The Flow of Learning
With the Winter Olympics now upon us, it’s common to hear of athletes who experience a “flow” while they are competing. But this powerful state of concentration is not limited to athletes. There are practitioners of other professions such as engineers, surgeons, or musicians who sometimes become so absorbed in their work that they lose track of time and may forget to eat or sleep.

As an educator, I often wonder if this sense of heightened concentration can also be experienced by children. And if so, can schools help students foster similar levels of focus so distractions melt away and their capacity to learn reaches new levels? 

To answer this question, we may want to consider the work of the Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Forty years ago, his research shed light on the components that are necessary for people to experience “flow.” Csikszentmihalyi noted that “flow" is caused by any number of external and internal factors and can happen in a wide variety of environments.  

Assuming one such environment is the classroom, how can teachers shape their curriculum or implement a pedagogy that will create “flow” and maximize student learning? Of course, there may be a range of methods teachers could employ, but one strategy is to design lessons that are intrinsically rewarding to students, including providing them with a choice of the topics they could explore. When the subject matter aligns with students' passions, interests, or talents, it stands to reason they would be more absorbed in their learning. 

To foster greater “flow,” teachers may also want to consider providing immediate feedback on their students’ work. Reflecting on their progress, students can cultivate a heightened sense of agency that Csikszentmihalyi noted is key for achieving “flow.”

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But perhaps more than any other factor, “flow” is only achieved when students are present and focused in the moment. Csikszentmihalyi wrote that people in a “flow” state “often stop being aware of themselves as separate from the actions they are performing.” And having such a heightened experience of one’s actions allows a person to feel most alive. In these instances, a “flow" of learning can both maximize the amount of content that is absorbed as well as provide a heightened awareness and enjoyment for what it can mean to be a learner.  

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