The Art of ‘Flow’

The Art of ‘Flow’

Writer: Daniel Eastwood, Lead Practitioner in Science

It was the first game of the 1992 NBA Championship. The Portland Trailblazers were pulling ahead of the Chicago Bulls when the Bull’s Coach called a timeout. Michael Jordan emerged from this timeout with a sense of intense concentration and focus. Though it didn’t seem a big deal at the time, he would go on in the next eighteen minutes to hit six three-pointers. At one point, he looked to the side-lines and shrugged his shoulders, seemingly surprised by his own success. He later described this experience as being “in the zone”.


Athletes in every sport have described this experience of being at peak performance, but this is not just limited to sport. Artists, musicians, engineers, composers and authors have all described this same sense of being “in the zone”. It is a strange kind of paradox where time seems to stand still and yet it is over in an instant; it feels effortless even though you are facing extreme challenge; there’s a sense of relaxation but it’s also intense; you seem more present than ever but you also seem to lose your entire sense of self. You’ve probably experienced this before when you were so engaged in a task that you lost track of time and place. There’s a term for this: being in a “State of Flow” and, if we want students to be fully empowered in own the creative process, we need to understand what it means for students to reach a state of creative flow.

Although the idea of Flow has existed for thousands of years, Flow Theory began in the 1970s and 80s when Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi became fascinated by artists who were so lost in their creative work that they lost track of time and even ignored food, water, and sleep. Through his research, he noticed a similar experience with scientists, athletes, and authors. It was a state of hyper-focus and complete engagement that he described as “optimal experience”.

Researchers do not have one single working model for Flow Theory. However, the following are five factors identified by Csikszentmihalyi and Nakumara as vital for achieving a state of flow.

  1. It needs to be a task that you find intrinsically rewarding
  2. You need clear goals and a sense of progress
  3. The task needs clear and immediate feedback
  4. The challenge must match the perceived skills. This requires a sense of personal control or agency over the task. In 1987, Massimini, Csíkszentmihályi and Carli published the 8-channel model of flow. Note that if a task is too easy, you might experience apathy or boredom but if a task seems too hard, you’ll be anxious.
  5. Requires intense focus on the present moment.

What can we do in the classroom?

  • Tap into intrinsic motivation
  • Embrace student choice and agency
  • Provide the right scaffolding so that students can match the challenge level to their ability levels.
  • Minimize distractions so that students can focus on their learning.
  • Plan for pace so that you have fewer tasks and more time. Here, students can enter into a state of what Cal Newport calls “deep work.”
  • Help students learn to monitor their own progress through metacognition: teach them to set goals, analyse tasks, figure out what they need to do, make adjustments in the moment, and reflect on their progress in the end.

Further Reading:

Csikszentmihalyi, M: Flow: The Psychology of Happiness: The Classic Work on How to Achieve Happiness, Rider, 1992