“Meet Arvind Gupta,”
Dunu Roy told me as I was taking his leave.
“Who is he!” I asked. “What does he do!”
“Oh, he’s a mad guy,” Roy said. “He makes toys.”
Arvind Gupta is a well-known name in the Indian education circuit. He does not occupy any powerful positions nor influence national policies on education. Still, his name often comes up when the topic of innovative and joyful learning is discussed. Arvind graduated from the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Kanpur, in 1975 with a degree in Electrical Engineering. He joined a company making trucks after graduating but soon realized his calling and left the secure, well-paying job for a life of joy and adventure. He started devising science experiments and making toys to teach science to underprivileged kids.
In the past four decades, he has written a number of books on science experimentation and has conducted thousands of workshops in India and abroad. Be it on matchstick models or aerodynamics, his books take in everyday trash like milk boxes, old CDs, empty ball-point pen refills, and soft drink straws, and spit out innovative homemade toys for learning scientific principles in a fun and engaging manner. Where one sees trash, Arvind sees possibility. His child-like enthusiasm and curiosity have inspired millions.
There are many lessons in Arvind’s simplistic approach towards learning. The idea of Toys from trash is ingrained in the concepts of sustainability: reuse and recycling. He once said:
“… each scrap of paper was once a living branch or a tree trunk. We don’t remember that each ball-pen refill, broken pen, all other plastic comes from crude oil. That we have a duty to the earth to understand this, and reuse and recycle everything. Take a newspaper. Surely it deserves a better fate than being cast away after three minutes? You can fold newspapers to make a dozen varieties of caps for children, you can turn them into nice boxes to store things in, you can make them into gift packs. Use a pair of scissors and you can turn small pieces of newspaper into happing (sic) birds, talking crows, flying fishes, helicopters, stunt planes, the possibilities are truly endless!” (Deb, 2004).
His teachings are hands-on and engage not just the mental but also the physical faculties. Most importantly, he is able to maintain a sense of wonder and curiosity toward learning. He is someone who reminds us of at least one teacher from our childhood we still remember fondly.
Why do thousands of students run from their classrooms to Arvind Gupta’s open laboratory every year? Two critical elements of his approach are engagement and enjoyment in learning. He encourages students to make and break the toys so they can learn how things work. He invites them to participate in the activities and perform experiments for the sheer joy of learning. As a result, the students in Arvind’s lectures correlate learning with positive emotions. It is difficult not to see the intersection of Arvind’s approach and Mihayi Csikszentmihalyi’s seminal work on the theory of flow (1990). Although I have yet to come across any book by Arvind that mentions the concept of flow, his approach certainly reflects one of the core ideas of positive psychology.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, considered one of the co-founders of positive psychology, dedicated his life to the study of flow, a state of deep absorption in an intrinsically-enjoyable activity (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990). He found that athletes, students, scientists, and people from all walks of life experience a state of consciousness in which they find genuine satisfaction and happiness. This state of complete immersion is achieved with intense focus and creative engagement in an activity. It is an optimal experience in which people feel their best and perform their best (Kotler, 2019). People describe it as being “in the zone,” “runner’s high,” and “being in the pocket,” but they all point to the same degree of effortlessness when they perform beyond their own expectations and feel great doing it.
In his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (1990) and later works, Csikszentmihalyi describes key elements of flow experience: intense concentration and absorption in an activity with no distractions (when difficulty and skill are at perfect balance), a merging of awareness with action, clear goals and feedback, a feeling of control, loss of self-consciousness, and a transformation of the ordinary sense of time (Shernoff & Csikszentmihalyi, 2009). He termed them the critical elements of enjoyment because those experiencing flow report a sense of joy and effortlessness.
Since the publication of Csikszentmihalyi’s book, scholars have used the lens of flow theory and found a direct correlation between student engagement with learning. Student engagement is highest due to high concentration, enjoyment, and interest in learning activities (Shernoff et al., 2003). On the other hand, student engagement is lowest if the education is passive and controlled by the teacher through a set of instructions (Goodlad, 1984). It must be acknowledged that individual personality traits and differences, family support, and other factors may significantly impact a person’s concentration, enjoyment, and engagement with studies. This essay focuses primarily on the institutional learning environment, and other factors are beyond the scope of this paper.
Let us first take the issue of passivity in the classroom. My experiences as a study progress advisor for the Liberal Arts and Sciences program at UC Tilburg attest to the observations that students show disengagement and alienation from the courses they find "boring." These are the courses that students fail repeatedly or simply do not attempt, causing them to delay their studies. A little probing often reveals the underlying notion of a "boring" course. Students disengage from a course if their skill level does not match the course’s difficulty level. Or, they are discouraged if they feel they are not contributing anything in the classroom. In today’s day and age, students are exposed to an enormous amount of information. They have the resources to know much more than what can be taught in a course, and some of them actually do. Everyone has something to contribute to a classroom, but passivity due to structured lectures with little room for interaction leads to disengagement. Jenny Slatman presents a similar observation in her contribution to this book. Drawing from her teaching and learning-to-teach experience, she shares that structured lectures, especially to a large group of students, are the least effective in achieving the learning outcomes. Students, in fact, learn the most when they explain the material to each other. I can attest to that argument. As an undergraduate student, I managed to get decent grades and earned a reputation to teaching complicated concepts in a ‘fun’ manner to my fellow students. As a result, a group of my friends who consistently appeared for resits (and took pride in doing so) asked me to help them prepare a day before the exams. I enjoyed my first ‘teaching’ experience mainly because it was a group of friends who hung out together and discussed scientific concepts using everyday life experiences. What amazed me the most was that I always learned the concepts better when explaining them to my friends.
Most teachers who pour their souls into preparing for lectures would not want to admit it, but students engage significantly more in an activity in which they are actively involved, such as group or individual work, as compared to listening to a lecture. Small and interactive group activities have been reported as an ideal setting for high concentration and enjoyment (Peterson & Miller, 2004). We at University College Tilburg take pride in our small-scale and interactive classrooms, which provide an excellent avenue for engagement. High engagement in the classroom allows students to be active, take control (autonomy), and contribute (perception of competence). The social innovation project, a professional practice course at UC Tilburg, is particularly appreciated by students for being interactive and allowing them to express and engage.
Now let us turn to concentration, enjoyment, and interest. Educational institutions, particularly in the US, have experimented with different contexts which cultivate student engagement and flow in learning (See Shernoff and Csikszentmihalyi, 2009). Through increased engagement in activities, students are more likely to get into the flow state. They have shown that elements of flow provide a better learning experience. They have identified characteristics such as democratic governance, egalitarian relationships, a prepared environment for stimulating spontaneous concentration, self-paced learning, and several factors to enhance students’ learning experience. It is noteworthy that interest is fundamental in achieving flow experience. It acts as an intrinsic factor for learning beyond classrooms and provides continuous motivation (ibid).
That is why Arvind’s story is so significant. His decentralized teaching attitude invites students to participate in the activities and learn complicated scientific principles by making toys using everyday household items. He sparks interest and curiosity and links positive emotions with learning. Arvind’s classes are everything but structured, and students are encouraged to learn at their own pace. There is no curriculum only limitless opportunities. Students enjoy that they are as much part of the lecture as the teacher and have something to contribute.
Students’ enjoyment and interest in learning appear on the emotional side of the spectrum. It suggests that if students correlate positive emotions with learning, they will be intrinsically motivated to engage with a subject in the long run (Shernoff & Csikszentmihalyi, 2009). Would it not be a dream come true for a teacher: A classroom full of highly motivated students engaged in the subject matter, so much so that they discuss topics beyond classrooms. In addition, they enjoy what they are learning, however grim, and showcase positivity and pleasure towards learning.
Is it possible for students to maintain the level of curiosity and interest at university level when they examine the ‘real world’ problems closely? Perhaps, it is too idealistic and naïve to believe that students can achieve flow discussing the most dismal situations of the world in our classrooms every day. We are dealing with society’s most wicked problems, and our education is turning more and more towards application. Research grants, courses, university vision, and such encourage us to contribute to society in dealing with contemporary global problems. It is a challenge for educational institutions to navigate through the expectations of society and, at the same time, provide a stimulating learning environment for the younger generation so they can nurture their sense of curiosity. Having said that, the rapidly growing body of literature on flow does show a glimmer of hope. We often perform beyond our own expectations when faced with a situation with high consequences (Kotler, 2019). That’s how extreme performance athletes facing life and death with every step manage to outperform themselves and expand the limits of human potential. In my educational utopia, students will tackle global problems without losing their sense of curiosity. In doing so, they will achieve a flow state through which they will perform their best and feel their best.
The purpose of sharing Arvind Gupta’s story in the essay is to remind ourselves about the humble attempts of teachers across the globe who are not only trying but succeeding in nurturing wonder and curiosity. We need teachers who are not afraid to be called mad toymakers, teachers who encourage students to break the toys so they can learn to rebuild themselves. We also need institutions, such as UCT, that create an inspiring and interactive environment for students to achieve a flow state collectively. I acknowledge that there is a need to take giant leaps in changing the landscape of education, but it is worth noting that every step counts.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: the psychology of optimal experience. HarperCollins.
Deb, S. (2004). Iitians. Penguin India.
Goodlad, J. I. (1984). A place called school: Prospects for the future. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Kotler Steven. (2019, February 19). How To Get Into The Flow State [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XG_hNZ5T4nY
Peterson, S. E., & Miller, J. A. (2004). Comparing the quality of students’ experience during cooperative learning and large group instruction. The Journal of Educational Research, 97, 123–133.
Shernoff, D. J., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2009). Flow in Schools: Cultivating Engaged Learners and Optimal Learning Environments. In R. Gilman, E. S. Huebner, & M. J. Furlong (Eds.), Handbook of Positive Psychology in Schools (pp. 131–145). Routledge.
Shernoff, D. J., Csikszentmihalyi, M., Schneider, B., & Shernoff , E. S. (2003). Student engagement in high school classrooms from the perspective of flow theory. School Psychology Quarterly, 18, 158–176.