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Troublesome learning and flow


This is going to be a bit simplistic, but I need to get some of what I’m thinking on paper (or on screen) rather than just in my head.

“Troublesome learning spaces are places where ‘stuckness’ or ‘disjunction’ occurs.” (Savin-Baden, 2007). She goes on to identify a number of catalysts that may be involved in moving into such a space.  The idea of troublesome learning appears to originate with Perkins (1999) – at least he articulated it – and he identifies some types of learning which can be seen as troublesome.  This is developed by Meyer and Land (2005) in their consideration of Threshold concepts.  Others have applied this thinking to specific disciplines (eg Davies, 2007).

Savin-Baden offers a model of transitional learning spaces which relates to how stuckness is dealt with. She suggests that a learner arrives at a place where disjunction is experienced: “Disjunction is not only a form of troublesome knowledge but also a ‘space’ or ‘position’ reached through the realisation that the knowledge is troublesome. Disjunction might therefore be seen as a ‘troublesome learning space’ that emerges when forms of active learning (such as problem-based learning) are used that prompt students to engage with procedural and personal knowledge. Alternatively, disjunction can be seen as the kind of place that students might reach after they have encountered a threshold concept that they have not managed to breach.” Other authors have spoken about ‘stuck places’ (Lather 1998). Savin-Baden goes on to suggest that learners deal with disjunction in one of five ways: “students may opt to retreat from disjunction, to postpone dealing with it, to temporize and thus choose not to make a decision about how to manage it, to find some means to avoid it and thus create greater disjunction in the long term, or to engage with it and move to a greater or lesser sense of integration”. She suggests that: “Engaging with disjunction requires that students acknowledge its existence and attempt to deconstruct the causes of disjunction by examining the relationship with both their internal and external worlds. Through this reflexive examination process, students can engage with what has given rise to the disjunction and they are then enabled to shift towards a greater sense of integration.”

How students deal with stuckness is also examined by McCartney et al (2007) and a lengthy list of potential strategies is identified and linked to types of learners.

These studies suggest that having reached a place of disjunction of stuckness, there is a choice over how this might be approached which essentially is a choice between retreating from the uncomfortable place or rising to the challenge.  The second of these approaches would appear to link with thinking about ‘flow’, a term first suggested by Csikszentmihalyi in 1973 and since developed and applied in many different fields by Csikszentmihalyi (1990) and numerous other authors. Chen (1999) has considered flow in relation to use of the web and identifies 9 factors involved in a flow experience: “(1) clear goals; (2) immediate feedback; (3) personal kills well suited to given challenges; (4) merger of action and awareness; (5) concentration on the task at hand; (6) a sense of potential control; (7) a loss of self-consciousness; (8) an altered sense of time; and (9) experience which becomes autotelic.” An important aspect of flow appears to be a level of challenge such as is achievable, that is the challenge should not be too daunting but needs to such as can be perceived as a challenge. The question that arise for me is whether being able to deal with disjunction or stuckness is in part related to the personal challenge involved in the process.  In other words, does disjunction which leads to understanding involve a flow process?

Linking this to Second Life.  It can be anticipated that the introduction to Second Life will induce a range of different feelings within learners.  Some will be positive and some negative.  Being presented with the stress of being asked to create within Second Life presents learners with a challenge requiring a number of different learning experiences, some of which may lead to feelings of stuckness and disjunction.  How do learners deal with the difficulties they encounter in Second Life.  On reflection, how is the experience viewed? What are the factors which lead to a positive or a negative experience?  To what extent do students experience flow in meeting the challenges presented by creating projects in Second Life? Does the learner’s approach to Second Life – augmentalist or immersionist – make a difference to the way in which challenges are dealt with, or flow experienced?

Chen, H., Wigand, R. T., & Nilan, M. S. (1999). Optimal experience of Web activities. Computers in Human Behavior, 15(5), 585-608.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York,NY: Harper and Row.

Davies, P., & Mangan, J. (2007). Threshold concepts and the integration of understanding in economics. Studies in Higher Education, 32(6), 711-726.

Lather, P. (1998). Critical pedagogy and its complicities: A praxis of stuck places. Education Theory, 48(4), 487-498.

McCartney, R., Eckerdal, A., Mostrom, J. E., Sanders, K., & Zander, C. (2007). Successful students’ strategies for getting unstuck. Paper presented at the Proceedings of the 12th annual SIGCSE conference on Innovation and technology in computer science education.

Meyer, J., & Land, R. (2005). Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge (2): Epistemological considerations and a conceptual framework for teaching and learning. Higher Education, 49(3), 373-388.

Perkins, D. (1999). The Many Faces of Constructivism. Educational Leadership, 57(3), 6.

Savin-Baden, M. (2007). Second Life PBL: liminality, liquidity and lurking. Paper presented at the Reinventing Problem-based learning, Republic Polytechnic, Singapore.


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