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 and 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’d 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. And I’d like to propose that our task as educators is to increase the experiences of flow for students.
What Is Flow?
Csikszentmihalyi identified three conditions necessary to achieve a state of flow:
- The goals are clear (e.g., design an experiment that demonstrates X, write a persuasive essay, paint the ceiling of the chapel).
- The goals are attainable and within one’s skill set and ability, and the challenge level and skill level are both high.
- 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 ever experienced flow with a worksheet or while 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, though it doesn’t guarantee mastery. I have seen many classrooms full of students who were engaged in an activity but didn’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 further, 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 ahead and 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.
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, 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 we can then 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 a 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.