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The 30 second crib sheet: the science behind 'flow'

A new series looking into teaching ideas and theory begins with the science behind 'flow'

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"Flow", you say…

Yes, now more commonly used as a descriptive term by rappers, this theory of optimal mental state was spoken of in your training and may have popped up during professional development since. It’s not as new-age as it sounds it might be…

OK, so what do I need to know about it?

Hunagrian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi was looking at happiness and how it can impact productivity. After exploring how artists become "lost" in their work, he produced his theory of "flow".

Flow describes a state when someone is "in the zone", wholly focused and immersed in a task and motivated to be successful. Getting students into this state is tricky; it requires, according to Csikszentmihalyi, a balance of optimum challenge and skill.

Surely I do that already, I am an amazing teacher after all…

You’re right, flow is something we strive for every day. But how often do we get it right? Flow tends to be an assumption about what we do, but by concentrating on it specifically we can begin to plan better lessons. It could be particularly useful for differentiation. Do we sometimes make things too easy? Do we give children the correct skills to complete the tasks we set? How well have we assessed the ability of that particular child?

How should I expect students to react to being put in this wonderful state?

Alas, they probably won’t notice. But you will. You will see that magical “I get it!” moment and hear those wonderful words – “Just five more minutes on this, please Miss!”

Sounds great, why isn’t this the hot topic of the staffroom?

Mihaly who? Is he in 10th Grade?

Teachers are busy. Hungarian psychologists are not top of anyone’s agenda. But you could float the idea…

Why not? I might try and get some feedback on it via Twitter first...

Sure, you go and light that progressive versus traditional touch paper and grab your popcorn.

So it’s controversial?

Flow essentially asks us to think about how and when children will be in that "zone". In my view, anything that helps us create those lightbulb moments could be useful. But the great thing about being a teacher is that you can make your own mind up about it. If you are interested to know more,you should watch Mihaly's TED talk.

Sarah Wright is a senior lecturer at Edge Hill University. She tweets as @Sarah__wright1

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