Croskey’s Corner: Diligence
It’s 8:30 in the morning. You’ve just logged on to your computer. You open up your e-mail, check your Facebook page, glance at the news on MSNBC, play a little Solitaire, check back with your e-mail, take a phone call (while reading a posting on Facebook), answer a text, and check the time. It’s now 8:31.
You are a multi-tasker in the Technology Age. Young people are seen as being better at this than oldsters like me. So forgive my bias toward the Character Quality of the Month – Diligence. The definition is “Focusing my effort on the work at hand.” For me, Diligence is the opposite of multi-tasking. It is, I think, a very valuable trait in a too-many-task world. It includes the principles of finishing my projects, doing a job right, following instructions, concentrating on my work, and not being lazy. (Not sure what the last one means; I find that adults use the word “lazy,” especially when referring to kids, to mean any behavior that adults don’t like. Not a very precise term.) The Latin root suggests that we choose one task or object apart from all others and give great value and attention to the object or task. Thus, Diligence, I believe, is a proactive, directed process.
Choosing a worthwhile task to complete is Step One to being Diligent. Step 2 involves disciplining myself to set aside other distractions and to keep focused. Step 3 requires Endurance to finish the job I want to be Diligent about. Choose. Focus. Endure.
How do you get kids to choose to stay focused on worthwhile tasks? Gloria Mack, a psychologist from University of California, Irvine, has studied the way multi-tasking pulls kids away from being comfortable focusing. She frets about the “pattern of constant interruption” in our world and is afraid that this difficulty focusing will lead a generation to not be able to lose itself in thought. She believes parents and educators can counter this through a concept called Flow. Flow is an idea popularized by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. (He says his name sounds like “chicks send me high.” No kidding!) In an interview with Wired magazine, Csíkszentmihályi described flow as “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.” In one of his books, he defines Flow as a mental state of operation in which the person is fully immersed in what he or she is doing, characterized by a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity. (Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper and Row. ISBN 0-06-092043-2) Flow suggests some popular intrinsic motivation concepts such as “in the groove,” “runner’s high,” or “in the zone.”
Csíkszentmihályi suggests we consider how challenging tasks are and how skilled one has to be to perform a task. If a task is not sufficiently challenging, and if the performer also lacks skill in that area, apathy results. If the challenge is low and the skill is high, boredom occurs. If the challenge is high but the performer’s skill is low, anxiety can result. But if the task is sufficiently (but not overly) challenging, and the skill level of the performer is sufficiently high, an ecstatic state called Flow can be created for the performer. This is a state in which optimal learning can occur.
So, how can we help students to experience the feeling of Flow which will help them to choose to stay focused? The answer is to provide them with individualized learning opportunities which will appropriately challenge their varied skills. You are expected to do this in an era of scripted teaching manuals, everybody teaching the same thing on the same day, high stakes testing aimed at a non-existent middle, and teacher evaluation based solely on test scores? That sounds impossible. But I would argue that when we advocate (or pay lip service) to teaching 21st Century Skills, we are requiring that we teach individual students in unique ways which will challenge their skill set and will allow them to develop their problem-solving skills. The students who learn a fixed curriculum along with every other student are not being prepared for dealing with the fluid challenges of this Technology Age. Our students need to experience Flow in order to realize the value of choosing to focus and endure. My knees will no longer allow me to run long distances. My runner’s high, therefore, will not occur under the same circumstances as it does for you marathoners. So, I need an individual exercise (lesson) plan to help me experience Flow. Our kids need no less consideration.