In a state of flow
Enjoyable engagement in online classrooms
EAL teacher Denny Berndt is finding that simple ideas that stimulate engagement in a ‘normal’ classroom are just as important for keeping students ‘in the zone’ when they are learning online.
What makes a good learning experience? A good teacher? An attentive student or class? Both? Neither? A combination of a structured curriculum paired with meaningful activities?
The answer is, all the above. However, the path towards an engaging learning experience always varies depending on resources, people and time. In today’s world of digital classrooms and remote learning it is more important than ever to create an engaging learning environment to activate concentration and sustainable learning. A learner who is enjoying challenging, but doable exercises, is able create an emotional connection to knowledge received and therefore retain it much better and is more likely to apply it later in life or lesson.
The so-called Flow experience is defined in Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Csikszentmihalyi defines flow as “a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will continue to do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it”. For an online learning environment, the state of ‘flow’ is going to be especially important.
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Sustaining attention online
Arguably, it is easier to create an engaging learning experience in a classroom rather than during a video conference with multiple small faces, muted and some without their camera turned on. Online you need entertainment paired with education, (or edutainment as I call it), to keep ‘the flow’going. Not only has the educator to compete with the learners’ mirror images via computer camera they are constantly seeing while in their lesson, but also with other distractions such as the smartphone on their desk and other and anything else in the room.
In a state of flow: back to basics
However, I have found that there are several simple techniques an educator can use to create a consistent online framework for teaching that improves concentration for adults and children alike. It’s not rocket science, but it really works.
1. The initiation question
Asking an initiation question to stimulate discussion at the beginning of the lesson is an old favorite – but it works. Questions could be about themselves – about their best holiday yet, favorite foods or the best memory from the last 3 years, but of course it works even better if the initiation question topic is linked to the actual lesson. Helping students connect through discussion arising from the question is a particularly valuable technique when they are physically separated from each other.
2. Roleplay and groupwork
Learners, whether they are kids or adults, love pretending to be someone else. At first they might be shy, but when they have sufficient time to prepare and especially if they are paired with a partner they can work with, the sky is the limit in terms or their enjoyment, engagement and learning experience. Naturally, you need to understand the different personalities in the class to make a pair or group work well, but role play can and does unlock reach seams of expression in an online situation, and in an online situation, making personal connections is especially precious.
3. Meaningful discussion
What do your learners care about? As you get to know an online class, simply ask them to discuss what is important to them and then facilitate a broader discussion around the various topics and activities that the class can relate to in their life. It does not always work, and one cannot always find common ground for the whole class, but sometimes one excited learner talking with enthusiasm is enough to engage other students. Meaning for others is important to people too, even when they themselves have no interest in it. An exciting comment about someone’s work or vacation makes people listen and remind them of a similar experience that made them that joyful once.
4. Passionate teaching
Tactile activities, creative writing and collaborative projects have always been useful and will also serve educators and learners well even in a digital context. When combined with passionate teaching they are unbeatable! Learners will have fun in a meaningful way and learn more joyfully, which in turn creates a learning experience with the highest possible outcome.
5. Finish strong: timing is everything
It is a tricky task, but to frame the lesson in the best way possible, the initiation question and the last task ought to be something emotionally engaging. Both, beginning and end can be connected to frame the whole lesson – though this does not have to happen every time. The end, if possible, is also a relaxed cooldown with a fun conversation or discussion, which leads to the potential homework assignment and ‘goodbye’.
6. The End Goal
A learner’s destination is the ultimate attainment (UA) of the material learnt. These simple techniques combined with constant quality control as you adjust to people, environment and time can transform lessons into events that learners just do not want to miss, and keep them in a state of flow.
Denny Berndt is an educational consultant and teacher specializing in bilingual education, learning engagement and curriculum development for children, adults, and special-needs learners.
He is the owner of Excellent German, a German learning platform and works with various institutions such as the Sada Educational Center for children with cochlear implants in Kuwait.