How to Create a State of “Flow” in the Classroom

By AJ Juliani on April 24, 2015

What is flow? It is a term and concept you’ve probably heard before. It’s also a feeling or state that you’ve had many times in your life. We often call it that feeling when time stands still a state of “flow”; and we often call that feeling when we get lost in what we are doing for hours a state of flow. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Ph.D., psychologist and author of the book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, describes what “flow” looks and feels 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.

Last week on the ClassroomQuestions podcast, John Spencer and I devoted three episodes to the topic of Flow in the classroom.

Classroom Questions Episode 25: What is “flow” and how does it impact learning?

Classroom Questions Episode 26: What is “flow” and how does it impact learning (continued)?

Classroom Questions Episode 27: How can I take an old lesson and revise it for flow?

It’s often difficult to provide an opportunity for students to find a state of flow while learning in our classrooms, even though we know how powerful of a learning force flow can be for anyone. In our third episode on flow, John and I discussed old lessons (that tanked) and how we would go about modifying the time, types of activities, and structure to lead students towards a state of flow (even if we had a 40 minute class).

Here are four smart steps you can take to foster a state of flow while designing lessons, activities, and projects for your students:

1. Stop Lecturing

I believe there is a time and place for a good lecture. But it is the worst setting for students to experience flow. Students must be active participants in their learning for them to experience flow. This is why video games promote a sense of flow (and consequently why so many students play them without any real extrinsic rewards), the student is the center of the action and controls the experience to a point.

2. Team Projects + Choice

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi says in an Edutopia article: “If you think of where kids have most flow in school, it’s mostly in extracurricular activities like band, music, athletics, newspaper. In addition, if you look at academic classes, they would report flow especially when they work on team projects. That’s the most enjoyable part of school.”

Make sure the project has an element of choice involved. Students buy in and teamwork is at a much higher level when the challenges they face are seen as something they want to overcome as a team.

3. Set Up Class Like an Extra-Curricular Activity

When students play sports, play music, or are part of the musical/drama their individual practice and drive directly correlates to the final team performance. If you class is set up so students have clear challenges for their skill level, and then have to use those skills for a team activity/performance…the end result is focus and flow in the midst of the activity.

4. Allow for Strategic Silence

Engagement can be loud and messy; and engagement can also be quiet and peaceful. In project-based classrooms there is a time for the loud collaborative type of work. But, we also have to allow for strategic silence. I remember in high school taking my first computer programming class and sitting in silence working on my electric football game program for 45 minutes without realizing time was going by…

Silence allowed me to get (and stay) in a state of flow in that situation. Similarly, when we design lessons and activities, silence can be a welcome relief for students who want to work on something they are passionate about, and care about.

If you are interested in learning more about Flow, I would recommend starting with these three resources below (and of course the podcast episodes above!):

  • John Spencer speaks on “Flow” and has a powerful presentation to watch:

What are your thoughts on flow in the classroom? Share below!

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