“Flow” is a term that I learned about a few years ago when I was listening to a talk about the research on the connections between neuroscience and how learning occurs in the brain. In general, flow can be defined as finding joy, creativity, and being fully involved in a task. Furthermore, flow can be described as the state where someone is engaged in a task that is at just the right skill level to the challenge of the task (insert Larry Bird highlight here where he scored 45 points with just his non dominant left hand!):
The reason why I suggest this is that as I look at the diagram above, I think about my own progression as a professional in the field of education, the students that I have had along the way, and the colleagues that I have worked with. It is probably easy to guess, but early in my career I would say that I was consistently in the worry or anxiety stages of the diagram above. Young teachers often experience low skill level and high challenge level when they are new to the profession. That’s because teaching is hard, plain and simple! However, as I developed my skills as a teacher, I began to experience the stages of arousal, relaxation, control, and even flow. To this day, I still experience flow when I am working with teachers in professional learning communities, professional development workshops, or when I am with students in higher ed programs. Teaching is definitely one place where I experience flow because I find joy and happiness in this task.
Going back to anxiety and worry for a moment, I would argue that many of our students experience anxiety and worry in the classroom for a variety of reasons. For example, some students have experienced high amounts of trauma, while some live in poverty or are in a constant state of flux. Other students may just lack confidence or do not have the right supports. This makes it very hard for them to be ready for learning and can result in a variety of adverse behaviors.
On the bottom side of the flow chart above, one will notice the categories of apathy and boredom. In my career as an educator, I have observed far too many educators and students in these categories. There are those teachers who have been in public education for many years, witnessed many initiatives come and go, and as a result have the “this too shall pass” attitude. These teachers run the risk of becoming stagnant, which has negative implications in the classroom. The same holds true for students who have not had their needs met. Learning environments should never be places that inadvertently promote boredom or apathy. Hence the reason why I advocate for creating school environments that promote flow. I am not suggesting that our schools are filled with high percentages of teachers and students that are apathetic and bored. What I am trying to suggest is that we shape our classrooms that are based on our virtues, filled with happiness, joy, and the creative process. Happiness and joy are what we all strive for in life.
A sustainable model to promote flow for all teachers and students is based on the following 6 concepts:
- Create learning environments that are based on love
- Set learning targets for students that require the right amount of skill to complete a challenging task
- Allow students to demonstrate their high level of skill that is based on their learning styles, passions and interests
- Give students specific feedback and opportunities to practice along the way towards meeting the learning target. Reflection is key with this concept for both teachers and students.
- Celebrate, celebrate celebrate! Praise and applaud student learning and share it with the community at large
- Focus only on activities that are meaningful and authentic
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper Perennial.