One of my favorite teaching and learning theories is not limited to teaching and learning. You are unlikely to find it in a methodology textbook. It is the psychological concept of flow, as developed by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. He has written numerous books and articles on this topic, building on decades of research among people from many cultures and professions, including artists, athletes, teachers, and businesspeople. (A good introduction is his TED Talk video listed below under “Further exploration.”)
Flow is the experience of performing at a high level of skill when engaged with a high level of challenge. As seen in the graphic, skill and challenge can even be represented as an x-y axis, with the “flow channel” located to the upper right.
Applicable idioms abound: A person experiencing flow is “in the zone,” “on a roll,” “at the top of their game,” “on fire,” or “surfing the wave.” For teachers, it is when “everything clicks,” the lesson is “firing on all cylinders,” or students are “totally getting it.”
Psychologically, a state of flow is characterized by a feeling of heightened pleasure or happiness. A person in flow is highly focused on what they are doing, to the point of being immersed or submersed in the activity. They tend to feel that time has sped up or slowed down, are unaware of physical needs or effort, and lose any separate sense of self. Flow is experienced as a kind of ecstasy in which a person feels supremely confident, calm, and clear about what is happening and what needs to be done next. In flow, performing at a high level is its own reward, yet doing so also gives a person a sense of being deeply involved in something larger than themselves. As a result, flow has been called the “science of happiness” and is often presented as a key to personal well-being.
With regard to my faith, flow is an evocative concept. Is flow a phenomenon we were created to experience? Is it another way to describe finding joy in our callings? Reflecting specifically as a teacher who follows the Master Teacher and now a teacher educator, those times when I feel in a state of flow in the classroom present me with at least two ways to respond. The first is to credit my professional skills, training, and experience. Without discounting these, this response leads to pride. I get the glory. A better option is to credit God, the creator of language and learning, whose sovereignty and grace surely extend to my lesson plan, teaching environment, classroom decisions and interactions, and relationships with students. He gets the glory.
I believe seeking and cultivating a state of flow in the classroom is a worthy goal—we as teachers live for these times!—but it must be a work of the Spirit if it is to be of eternal value. While I certainly desire to walk into the classroom well-prepared and attentive to my students, I do not locate my purpose or hope there, but rather seek to teach following Proverbs 3:5: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.” The proper place of my own effort is seen in the words of Paul: “I strenuously contend with all the energy Christ so powerfully works in me.” Spiritually and professionally, the secret of flow is to walk by the Spirit.