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Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Experiencing Flow or being totally Absorbed in Learning



Absorbed (Dictionary definition)  - take up the attention of (someone); interest greatly.
"she sat in an armchair, absorbed in a book"

Flow also called "Optimal experience" is a concept developed by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.
"the holistic experience that people feel when they act with total involvement" 
(Csikszentmihalyi 1975)

“… flow – the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.” (Csikzentmihalyi, 1991)

The term flow refers to an optimal state of immersed concentration in which attention is centered, distractions are minimised, and the subject enjoys an autonomous interaction with the activity (Whalen, 1999). People in a state of flow report a disassociation with time, a lack of recognition of hunger or fatigue, and they report that their skills are well matched to the requirements of the task. 

Most teachers would agree that the pupil who is engaged in school is more likely to be academically successful In fact, research regarding student engagement has shown that increases in student engagement are correlated to increases in positive student learning outcomes. 


Absorption in reading is the experience of imaginatively participating in the world of a book. It is characterised by those moments when the reader becomes truly lost in a book, often looking up from the page and realising time has passed, unnoticed and unobserved.

Absorption allows for identification with characters. For an absorbed reader, the characters exist as if they are real people, dynamic and fully realised in the landscape of the story. An absorbed reader pieces together the nuances of individual characters their qualities, motives, passions and desires recognising both positive and negative aspects of himself or herself reflected on the page. Absorbed readers experience the successes and losses of characters as their own. Absorption and identification with characters are the basis of a lifelong love of reading. The repeated experience of absorption in great literature has a positive, formative influence in readers' lives.



Flow in writing is the experience of becoming 'lost' in the writing process. Characters and storyline created will become more meaningful. If you allow your pupils to keep writing for 
20 - 30 minutes without stopping, you give their mind a chance to turn off the conscious brain functions. This grants more brain power to challenge the boundaries of writing bility.They cannot edit while producing work. If they do, they will be constantly switching between right brain and left brain. The creative center will switch off and on and it will be harder to produce anything meaningful.  

The key characteristics of flow that directly impact student engagement and can inform classroom instructional practices are: 

A challenging activity that requires skills 

The idea of matching skills to challenge level such that pupils do not remain bored on the one hand, and do not get pushed into feeling anxiety on the other. Creating a challenging activity that requires skill increases pupil engagement by involving the pupil both cognitively and motivationally with the task. 

Concentration on the task at hand 

When a pupils skills are needed to cope with the challenges of a situation, their attention is completely absorbed by the activity. There is no excess energy left over to process any information but what the activity offers. All the attention is concentrated on the relevant stimulus. They become absorbed or experience 'flow'.  A bedrock of flow is feeling completely absorbed by an activity, and that often requires a state of deep concentration. This may be hard to facilitate in a classroom,but if it’s possible, your pupils will reap real rewards from working without interruption. Research by Kevin Rathunde of the University of Utah, conducted with Csikszentmihalyi, found that flow was higher in Montessori schools than in traditional schools because of the more flexible schedules of Montessori schools, students who are fully concentrating on a task are not interrupted as often.

Clear goals and feedback 

Pupils must have clear goals for their learning to be meaningful to them. Short-term goals that are supported by specific task-related goals. These short-term goals will help pupils achieve long-term goals which will vary hugely based upon their age. 


Regular and frequent feedback to pupils on their progress is an integral part of every learning environment. This does not just come in the form of marking but on verbal feedback too. Feedback should be as immediate as possible to improve its impact.

Build positive relationships

Education researcher David Shernoff, of Northern Illinois University, has shown that positive peer and teacher-student relationships increase flow. It can sometimes take more time to build these relationships, but some subtle strategies can go a long way, such as by communicating respectfully toward students and making clear that their input is valued. 

None of these things are new in education. Teachers have, for many years, marked work and given feedback, set goals and targets, tried to set challenging skills and build relationships. We have, I am sure all witnessed pupils absorbed in a book, watched children's writing flow from their pens or pencils, observed them absorbed in a role play, playing a computer game ...... 

I fear however that with the constraints of time, excessive marking, the relentless pursuit of 'outstanding', a packed curriculum, teachers having less say in what and how they teach that here will be less evidence of pupils being absorbed in their learning or experiencing 'flow'. 

We must all try to fight this tide! How I am not sure, but try I will, because I have experienced flow and have been absorbed in my learning and teaching many, many times. I also know that at those times I did lose track of time, I felt the learning experience was enriched and enhanced and I want my pupils now and in the future to experience that feeling.