I have recently become fascinated with the notion of flow, and after reading Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book it has provoked a lot of thought in relation to whether we can create flow experiences for children within all lessons across the school.
For those who are unfamiliar with Csikszentmihalyi’s work, ‘The metaphor of “flow” is one that many people have used to describe the sense of effortless action they feel in moments that stand out best in their lives.’(Finding Flow: p29) In these moments ‘The sense of time is distorted: hours seem to pass by in minutes.’(Finding Flow: p31) I have experienced flow many times whilst playing sport competitively but I can’t remember experiencing a similar sensation when completing other tasks which leads me to the question:
Can a student experience flow in any lesson?
Before I tackle the practical side of creating such situations in classrooms, it is important to delve further into the notion of ‘Flow’. “Athletes refer to it is as “being in the zone”, religious mystics as being in ‘ecstasy’, artists and musicians as aesthetic rapture.” Athletes, mystics and artists do very different things but when they reach flow, but their descriptions of the experience are remarkably similar.” This quotation suggests that it is possible to experience such a sensation regardless of the activity and makes me more hopeful with respect to students experiencing such a sensation in any lesson. Don’t get me wrong, I am not expecting students to be in ecstasy when solving an algebra problem but there are ways to create tasks which will ultimately help students to achieve that magical state where they will be most effective in their learning.
So what can we do as teachers?
Csikszentmihalyi suggests that ‘Flow tends to occur when a person’s skills are fully involved in overcoming a challenge that is just about manageable.’ This is best illustrated by the following graph from Csikszentmihalyi’s book.
As teachers, the biggest consideration is whether or not tasks are perfectly matched to a student’s ability level. If a task is too hard, the student will become anxious and disengaged. If the task is too easy, the students will become bored and disengaged. This in itself is nothing revolutionary, but the key for me is to establish how a student might behave when experiencing flow. Once we establish this, it is easier to reflect on how often such behaviours are exhibited by the students within our care.
One strategy could be articulate to students what a ‘flow experience’ feels like so that they recognise it for themselves. The best example I can give is that when I am mountain biking down a steep and technical route, my skills are pushed to their limit. Perceptual narrowing is at its peak and my concentration is solely on the way my body and bike respond to the environment. For that brief moment, I can think of nothing else. In a classroom environment, I think you see glimpses of such an experience when students take an idea and become completely immersed in it. What’s happening in the room fades into the background as the student focusses solely on completing a difficult problem or constructing an emotionally charged piece of writing. I have seen Art lessons where a student using a new medium for the first time and has made it over the initial barriers and suddenly the picture begins to take shape and the student embraces the challenge further.
‘Another characteristic of flow activities is that they provide immediate feedback.’ When a student hits a ball in tennis, they receive a wealth of kinaesthetic feedback. Did the ball make good contact with racket? Was the timing right? Was the power right? Similarly, in an invasion game, when a player makes a decision to try and beat an opponent, they receive immediate feedback as they either pass the opponent or they don’t. In a maths lesson, where the answers are clearly right or wrong, the student can quickly assess their progress. This becomes more difficult in subjects where the assessment criteria are more subjective. The key point here is that once a student reaches ‘flow’ we as teachers want to keep them in that zone for as long as possible and quick feedback is essential to this. Personalised success criteria in student friendly language may help so that students can regularly check their progress against the criteria. Circulating the room as frequently as possible to provide timely feedback could also be key in preventing students from falling out of ‘flow’.
As Csikszentmihalyi states ‘A typical day is full of anxiety and boredom. Flow experiences provide the flashes of intense living against this dull background.’(Finding Flow. P31) I am really keen to hear what teachers do to encourage such experiences within their classrooms.
Finding Flow: Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi 1997 Basic Books