The black balloon – optimising engagement

In a book called ‘Thinking fast and slow’ by Nobel Prize winning author Daniel Kahneman, I learned that pupils dilate when slow thinking (more cognitive load) is engaged. According to several experiments in which participants completed a range of tasks with their chins resting on a riser so that a camera could measure the dilation of their pupils, observers could tell if they were engaged, finding the task too easy or giving up entirely by the size of their dilated pupils.

Well, mind blown.

My wondering is how this fits with Flow theory and learning design. And my excitement is wondering how this could be measured in real time so that you can set a task and watch pupils’ pupils dilate and remain dilated before shrinking at the end of an activity. Wouldn’t it be even more amazing if we could measure the collective engagement with a big black expanding balloon that gently got bigger and bigger yet never popped? Wouldn’t a big black balloon be an amazing and inspiring live metric?

Metrics in 3d would be pretty cool. Even in 2d as a black spot measuring collective dilation/engagment could be pretty cool too. Personally, I would find responding to a big black circle getting bigger (or smaller) and tweaking activities to optimize the area of the circle pretty interesting. One person opting out would affect the overall circle’s diameter and isn’t it the great challenge to ensure that everyone is learning/everyone’s circles are expanding/optimised?

It sounds futuristic. Impossible even. How can you measure flow amd engagement in real time? How can you tell when students are deflating? How can you tell when they are inflating? What are some real things we might do that don’t involve chin rests, cameras and books to lean on?

Firstly, we could design a pulse point survey and have it run as a pop up for students using a survey tool like mentimeter, or get students to choose a circle size relative to their engagement/sweet spot in a lesson. My thinking is that this would be accidentally disruptive. But also, we can tune in to the balloon in real time, metaphorically speaking.

You can tell a lot about a classroom when you wander around from within it. If you are part of the balloon rather than standing outside of it, it’s easier to gauge its expansion and deflation. You see things. You can see individual interactions and support from the middle.

If you design a task that is pitched to the ‘sweet spot’ then you also need to fill your back pocket with secret enabling devices for students who might find it too hard. In addition to this you need to pack your other back pocket with interesting ways to extend the students who find it too easy. This way you have two full back pockets and a good chance of inflating a big black balloon.

Add a time check (20 mins is golden), clear instructions and success criteria and you just about have a winning formula for a giant balloon of a learning room.

This big black balloon is a bit of blue sky thinking but why not? The enabling and extending predictions prior to beginning an activity can make all the difference. Those full back pockets can keep the balloon afloat.

Reading about pupil dilation observations made me think of the big black balloon metaphor.

The pupil dilation observation could be looked into with cameras, but as a metaphor for learning that ‘something expands’ and that ‘the expansion is different for every student’ depending on individual eye anatomy, light, prior experience, perceived effort and more – all that this reminds us of is that differentiation and tuning in to each individual as they are, where they are is vital.

But the vision of the big black balloon is so powerful. Imagine if every class was measured as a big black balloon. That’s something to inspire lift off.

More ways to make big balloons:

– relevant subject matter

– personalised approach

– linked to individual interest

– choices for how to engage and process

– digital and analogue options

– timeboxed tasks

– enablers and extenders

– tracking metrics/success criteria

– regular conversations to support and extend

– guide beside facilitation

Students could colour in a circle depending on how much they felt optimal learning/expansion/flow/engagement
A simple rubric. The challenge is, how can we talk with kids to open access to an experience of the extra large circle?

And these are my Saturday morning thoughts. Could a big black balloon gently expanding to the full capacity of the room be an aspiration for you?

What do you think? Useful, valuable or all hot air? 🤔


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