‘Flow Room,’ Testing Psychologist’s Concept, Introduces ‘Learning in Disguise’ at Key School

By Deborah L. Cohen — June 05, 1991 7 min read
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In room 11 at the Key School here, children are learning the art of concentration through the act of game playing.

Three girls giggle as they brainstorm categories of words in a game called Scattergories Jr.

In another corner, three boys plot their moves in Othello, a checker-like game of. strategy, while another observes and offers commentary.

One animated group constructs a labyrinthian wooden edifice, debating will happen to the structure, its imaginary inhabitants, and passing motorists if they position the next block thus or so.

Above the din in a cozy cushioned wood en loft, one boy lies flat on his back, arm propped under his head, reading a book. Others join him later, reading silently or sharing passages with partners. Elsewhere, a girl sitting cross-legged constructs a brain-teasing puzzle, and a boy creates his own game by dissecting a dead bug.

“I like bugs,” he explains.

As they explore new uses of the Lego or embark on wildlife safaris or visits to foreign lands via board games, children frequently consult game directions in an effort to master new moves or new rules.’

When a dispute between contestants threatens to raise the noise level over a low hum, M. Gwendolyn Staten, the class’s teacher, steps in to mediate, then retreats into the background as soon as they reach a truce. Through it all, she observes the games & children choose, the skills they use, and their moods upon entering and leaving.

As in any classroom, some children look rapt, some look bored, and some compete for turns or goad each other about who is further ahead.

The goal here, however, is not to win, but to achieve “flow": the state of concentration where cares vanish, awareness of other people and activity fades, and the mind zeroes in on the task at hand. And initial 1 results suggest that the project may be achieving that aim.

The flow concept derives from the work 4 of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a professor of 5 psychology and education at the University of Chicago who for two decades has studied the experiences of artists, athletes, musicians, surgeons, chess players, and other 9 masters of their crafts.

In his 1990 best seller, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Mr. Csikszentmihalyi defines flow as “the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.”

The goal of the experiment under way in the Key School’s Room 11--otherwise known as the “Flow Activity Center"--is apply the same principle to learning.;

“The idea is for children to learn, through the act of problem solving, thinking, and following directions, that they can have the same fun in their academic subjects,” says Ms. Staten, the school’s flow- activities director.

“Even though they don’t realize they’re learning because they are in a game,” she " and enjoy working,” adds Patricia J. Bolanos, the school’s principal.

Unorthodox avenues to teaching and assessing learning are commonplace at the Key School, which was founded four years ago by Ms. Bolanos and seven other teachers--several with art and music backgrounds--who had grown disenchanted with traditional teaching approaches.

The city’s only public elementary-school magnet, Key draws heavily on the theories of the Harvard University psychologist Howard Gardner, who proposed the existence of at least seven relatively autonomous areas of intellectual capacity. (See Education Week, Jan. 27, 1988.)

While students receive their share of spelling, science, social studies, and other & staple subjects, the school also offers an array of language, music, dance, games, and ( computer activities designed to tap the seven intelligences: linguistic, musical, logical-mathematical, spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal, and intrapersonal.

Each of the games in the Flow room is selected to correspond to one or more of those competencies.

A list drafted by Ms. Staten keys Othello, for example, to spatial intelligence; 1 Twister, to bodily-kinesthetic; Scrabble, to linguistic; and My says.

According to a guide prepared by Ms. Staten, who developed the Flow room mostly on her own but also consulted with Mr. Csikszentmihalyi, the room is “organized to provide a semi-structured type of : free play” in activities designed to help bolster children’s morale and confidence while honing their thinking skills.

Such skills include visualizing a problem, organizing a sequence of steps to solve it, formulating and carrying out a plan, , and making “connections and corrections on the way” to resolution. Flow-room activities are also designed to spark experimentation and imagination and to help “bring relaxation under conscious control.”

“I see it as a sort of relaxation time, but not a free-for-all,” says Kathy Sahm, who teaches 1st, 2nd, and 3rd graders at the school.

In a school that remains otherwise fairly structured, the Flow room offers students “an opportunity to make decisions” and “uninterrupted time” to explore their interests, adds Sharon Smith, who teaches & grades 4-6.

Ms. Bolanos and Ms. Staten say they hope to incorporate computers and other & equipment next year to help children pursue musical interests, an option not now & available in the Flow room.

Different Each Time

Most students’ schedules are set up so & that they spend three 35-minute periods a week in the Flow room. As they arrive, Ms. Staten calls the students to order and then signals pre-arranged groups to select activities assembled on shelves.

To ensure each an equal shot at first choice of games, she rotates the order of the groups regularly. Students are expected to make their own choices and settle their own conflicts, but Ms. Staten counsels and mediates when necessary.

While offering more guidance for younger pupils when introducing new games, she encourages the older children to learn the activities among themselves and then to teach others who are interested.

She does not pressure them to switch games, even when they gravitate to the game one each session.

“I’m sure they learn something different or one new piece of information each time,” she says.

While there are no formal tests in the Flow period, Ms. Staten collects data on the level of motivation and intellectual preferences of each pupil, which “can be used as a starting point for identifying children’s areas of strengths unobstrusively,” Ms. Bolanos notes.

A section of the Key School’s unusual qualitative report card summarizing such data offers “another indicator of their strengths and interests,” Ms. Sahm adds.

In a recent study of the Key School’s application of the flow concept, Samuel P. Whalen, a University of Chicago doctoral candidate working with Mr. Csikszentmihalyi, found that the Flow room ranked highest among students’ preferred activities at the school. The study also showed that pupils’ positive feelings about their work there closely paralleled their experiences when engaged in their favorite non- school activities.

“Of all the places in the school, this is the one where kids feel closest to their most enjoy able activities,” Mr. Csikszentmihalyi says.

By documenting the high degree of inter est, happiness, control, and challenge pupils experience in the Flow room, the study showed “that, at least within that room, the experience after which it is named is actually occurring,” Mr. Whalen says.

But, Mr. Csikszentmihalyi concedes, “We don’t know yet how it works in stimulating long-range interest in academic matters.”

Adds Mr. Whalen, “Our challenge now is to try to figure out ways to see if that ‘halo effect’ really is the case.”

Some teachers, such as Ms. Smith, say it is difficult to gauge the Flow room’s impact on other subjects.

But Ms. Sahm says she believes it helps improve children’s cooperation skills. They learn to take turns, follow rules, and approach problems calmly, she points out.

“They’re more confident when they come to a problem--they don’t give up,” she says, adding that the experience especially benefits “children who come to school with no game-playing experience.”

“If you are working with a symbol system in a game, I don’t see how you could avoid taking that information back to class,” Ms. Bolanos says.

Asked what they like about the Flow , room, several children echo 10-year-old Ronald Stubbs, who says: “You get to play different games. It’s better than Spanish.”

But some do link the experience to other learning skills.

“I like how you read and learn about how the game works,” says 11-year-old Patryce Moore, who also allows that some games # “help you learn math.”

Ms. Staten also recounts a conversation with a pupil who realized, she says, that, “If I can sit here and think about the right moves to make in this game, why can’t I do it with my math assignments?”

Whether their experiences in the Flowroom transfer to other learning settings, it is clear when Ms. Staten directs children to put back their games that their concentration has been engaged.

“Can’t I stay here?” implores one boy who clearly does not want to end his game.

“The only bad part is that their time is so short,” Ms. Staten says. “By the time they get really involved in something, it’s time to go.”

A free copy of the research paper “Putting Flow Theory Into Educational Practice: The Key School’s Flow Activities Room” is available from Samuel P. Whalen, University of Chicago, Department of Psychology, 5848 S. University Ave., Box 2, Chicago, Ill. 60637.

A version of this article appeared in the June 05, 1991 edition of Education Week as ‘Flow Room,’ Testing Psychologist’s Concept, Introduces ‘Learning in Disguise’ at Key School


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