinking to manipulate their workforce. They tell people who are being laid off, that it’s really not a bad thing. It’s a great opportunity, and whatever happens to them is because of their attitude anyway. So, isn’t it great — you’ve been laid off and now you can really do well in life! Positive thinking also makes claims that are contrary to science and common sense. We mention the work of scientists Carol Dweck and Gabriele Oettingen later to show how evidence based research shows how positive fantasy can get you what you don’t want!
Hidden Dangers of ‘The Secret’
The book, ‘The Secret’ is a best seller which attracts those who wish to attain whatever they desire by thinking about it. The theory behind the book is that what we experience and have in life and who we are is determined, not by the laws of nature, but by our thinking. Whatever we experience, whether it is good or bad is caused by our thoughts. And the solution to our problem is to think positively, and not think negatively, or we will bring upon ourselves the very things we do not want.
Positive thinkers say that whatever good comes into our lives –wealth, health, love — is the result of our positive thinking. And whatever bad occurs — poverty, illness, broken relationships — comes from our negative thinking. Therefore, anyone who becomes rich or becomes healthy, or gains love, does so because of their positive thoughts. And those who become poor, sick, lose their loved ones, do so as a result of negative thinking. Victims of tsunami, plague, war are victims, not because of events, but because they allowed negative thoughts to occur. And what is worse, the positive thinkers claim that is, it is their fault.
They also claim, that in order to be thin you think ‘thin thoughts’, avoid looking at fat people and ‘Ask-Believe-Receive’ then you’re guaranteed to lose weight, without actually doing anything about it. By doing the above steps, Byrne, the author of the Secret, claims she lost over 20 pounds and now maintains her “perfect weight of 116 pounds” and claims “I can eat whatever I want”. While it is reasonable (although probably still false) to believe that a certain kind of thinking might enable us to eat just enough food to meet our needs, it is incredible that a miracle occurs and the laws of biology are suspended.
Even more disturbingly, a woman in The Secret DVD says she cured herself of breast cancer by “thinking” herself well in three months – and without the aid of radiation or chemotherapy. “I believed in my heart that I was healed. I saw myself as if cancer was never in my body. One of the things I did to heal myself was to watch really funny movies,” she says in the video. Of course, we do not know whether this is a claim that her visualizing made her cancer go (and cancers do go into remission and reappear) or whether watching funny movies was effective (there is some evidence that laughter is indeed good medicine). However, what is disturbing is that there is a raft of evidence showing that positive fantasies hinder recovery in medical conditions. Furthermore, other research indicates that the presence of comforting daydreams is a predictor of cancer spread. Any suggestion that people with medical conditions should use positive fantasy alone (without the balancing negative realism), and therefore fail to deal with the reality of their condition by following their doctor’s advice is something that would, according to research, endanger these people.
Many of the claims made by positive thinking are not sustainable. Even worse, people are told they must not think of the negative. Apart from the fact that the negative needs to be carefully considered, it is impossible, as we shall see next, to avoid negative thoughts by suppressing them. There is either an ‘obsession effect’ or a rebound effect.
Believing You Must Not Think Negatively Can Rebound
The Positive Thinking movement tells us we must never think negative. The irony is that suppressing these thoughts seems to cause them to repeat. Because positive thinking tells us we must suppress negative thoughts — even though suppression makes us obsessed. This makes the teachers of positive thinking can always appear right — the believer knows they have a battle wrestling with negative thoughts and they might believe, ‘If only I could drive out these negative thoughts, I’d get what I want.’ This, however, will always fail. There is either an ‘obsession effect’, wherein we cannot stop thinking about something we try not to think about — it won’t go away. Or there is the ‘rebound effect’, wherein, after successfully pushing the negative out of our minds, the negative thoughts pour back in! One of the sure ways to get someone to think of something is to tell them not to. This is the ‘white bear effect’ which, as we will see, fascinated some Russian writers.
The White Bear Effect
The Russian writer, Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821-1881) in Winter Notes on Summer Impressions: wrote “Try to pose for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute.”
Another Russian writer, Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) once challenged his little brother to stand in a corner until he could stop thinking of a white bear, thereby causing the poor boy to think of little else.
Harvard psychologist Daniel Wegner researched this topic and wrote a book, White Bears and Other Unwanted Thoughts: Suppression, Obsession and the Psychology of Mental Control. In one experiment, he asked subjects to think about whatever they wished, except white bears! If they did, they were to ring a bell. Wegner was deafened by the constant ringing! The subjects did not think of the bear all the time, but it kept popping into their minds.
Telling people to suppress a thought, as Tolstoy did with his little brother, puts them in a trap where the thought continues to appear. The more they try to suppress it, the more it recurs. By telling someone not to think of a negative thought, we can guarantee that they will do so.
When we become obsessed with certain thoughts, what we shouldn’t do is to suppress them (otherwise, they will recur): we should allow them to appear and learn to confront them. Allowing ourselves the luxury of negative thoughts is the better way to handle them.
The American author John Steinbeck in The Winter of Our Discontent puts it this way:
Mike heard me out, staring at a spot between my eyes. ‘Yeah!’ he said. ‘I know about that. Trouble is, a guy tries to shove it out of his head. That don’t work. What you got to do is kind of welcome it.’
This sums it up nicely. In positive thinking, this effect is tragic because the believer tries and tries to avoid the negative, but it keeps coming back. There are other techniques picked up from the positive thinkers, including positive praise, which, as we shall see, may not have the effects we expect.
Perils of Positive Praise
Carol Dweck claims that we have either a fixed or a growth mindset. Those with a fixed mindset are less open to ‘negative ideas’ than those with a growth mindset. Those with a growth mindset are happy to receive negative feedback and to handle it — it’s a fun challenge — and therefore they grow. Those with a fixed mindset, in comparison, fear anything that might challenge their self-image of being, say, ‘intelligent’. The growth mindset is encouraged by telling children ‘they worked hard’, rather than telling them that they are intelligent. The researchers found that those children praised by being told they are ‘intelligent’, or in other contexts, told they are ‘beautiful’ leads them to avoid situations where there ‘beauty’ or ‘intelligence’ might be tested. Instead of striving to succeed, they give up easily, and even avoid anything that might challenge them. By thoughtlessly using positive thinking, we may be ruining students ability to cope with learning, and ruin others ability, in say work, to perform well. Even so, we may find that an individual’s personal philosophy may, in part be to blame for their inability and problems.
The growth mindset also seems to improve management ability. When managers were taught a growth mindset, they were more willing to coach employees and the quality of their developmental coaching became higher. Also, managers with a growth mindset actually sought more negative feedback from their subordinates. They wanted to learn how to improve their management techniques and were not threatened by the idea of hearing some negative things about themselves.
Our Philosophy May Be Holding Us Back
Certain kinds of positive thinking encourage unrealistic thinking. Those who think unrealistically become inconsistent in their lives. For instance, those learned professors who claim there is no objective truth seem to be the most litigious ones, suing whomever they think has breached their copyright. Such people are a source of amusement in the philosophical community. Similarly, those politicians who adopt a lenient attitude towards criminals seem to change in an instant when they or their loved ones are victims. Because they held beliefs that are not supported by reality and experience, because they were living in a fantasy world, when the big bad reality pops up, they sometimes respond in ways completely at odds with their previous beliefs. I recall a clinical psychologist telling me that after his house was burgled, he found himself asking the police how he could get a gun! This was completely at odds with his previously caring and forgiving attitude.
This unrealistic positive thinking depends on a kind of philosophical idealism wherein the thinker believes that there is nothing that exists apart from their own minds. And thinking in a certain way changes the very nature of the world. The downside of this is that they do not take the necessary action to deal with issues, but use magical thinking to try and change their world. Of course, such thinking leaves them with less than they would have had without wasting their time in fantasy.
The sick person who fantasies getting well may, in fact, be less likely to recover or recover more slowly than those who take practical action. And those with financial problems are more likely to overcome them if they take action. In these cases, positive thinking leads to harmful risk taking, by avoiding common sense precautions, and dreaming and waiting for their problems to solve themselves by magic.
Some personal philosophies however are helpful. These are realism and rationalism. Realism is dealing with the world as it is, rather than trying to deal with it magically or idealistically. That is, collecting facts as necessary, or observing closely to understand, and taking sensible action. While realism in this sense if the most appropriate method of thinking, there are times when realism can’t be applied. Sometimes we do not know the relevant facts but we need to do something.
Of course, we do not always have to do something about a problem — we can wait until we are ready — but sometimes we need to take some action, or even to say something, even provisionally. Then we use rationalism. Rationalism, in this sense means we use logic and a reasonable, unbiased guess to understand the situation we are facing. For instance, if we were waiting for someone who promised to meet us at a particular time but was late, we could use realism if we knew, for instance, the person was reliable and would come or would phone us. Also we might know the person is always late and they would arrive in, say 15 minutes. If we could not be realistic — because we do not have any relevant facts — we could be rational, and decide to wait 10 minutes or so, and then assume the person isn’t coming and act appropriately. The ‘waiting 10 minutes’ is just an arbitrary and reasonable guess what is a good leeway to allow, and allows us to bring order to a situation in which we have no other information. We can look at our watch and if 10 minutes has passed we leave, but we could equally rationally have decided to wait 30 minutes. In any case, it would be irrational to wait 2 hours!
An idealist in the same situation might visualise the other person arriving and by distracting themselves, in this case the visualizing might serve to amuse them while they waited. But in a worst case, they could stand there visualizing for hours, while the rational or realistic thinker had long given up and made the best of the situation. Sadly, this is often the case when we use positive thinking in an idealistic manner — we feel good dreaming while the world goes to pieces around us — all for the want of a reasonable philosophy and common sense. And all for the want of appropriate action.
As we noted with the work of Carol Dweck, the work of Gabriele Oettingen, considered next, shows how positive fantasy, in the absence of reality and negative thinking can lead to failure in education, weight-loss, health and relationships.
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Positive Thoughts May Be Holding You Back
Sometimes positive visualizations can make us more likely to fail. Lien Pham at the University of California asked one group of students to visualise getting an ‘A’ in an important midterm exam. Compared with those who weren’t asked to do anything special, the visualizers did worse. Surprisingly, spending only a few minutes a day visualizing success decreases the motive to work for an important exam, and produces lower grades. This question was taken up by Gabriele Oettingen.
Writing in Peter Gollwitzer’s Psychology of Action, she asks whether positive fantasy increases success. She concluded that it sometimes makes things worse.