Into the Zone

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zonesI’ve mentioned before some of the useful conceptual contributions that Chris Davidson made to BABS Directors Colleges over the years, especially with introducing chorus directors to Kotter’s model of how to effect change. This diagram was another model he presented that is just one of those ‘oh yes that describes exactly how the world is’ type ideas.

So the first thing it tells us is that in order to learn anything, we have to get out of our comfort zones. That sounds kind of obvious, except that most people are very happy to spend a lot of their time studying/rehearsing/practising doing routine things in a generally comfortable way and kidding ourselves that we’re making progress. And because we’re involved in some kind of activity we’ve labeled ‘work’, we can feel nice and virtuous about what we’re doing without encountering anything that is going to threaten our egos. (This is why I spent so much of my youth practising scales.) If we want to learn, rather than simply reconfirm our current skills, we need to get out of our psychic armchairs.

The second thing it tells us is that there is a point at which things are so new and overwhelming and scary that learning stops. This is something that educators need to recognise: when you get that rabbit-in-headlights look on someone’s face, it’s time to give them a bit of support and reassurance, and then to break down the challenge into more manageable units. I’ve also found it very helpful to help people in a state of panic – it demonstrates that they’ve simply gone too far too fast, and that by finding a way back into the learning zone, they’ll get back on track. It is very comforting to terrified people to know they’ve gone in the right psychological direction, but overshot the mark a bit, since they don’t feel at that point as if they’ve done anything right.

Indeed, one of the clever things about Chris’s use of this model at the Directors College was the way it set up an agenda for adult learners at the start of the learning process. It primed participants to be challenged and to challenge themselves; in fact, it placed an obligation on participants to leave their comfort zones. But it also gave a shared vocabulary to holler for a lifeline when people shot over too near the panic-boundary.

Since seeing Chris’s model for the first time I have encountered Csíkszentmihályi’s concept of flow, which likewise lies between the states of under-arousal (boredom) and over-arousal (anxiety). It’s interesting to note that one of the results of getting into a state of flow that Csíkszentmihályi identifies is that of emerging as a more complex person. I’d like to think that would be an outcome from the learning process, too.

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