When I was five years old, my kindergarten teacher gave me permission to spend a whole morning recreating an image I’d seen on TV of a white car on a black canvas. I stood at an easel painting for hours, intently focused, oblivious to the noise and energy of the kids around me. I still remember the feeling of joy and liberation as I lost myself in the task, challenged by the goal I’d set.

Forty-seven years later, I can now put a name to that experience: flow.

The term, coined by psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi—an early proponent of positive psychology and currently a professor at Claremont Graduate University in southern California—describes a heightened state of being, where we’re so absorbed in a task that concerns like time, food, and self-consciousness disappear.

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Since Csikszentmihalyi started studying flow more than 40 years ago, he and other researchers have found that it is associated with high levels of creativity and optimal performance in a wide variety of activities, and that it evokes feelings of happiness and even euphoria. They’ve observed benefits of flow among musicians, mountain climbers, basketball players, scientists, and many others.

You can probably recall times you’ve experienced flow yourself—when you were “in the zone” on a sports field or when you were deeply engaged in a work project and the hours flew by like minutes.

But one place where we might not find too much flow these days, sadly, is in American schools. For years, the learning conditions in classrooms have been practically antithetical to the conditions people need to achieve flow and all the benefits that come with it. Especially in the era of No Child Left Behind and high-stakes testing, schools have often favored regimentation over self-directed learning, making it harder for students to get deeply engaged with topics that interest them. Paradoxically, these trends might be undermining the kind of student achievement they were designed to promote, and could even be causing student burnout.

But there’s still hope for those looking to improve school experiences for students and boost learning at the same time. As researchers are getting a better handle on what promotes flow in schools, they’re uncovering lessons schools can use to engage youth and improve academic outcomes, making classrooms come alive.

Why students need flow

Despite high-profile educational initiatives like No Child Left Behind and the Obama administration’s “Race to the Top” grant competition, many students in the United States today seem to be sleepwalking through their education.

In Indiana University’s 2009 “High School Survey of Student Engagement,” involving more than 40,000 high school students nationwide, nearly half reported being bored every day in school, with 17 percent saying they were bored in every class. Eighty-one percent of those who reported being bored said that they weren’t interested in the material, 42 percent thought it wasn’t relevant to life, and 35 percent said they didn’t have positive interactions with their teachers.

“Teachers think we’re always reaching students more profoundly than we are,” says Alex Angell, a history teacher at Berkeley High School in Berkeley, California. “The power of the grade makes students seem like they’re being educated and reformed when they might not be.”

Angell’s point is supported by the work of David Shernoff, an educational psychologist at Northern Illinois University who studies flow in schools. Those dismal statistics on student boredom don’t surprise Shernoff, who notes that most of what passes for learning in schools these days—memorizing facts that may be needed to pass a test but will soon be forgotten—is not really learning because students aren’t really grasping the material enough to apply it beyond the context of the test.

Real learning, says Shernoff, requires student engagement—of which flow is the deepest form possible—and that involves a combination of motivation, concentration, interest, and enjoyment derived from the process of learning itself—qualities that are essential to Csikzentmihalyi’s definition of flow.

“If we want kids to get excited about learning and commit to deeper study, they need to be motivated to learn and enjoy the process,” Shernoff says. Schools are too focused on grades, he argues, and fail to take advantage of kids’ intrinsic desires to learn. “I have no doubt that learning is about desire rather than capacity,” he says.

Shernoff’s research has backed this up. In a 2001 study he ran with education researcher Lisa Hoogstra, he found that students who experienced more flow in high school science classes were more likely to major in science in college two years later. What’s more, their academic performance in college was better predicted by whether they experienced flow than by the grades they received in those high school classes.

David Shernoff, an educational psychologist at Northern Illinois University

Similarly, a 2008 study led by Judith Harackiewicz of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, found that when students had their interest sparked during an introductory psychology class, they were more likely to sign up for additional psychology courses in the future, regardless of how interested they were in the subject before the class started.

In other words, a students’ commitment to deeper study down the road seems to be associated with how engaged they are in the classroom, not to their academic achievement or prior interests.

In fact, some researchers have suggested that academic achievement alone, without student engagement, can cause students to become stressed and burnt out. When researchers Denise Pope of Stanford University and Jerusha Connor of Villanova University studied high-achieving students at several of California’s top-rated high schools, they found that feeling the need to achieve—in the absence of true student engagement—led to cheating, sleepless nights, depression, and drug abuse.

On the flip side, past studies have come to the unsurprising conclusion that when students are more engaged in class, their grades tend to improve. In a 1992 meta-analysis of more than 150 studies, researchers found that student interest was strongly correlated with academic performance.

Yet Shernoff believes too many researchers emphasize achievement as a goal whether or not it involves student engagement. And while many educators and administrators may consider academic achievement to be the ultimate goal of education, he says, parents also want their kids to be happy, satisfied, and fulfilled.

“The great thing about looking at engagement is that it’s important to accomplishing both of these goals,” says Shernoff.

Fostering flow

So how can schools support the type of student engagement that leads to flow—and, in turn, deeper learning?

Shernoff has tried to answer that question. In a 2003 study published in School Psychology Quarterly, he, Csikszentmihalyi, and other researchers tracked high school students’ engagement during their school day by giving them beepers that went off at various points in the day, signaling the students to rate what they were experiencing and feeling at that moment.

“Flow” expert Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi of Claremont Graduate University

They found that students were most engaged in school while taking tests, doing individual work, and doing group work, and less so when listening to lectures or watching videos. In addition, the students were most engaged and reported being in a better mood when they felt that their activities were under their own control and relevant to their lives. The researchers conclude that teachers can encourage more flow in their classrooms through lessons that offer choice, are connected to students’ goals, and provide both challenges and opportunities for success that are appropriate to students’ level of skill. (See “Eight Tips for Fostering Flow in the Classroom.”)

In a study presented at the 2011 annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association but not yet published, Shernoff and colleagues followed 140 students in five different classes to observe what kinds of activities and teacher instruction produced the most flow. They found that, more than any particular type of activity, achieving flow was determined by the mix of challenge and support teachers provide: Engagement was high when students were appropriately challenged by complex goals and high teacher expectations but also supported through positive interactions with their teacher.

For example, Shernoff and his colleagues observed more flow—and more learning among students—when teachers pointed out the relevance of lesson goals to students’ lives (e.g., by centering lessons on real world problems), made sure students had the skills and materials to reach these goals, monitored progress and provided feedback, and developed good rapport with students. In addition, teachers who modeled enthusiasm for the material and used humor were particularly engaging to students, even when lecturing.

Shernoff’s findings resonate with Csikszentmihalyi’s original research on flow. To get into flow, Csikzentmihalyi has found that there must be a good balance between the challenge of the activity and the skills of the person engaged in that activity—if the challenge is too great, the person becomes anxious; if too easy, the person will be bored. In addition, Csikzentmihalyi has maintained that the goal of the activity should be clear and feedback ongoing, so that one can adjust one’s effort over time.

This all suggests that a student’s odds of finding flow are often determined by the person standing at the head of the class: Students’ engagement fluctuates a great deal depending on their teachers. The key, says Shernoff, is for teachers to make learning goals attainable based on the students’ skill levels and to encourage student autonomy while providing positive feedback.

“Teachers would be better off thinking about how they can affect the learning environment and play more of a coaching role instead of thinking about what information they are going to impart,” says Shernoff.

This can be a challenge for teachers, though. Angell of Berkeley High School, for instance, says he has so much information to impart that he can’t just play a coaching role. He’s only got an hour per day with his classes, and lecturing is necessary, he believes. And while he does try to find the right challenge for each student, that’s difficult because of the diversity of skills and interests they possess. His classrooms combine high functioning students and those who have diagnosed psychological conditions or literacy issues, which can require special individualized education programs.

“There’s a fine line between what these students are capable of doing and finding the right challenge,” says Angell.

Even so, the conditions in many public school classrooms run counter to what students and teachers need to encourage flow. Grading systems can undermine students’ inclination to pursue coursework out of intrinsic interest alone. Traditional public schools don’t allow students to have much autonomy or to go at their own speed. Students can’t usually lose themselves in a class assignment, since the imperatives of the school schedule can easily interrupt their concentrated efforts.

Flow by design

Given these obstacles, educators can learn more about fostering flow in the classroom by looking at school models that aren’t subject to the constraints of traditional public schools.

For example, Montessori schools are designed to produce more flow by mixing up age groups, giving students autonomy to choose their own learning tasks, and allowing students to master skills at their own pace.

According to Kevin Rathunde, a researcher at the University of Utah who studies flow in Montessori schools, Montessori teachers give students the freedom to choose among many different activities when learning new material and rarely interrupt a student’s concentration, since concentration is a sign of total immersion in learning—another important element of flow.

In a 2005 study in which Rathunde and Csikszentmihalyi compared in-class experiences of Montessori and traditional middle school students, Montessori students reported more flow—along with more positive emotion, higher energy levels, stronger internal motivation to do their work, and less distraction.

Many afterschool programs also foster high levels of flow, according to Shernoff, because, like Montessori schools, no one has to learn the same thing at the same time. Kids are free to face challenges when they are ready, rather than being pushed through a one-size-fits-all curriculum.

In addition, he points to non-traditional public high schools—such as Nova High School in Seattle, Washington—where students experience a respectful, egalitarian climate with faculty and administration, have input into the curriculum, and earn credits instead of grades. The school consistently achieves some of the highest SAT scores among high schools in Seattle.

“Students need to feel they are part of a community where they are valued,” he says. “When the developmental needs of kids are met, it creates the conditions where flow and real learning happen.”

Is the pendulum swinging back?

Judith Harackiewicz of the University of Wisconsin

There are some signs that the education pendulum might be swinging away from the narrow focus on testing, toward practices that might do more to encourage flow.

Harackiewicz points to the National Science Foundation’s annual report on the state of education, which recently started to include figures on students’ motivation levels, not just their test scores. Similarly, she says, more researchers are studying the long-term merits of developing interest in a topic—an important part of flow—rather than just seeing it as important to academic achievement.

“It’s clear that what drives career preference is interest, not academic performance,” she says. “The recognition of that is growing fast.”

In the meantime, it often falls to teachers to find the best way to engage their classrooms within today’s public schools. Based on his research, Shernoff says that a positive teacher-student relationship is perhaps the strongest precondition necessary for flow. But building rapport with students is a skill that can be hard to find.

“Engaging large groups of students is a very advanced skill, involving levels of professional development that are very rare and not ubiquitous,” he says.

Angell agrees. He blames the combination of fast-track tenure—where teachers can get tenure after only two years of teaching—and low wages for hampering schools from attracting the best teachers.

“This profession is so important, but the qualities required in a good teacher are the same as those that have value in other professions.” says Angell. “Someone with knowledge and people skills won’t choose a profession with a starting salary of $34,000 per year.”

Still, Angell clearly relishes his role as a teacher. He may not help all of his students find their passion, he admits, but it means a lot when he does.

“What I really appreciate is when students come back later and tell me, ‘You know, Mr. A, I didn’t even realize what I was learning from your class until years later,’” he says. “That’s what makes it all worthwhile.”

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