As an educator my favorite thing to do is to walk into a space, where engaged learning is happening, and feel the energy.  Whether the learners are adults or children, teachers or technicians, this feeling of engagement never fails to energize me with its focused intensity.  Noise levels fluctuate from raucous roars to soft whispers.  Bodies become passionately animated before resuming their statue like poise.  The learners are invested in the learning that is taking place.  Simply put, the learners are lost in learning.

This is flow.  In an interview with Wired magazine, Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi describes flow as “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”  Flow is the optimal balance between personal challenge and skill application, where an individual loses herself in the activity and experiences engagement that cuts through time and space.  If the challenge is too hard, one becomes anxious and frustrated; and if the engagement fails to utilize skill sufficiently, one becomes bored to a point of apathy.   However, when the appropriate conditions are satisfied, both consciously and unconsciously, an individual can enter a state of flow and experience engagement as a sort of inner harmony

If we consider an optimal state of learning to be learning that takes place in a state of flow, we as educators should be eager to identify ways to help our students experience learning in this way.  The experience of education then becomes one of engagement, growth, reflection, enjoyment and satisfaction rather than one of standardized tests, curricular outcomes, anxiety, and pressure.  This means that classrooms and schools need to shift their mindsets, putting the experience of the learner as the priority, trusting that various curricular outcomes can still be met.  In his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Csikszentmihalyi puts forth seven conditions that need to be met in order for flow to manifest.  These conditions can act as a guide for teachers as they design learning that focuses foremost on the experience of the learners.

1. A challenging activity that requires skill

  • How is the activity relevant to the learner?
  • How much input do students have to design the parameters of the activity? 

2. Merging of action and awareness

  • What ownership do students have in determining their actions in response to the situation?
  • What skills must the learner utilize in order to proceed? 

3. Clear goals and feedback

  • How do goals develop and evolve during the learning experience? 
  • What opportunities are there for internal and external feedback within the school day? 

4. Concentration on the task at hand

  • How are time, space and individuals organized to allow for concentration to develop and be sustained? 
  • How is the learning space utilized to meet the needs of different learners and learning behaviors?

5. The paradox of control

  • What sort of control do the learners have in steering the experience? 
  • What control does the teacher have to surrender in order to encourage student ownership and autonomy?

6. Transformation of Time

  • How is the schedule organized to allow for learners to engage fully and completely in the activity without interruption? 
  • What ability to students have to determine how time is used?

7. Loss of self-consciousness

  • Are students able to recognize and identify moments where consciousness is lost? 
  • What factors do the learners identify as crucial components to this state of being?

Prioritizing the experience of learners won’t guarantee each individual will achieve a state of flow, but it will communicate to each learner that she matters and her experience with learning matters.  And maybe with this consideration as a focus, the learner might just let herself get sucked into a state of flow, getting lost in the learning that is happening all around her.  And then, who knows what sort of learning might take place?