Think of a time when you and your class were in the zone. Your lesson was progressing seamlessly and your subject knowledge was overflowing, as you responded to questions with ease. Your students were enjoying learning, focusing on the task in hand.
In this moment, you were experiencing “flow”; a state of complete concentration and pure satisfaction. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has researched this state of mind for most of his career. He describes flow as “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake”.
“The ego falls away. Time flies,” he said, in a 1996 interview. “Every action, movement and thought follows inevitably from the previous one…Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”
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Flow doesn’t just feel good, it seems to do us good, too. Studies have found that regularly experiencing flow benefits children’s happiness and wellbeing.
Csikszentmihalyi found that teenagers who experienced flow often had more hobbies, were involved in more sports, and did more homework than those who didn’t. They also showed deeper learning in lessons and a greater long-term interest in subjects.
It turned out that their experience of flow paid off later down the line, too, when they were more likely to go to university, score highly on measures of psychological wellbeing and have stronger social ties, as well as being generally happier.
In the current climate of high-stakes testing, with mountains of content to cover, creating the conditions for flow is not always easy. But it can be done. Here are five ways to begin.
1. Make the task clear
For flow to be experienced, there must be a goal to work towards. This means you need to be clear and concise in your instructions, model what a good piece of work looks like and break the task down into obvious steps.
2. Find the sweet spot
A key requirement for flow is that the task matches, or just exceeds, a person’s level of skill. Always aim to stretch your pupils, but not too much. If the work is too easy, they’ll get bored and switch off. But if it’s too hard, they may become overwhelmed and give up. Aim for the sweet spot just beyond what they can currently do. This is where they’re most likely to reach peak performance.
3. Offer feedback
Students are more likely to experience flow when they get immediate feedback about how well they are doing. Knowing that you are making progress and doing well is motivating, so be sure to display success criteria that children can check against to see that they’re heading in the right direction. Verbal feedback during lessons is also key: let your class know what they’re doing well and what tweaks may be needed to improve.
4. Focus on focus
Your students need to be able to focus on what they’re doing in order to be able to lose themselves in it. This may mean silent work sometimes, but if they’re working in pairs or groups, and talk is necessary, you still need to ensure that everyone is able to stay on task and keep discussions focused on the learning (and not the fact that Made In Chelsea is back on the telly).
5. Make learning meaningful
Research has found that when children are shown the relevance of lessons to their lives, or when they’re asked to reflect on how the learning is meaningful to them, they are more likely to engage and show greater interest in a subject. Both of these things are crucial for flow.
Make sure your class knows the point of the lesson you’re teaching them. And if you can’t see the point of it, maybe teach something else!
Adrian Bethune is a primary teacher and the author of Wellbeing in the Primary Classroom. He tweets @AdrianBethune