Teaching Opinion

Response: “Flow” In The Classroom

By Larry Ferlazzo — March 26, 2013 12 min read
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(This is Part Two of a two-part series on student engagement. You can see Part One here)

Cindy Murphy asked:

The question that I seem to hear from teachers comes up when we discuss engagement vs on task behavior. Teachers want to know how can you see engagement. Paula Bevan tells us that engagement = brain sweat, but can we see a kiddo’s brain sweating. What evidence can administrators and teachers collect that will show true engagement and not on task behavior?

As I wrote a few days ago, student engagement is the sometimes found and often elusive Holy Grail for many of us teachers. I’ve taken advantage of the opportunity offered by Cindy’s question to make this topic into a two-part series, with today’s post focusing on the concept of “flow” -- being completely absorbed in the learning task. The idea of “flow” was originally developed by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

Part One offered some very helpful guest responses from educators Mark Barnes, Dr. Jeffrey Zoul, Heather Wolpert-Gawron, and Marsha Ratzel (plus multiple comments from readers).

Today’s post contains two guest responses. The first is a commentary by David J. Shernoff, the preeminent researcher on directly applying the concept of “flow” to the K-12 classroom. The second portion of this post is a related article previously published by “Greater Good” from the University of California and is posted here with their permission.

Additionaly, readers might be interested in a collection of resources on flow that I’ve compiled at The Best Resources For Learning About “Flow.”

Response From David J. Shernoff

David J. Shernoff is an associate professor of educational psychology at Northern Illinois University who has specialized in student engagement in schools from the perspective of flow theory. He has authored numerous peer-reviewed articles and book chapters on the topic; is author of the forthcoming book, Optimal Learning Environments to Promote Student Engagement; and is the co-editor of the forthcoming volume, Engaging Youth in Schools: Evidence-Based Models to Guide Future Innovations.

Ten years ago, research on student engagement was a relatively small field; it has since proliferated greatly. “Engagement” is now one of the more common buzzwords in education today. I believe the reason that schools at all levels, from elementary schools to institutions of higher education, have woken up to the importance of student engagement is that pervasive student disengagement is a real problem for schools -- and one not just confined to the classroom.

Disengagement often manifests in a gradual cycle of withdrawal from schooling, culminating in school dropout for large numbers of youth. Because disengagement can be responsible for declining enrollments, it can be a very expensive problem affecting schools’ bottom line. Research shows that significant numbers of youth are disengaged from schooling year after year (statistics on engagement from national surveys are remarkably stable), with upwards of 40% to 60% of students characterized as chronically disengaged, including both high and low achievers. Over one million (or 30%) of all 9th graders fail to graduate from high school four years later, with the dropout rate approaching 50-55% in some urban communities. Results of PISA surveys from OECD reveal that pervasive disengagement is both a national and international problem.

My colleagues and I have researched engagement from the perspective of Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow, as discussed in the article below. I first became interested in this perspective while reading books by Csikszentmihalyi as I was becoming increasingly disillusioned by the variety of behavioral management and incentive programs, in combination with psychotropic medications, used in classrooms for children with special needs and behavioral challenges - classrooms in which I was teaching at the time. Becoming completely absorbed in activities one was passionate about seemed antithetical to the ways in which the behaviors of the students in my classroom were induced and manipulated, seemingly for the sake of adult control over them. Later, after my doctoral training under the advisement of Csikszentmihalyi at the University of Chicago, I came to see flow as an antidotal to educational systems based on fear and control. Now, I also realize that most important forms of learning - such as the learning of skills and abilities needed to succeed in a career - are mediated through flow experiences. In a very real sense, most learning is flow.

My colleagues and I have focused on conditions in high school classes that facilitate flow and engagement with learning. High school students unfortunately experience less flow in classrooms than almost any other setting, but there are certain conditions that make it more likely. We have called environments in which students are highly engaged in learning, “optimal learning environments.” The primary characteristic of optimal learning environments in high school classrooms is the simultaneous combination of environmental challenge and environmental support.

Environmental challenge is characterized by:

Working on tasks of sufficient complexity for the learner’s skill level (usually with domain-specific tools, as it is nearly impossible to be in deep concentration in the absence of those tools)

Clear goals and perceived importance of the task

The building of conceptual understanding and/or language skills (including academic literacies such as “talking like a scientist”)

The opportunity to demonstrate one’s performance, as through assessment.

Environmental support is characterized by:

Positive relationships with teachers and peers

Support for motivational drives (for example, support of the learners sense of autonomy or perceived competency)

Constructive feedback (especially timely performance feedback)

Opportunities to be both active and interactive

One interesting finding is that environmental support is engaging all by itself; whereas environmental challenge is engaging only in combination with environmental support. In other words, if we are going to challenge learners, we also need to support them to succeed. Otherwise, they are likely to experience more anxiety than flow. Other precursors to experiencing flow in the process of learning are described in the article below.

The creation of optimal learning environments in the K-12 environment appears to be the exception to the rule. Adolescent-aged students do report high engagement in the context of many organized after-school programs, however, including school-based programs. Interestingly, students can be highly engaged during academic and arts enrichment activities in these programs in addition to athletic and recreational activities.

There are also several whole school models in which flow and engagement are more the norm than the exception, research shows. These include high quality Montessori schools, Glasser Quality Schools, and a handful of other private and alternative public schools that are fairly radical departures from traditional public schools. As demonstrated by these schools, the key to wider implementation of optimal learning environments is the intentional design of greater personalization, strong relationships, and the meeting of students’ developmental needs. Engagement is not effectively treated as an intervention to be added on to the traditional model, as if trying to fortify wonder bread with nutrients that were taken out by its very recipe. Traditional public schools were designed to manage masses of students after models of industrial efficiency like the railway and the factory, not as environments to optimize engagement with learning.

As the movement to expand the learning day gains momentum, it will be important to restructure the school day to expand not only time, but also opportunities for youth to become engaged. For many schools, this may be achieved mainly by virtue of forming more, better, and closer partnerships within the community, so that learning opportunities are not all confined to school grounds. Students generally find more meaning and relevance when engaged in projects that solve problems or fashion products that are valued by the community. Providing each student with a unique role to play in the context of project-based learning also appears to be an active ingredient of harnessing students’ engagement and natural drive to learn, produce, and express themselves.

Eight Tips for Fostering Flow in the Classroom

Eight Tips for Fostering Flow in the Classroom, by Jill Suttie, was published by Greater Good, the online magazine of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley. It is reprinted here with their permission:

It’s every teacher’s dream to have students who engage deeply with their lessons, want to learn for learning’s sake, and perform at the top of their potential.

In other words, teachers want their kids to find “flow,” that feeling of complete immersion in an activity, where we’re so engaged that our worries, sense of time, and self-consciousness seem to disappear.
Christopher Futcher

Since psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi (who first coined the term) started studying flow, it has been linked to feelings of happiness and euphoria, and to peak performance among workers, scientists, athletes, musicians, and many others.

Flow is valuable in school classrooms as well. Research by Csikszentmihalyi and others has found that flow deepens learning and encourages long-term interest in a subject. (For more on the benefits of flow in education, read “Can Schools Help Students Find Flow?”)

But how can teachers encourage flow? Although the constraints of today’s classrooms can make it challenging, here are some research-based tips for injecting more flow into education.

1. Challenge kids--but not too much. One of the central conditions for flow, according to Csikszentmihalyi, is that an activity be challenging at a level just above one’s current abilities. If a challenge is too hard, students will become anxious and give up; if it’s too easy, they’ll become bored. It’s important to find the sweet spot, where the activity is difficult enough to challenge students without overwhelming them. Students may require a lesson to be scaffolded--breaking it down into manageable pieces--in order to find the right balance.

2. Make assignments feel relevant to students’ lives. Research has shown that when students understand the relevance of a classroom activity, they are more likely to engage in it. Whenever possible, it can help for teachers to point out how an activity connects to students’ own lives, or encourage students to discover the relevance for themselves. In a 2009 study published in Science, researchers Chris Hulleman and Judith Harackiewicz found that when low-performing high school science students were instructed to write about how a lesson was relevant to their lives, these students showed greater interest in the subject--a fundamental part of flow--and got higher grades than students who didn’t participate in the writing exercise.

3. Encourage choice. When students are given an opportunity to choose their own activities and work with autonomy, they will engage more with the task. In a 2000 study led by Aaron Black of the University of Rochester, students who sensed more teacher support for autonomy felt more competent and less anxious, reported more interest and enjoyment in their work, and produced higher-quality work in their class than students who didn’t believe they had as much autonomy.

4. Set clear goals (and give feedback along the way). Csikszentmihalyi has found that a fundamental condition for flow is that an activity should have clear goals, which provides structure and direction. This has also proven to be true in the classroom, especially when students help define their goals. And as students progress toward these goals, research suggests it’s also important for them to receive ongoing feedback along the way. This doesn’t necessarily mean that teachers must interrupt a students’ process, but it does mean that students must be aware of how (or whether) their efforts are moving toward the goal. By receiving this kind of feedback, students can adjust their efforts in a way that helps them stay in flow.

5. Build positive relationships. Education researcher David Shernoff, of Northern Illinois University, has shown that positive peer and teacher-student relationships increase flow. It can sometimes take more time to build these relationships, but some subtle strategies can go a long way, such as by communicating respectfully toward students and making clear that their input is valued. For instance, Alex Angell, a history teacher at Berkeley High School in Berkeley, California, says that during class discussions, he’s careful to let students complete their thoughts and then use his own body language--eye contact, leaning toward them--to show he’s heard their views.

6. Foster deep concentration. A bedrock of flow is feeling completely absorbed by an activity, and that often requires a state of deep concentration. This may be hard to facilitate in a classroom, particularly in middle or high school, where periods are relatively short. But if it’s possible to allow, students will reap real rewards from working without interruption. Research by Kevin Rathunde of the University of Utah, conducted with Csikszentmihalyi, found that flow was higher in Montessori schools than in traditional schools because of the more flexible schedules of Montessori schools--students who are fully concentrating on a task are not interrupted as often.

7. Offer hands-on exercises. Flow research, like other education research, has shown that hands-on activities often get kids more engaged in their learning than more passive activities. Making things, solving problems, and creating artwork tend to induce more flow than lectures or videos, as long as the materials students need to complete the assignment are readily available.

8. Make ‘em laugh. Humor is a great way to engage kids in any setting, especially the classroom. It helps encourage flow not just by geting kids’ attention and keeping them engaged but by modeling enthusiasm for a subject. A teacher doesn’t have to be an actor or comedian to engage kids, but it helps to speak their language. When Shernoff and others explored what types of activities induced flow in high school classrooms, they found that teachers who used humor and showed enthusiasm for the lesson could even turn a lecture into an engaging activity.

Thanks to David, Jill, and Greater Good for contributing their responses, .

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