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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