Flow in education

I just finished reading Dylan Wiliam’s Embedded Formative Assessment. The book is wonderful, but one of the most enjoyable parts was the authors referenced by Wiliam. He mentioned Robert Pirsig, which prompted me to read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. He also wrote of John Wooden, Malcolm Gladwell, Barry Schwartz, and Marianne Williamson. You can be confident that an educational author who includes these people in his or her book is on to something.

Most interesting was Wiliam’s inclusion of psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who wrote Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Csikszentmihalyi describes ‘flow’ as being so absorbed in an activity, you’re not even thinking about it. It’s someone who’s attempting a task that’s interesting and challenging. Wiliam explains it this way:

When the level of challenge is low and the level of capability is high, the result is often boredom. When the level of challenge is high and the level of capability is low, the result is generally anxiety. When both are low, the result is apathy. However, when both capability and challenge are high, the result is ‘flow.’

That sweet spot of high capability and challenge is what all teachers should strive to implement in their classrooms. An example of this is Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD), which is used by STAR Reading and Accelerated Reader to help students pick books that are challenging, but not too challenging. A book within a student’s ZPD may not be easy, but the goal of finishing it is not out of reach. Likewise, the objectives a teacher introduces in class must mirror this type of ZPD criteria. Student buy-in is highest when the objective is challenging and the student believes he or she can learn it. When this occurs, classes hum along with the sounds of student inquiry and productivity.


In the novel Lila, Robert Pirsig writes:

Quality doesn’t have to be defined. You understand it without definition. Quality is a direct experience independent of and prior to intellectual abstractions.

Pirsig says quality doesn’t have to be defined because you just know it without being told it’s quality. Lila, along with his prior novel Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, spends hundreds of pages on making sense of quality. There’s no way to scratch the surface of what quality is in this post, but it’s important to connect educational practices with quality–especially concerning technology.

A piece of technology–let’s say a MacBook–can be made well, but the way it’s used in the classroom can be considered poor quality. The way a district implements devices could be a thing of quality, but this has no bearing on blended learning once the devices are deployed.

The problem technology poses is some teachers may believe since they’re using top-of-the-line equipment, top-of-the-line learning will naturally occur. As Dylan Wiliam writes in Embedded Formative Assessment: ‘The quality of teachers is the single most important factor in the education system.’ It doesn’t matter whether the student is using a MacBook, Chromebook, or Surface, none of these tools will bring instant quality to the classroom. But the teacher can.

It’s an important distinction to be made. A quality math, English, science, history teacher doesn’t need technology to teach well. This isn’t an indictment against technology, it just puts technology in its rightful place: as a tool used to help bring about quality. Needle and thread in the hands of a skilled cobbler can make high quality shoes, but someone with no training as a cobbler will make shoes that don’t function properly and fail to look aesthetically pleasing.

It’s important to note that students require very little guidance for learning how to use computers. This morning I had the pleasure of watching Sugata Mitra‘s keynote at the Spring CUE Conference, and he has shown that it’s possible for students to receive high quality educations just by having access to the internet and encouragement from teachers. Does this mean all we need is to supply students with computers and teach teachers that their job is not so much to dispense knowledge as to foster inquiry through use of the internet? I think that’s a large part of the professional development equation.

Bottom line: Teachers need to know how to use educational tools well, and students need to be given access to the internet so that creativity and learning will occur.