Finding “Flow” in the Classroom

The Climb

I began bouldering while in grad school. Invited by a group of experienced climbers, I immediately felt like a fish out of water but decided to go for it regardless. If you have never bouldered before, it goes something like this:

You start on the ground, struggling to pull on a snug pair of shoes and then clouds of powdered chalk billow in the air as you smooth it over your hands. Looking up at the stacked wall above you, you scope out the hand and footholds to which you will soon cling. You begin your climb methodically: foot-foot, hand-hand. You can feel the muscles in your fingertips engaging with every new motion. 

 

In Flow

I instantly fell in love with the sport (despite the callused hands and cramped feet), and couldn’t  figure out why. Then it hit me. Up there on the wall, with my hands and feet gripping the holds, I was forced to be “all in.” In order to reach the end (or at least not fall flat onto the mats below), I needed to be fully engaged in the activity – mind and body. Psychologist, Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi, called this feeling “flow.”

We experience a state of “flow” when we are fully engaged in the moment, present to an activity that is equally as challenging as it is enjoyable. While in this state, people tend to perform at their highest, as a result of being focused on the task and … happy. Perhaps you have experienced something similar – a moment when you looked up at the clock, startled by the amount of time that has passed. It might have happened while reading your favorite book or cooking your favorite meal.  Either way, you were in “flow.”

 

Flow in the Classroom

An important question for us to consider as teachers is: have our students ever had this experience? And, if so, where? At home? With friends? Is it possible for us to recreate flow in our classrooms? I’d like to think that Csikzentmihalyi’s answer would have been, “Yes, but it might take some adjustments.” The building blocks of his theory of flow can be traced back to the Hierarchy of Needs, created by psychologist Abraham Maslow. The concept behind this theory is that, in order for humans to achieve their full potential, they must first have their basic and psychological needs met. Once these needs have been fulfilled, they can begin their quest towards self-actualization, which Csikzentmihalyi later identified as “flow.”  

What does this have to do with our classrooms?  I’m going to answer that question with another: Do our classrooms meet the basic and psychological needs of our students? While teachers cannot ensure that every one of the basic needs are met, there are several aspects which they can accomplish by examining the physical and digital spaces of their classrooms.

As important as these elements are, we must also remember that our approach as teachers is key to our students’ sense of well-being. In order for them to feel safe and nurtured, it is necessary to promote an atmosphere that follows suit.

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Proactive Classroom Management

Proactive classroom management requires teaching students step-by-step instructions for each classroom system.

“I want to be better at classroom management.”

A familiar thought for many teachers at the start of each school year (including myself). So, what does it take? Rather than being reactive, classroom management systems must be proactive. They exist in order to teach students how to function within the classroom space. Why? Children thrive in more structured environments where the expectations are appropriate and clear.

Here are three ways you can be more proactive in planning your classroom management systems:  

Convenience Is Key

When setting up one of my first classrooms, I found an idea on Pinterest – designing a magnet board to know when students were “present,” “absent,” or had gone “out of the classroom.” I even allowed students to customize their own magnet. I was all for this new system… for about a week. Why didn’t the excitement last? The system didn’t work because my students walked into the room with an armful of materials to put away (folder, homework, snack, water, the list goes on), and moving their magnet just wasn’t convenient for them.

It didn’t take long for me to realize that when setting up your classroom and establishing routines, everything should be convenient and simple. My magnet board was quickly replaced with an attendance routine that utilized the free app, ClassDojo. Not only were students able to use the app to check in and out every morning, but the information was saved at the end of the school day.

While the Pinterest ideas may be charming –you must ask yourself – do they really work for my students?

 

Investment Is Worth It

I visited a kindergarten classroom recently where the students were just beginning to use iPads. Pulling the teacher aside, I asked if the students were responding well and if they were able to use the technology effectively. She reminded me of the deliberate sequence of lessons that it took to prepare them for such an activity, and I couldn’t help but smirk. I have always admired her calm approach to teaching such a young age group so I stuck around to watch some of the rollout for myself.

Understanding the value of establishing good routines, the teacher was in no rush to move onto the next lesson. Instead, she took the time to break steps of the routine down to their absolute smallest parts. For example, rather than simply telling the students where to access their headphones, the teacher modeled proper handling and care. She consistently reinforces these procedures and her students have become increasingly independent.

An “expert board” identifies students who are particularly skilled in a certain area so they can support their peers.

 

Independence Is Possible

Just as a plant will grow in the proper conditions, so too, will a student. Established routines should include opportunities for students to become independent leaders. Why not try instituting an “expert board” to identify students who are particularly skilled in a certain area? In the picture to the right, the teacher identifies “expert” students who could offer support to their peers in need. As students begin organically working together, the classroom runs more seamlessly. Not only does this promote leadership among students, but it also allows them to lean on each other for support – a skill they must possess in the real world.

 

 

Is your classroom running as smoothly as it could be? If not, it’s never too late to examine your own classroom systems. Strong classroom management doesn’t happen by accident. It is a result of thoughtful procedures that are convenient, consistently reinforced, and dependent on students. Take the time now to be proactive and start thinking, I am better at classroom management.”

What else is required to build more proactive classroom management systems? Add your ideas in the comments or on Twitter via @EducateLLC!