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.
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.