We’ve all seen it before. A student suddenly gets “in the zone” in the midst of a project. (It’s even better when it happens with an entire class.) Time seems to simultaneously slow down and yet speed up all at once. There’s a sense of challenge and urgency but also a sense of relaxation. You can feel it intuitively. Something is different.
This state of optimal concentration is often described as “flow.”
I experience this place most often in creative work. I get lost in what I’m doing. I seem to be “zoned in” to the code or the design or the plot structure. There’s a sense that everything just fits right. Unfortunately, I see this happen more outside of the classroom than inside of it. I see kids hitting a state of flow on the basketball court or in theater or at a skate park.
I like the way Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, 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.
So, I’ve been reading up on the theory of flow and consciously trying to create an environment where this happens in my classroom. I’m still learning. I’m still trying to figure this out. However, I’ve grown passionate about this topic over the last two years. With that in mind, I’ve found a few things that seem to work in my classroom:
1. Slow down. Provide longer learning opportunities with fewer interruptions.
In my first few years of teaching, I thought student engagement required an action-packed classroom. I didn’t realize that my frantic pace was actually getting in the way. Students never had the chance to focus in a leisurely, relaxed way. Since then, I’ve realized it’s less about action and more about suspense. If there’s a true challenge that feels meaningful to students, they are more likely to stay focused and get lost in what they are doing.
2. Provide the right scaffolding as you match the challenge to the skill level.
One of the key ideas in flow theory is that the challenge has to match a student’s perceived ability level. Too often, kids give up because what they are doing is way too difficult and there is a sense that they will never learn it. Other times, students are bored and the excessive scaffolding becomes a hurdle they have to climb over. This is why I try and differentiate the scaffolding I offer by keeping it optional and treating it like something students can use rather than something they are required to use.
3. Provide boat loads of choices.
It’s not surprising that students hit a state of flow when they are out on the ball field or in a theater or while playing an instrument. Not only do they feel competent (because of the right amount of scaffolding) but they also love what they are doing. I can get lost in writing a novel. I will never get lost in the moment of fixing a sprinkler system. This is where student choice becomes so valuable. Students get to decide topics and tasks that fit their own interests.
4. Restrict the choices.
This is the opposite approach to the last one. It’s the idea that certain restrictions can lead to creative breakthroughs. I’ve seen students get into a place of flow because they are focussed on solving a problem using limited resources. Here, they discover that freedom and choice are not synonymous and that sometimes limitations lead to opportunities.
5. Integrate mindfulness and metacognition into the projects.
I want students to know what they are doing, why they are doing it, and how they are doing. This begins with students internalizing a rationale for the project. It has to feel meaningful to them. However, it also requires a state of mindfulness in the moment. I want students to be able to figure out the progress they are making in the moment and adjust when needed.
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If you’re curious about books on this subject, I really enjoyed The Rise of Superman. It’s a quick and accessible. I also loved Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, though it’s a bit heady. If you don’t already have it, I highly recommend reading eBooks with the free Kindle Reading App. It’s become a handy way for me to read books when I’m stuck in lines (instead of mindlessly searching through Facebook).