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Use the Theory of “Flow” In Your Family Learning Plan

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Use the Theory of “Flow” In Your Family Learning Plan

By Linda Dobson


The happiness that follows flow is of our own making.

For those skeptics out there who still don’t believe learning can be fun, let me introduce you to Harvard professor Mihaly Csikezentmihalyi or, as I’ve come to know him, “Professor C,” a friend and colleague of Howard Gardner. In his life’s work Professor C. has sought to answer the question, “What makes life worth living?” Much of what he discovered is helpful as we raise and educate children. He calls it the theory of “flow,” a metaphor that “describes the sense of effortless action people feel in moments that stand out as the best in their lives.” Put this theory to work in your home and you will find customizing your child’s learning experience provides him life’s best moments, something every loving parent wishes to do.

How to Encourage Flow for Your Child

Flow experiences produce the serenity that comes when heart, will, and mind are on the same page. Three main conditions seem to set the stage for the experience of flow:

• A person faces a clear set of goals that require appropriate responses. Some examples of life activities that make a flow experience likely include golf, mountain climbing, weaving, playing a musical piece; anything that provides the opportunity to focus on clear and compatible goals.

• The activity engaged in provides immediate feedback. How well one is doing in achieving the goal is always extremely obvious; the golfer’s ball did or didn’t get closer to the hole; the climber slipped or moved higher on the mountain, the last row on the weaver’s loom does or doesn’t fit the pattern.

• A person’s skills are fully involved in overcoming a challenge that is just about manageable. The activity is not so easy as to be boring or so difficult as to cause anxiety.

Remember curiosity creates interest, interest increases attention to the task at hand, and attention gives rise to learning?  Put a slightly different way in Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life, the professor declares that when high challenges are matched with high skills, the result is deep involvement. “Because of the total demand on psychic energy, a person in flow is completely focused. There is no space in consciousness for distracting thoughts…When a person’s entire being is stretched in the full functioning of body and mind, whatever one does becomes worth doing for its own sake; living becomes its own justification. In the harmonious focusing of physical and psychic energy, life finally comes into its own…The happiness that follows flow is of our own making, and it leads to increasing complexity and growth in consciousness.” (Emphasis added.)

The professor calls flow a magnet for learning, “that is, for developing new levels of challenges and skills. In an ideal situation, a person would be constantly growing while enjoying whatever he or she did.” Even at the age of 90, Linus Pauling, “kept the enthusiasm and curiosity of a young child…And there was no secret about how he did it; in his own words: ‘I just went ahead doing what I liked to do.’”

See also “Every Parent Is a Perfect Learning Coach

Professor C. argues that this is not a self-centered indulgence. Indeed, the important point is that “Pauling – and the many others who share his attitude – like to do almost everything, no matter how difficult or trivial, including the things they are forced to do.” Here’s one area where your work will have a significant impact on your child’s academic career. Without ever focusing on school specifics, such as spelling and science, you can help increase your child’s enjoyment of those things he is forced to do in school. This will increase attention to the topics at hand, likely to improve grades.

Blend Life and Learning with Flow

Learning coaches can erase the definitive lines that separate a math lesson from a needed trip to the grocery store, or a history lesson from the family vacation. And guess what? Highly productive and creative artists, entrepreneurs, statesmen, and scientists tend to experience their jobs in the same way – completely integrated with the rest of their lives.

Professor C. says, “One of the most common tropes in the nearly one hundred interviews I conducted with such persons as Nobel Prize winners and other creative leaders in different fields was: ‘You could say I worked every minute of my life, or you could say with equal justice that I never worked a day.’” (When reading this book I felt as if historian John Hope Franklin read my mind when he added, “I have always subscribed to the expression ‘thank God it’s Friday’ because to me Friday means I can work for the next two days without interruptions.”)

There is more, so much more, and oh, how I wish I could give each and every reader of this book a copy of Finding Flow. Barring this, I can only recommend that you get a copy. It’s a cogent argument for learning coaches to encourage your child’s “symptoms” through loving attention and acceptance at home. Recognize and encourage his gifts, and even if they’re not directly appreciated at school the resulting happiness, increased self-esteem, and pure joy found in doing something for its own sake (as opposed to for a good grade or other recognition) will translate into improved school performance, just as it translates into life improvement in general.

Adapted from Linda Dobson’s The Learning Coach Approach, now available as an e-Book for just $2.99
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