Get to FLOW

In teaching, one goal is getting to FLOW. And, getting there quickly.

FLOW is the state of mind where the task consumes your focus. Time flies. You’re in a zone. You are working at your optimal level – not to meet some deadline, but for the pure joy of doing it.

It’s beautiful when a team gets into FLOW. Team members anticipate, interact, and mentally glide through the challenge at hand. It looks like an orchestrated ballet, yet is totally unscripted. Fluid motion like a well-coached basketball team. Great things happen when you’re in FLOW.

The traditional classroom looks nothing like FLOW. Students want to take breaks, they want diversions, and their attention wanders. The highly motivated students endure for some far-off goal they’ve been told will reap them grand rewards. The middle group of students slog along and hope for early dismissal. They are pulling the sled of learning, but are pulling at half speed. Some will succeed and some will learn to fake it. The unmotivated are lost.

In FLOW everyone pulls the sled. And the highly motivated, those kids in pressed shirts, often are not the lead dogs. Often the back-benchers are leading the teams.

How does a class get to FLOW?

We had an odd assignment one day in Western Australia. We were given a class of “disengaged learners.” They were pulled from the normal classroom and met in what looked like a warehouse. There were a dozen cushioned chairs, a TV, and a pool table. This was the waiting room until the state told them they were old enough – if not educated enough – to leave.

We started. Out of 16 high school kids, one joined us in making a model. He worked by himself for ten minutes or so before two more students joined him. They asked, “What are you doing?” He told them what he was trying to achieve and they both jumped in to help.

Another ten minutes passed by and 15 out of 16 students were making models, testing them, improving them, learning, and having fun. In half an hour we had convinced 15 out of 16 kids that learning science could be fun.

FLOW was what made it happen. We transformed the learning experience from “I don’t want to be here, you’re not telling me anything I want to know,” to “this is cool.”

What were we doing in that half hour? Not much. We set up the conditions for FLOW and got out of the way. (Impatiently waiting for the others to join with our mouths shut).

It took us two minutes to set the conditions for FLOW. We gave a challenge, provided materials, and gave them a testable goal. We stood around and occasionally asked a question in the hopes of launching a mental broad jump. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t. Otherwise we stood on the side and waited for them to approach us.

Once they started they were free to solve the challenge anyway they wanted. When they had a solution, they could immediately test it and get a result by measurement. They knew how well their solution was doing and didn’t look to us for validation or approval. A measuring tape affixed to the floor told them how successful they were. Each new distance record brought howls of laughter and drove them, and the several other teams, to work harder.

We did a test measuring how quickly this group could innovate – how long it took them to generate improvements to their design. Of the four disparate groups we tested that day at different schools, the disengaged learners were the fastest to innovate. Slowest to start, fastest to innovate. These were bright kids bored with school.

After a few hours we had to leave to repeat the workshop at an Aboriginal school, but that is another story. We left the disengaged learners and they were sorry to see us go. They flopped back down in the easy chairs and re-started the countdown until they could leave school.

For one morning, they were engaged learners. They had experienced FLOW.

Learn more about Engineering Creativity here.