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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Think about a time when you were really engaged in something, the kind of engagement where you lose track of time and experience feelings of joy and satisfaction. You may have felt acutely focused, physically, mentally, and emotionally absorbed in a task. I've felt this most often while writing, reading, teaching, and coaching -- always signaled by the moment when I notice the clock and, feeling dazed, wonder where the hours have gone.

The feelings are pleasant and there are always outcomes, a chapter written, or a complicated dilemma unraveled, for example. It wasn't until I heard about the work of the Hungarian psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, that I learned that this notion has a name: Flow.

I would like to urge the education community to move beyond a discussion of "engagement," with its vague definitions and murky attributes, to a conversation on flow; I'd like to propose that our task as educators is to increase the experiences of flow for students.

What is Flow?

Csikszentmihalyi has identified three conditions necessary to achieve a state of flow:

  1. The goals are clear (i.e. design an experiment which demonstrates xyz, write a persuasive essay, paint the ceiling of the chapel)
  2. The goals are attainable and within one's skillset and ability; and the challenge level and skill level are both high
  3. You get clear and immediate feedback so you can adjust your course

Intrinsic motivation is a key element that leads to experiences of flow; we have to want to engage in the challenging task. I doubt that anyone has every experienced flow with a worksheet or alphabetizing spelling words. Flow does not happen on the low end of Bloom's Taxonomy.

The Road to Mastery

I'm going to assume we all want students to master certain skills or standards, or show mastery of a domain of knowledge; flow is an essential to mastery. Flow doesn't guarantee mastery. I have seen many classrooms full of students who are engaged in an activity, but don't necessarily master any skills. But mastery is not attainable without flow. Flow happens in a moment while mastery takes years. And to push that notion a little farther, philosophers debate whether mastery can really be attained, which is exactly what makes pursuing it so appealing -- as soon as we reach what we think is mastery, we see another level of mastery farther ahead and so we seek to attain that level, and so on. But back to the concrete: Our students can master the craft of writing a persuasive essay, if, perhaps, they've had some moments of flow on their journey.

The Secret

Here's the secret to why it's really worth creating experiences of flow for our students: when they experience flow, we will too. When they're in their student zone of flow then the same will most likely be true for us: our goals are clear, the challenge is high, our skills match the challenge, and we're getting immediate feedback from kids and adjusting so that we can meet their needs and accomplish the goal. It's synergistic and beautiful!

This is why every lesson must have clear and laser-focused objectives -- not because an administrator is going to come in and ding you if they're not posted -- but because without an articulation of a clear goal, students can't attain flow. This is why we need to know what our students know and what they can do, and why we need to be acutely aware of their zone of proximal development (ZPD); this is why we need to do those diagnostics and KWLs, so we can match their skill level to an appropriately challenging task. This is why we need to design lessons and assignments that are rigorous and on the upper levels of Bloom's, that ask students to argue and debate, create, and evaluate.

And this is why we need to check students' understanding every 10 minutes and use a range of formative assessment strategies so then we can adjust course and ensure that they'll be successful with the task.

Of course, a clear learning objective won't ensure flow and there's much more to consider. But as an end goal, I'm proposing that flow should be part of our daily experience in school -- for students and teachers. Maybe we can't experience flow all day, every day, but maybe students and teachers can experience it more often than we do now.

Perhaps flow is the secret to transforming schools, retaining quality teachers, and keeping kids in school. I'm going to make a wild guess that kids who quit school have had very few experiences of flow within a classroom. Let's refocus our energies on creating the conditions for flow to be experienced in schools. We'd all benefit.

Best Practices to Engage Students

Comments (21)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Virginia's picture
Virginia
Second grade teacher from Atlanta, GA

I really enjoyed reading your blog. Keeping students engaged can be very challenging, but if you find a way for them to "flow" they may find more heart in their education.

Kim M's picture
Kim M
K-5 Visual Art Teacher

Great article. Keeping my students attention can be challenging. So working on the flow to keep everyone engaged in learning is a daily challenge. After reading the article I have several ideas that I am going to try. Thank you

Joelle T.'s picture
Joelle T.
Former intervention teacher, now full-time-mom/graduate student.

Flow. Finally a word to describe that extremely powerful time of deep engagement, understanding, creativity, interest, and so much more. You mentioned how as educators we all strive for 'engagement', this is so true. However, in reality engagment does not necessarily achieve understanding, let alone mastery. You description of 'flow' rather than engagement, being what we all truly desire for our students, is true to my experience as an intervention teacher, as well as a student myself. Those experiences with flow, is what our students will remember years later, and in turn the ever important information will also be remembered.

From my own personal experiences, I can recall a time as a 3rd grader working on a animal report. I had an excellent teacher who allowed us all to choose our own animals and walked us through the 'report' process. Because we all were excited about the animals we chose, there was high interest from the entire class. I can recall studying hard, working diligently on preparing my first report, can still share facts about tigers, and have always been able to write well, I believe because of that experience. This is my first recollection of experiencing the flow you describe, and have since achieved the level of involvement regularly. Looking back on this experience and reading your post only strengthens my desire for my students to experience flow in their learning as well.
Also, you stated that "without an articulation of a clear goal, students can't attain flow". This stood out to me as another great reason to have clear specific objections, always have the end result in mind, as well as the process to achieve it.
Thank you for your insightful post, and I look forward to utilizing this concept in my teaching.

Nathan Maton's picture

Hi Elena -

Great post . I enjoyed it and am wondering if you have any examples of the how rather than the why. I'm on board with the why but would love some inspirational how examples.

Best,
Nathan

Michael Griffin's picture
Michael Griffin
Education PD based in UK

Thanks Elena for your succint description of flow. When I first read Csiksentmihalyi's 'Flow' (1990) I thought to myself 'why didn't I know about this'. It transformed my teaching, and indeed I have writtem a successful general music course with flow principles explicitly in design. Now when I deliver professional development in schools and conferences I remain surprised and a little saddened at how few educators are familiar with this marvellously powerful yet simple concept. Furthermore, it seems to me there is a general ignorance of motivation theorys. This is not an attack on teachers, but perhaps on teacher training education. When I present Flow, or SDT (Deci) or Kohn, Dweck, Amabile, Rousseau etc teachers get excited. They too ask the question 'why haven't we learned this?' and it has transformed their teaching.
This topic of motivation is essential for the educator -and the self learner.

Jenny's picture

This concept is very intriguing and intensifies the classroom. I really believe in "student zone of flow then the same will most likely be true for us: our goals are clear, the challenge is high, our skills match the challenge, and we're getting immediate feedback from kids and adjusting so that we can meet their needs and accomplish the goal. It's synergistic and beautiful!" No truer statement has ever been made. However, I am curious on the how to implement. Engagement is obviously part of this, but I would think it goes deeper. I am full onboard with the why, but do you have any tips on how to bring this to a classroom and school?

Ron Canuel's picture
Ron Canuel
CEO for Canadian Education Assoc. a non-for-profit org. Canada

In reading the commentary on this topic, the most essential component to the realization of ensuring "flow" amongst students and teachers in classrooms begins with great professional development, AND with an important group to be included: Principals. At the CEA, we have now completed our fifth year of investigation into student intellectual engagement and flow amongst Canadian high school students (last sample size: 67,000). The results are clearly demonstrating a decreasing level of intellectual engagement of students, commencing from grade 5 and bottom out at grades 11-12.
As for the professional development of teachers and principals, we have implemented training programs that allow for teachers to further enhance their teaching environment and for principals to allow for such enhancements to develop. While still responding to the demands of standardized tests, the teachers have been able to truly creating "engaging" learning environments. But, as many teachers told us in Canada, it all depends if the principals allow it to happen and still respond to accountability measures. As further evidence, Canada ranks amongst the top five countries in the world on international measurements tests (PISA-TIMMS). I am excluding in the rankings of cities such as Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Singapour.
If you want more information about this research and PD, please visit our website: www.cea-ace.ca

Michael Griffin's picture
Michael Griffin
Music educator and professional development trainer based in Hampshire, UK.

Good point Jenny. Flow is a great theory, but how to implement in the classroom? For mine, the core is differentiation. Every student must be allowed to work in a 'proximal zone' that provides the conditions to create flow. That is, the right balance of skill V challenge. I have tried this myself, writing a music keyboard course specifically based upon the rules of flow and it was an outstanding success. Students working on different levels but fully engaged in one another's learning. Check it out if you like, it might provide some ideas for your subject area. Michael. http://youtu.be/gUFH7thCYRI

Maureen Kowker's picture
Maureen Kowker
6TH GRADE TEACHER FROM bELLEVUE, NEBRASKA

So happy to finally have a name for it--flow! Every Friday afternoon my students and I shared a Grand Conversation. During this time we shared learning and the connection we made to our daily lives. One time a surprise visitor to our classroom was surprised at the level of understanding my students had of the Holocaust. The children were truly engaged and had immersed themselves in research. They expressed their learning through, art, music, and writing. Although they are now adults, they tell me they will never forget what they learned. I guess you can call that flow!

zep's picture
zep
Education Specialist

A huge point of considering concepts like flow is to recognize that they often occur outside of school. Often in these instances, and arguably when it really occurs w/in a classroom Csikszentmihalyi is off base, it occurs w/out goals and w/out adult feedback i.e. a child exploring a sandbox, or a child exploring quantum physics on-line. What the child is learning in these instances is extended focus, the content is irrelevant, the practice of focused play which l8er becomes focused "work" is the point. Accept the student's goal, if there is one, perhaps they are just enjoying exploration, and be supportive; 100 years of Free School experiences show us that this is a path towards facilitating students becoming fulfilled adults.

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