George Lucas Educational Foundation
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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.

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Best Practices to Engage Students

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Liam Bayer's picture
Liam Bayer
Communications Specialist at Pivot Learning Partners

I like the clarity that Ms. Aguilar points to Flow creating within a classroom. For me, Flow was one of the most important books that I have read. It was recommended to me by a teacher in preparation for my Master's thesis that resulted in a curriculum for teaching critical thinking and creativity. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's work catalogues the education of some of the most innovative leaders in history, which gives us unparalleled insight into the flow that leads to creativity. After reading many other titles like Paulo Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed and David Pink's A Whole New Mind, and studying Robert J. Sternberg's research I was able to see how critical thinking, a skill set we use as we learn anything, leads to creativity. Within the curriculum, there was constant interaction (i.e. assessment) going on in a collaborative learning environment because it allowed my students and I to move forward, and didn't stop the flow. Thanks for reminding me of the importance of flow especially since I happened upon it while trying to find a way to escape the mundane, stop and go of classroom assessments.

Steve Peterson's picture
Steve Peterson
3rd grade teacher from Decorah, IA

Thanks for the blog entry!

As our profession has become more and more obsessed with assessments that are easy to conduct, but mostly meaningless when it comes to the important stuff, I've gotten more and more depressed. Hard to see one's own profession being asked to dumb-down, not smarten-up, to go against what I know to be true from my own teaching and learning.


One day last week, after a long and depressing conversation with a colleague about standardized testing, value added assessments, and the general perniciousness of that kind of testing, I had a flash of insight: My job is to forget (as much as possible) about the tests and concentrate on..."flow!" I'm not against accountability at all, or against knowing what students can do. I'm against focusing on dumb stuff. In that flash, I realized that my purpose must be to help students attain that state of flow, whoever they are and whatever they are capable of doing at that moment. After all, learning is about being in the moment, identifying and solving problems, and creating something new (whether it be a product or a concept.) If students experience these, then they know inside what learning feels like and should be. The more they experience that kind of learning, the more they are able to figure out how to attain it for themselves, the greater their learning: they've created (we've created) a positive feedback loop that could last a lifetime!

So, I guess, the short of it is this: There's probably few politicians out there who believe that a "flow-o-meter" is a better measure of learning than a standardized test. There's probably few teachers out here who believe the other way around. I'll have to construct my own clear-eyed "flow-o-meter" to measure the flow of my own students, with an eye and ear for maximizing that experience. To me, this is a much more enjoyable (and hopeful) experience and brought a smile to my face!

Elena Aguilar's picture
Elena Aguilar
Coach, author and consultant from Oakland, California

I'll have to construct my own clear-eyed "flow-o-meter" to measure the flow of my own students, with an eye and ear for maximizing that experience. To me, this is a much more enjoyable (and hopeful) experience and brought a smile to my face![/quote]

I love it! The "flow-o-meter!" Thanks!

Ryan Collay's picture

Thank you for the reminder that there are measures for engagement that get at a number of key metrics: participation, a sense of purpose and capacity, a linkage to practice and knowledge, and that sense of immersion that comes from being there in a process. I would suggest there's another consideration and that relates to motivation--to the human need for problem-solving and challenges. I like the just out of reach, the frustration and rearrangement of learning, and yes the risk-taking. Yes, some forms of "assessment" stop the flow but in my navigational metaphor, taking a bearing is integral to reflection, learning, and a sense of purpose for the tool and knowledge. And as students develop they LIKE challenges that stretch their capacity beyond the application of the known universe--imagination, creativity. I'm concerned that for many there is a fear of frustration (of course getting a child to lose faith is bad) and this leads to climbing three-foot mountains.

So the pragmatist asks, "How do we as leaders structure tools and toys for teachers and school so that they begin to feel safe taking their own risks?" What's their "compass" and where are they heading?

I wrote this the other day in a conversation about risks and goals because I was trying to make a pragmatic argument: loving of reading, learning to read,
reading to learn. And of course for me "reading" is communication is a language arts sense but that's another topic. But is this Flow for teachers?

Richard A. Hart's picture

The "flow-o-meter" can be a part of a multiple-choice standardized test. Just change the instructions from "Mark your best guess for every question" to "Only mark an answer to report what you actually know and trust". Then score not by just counting right marks (2 points each), but by counting right, omit, and wrong (2, 1, and zero).

The result is you now have two scores: quantity and quality. The quality score is independent from the quantity score. My students called the quality score the "feel good" score. Regardless of their test score, high quality students were encouraged to achieve more, to get into the flow.

Passive pupils grew into self-correcting, self-motivated, high quality achievers. Linear lower level thinking gave way to cyclic higher level thinking. At this point students asked and answered their own questions when completing reading assignments. When students are learning for their own interest, they are in the flow.

For more details and the free software developed to score these tests, please see

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

At the Canadian Education Association, a not-for-profit org., we have been studying the entire issue of "Flow" and "Challenge" which leads to deepening the intellectual engagement of students in our classrooms. Our on-going research, now over four years in duration and involving over 67,000 Canadian high school students provides much information as to what ails our current learning and teaching environments. I can say that this research has drawn the attention of a number of leading educators, including Dr. Michael Fullan, Sir Ken Robinson and Dr. Ben Levin, to name but a few. I invite you to visit our site and further investigate the implications. There is also an infographic that we designed that has, as well, drawn much attention, given the simplicity of the presentation but the also the depth of the implications. You will definitely also find much more information, free for your reading and usage, however kindly cite the source. We do and can provide workshops to your teams that allow for the school teams to adjust their professional practice such that "flow" becomes a natural context within the classrooms and schools.

Michele Vogt-Schuller's picture
Michele Vogt-Schuller
Humanities Department Chair, Proviso Mathematics and Science Academy

Indeed, James Paul Gee, Daniel Pink, Kem Robinson and Jonah Lehrer all owe a great deal to MC, who, in return, owes Aristotle. Flow is nothing new, but the way it is so clearly defined and studied is very, very useful to learners and teachers. This year, I decided to use Flow as my primary text with my group of high school seniors. We framed the entire semester around cognitive and learning theory, with a bit of gaming theory brought in. This was, without a doubt, the most successful unit I've ever done. Seniors can be a difficult bunch; they're transitioning into their next stage, and they really want to know how to be, what to do, etc....This book offered something for everyone: a strong foundation for any psychology class they would take, rules for art and artists (as well as discussing different types of flow in different paradigms). The beautiful thing about this book as that my seniors are still engaged, even though it's very close to the end of their high school career. Everything we do can be reference back to the book. Perhaps the best thing is that now that I know how well this book works, I can continue to refine the curriculum using Flow as a foundation.

warren sr.'s picture
warren sr.
vocational teacher from tennessee

Getting my students involved in class is exciting for them as well as myself. Teaching boys how to become men helps them with there character and self-esteem. I teach carpentry and the students in my class are mostly boys and they enjoy learning how to use a hand tool and to build a dog house or pour concrete to finish completing a sidewalk, etc...... It is fun watching the boys hard at work and get their hearts racing and blood flowing.......

Jen L - 95006's picture

Engaging students can be the easy part. I believe the younger they are the easier it is. They can get excited about anything and want to do it. But are they going to remember why they are doing it and how it relates to other subjects? Probably not. They may remember the activity but not the goal or learning target. I love the idea/theory about flow. It opens new doors and gets ideas going. You cannot truly tell if students are engaged just by looking at them. This is what our superintendent does. Walk through for levels of engagement...does not talk to the kids, does not ask questions, and does not stay in to room for more than 3 minutes. How can he be judging levels of engagement? I always have my targets posted and the students know that they are going to learn. I am going to start talking with they about flow and how all learning is related!
I also like the term "flow-o-meter". I think I am going to make a visual about the "flow-o-meter".

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