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How do we bring the magic back into learning? [Flow #1]

Friends in schools are telling us that many children returning after lockdown, while delighted to be back, are finding it harder to settle down, to pay attention, to keep going or to simply ‘be there’. So we thought we might devote a few blogs to the learning-friendly habit of Absorption — to explore what it is, how it happens and, importantly, what we all might do to help pupils bring the magic back into their learning.

What does being absorbed mean?

The ability to get lost in learning … the state of being absorbed, ‘rapt’, is inherently gratifying and rewarding. (Guy Claxton, in Building Learning Power)

If you’d asked children before lockdown what they needed to do to be a good learner you would soon have heard the word ‘concentrate’, and you can be sure that ‘concentrate’ was also part of the ‘good advice’ that some parents would have given to their children.

Of course it’s true: in learning anything we have to be engaged. We have to be ‘paying attention’, but not just to a teacher, rather to what we are actually doing as we learn. Being absorbed is a bit more than concentrating; it conveys a natural connection between growth and enjoyment. You often see this in the rapt attention on a young child’s face. Sadly, that natural and joyful excitement of mastering new skills can gradually diminish and weaken over time, especially if learning is viewed as an imposition.

We can’t teach or cajole or demand absorption, but we can enable a culture, and set up circumstances, that enable children to experience flow; to recognise what it feels like to be ‘lost in learning’, and to appreciate how this state of being helps them to learn.

In his search for what leads to happiness, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s extensive research led to the idea of a Flow experience. He found that it isn’t great riches, power, beauty or health that brings people a fulfilled life but one full of enjoyment and complexity in which rich learning experiences happen through the experience of FLOW. He describes the common characteristics of flow as when:

Professor Mihaly Csikszentmihaly

‘one’s skills are adequate to cope with the challenge in hand. It is a goal-directed rule-bound action system that provides clear clues as to how one is performing. Concentration is so intense that there is no attention left over to think about anything irrelevant or worry about problems. Self-consciousness disappears and a sense of time becomes distorted — so gratifying that people are willing to do it for its own sake with little concern for what they will get out of it even when difficult or dangerous. This exhilarating experience leaves a person feeling more capable and more skilled.’

So the question becomes, How can we systematically provide learning opportunities that afford pupils opportunities to experience flow, to develop the habits and dispositions of enjoying learning and become a stronger learner?

What does the research say about being in flow ?

A positive flow experience relies on pupils being able, and allowed, to:

  • set themselves appropriate goals
  • control their attention, noticing and listening carefully
  • overcome challenge
  • freely invest attention in order to achieve
  • focus all their senses
  • exercise control over their actions
  • see and act on feedback from doing the task itself

Take a second look at the list and ask yourself how far your classroom culture encourages pupils in these ways.

How does this work with your learners?

Now to your pupils themselves – have a quick think about ‘absorbed learners you may know’. Make a note of pupils who display these characteristics.

(You can download a PDF of this table to print, if that helps: the download button is to the right of the Zoom box.)

What do you think?

  • How many of your pupils come to mind when looked at through the lens of absorption or flow?
  • Is there a gender balance, or have you noted down more girls than boys or vice versa?
  • Do the pupils you have noted come from across all age groups or do some dominate?
  • Are the pupils you have noted from similar or different home backgrounds ?

Make a note of…

  • Groups or classes that seem to have lots of good absorption characteristics.
  • How you think you might capitalise on this.

In the next blog we’ll build on these reflections, looking at the kind of classroom culture that enables and encourages absorption.

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