Flow in the classroom


Have you ever watched an athlete or artist perform when they are in their “zone”.  They display such intense, but effortless , concentration.  For them time is distorted in a magical moment.  Action and awareness are fused.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Ph.D. in his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience offers what flow should look like:

“The flow experience is when a person is completely involved in what he or she is doing, when the concentration is very high, when the person knows moment by moment what the next steps should be, like if you are playing tennis, you know where you want the ball to go, if you are playing a musical instrument you know what notes you want to play, every millisecond, almost. And you get feedback to what you’re doing. That is, if you’re playing music, you can hear whether what you are trying to do is coming out right or in tennis you see where the ball goes and so on. So there’s concentration, clear goals, feedback, there is the feeling that what you can do is more or less in balance with what needs to be done, that is, challenges and skills are pretty much in balance.

When these characteristics are present a person wants to do whatever made him or her feel like this, it becomes almost addictive and you’re trying to repeat that feeling and that seems to explain why people are willing to do things for no good reason — there is no money, no recognition — just because this experience is so rewarding and that’s the flow experience”

Flow, as a representation of total engagement,  seems like a lofty goal in the classroom environment.  It’s such a personal achievement that relys on intrinsic factors that are beyond the control of the instructor.  Is it even achievable?

In a 2002 interview with Edutopia Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi suggests school activities that promote flow are often extracurricular: band, sports, drama.  In academic courses it is more often found in group and project work.  Low on the totem pole is the traditional lecture.

So what activities can an instructor engage in to promote flow.  In 2004 Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi  presented his Ted talk Flow the Secret to Happiness where he outlines the seven conditions for flow to exist.

  1. Intense concentration
  2. Sense of joy and ecstacy
  3. Clarity of task – what needs to be done and how well
  4. Skills equivalent to the task
  5. A sense of timelessness
  6. Intrinsic motivation

As an instructor its easy to see how we can influence 3 and 4 with good instructional techniques.  The others might be more challenging.

While you cannot make a student concentrate you can provide a learning environment that limits distractions.

I don’t think any of my students ever described  my workshops as being ” joyful” and “ecstatic” but I certainly know that my attitude and enthusiasm for the subject matter has a direct impact on how students feel about their learning. If I don’t seem motivated or engaged how can I expect them to.

Those magic moments where the whole class is in a state of flow are certainly few and far between but they are worthy of seeking out by creating an environment that welcomes them.






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