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Flow – A Measure of Student Engagement

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When I first heard about Czikszentmihalyi’s “Flow” concept and research, I became quite intrigued with this research.  Its face validity immediately resonated with me.  I always cherished those times in my own life when I was so fully engaged that I had no other thoughts than the task at hand, with joy coming purely from the engagement.  I never had a name for it but Czikszentmihalyi did and conducted research on it.

The characteristics of “Flow” according to Czikszentmihalyi are:

  1. Completely involved, focused, concentrating – with this either due to innate curiosity or as the result of training
  2. Sense of ecstasy – of being outside everyday reality
  3. Great inner clarity – knowing what needs to be done and how well it is going
  4. Knowing the activity is doable – that the skills are adequate, and neither anxious or bored
  5. Sense of serenity
  6. Timeliness – thoroughly focused on present, don’t notice time passing
  7. Intrinsic motivation – whatever produces “flow” becomes its own reward


Here is a TED talk from Czikszentmihalyi:

Using Flow As a Measure of Student Engagement

The Canadian Education Association’s (CEA) released a report What did you do in school today? a three-year research and development initiative designed to assess, and mobilize new ideas for enhancing the learning experiences of students. Intellectual challenge was measured by Csikszentmilhalyi’s theory of flow. (Source for the following

A new measure – instructional challenge – developed from Csikszentmilhalyi’s theory of flow, offers insights into students’ experiences of learning. First year results revealed generally low levels of student engagement. While almost 70 percent of the 32,322 students reported positive experiences of social and institutional engagement, only 37 percent felt intellectually engaged in learning.  Less than half (between 42 and 47 percent) of middle and secondary students experience flow in their math and language arts classes.

In the past it was often assumed that disengaged students were easy to identify: they were the young people at the back of the class, the ones making their way to shop or special classes, or those lingering down the street well after the bell had rung. Data from What did you do in school today? suggest that disengagement is not – and may never have been – limited to small groups of students or as visible as we once thought. Over half of the students in our sample (n=32,300) – many of whom go to class each day, complete their work on time, and can demonstrate that they are meeting expected learning outcomes – are experiencing low levels of intellectual engagement.

According to the report, the implications for educating youth include:

Students differ in their aspirations, interests, and aptitudes. But it is worth considering how distinct pathways, trajectories, or streams that too often limit opportunities for students could become permeable spaces for learning. What if the curriculum anchors their learning, but ceases to anchor the students themselves because its aim is the development of important competencies through diverse learning experiences that value and extend young peoples’ knowledge, interests, and capacities across all curriculum domains?

In the context of the still emerging 21st century learning agenda, the concept of intellectual engagement provides a way into considering the kinds of learning experiences young people require to develop important competencies for learning and life.  If we aspire to create learning environments where all students are engaged in using and developing 21st century competencies, however, a much deeper approach may be required; one that provides for inclusive and sustained work with ideas and practices that disrupt prevailing assumptions about teaching, learning, and educational outcomes. (emphasis added).

Questions for Thought”

  • Is Flow a valid measure of students’ intellectual engagement?
  • Should educators focus on creating a flow state for the students in their classrooms?
  • If so, what are some general strategies for creating flow within an educational setting?

Written by Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

January 12, 2011 at 11:18 pm

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