There are few concepts in education more mystical than the flow experience, a state in which the learner becomes so deeply immersed in the activity at hand that time becomes distorted, the need for food or sleep disappears, and concentration reaches extraordinary heights (Csikszentmihalyi, 2014).
You’ve most likely experienced flow, or extended hyperfocus, before, perhaps in your hobbies or recreation, maybe even at work. I remember following my grandpa around as he tended to his garden every summer in Brookings, Oregon. For hours he would be lost in his work, picking vegetables and cutting bushes back, watering non-native plants in his greenhouse, and feeding the animals that my grandma would sometimes feel the need to set free. Long after I’d lost interest, he’d still be out there in that garden, moving dirt around and caressing new seedlings. With the sun reaching its nadir, he would arrive back at the house with garden under his fingernails and a massive appetite.
“Darndest thing, all of a sudden I looked at my watch and couldn’t believe it was already supper!”
This is flow.
Flow doesn’t spontaneously occur on its own; Certain conditions have to be in place. For instance, the goals of the activity have to be clear and the individual has to possess enough knowledge and skill to succeed in the activity. Typically the learner exercises a great deal of control over the activity and is aware at every moment how well they are doing. Feedback for how well one is doing usually comes from the task itself, such as when the shape of a figure starts to emerge from the sculptor’s clay, or when the programmer’s code causes the program to run or to fail. In most cases during flow, the activity is one that is worth doing for its own sake rather than for a prize or award. A perfect blend of these conditions enables self-consciousness to disappear, time to be altered, and intense hyperfocus and enjoyment in the individual (Csikszentmihalyi, 2014).
I’ve experienced the opposite of flow, too. Like most teacher-parents during this Covid crisis, my productivity has decreased significantly due to the very real problem of having to attend at all hours to my daughter’s needs. I would describe my flow-less daily work routine as a choppy, start-and-stop, split attention experience where my brain just doesn’t have the time or energy to sufficiently process and encode most of the incoming stimuli. Not only has my productivity suffered – my productivity and my parenting have both suffered. This seems to corroborate findings from the literature on multitasking and dual task interference, which strongly support the superiority of serial task processing (tackling tasks one at a time) over parallel task processing (tackling two or more tasks at the same time; e.g., Adler & Benbunan-Fich, 2012; Fischer & Plessow, 2015). Like so many parents out there I just wish I had a few hours to myself to get stuff done without being interrupted or forced to abruptly drop whatever it is I’m doing.
As a Director of Educational Technology and a dreamer, I hope we are being intentional in how we structure remote learning for the 2020-21 school year to allow for flow. Requiring students to sit in front of screens for class after class, for 7-8 hours of synchronous video conferencing in succession, seems to be the antithesis of Csikszentmihalyi’s conditions for flow. What the student experiences is a ride on a Zoom conveyor belt where the next thing doesn’t matter and the last thing’s already forgotten. There’s no time to get lost in one’s work, only an unending playlist of ego-depleting 55 minute episodes which never come back together to form a coherent narrative.
What the best schools are doing right now, in my view, is allowing significant flexibility in timetables and autonomy for their teachers to design a blend of asynchronous and synchronous learning experiences so that the delivery format matches how the content is best learned. Teachers in these schools are communicating with each other about where their learners are in their learning progression so that they can determine when to shift from I do and We do, which seem more easily attained on Zoom, to You do, which seems far better suited for asynchronous platforms or offline tasks. As the expertise-reversal effect tells us, explicit, fully guided instruction is necessary for learners with low prior knowledge, but when learners have reached a high level of mastery, independent practice may be a more effective instructional procedure for obtaining optimal performance (Kalyuga et al., 2003; Kalyuga & Sweller, 2018; Reisslein et al., 2006).
Rather than having students go from Zoom meeting to Zoom meeting for 7-8 hours a day, maybe we base our teaching and scheduling decisions, including the right balance of synchronous and asynchronous teaching, on ongoing formative assessment of learner knowledge and on how the content of the domain is best taught and learned. At the end of a learning sequence, when learners have progressed as far as they can on the novice-expert continuum in whatever they are studying, a 15 minute Zoom call at the beginning of the day and a 15 minute Zoom call at the end of the day might be more effective for learning at that point in time. And it would be more flow-friendly, too.
– Zach Groshell, @mrzachg
Adler, R. F., & Benbunan-Fich, R. (2012). Juggling on a high wire: Multitasking effects on performance. International Journal of Human Computer Studies, 70(2), 156–168. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijhcs.2011.10.003
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2014). Applications of flow in human development and education: The collected works of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Applications of Flow in Human Development and Education: The Collected Works of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, 1–494. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-017-9094-9
Fischer, R., & Plessow, F. (2015). Efficient multitasking: Parallel versus serial processing of multiple tasks. Frontiers in Psychology, 6(September), 1–11. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01366
Kalyuga, S., Ayres, P., Chandler, P., & Sweller, J. (2003). The expertise reversal effect. Educational Psychologist, 38(1), 23–31. https://doi.org/10.1207/S15326985EP3801
Kalyuga, S., & Sweller, J. (2018). Cognitive load and expertise reversal. In K. A. Ericsson, R. R. Hoffman, & A. Kozbelt (Eds.), The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance (2nd ed., pp. 793–811). https://doi.org/10.1017/9781316480748.040
Reisslein, J., Atkinson, R. K., Seeling, P., & Reisslein, M. (2006). Encountering the expertise reversal effect with a computer-based environment on electrical circuit analysis. Learning and Instruction, 16(2 SPEC. ISS.), 92–103. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.learninstruc.2006.02.008