Craft, Flow and Cognitive Styles
Originally a talk to the Waldorf Handwork Educators Teacher Conference
on the 15th of July, 2021. Watch a video here. Hopefully this is of some interest to anyone interested in autism and learning, not just teachers of fibre-craft…
I want to talk today about different experiences of education, of making, and of the world. There are lessons from handwork and craft more generally that I think we can carry into life in general, and lessons from life that should be brought to bear on the handwork classroom. In particular I want to talk about flow states and mastery, what they mean, and how to help students to access them.
I should say a bit about myself, because most of you don't know me. I am not a handwork teacher, although I like to mend and make clothes from time to time, and art and crafts play a big role in my life. I am barely even a Waldorf teacher - my background is in physics, philosophy and computer software, and I trained to be a science teacher at Goldsmiths, University of London. However, my journey took me to the Edinburgh Steiner School, where I have been teaching chemistry and sometimes other things for seven years now. After I had been there a couple of years, I ran training on autism and neurodiversity for our staff group, and after that I started letting my colleagues know that I am autistic, having been officially identified in my early thirties (more than ten years ago now).
Outside of teaching, I like to write, to make art and to do whatever I can to make the world better for my fellow autistic and neurodivergent people. In this, I am partly following in the footsteps of my mother, Dr. Dinah Murray, who died last Wednesday - peacefully, with her loved ones, including me, and with a sense of having achieved pretty much what she set out to in life. I wasn't really planning to talk about her when I agreed to give this talk, but it happens that her work - and the arc of her life - are extremely relevant both to what I want to say and to this conference's theme of finding a place on Earth, so please bear with me if it seems strange, in a talk about teaching craft, to talk about my family history, and what it means to have a life well-lived; I promise you that it all ties together.
So my mum was born in 1946; she had me in 1978, the youngest of three kids. She's said that if she was growing up in the 2000s she would undoubtedly have attracted a diagnosis of autism; I'm sure she's right, but as things worked out, she only came to think of herself as autistic some time around 2010, after many years of working with autistic people and thinking about autism. I was seeking out an autism diagnosis myself at around the same time.
By that time she had already published and lectured quite a lot on her theory of autism: Monotropism, part of her conception of the mind as a system of interests that are effectively competing for our attention. Her basic idea about autism - a simple one, really, but powerful - is that autistic minds have a tendency to focus their attention and other processing resources on a small number of things at once, with little left over for things that are outside of our immediate attention tunnel. In other words, autistic people tend to have only one interest aroused at a time, or a small number compared with most of people. Those interests have a strong stream of processing resources directed towards them, often leading to intense experiences, inertia (difficulty starting, stopping or changing course), looping back to well-trod paths, and feelings of deep discombobulation when we are thrown off track.
Much of this will be familiar to most people, to some extent — and perhaps especially to the sorts of people who are drawn to a career in handwork! (I speculate.) Many of us get satisfyingly lost in what we're doing sometimes, and the discomfort of being interrupted just before the completion of a chapter, or a game, or something we're making, is something most people can relate to.
What's important to realise is that the intensity and frequency of such experiences vary wildly from person to person. If you imagine that an autistic kid at school is likely to be wrenched out of their attention tunnel multiple times every day, each time leading to disorientation and deep discomfort, you are on your way to understanding why school environments can be so stressful for many autistic students. If you can avoid contributing to that, you may find that you have an easier time with your autistic students: try entering into their attention tunnel when you can, rather than tugging them out of it. Parallel play is one powerful tool for this; start where the child is, show interest in what they're focused on. If you do need to pull them out of whatever they're focusing on, it's best to give them a bit of time.
Those with ADHD have many of the same experiences of hyperfocus alternating with feeling scattered and unstable when they are not able to channel their focus effectively; many of those diagnosed with ADHD recognise themselves in descriptions of monotropic attention, and there is much work still to be done on exploring the relations between ADHD and autism, and how they fit in with neurodiversity more broadly: that is, the range of different cognitive styles used by humans.
Diversity in many contexts makes groups stronger, and I believe that the neurodiversity of humankind makes us a richer and more interesting species - even if, in the societies we live in, and the schools we work in, certain cognitive styles are rightly seen as disabilities: differences that, without reasonable adjustments, will stop people from being able to do things that others can do.
My main theme for today is really the importance of fostering and working with flow, mastery and intense interests, but I had better talk a bit first about some of the other effects of a monotropic processing style. The one that people are most aware of when it comes to autism is difficulties with social interaction. Most people take it for granted that they can process many streams of information at once - words, tone of voice, prosody, eye contact, body language - while keeping in mind social conventions, information about their social relations with whoever is talking, and various relevant items of background information. Meanwhile, they are prepared to use all of those in concert whenever they talk themselves.
With a monotropic processing style, that is just too many things to keep track of at once! Pick just a few items out of that list, and you end up with a communication style that strikes many people as odd, and often socially unacceptable. We might miss your facial expressions, and you might misread ours. It's worth saying here that communication between autistic people is just as effective as communication between non-autistic people, on the whole; it's in interactions between neurotypes that most problems occur. The autistic scholar Damian Milton talks about the 'double empathy problem': empathy is a two-way street, and there is plenty of research now to show that the problems are not just on the autistic side.
Another huge area of challenge for autistic learners, and others with overlapping cognitive styles, is the sensory environment. Filtering out sensory input takes energy; it's an active process. Just as autistic people have fewer interests engaged at any time, we also have fewer filters. You might not notice the buzzing of fans, the flickering of a fluorescent light, or the kid three rows back wearing too much deodorant; you might filter those things out. Much of the time, autistic people can't. Any of those things might wrench us out of our attention tunnels, or keep us from being able to focus in the first place.
I think, though, that entering into a flow state - being fully absorbed in an activity - can sometimes let us filter out everything besides what's directly relevant to what we're focusing on. That's a wonderful feeling for anyone, and especially for people who spend much of their lives in disorienting environments, it can be a blessed relief to put down your filters for a while and lose yourself in a task… especially one that you can complete to your satisfaction!
The psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, a big name in positive psychology, started writing about flow, or 'the autotelic experience', more than fifty years ago, after investigating the nature of playing. This is really the same thing as people are talking about when they talk about being in The Zone. My old Tai Chi teacher used to describe Tai Chi as 'meditation in motion', and I think that fits too. The concept of peak experiences is closely related, and is perhaps best understood as what happens when someone flows completely enough to experience a sense of bliss.
Csíkszentmihályi once described flow as "being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you're using your skills to the utmost."
It quickly became clear to Csíkszentmihályi that the experience of getting lost in play is in some sense essentially the same as losing yourself making music, painting or doing really absorbing work. I expect you recognise it from craft and teaching: when someone knows what their goal is, and they are challenged enough to really put their skills to work, but not so challenged as to be frequently frustrated. They get into a rhythm, solving problems as they arise, rising to challenges and always learning as they practise. Often, they lose track of time, being fully absorbed in the present moment.
Maybe you can think of some times when you’ve been in The Zone: when your skills have matched the challenges faced, and you’ve lost yourself in the task at hand.
If you’re lucky, maybe you’ve had a chance to teach someone something and watch them really get into the flow of it.
Providing just the right level of challenge for pupils is a major task for any teacher, as is giving clear goals and communicating why our subject is interesting and meaningful. Flow states are the pinnacle of intrinsic motivation, where somebody wants to do something for themselves, for the sake of doing it and doing it well.
At the same time, as with anything about humans, it's a mistake to only think about individuals in isolation. I love to cook, but when I'm just cooking for myself I end up getting frustrated if I put in the effort to make something delicious. I want to share those experiences with someone! We all love to share our triumphs, to share our learning and our fascinations. So learning at school is also about relationships - between teachers and pupils, and amongst the learners, who also spend part of their time as teachers of one kind or another.
People need to feel appreciated and safe, to give themselves to an activity; and they need to feel like they are making progress to keep giving themselves to it. To get into The Zone, you need to know you're getting somewhere, that you're in the process of mastering a skill - you need ongoing feedback, whether from another person or another source. There is also something uniquely satisfying about working with other people effectively, towards a shared goal; in my experience there is no substitute when it comes to building a community. I will come back to some of the social aspects of flow a bit later.
Many students seem to lose motivation as they pass through the school system, going from endlessly curious children to bored and reluctant teenagers. Part of that must be social, the self-consciousness that often kicks in around that age keeping people from letting themselves go. Part of it is also undoubtedly the school curriculum, which (beyond a certain age) prevents most pupils from being self-directed in their learning, most of the time. By the time they get to their late teens they have often lost the habit of self-directed learning that is so familiar to every young child, and they need to pick it up again from scratch. A major feature of flow states is a sense of agency: if you're not in control of what you're doing in a first place, it's hard to feel a sense of mastery over it.
So whether or not we're thinking in terms of flow, a lot of what we do as teachers is likely to coincide with the conditions for our students to attain flow: a strong sense of purpose, challenges that match up with someone's current skill levels, feedback on attainment, a lack of distractions. When teachers do their jobs effectively, students should be able to attain flow at school every day. But there are many reasons why that doesn't happen, some of which are difficult for us to control, some of which may be much easier.
What barriers do you think prevent any learners you know from attaining flow? How much does it vary from one class or context to another? How much does it vary from one person to another?
I think it is crucial to realise is that different people have very different experiences with focus, and hyperfocus. This is central to the idea of monotropism: some people really only function at their best when they can focus their attention tightly. Outside of hyperfocus, monotropic thinkers tend to be restless and intensely distractible, like there's a fountain of attention that has to go somewhere; or else we get mentally depleted, with little energy for anything.
Activities that have some of the characteristics of flow - the application of skill, achievable goals and so on - act as welcome receptacles for excess attention. This is part of the reason you'll often see autistic and ADHD students fiddling and doodling - if our main focus isn't enough to absorb us, that stream of attention needs an outlet.
Flow is one form of hyperfocus, but not all hyperfocus is so productive, or so active, or so positive. Sometimes we might be unable to stop ourselves focusing on things that upset us, especially if there is lingering uncertainty about it; or hyperfocus might shade into addiction; or our hyperfocus might lead us to miss things of importance.
All the same, I don't believe that hyperfocus is something we should fight against in the classroom - wherever possible, we should work with it, encouraging students to focus intensely on relevant topics and activities, even if that means we need to be flexible about what exactly they get up to. Flow allows us to recharge, to feel a sense of achievement and satisfaction, and a kind of respite from the often-baffling demands of the school social environment. Even if it didn't, I think that some people need to hyperfocus some of the time, and it is certainly something that will be occurring in your classroom at times, whether you like it or not.
We have seen that many of the things that have the potential to allow flow states are things that teachers do routinely, although we may not do them all at once, and we may not be able to do them for all pupils. So why don't students always get into the flow? What else should we be doing to enable it besides those routine teacher things?
I mentioned the sensory environment earlier, and that can be a huge issue: many classrooms are too noisy, too bright, too overstimulating for some pupils. This is especially difficult when an overstimulating sensory environment is coupled with social demands.
Another common problem is ‘spiky skills profiles’, which is to say that some people just find some things extremely difficult, even though other things are easy for them. This is characteristic of autism but also a feature of every type of neurodivergence, in different ways. Especially in a big class, widely varying skill levels can make it very difficult to ensure that everyone is sufficiently challenged, but not overwhelmed, at any time. Differentiation can help, but is notoriously difficult to pull off well in practice. Patience is crucial here, along with a calm acceptance that some things take longer for some people than for others: shaming someone for finding something hard rarely leads them to get the hang of it any quicker. And most skills can be learned over time - as long as the learner doesn't believe that they can't be!
Allowing students some autonomy can make a massive difference, but again, this can be hard to pull off in a large class, especially if you are trying to deliver a set curriculum. Perhaps it is easier in a subject like handwork than it is in exam-level science lessons.
Perhaps the most powerful tool of all is making learning meaningful to your students: making sure they understand how it fits in with things that they care about. That can be a challenge, because it can take a bit of work to find out what they care about, and some of them might be into very different things! Autistic students in particular are likely to have intense interests in very specific things, which may or may not be easy to relate to what you are trying to teach. But it's worth it, if you can manage it; some students are seriously disabled when it comes to completing tasks they don't understand the point of. I still suffer from this in adult life: it's almost impossible to make myself complete tasks that seem pointless to me. It's like the opposite of flow: minds acting like treacle when you try to push them in directions that don't make sense. When I do work that relates to my passions, though, I am carried forward with a momentum that it's often hard to stop.
Do you think your students find what you are teaching meaningful? Do you ever try to tailor the work to individual students' interests?
I want to dig in a bit to this idea of things being meaningful. The nature of meaning is a notoriously thorny philosophical question, but I think that to a large extent, people find activities meaningful if they fit in with their goals. I think things can be a little bit meaningful just based on local goals, like 'here is a game, this is how you win', but the bigger the goals they're associated with, the more meaningful they can be.
There's something like a fractal structure going on there - tasks can form part of bigger tasks, which form part of bigger tasks still. Lessons form part of bigger lessons, flow states form part of a bigger rhythm, a bigger flow, like streams and tributaries flowing into a river.
So you might learn to crochet so you can crochet a square as part of a patchwork quilt, and the quilt might be part of the practice of learning how to work with fabric, and learning to work with fabric might be part of getting good at making things, which could be part of learning how to be a person who feels able to do things in the world! The more thoroughly we learn things and link them together, the more we can chunk what we’ve learned, so we can deal with bigger streams at once. For someone with a monotropic thinking style, that means we can work with very complex processes once we have mastered them; in practice, we have fewer things to keep track of once we have mastered the skills needed to tie them together.
The rhythm of learning and doing always includes times when you're not directly in flow, and that's important. We need to go away and allow learning to bed in - famously, building up muscle memory often requires sleeping on it, but much the same thing happens with learning of any sort, as well as problem-solving. Our brains work on things in a kind of diffuse way when we're not consciously paying attention; the fallow times are important! I sometimes wonder if pupils would learn more if they spent a bit less of their time having to focus on it.
It took a while for many psychologists to take the importance of Csíkszentmihályi's work on flow seriously, despite interest from people in other fields; eventually his ideas were picked up by sports psychologists, and after that they spread much more widely; they are now hugely influential. Reading his 2019 foreword to the collection Advances in Flow Research describing this slow process* I hear echoes of my mother's frustration - yielding eventually to deep satisfaction, as they finally saw their ideas picked up widely. Just in the last year, there is new monotropism research being published most weeks; partly the interest was catalysed by an article I wrote in 2018, 'Me and Monotropism: a Unified Theory of Autism'.
There are echoes there of the structure of learning in us as individuals - just as there are parallels between individual flow and the smooth flow of a classroom running at peak efficiency! Dinah worked in bursts of highly effective thinking, presenting and writing, communicating and clarifying ideas, in between periods where from the outside it might have looked like not much was happening.
But just as learning beds in for each of us when we're not consciously thinking about it, those ideas she was putting forward - so simple, but with such far-reaching implications - were percolating in the background, quietly propelled forwards by the autistic community and professionals who were ready to learn from the lived experiences of autistic people.
By the end of her life, her monotropic focus on monotropism - with the help of the autistic community, and the neurodiversity movement that she engaged with in so many other ways - had made a huge impact on many people’s understanding of autism, and the diversity of human cognition. I hope that I have been able to bring some of that to you today. Thank you.
Further reading, viewing and listening:
- More from me on autism and neurodiversity
- Dinah’s obituary in NeuroClastic
- Dinah’s interview with her daughter-in-law and grandson
- Clem Bastow on the pathologisation of flow in autism
- Mihály Csíkszentmihályi interview, TED Talk
- Damian Milton on monotropism and flow
- Double Empathy Problem: Why Autistic People Are Often Misunderstood
- Me and Monotropism: a Unified Theory of Autism
- Attention, monotropism and the diagnostic criteria for autism
- Thread on recent monotropism research
- Learning About Neurodiversity at School (LEANS)
- Neurodiversity is for Everyone
*Csikszentmihalyi’s foreword laments:
‘The initial reception to my first book, Beyond Boredom and Anxiety, and to the research articles that ensued, could be best described as benign neglect. In private, some colleagues congratulated me for having given a name to something very obvious that they had known forever. Others congratulated me for having had the courage to write about something so fascinating, but that unfortunately was not amenable to scientific investigation. Even though patronizing, such responses were more comforting than the deep silence that otherwise surrounded my work. The only formal recognition in the first dozen years or so came from a brief, and not exactly encouraging review of the book, by Edward Deci in Psych Abstracts.’