Learning in the Zone

“Those who flow as life flows know they need no other force.” – Lao Tzu

Think of a time you were so involved in something, giving it your undivided attention and losing track of time. Chances are, you were experiencing flow. The concept was pioneered by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi to describe that feeling of complete immersion in an activity. The state is characterized by total mental and physical commitment, clarity of focus, and mindfulness. It has been linked to feelings of happiness and euphoria, and to peak performance among scientists, athletes, musicians and many others, creating a deep sense of accomplishment. Those who find flow feel fulfilled and rewarded – we seek to repeat it, even in the absence of external motivators.


Flow is valuable in schools, as it has been found to deepen learning and encourage long-term interest in a subject. If teachers impose external motivators on students, such as rewards, the learning is often surface-level and soon forgotten. Flow, on the other hand, as a type of intrinsic motivation, is learning for learning’s sake. It hits that sweet spot, where challenges and skills are in balance and passion is high. Athletes refer to it as, ‘in the zone’. In extracurricular activities like band, athletics and clubs, and in academic classes that involve team projects, flow is present. It’s no surprise that flow is at its lowest point when students are listening to lectures and passive.

Teachers can foster flow through challenging students (within reason), encouraging choice, setting clear goals, building positive relationships, fostering deep concentration and offering hands-on activities. A model of flow in school can be found at The Key Learning Community  which has a ‘flow room’ where students can spend at least an hour a week exploring new materials and pursuing their interests. Similar to the concept of genius hour, the flow room promotes self-organized learning. It provides a space for students to explore what matters most to them.

Another great idea to develop flow that the Key School does is to interview and videotape every student at the beginning of the year, asking them why they want to go to school, what their interests are and what they hope to achieve during the year. Any projects that students are involved in throughout the year are also added to their tape. This makes them responsible for their own learning and gives them a sense of ownership. It sends a powerful psychological message to the students, emphasizing that learning is not something to be done to them, but by them.

Flow is a way to make school meaningful to students, engaging them in learning that doesn’t feel forced or boring. It is the ideal we strive for. The educational dream to be realized.

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