Teach Secondary article

Foundations of Flow

How often are your learners so engaged, that you could turn the school bell off and they would work through breaktime?

Flow article

The latest edition of  Teach Secondary magazine includes an article by us, exploring the foundations of  ‘flow’.

For over 30 years, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has been the world’s leading expert in the field of optimal performance – he termed it ‘flow’.  He first set out studying famous writers, musicians, artists, academics, engineers and Nobel Prize winners trying to discover why and how they attained their high levels of performance.  They described back to him the characteristics of flow – moments when time disappears as you completely lose yourself in the activity you’re engaged in. Minutes become hours, hours become days. You become so focused and energised that distractions cannot enter your thoughts. Such activity is highly pleasurable. He refers to these experiences as ‘autotelic’.

Csikszentmihalyi widened his search to ‘ordinary’ people like you and me and has since studied more than 100,000 individuals of all ages, genders, races, backgrounds and occupations. It seems that all his subjects are capable of this state of flow across a vast arena of experiences. For some it comes through their relationships, for others it’s in their work, their hobbies or in sporting activity.

Flow occurs when high skill levels meet high challenge as shown in the diagram below. Everybody has had experiences of flow in their lives. A common example that people frequently give is cooking a meal. Concentration is high as they fully utilise their skills to blend the ingredients and coordinate all the different elements of the dish so they are ready simultaneously. The pressure of cooking a meal can easily create flow.  However, if the challenge level is lowered to beans on toast, the result may well be boredom as your cooking skills are hardly being extended. At the other end of the scale, if ordinary people were parachuted into top London restaurants and given the responsibility of cooking Michelin-starred cuisine, the likely reaction would be high levels of stress and anxiety.

flow diagramEven the most challenging teenagers get into flow. Don’t believe us? Just listen to them discuss the hours they’ve spent trying to get to the next level on Call of Duty on their PlayStation console or time spent on Facebook.

Based upon our 2,000 or so lesson observations, we’ve found that flow in lessons rarely occurs without all of the six foundations below being in place:

1 Tasks are appropriately challenging.
2 Teacher input is minimal.
3 Class have the necessary learning skills.
4 Goals are clear and worthwhile.
5 Feedback is immediate.
6 Tasks are intrinsically motivating.

Each element is important. If any are not present the chance of flow occurring significantly recedes.


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