Monday, June 8, 2009

Flow: A mere Theory or the road to the NIRVANA state in learning?

In 1990, a positive psychologist with the near unpronounceable name of Mihalyi Csikzenthimihalyi proposed a theory of FLOW or optimal experience, which he described as “the total involvement in the task at hand….where the doer gains a sense of intense concentration,…..when the body and mind are stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.” Flow is an “inner experience in which there is order in consciousness.”.

Flow, says its first proponent, is the way people describe their state of mind when consciousness is harmoniously ordered, and they want to pursue whatever they are doing for its own sake.

The main impediments to student learning, says Csiksentmihalyi, are not cognitive, they are motivational.

At Inventure Academy, where continuous interpretation of the ways we can apply our multiple intelligences to learning, growth and development is our mission, it is vital to harness this inherent capacity for FLOW within each child or teacher. This is required for our interaction with each other and the building of effective relationships in life. To improve the quality of our lives, by achieving control of what happens in the mind, children and adults can choose from a variety of activities that consistently produce FLOW: sports, games, art and hobbies; all of which yield happiness. To weave into the teaching learning process activities that can transform lessons into flow-producing states of mind and action is a successful approach in any age segment of our students.

Fun while learning is not to introduce frivolity or diversion in the lesson, but to bring to the pupils the enjoyment and sense of control of their learning, which children experience in Flow. “Serious play” and “hard fun” are intense learning situations where learners engage themselves for long periods of time, and these are examples of flow or optimal experience There is eventually a sense of fulfillment for the learner, the teacher and of course, the parent, who understands the value of enjoyment in learning. The work task or assignment then becomes an opportunity and not an infliction or necessary evil, for assessment.

Csikzentmihalyi defined eight dimensions of FLOW

Clear goals and immediate feedback
Equilibrium between level of challenge and personal skill
Merging of action and engagement
Focused attention sense of potential control
Loss of self-consciousness
Loss of sense of time passing
Autotelic or self-rewarding experience

The seat of FLOW is mental consciousness, in all its aspects; physical, mental and emotional. Concentration ensues with engagement in a task of choice and challenge. Where there is little or no challenge, boredom ensues and FLOW cannot happen. As a consequence, enjoyment and engagement, the all important aspects of learning, are lost.

The concepts which FLOW centres around are:
· Attention
· Control
· Curiosity
· Intrinsic interest.

Applied to learning activities, Flow facilitates that children become focused, involved and capable of concentration. They feel both a sense of ecstasy and serenity. There prevails a sense of inner clarity and they stay focused on the present. This can be observed in a classroom where students are experiencing flow, when a teacher has devised activities which make children feel that they have the skills to cope with challenges on hand. The learning process itself- and not just the result are interesting and motivating. Students will do what they are required, with little concern for results or marks etc. This is really what intrinsic motivation is, to create, to explain, to experiment, to apply.
Whatever produces FLOW becomes its own reward.

Loss of self consciousness is another pleasurable facet of FLOW. There is an enhancement in exploratory behaviour, and control.

Open, active and project-based learning stimulates a sense of challenge and curiosity.Gaming provides levels to play. Creative tasks provide for explorations and freedom to roam in the worlds of ideas and fantasy.

Flow then, is a mental state of operation, which is recognizable by full immersion, involvement and success. It is described by Csikzenthimihalyi as being “on the ball”, “in the zone” or “in the groove” and the very word FLOW suggests the metaphor of a water current carrying along those who engage in an activity which induces and sustains such a mental state. All sense of time and other physical symptoms of need like hunger and fatigue are forgotten and pushed into the background of consciousness.

Group FLOW implies creative spatial management where parallel organized working can be enabled. Knowing the activity will be possible a student is neither anxious nor bored.

Activities which produce FLOW are gratifying in themselves, and are intrinsically rewarding. FLOW activities provide what is known as the autotelic experience. The adjective derives from two Greek words: auto meaning self and telos, meaning goal. Very often, children react adversely to music or art lessons, a fitness routine, or anything that requires assiduous discipline and practice. But sometimes, with patience and tactful handling by adults (never force or coercion) such activities can become intrinsically rewarding. It must be noted that the emphasis placed on competition one way schools destroy student enjoyment and the possibility of FLOW.

Much of the way learning in schools is structured makes it very difficult for stidents to experience FLOW. When designing lessons, teachers must try to match the challenge with the skills which student have or are developing. How subjects are taught is all important. Music and Art are typical areas where flow occurs, as these subjects involve more active learning, fewer external rules and less anxiety for the students. Mathematics , where students face very external sets of criteria___ rigid ways of doing things. Perhaps we need to free students of the criteria of the right way of doing everything. Less rigidity and fewer time constraints may accomplish flow and consequently raise performance levels. There is a difference between focusing on winning and on doing one’s best.

A FLOW ROOM at school is a rich field for facilitating flow. The Flow Room at Inventure Academy may look to the casual observer like a hobby room. But in this space are provided a great variety of materials and resources which facilitate flow either to individual students or to small groups which involve them in educational board games, building materials, playing musical instruments, reading etc. A teacher directs and is on hand to help. Children are free to choose their own activity.

Interest Pods also cater to the creation of flow opportunities, where students choose their teacher guides based on whichever way their interests lie and may work on a group project or presentation.

With the current educational scenario offering systems that are time-honoured, but are sure to fail in preparing learners to meet their future needs, where immediate needs are too compelling, schools must try and structure learning so that students can become involved, lose their self-consciousness and their focus on external demands. Schools can help to find their internal motivation. It is the ability to enter into a state of FLOW which will reduce stress, absorb free time usefully, improve the quality of life and provide happiness and help build the all important competencies needed for life.

Pritam L. Benjamin.

References: Flow Theory.. from Wikipedia Edutech.
Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by M. Csiksentmihalyi
Certainties: Journal of the national Center for innovation.