Getting Students in the Flow

Ann Larson Ericson

by Ann Larson Ericson

For Middle Level

What gets students excited about learning?

At a recent staff development meeting we read and discussed Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s article “Thoughts About Education,” about creating engaging learning experiences.

He calls these “flow experiences,” because “when what they were doing was especially enjoyable it felt like being carried away by a current.”

When I create a Developmental Designs‑inspiredlesson, I attend to students’ needs for fun, relationship, competency, and autonomy, and they enjoy the process of learning. I see some “flow experiences” happening.

Here’s an example of “flow” happening in my classroom. Students learned about the atom through a variety of activity stations. They did two mini-simulations of famous experiments, played vocabulary games on iPads, solved atomic structure problems, then self-corrected their work and partner-read and took notes on a section from their textbook. During the station work, I noticed students having fun with the activities while working with their peers, being challenged by the work, and enjoying the freedom to choose when and with whom they completed the stations.

It takes a fair amount of preparation to set up learning stations—creating student check lists, writing instructions for each station, gathering materials, physically setting up each activity in the classroom. It also takes explicit modeling and setting of expectations so students know how to move from station to station, how to budget their work time, and how to seek help from a teacher or a peer. Once the upfront work is completed and the students begin their work, it is amazing to stand back and watch students take control of their learning. I love to hear a student explain something he really understands to a peer, to see my most social students have their needs met, and to sit down and work one-to-one with a struggling student. 

When students are amazed that the class period is ending so soon, when usually reluctant students are succeeding, when my most eager students are challenged all period, then I know we’ve reached flow. 

Every minute of a student’s day can’t be a flow experience, but what a difference moving around and interacting with the learning stations can make for the students. Try creating some flow experiences of your own and let me know what you think.

Ann Larson Ericson has been using the Developmental Designs approach in her classroom for more than eight years. She teaches high school chemistry and physical science at Community of Peace Academy, a public charter school on the east side of St. Paul, Minnesota.

Posted June 2013

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