Published in the Aug. 5-18, 2015 issue of Morgan Hill Life

By Marty Cheek

Giant-Dipper-Santa-Cruz-webLet me ask a question that’s relevant now that children and teens will be going back to school next week. How might it be possible for educators to make for students the activity of learning as fun as a day’s outing at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk amusement park?

Most teachers would roll their eyes at the question and say it is an impossible task. Probably those teachers don’t know anything about “the flow.”

Over the past 10 months, I visited a dozen classrooms in the Morgan Hill Unified School District and worked with students through a junior journalism program to write short opinion pieces which were later published in Morgan Hill Life.

I introduced to them a writing system I call “the pizza process” which focuses on the importance of creating quality content (the ingredients) before actually putting words down for a column or story.

One professional secret I shared with the students is to “write fast and furiously to have fun in the flow.” When you’re writing in the flow, words literally flow like a stream out of your head because creativity goes up. Time seems to dilate and one hour seems to have gone by in 15 minutes.
As mysterious as it sound, there’s actually sound behavioral science to understanding the flow. Scientists have given the flow a mouthful of a name: “transcient hypofrontality.”

Journalist Steven Kotler describes flow science in his best-selling book “The Rise of Superman.” Briefly, Kotler says, when a person goes into the flow, the brain starts producing a cocktail of five chemicals that temporarily (the “transient” part) dials down the neural activity in the prefrontal cortex region of the brain (the “hypofrontality” part).

Athletes often describe the sensation of “being in the zone” when playing a game while in the flow. Adventure sports athletes such as rock climbers whose lives are on the line must go into the flow so they can focus their mind and not die by falling off a cliff because they were distracted.

So how might a Morgan Hill student go into this seemingly mystical state of mind called the flow — and achieve a level of academic performance as much as 400 percent beyond average?

Let’s go back to the Santa Cruz Beach and Boardwalk question I posed at the start of this column. Imagine yourself standing in line for the Giant Dipper, the 1924-built wooden roller coaster at the amusement park. Your heart pounds when adrenaline pours into your system as you get into your seat and strap the safety bar down. The car you’re in soon jerks as the train gets pulled by the cable up the steep slope of the track. You’re feeling the tension as your stress mounts.

In relation to the flow and classroom learning, this part of the ride relates to the actual process of “studying” an academic subject matter. Most people mistakenly believe that studying is learning. But it’s actually the preliminary stage to the process of learning. If you’re like me, you spent hundreds of hours in your school years studying a language, say Spanish. Yet, despite all those hours, I never learned Spanish well enough to speak it with confidence. That’s because I never truly got into the flow for learning the language.

Studying information serves as the precursor to learning. Studying is the steep, stressful roller coaster slope you need to climb to induce in your brain’s neural system certain peptides. These neurotransmitters will be released later in the electro-chemical process that quiets your inner critic and generates the optimal state of consciousness for actual learning.

OK, back to the Giant Dipper. The roller coaster train finally reaches the peak of the steep upward ramp. The potential energy is now stored in the cars, thanks to the force of gravity. There’s a slight pause as the train levels off and then, with a click, it’s released from the cable. Suddenly, the train is in an accelerating plunge down the track and you and the other passengers are screaming with delight. What’s happening now is that your brain is pumping endorphins and several other peptide chemicals into your system, inducing a state of euphoria — otherwise known as “fun.”

The same thing happens in the state of flow. After studying, it’s important for the student to “release” the stress from studying. That releases five peptides into your prefrontal cortext, which induces the state of the flow. The release can be done through progressive relaxation techniques such as meditation or self-hypnosis.

With the release, the electro-chemical magic of learning really starts kicking in as the brain rewires neuron connections. Those new connections create new memories to store information for later recall.

OK. There’s a caveat to all this flow learning business. Just like rock climbers need to build certain skill sets, students must build basic learning skills, such as reading, listening and note-taking, to successfully go through the process of learning in the flow.

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The final state of the flow is much like the roller coaster ride’s end. At the end of the ride along the Giant Dipper track, the train slows and comes to a full stop as the potential energy is depleted. The brain in the state of flow functions the same way. No student can continue learning after a certain point when flow energy is depleted. The student must go into a state of rest to finalize the learning process.

Learning in the flow in a classroom environment has the potential to revolutionize the American education system — and make students become literally “chemically addicted” to education to the point where they are having as much fun as on a roller coaster ride.

In this new school year, I encourage Morgan Hill science teachers to do a class experiment and train their students in the process of flow learning to see how much more effectively they perform academically. Let me know what results you achieve with your students.

Robert Airoldi