Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has spent his life’s work researching the positive psychology known as “Flow State.” If you’ll pardon a blatant cut-paste job from Wikipedia:
A flow state, also known colloquially as being in the zone, is 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. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does, and a resulting loss in one’s sense of space and time.
In a classroom, hitting that elusive “flow” state is a teacher’s dream! The conversation is rolling, the pencils are racing, and not a single student is checking a cell phone or asking to use the bathroom. EVERYBODY is locked in with a laser like focus, and it’s almost as if time itself simultaneously flies right by and slows down around you — like Neo in The Matrix. The energy of the flow state surrounds your class like a giant force field, and learners are blissfully unaware of whatever concerns might exist outside of its four walls.
So how can we capture this elusive state in our classrooms? Today’s post is the first in a two-part series that’s all about finding flow in the most unexpected of places. We’ll get to the LEGOs in a second. But first, a bit of background context on life, learning, and luck.
This past Saturday, I was killing time at my local Walgreens waiting for a prescription to be filled for some long overdue antibiotics. By dumb luck, a stupid bout of seasonal allergies that actually started way back in March had morphed into a two-month cough that just wouldn’t quit. And after weeks of keeping the wolves at the door through an over the counter combo of DayQuil and cough drops, I finally caved and saw a doctor. Turns out it was an upper respiratory infection — likely made worse by the fact that I’d been slamming it with cough suppressants when what I really needed was some serious antihistamines and prescription meds.
Bad timing or bad luck, maybe. But I have the feeling that many classroom teachers can probably relate to this sort of thing, since we spend most of the year fighting off colds and infections through a weird combination of sheer willpower and bullheaded sticktoitiveness. In other words: we don’t really have time to get sick. It’s almost like the evil twin brother of Flow State. As a teacher, we subconsciously convince our immune system that there is IMPORTANT WORK to be done, darn it! And so we’re simply not going to allow ourselves to be distracted from our work when there’s a job to do. It’s really no surprise that so many teachers immune systems inevitably collapse in spectacular fashion on those rare moments where we are finally away from the classroom. Holiday breaks. Conferences. End of school. Three-day weekends.
The Flow State Hangover, if you will.
Now. Getting back to Walgreens…
With my phone’s battery on just 16% life and nothing else to do but hang around the drug store for about 30 minutes, I decided to look around to pass the time. And if you’ve never had the pleasure of spending a half hour in a pharmacy? Let’s just say that there aren’t too many aisles that you can window shop in without feeling like a total downer. I mean, how many Band-Aids as a person really need, right?
Since options for appropriate rows to browse were limited, I made my way to the toy aisle. It’s not a large display by any stretch the imagination, but even a small handful of plastic action figures, travel size games, and coloring books was enough to keep me distracted while I waited to collect my meds.
And that’s when I stumbled upon the LEGO minifigure blind bags.
It’s no secret that LEGO has all kinds of miniature action figures for every franchise under the sun. From Avengers to Star Wars to Harry Potter and everything in between, minifigures are COOL. And every couple of months, the company smartly expands their lineup by offering 20 or so new additions to their infinite cast of colorful characters. But instead of releasing the new toys in traditional packaging where you can actually see which item you are adding to your collection, LEGO cleverly stashes these new minifigures in opaque plastic “blind bags” covered with wall to wall artwork and packed with a printed list of every variant available. Like old school baseball cards. The goal, of course, is to entice buyers to collect every single offering in the line. But thanks to the blind bag packaging? You never quite know which toy you’re actually getting until you bring it home.
Gotta catch ’em all!
At a price point of just under $4 apiece, it’s easy to see how this low risk, high reward approach to collection building can become the breeding grounds for something of an addiction. Like pint sized slot machines or 3D baseball cards — only way more colorful. In fact, there are entire websites, YouTube channels, and online discussion forums that spring up all over the internet every few months where legions of devoted LEGO fans actually take the time to walk other buyers through homemade “feel guides” that spell out in painstaking detail simple tricks that savvy customers can use to squeeze these tiny bags in just the right way in order to figure out which character is hiding inside. Likewise, there’s something almost gleefully challenging to the “blind” approach to action figure buying — because even at such a low price point, would I really want to spend the same amount of money on a pint-sized action figure of a relatively minor Disney character as I would be willing to spend on a certifiable “A-List” hero (like Steamboat Willy)? There’s a reason why some figures are must-buys while others become peg warmers, destined for the discount rack.
Before the time my prescription was filled, I had thrown 10 tiny bags of LEGO people into my shopping basket. No idea which characters I might be finding. But all the while, riding a momentary blast of dopamine to the brain that really had me looking forward to picking up my meds and heading for home to see what treasures might the wait. Heck — if we had a better healthcare system, I might even argue that the LEGOs should have been covered by my insurance, since the wild rush of curious euphoria they’d created genuinely had me feeling every bit as good as the cough medicine promised to.
My first haul:
- Scrooge McDuck (2x)
- Edna Mode (from The Incredibles)
- Jack Skellington
- Sally (from The Nightmare Before Christmas)
- Anna (from Frozen)
- Princess Jasmine
I was hooked.
Three days later, and I was back in the toy aisle this time at the local Wal-mart, and on a desperate hunt to complete my collection. After all, I had three out of four of the Ducktails figures! An Anna but no Elsa! Not to mention no Jafar and no Hades to go along with their bite sized rivals. There were still missing pieces to the set! And of course, I was still flying completely blind… so I just had to buy a few extra bags, “just in case.” After all: my odds of finding a complete set had to be better if I was picking up large quantities of figures from the same box, right?
Fourteen blind bags (and like $50) later…
I was still short a Jafar and a Chip. And glued to those internet “feel guides” in hopes that I might pick up some sort of insider tips.
The search continues.
You can see how quickly this can become a super expensive hobby, and one heck of a “game” model for classroom teachers at any age. It’s tricked me into entering the Flow State! Gleefully sucked me into an infinite loop of spending my hard earned money! AND LIKING IT.
Take a look at all the game-like inspiration this ridiculous hobby has to offer lesson planning ideas for our classrooms:
- So much of the “game” is driven by instantaneous feedback loop in what is almost entirely a random system of chance. Open a package: you’ve either got it or you don’t. Wanna play again?
- There is a low risk, high reward environment thanks to the relatively low price point of each toy. Suddenly I’m comfortable extending myself just a little bit farther than I otherwise might have been.
- Plus there’s a dangling carrot of “mastery” with the promise of a complete set to collect. With every package that you open, the checklist reminds you of your progress — YOU’RE SO CLOSE! But there’s always more work to be done.
- Even in spite of the game’s blind bag barriers, players (repeat customers) can develop their own “strategy” of how best to accomplish their goal. In short, there are many ways to win.
- With enough experience & patience, you can hack the game by developing a totally legal but almost embarrassingly unique “skill” for package squeezing.
I talk about this a lot, but tapping into this same spirit of “flow” is critically important in classroom activity design. I truly believe that the most engaging experiences both inside the classroom and beyond it deliver a experience that is just as “fun” as it is “S.A.F.E.” — which is to say:
Tune in tomorrow to see how this LEGO inspired #EDrenaline Rush gave rise to a ridiculously exciting lesson plan.