The Miracle of Flow
After Thanksgiving, I was possessed by the urge to get my cooktop clean, and I mean fresh-off-the-production-line clean. It wasn’t particularly disgusting or dirty, but there was some baked-on grease that just wouldn’t come off no matter how many chemicals I threw at it. I realized that nothing but old-fashioned scrubbing was going to remove it.
I prepared my armamentarium: dish soap, scouring brushes (rough, medium, soft), an old knife to scratch at particularly resistant spots, and a couple of clean rags. I got to work, first removing all the metal doodads that could be removed and soaking them in hot soapy water. Then I began attacking the most stubborn areas, alternately scrubbing and scouring them, and sometimes delicately picking at them with the tip of the knife.
At first it was frustrating and annoying work. I didn’t seem to be making any headway. But after a while, I got into a groove, and the repetitive work slowly became satisfying and meditative. The grease was gradually worn away by my efforts, and the shiny black enamel beneath began to appear. As I scrubbed, and scrubbed, and scrubbed, my awareness of my body fell away. My focus narrowed to the place where my hand met the scouring brush. If I could have looked at myself in that moment, I probably would have seen a completely blank expression on my face. Nothing remained but this moment, my arm moving in a regular tempo, the scourer scratching away the grease. There was no sense of the passing of time. Even the final goal of the activity – getting the cooktop clean – seemed unimportant. All that mattered was this moment, in which all the components of my being were aligned in this singleness of purpose.
I was in flow.
Flow doesn’t last, sadly, and I snapped back to regular time and to full awareness after a few minutes. I dropped back into flow a few more times as the cooktop got cleaner. My husband came out to the kitchen at one point and remarked, “You know you’ve been doing this for over two hours, right?”
We’ve all been in flow. The language I used in the description above appears again and again when people talk about their flow experiences: I got into a groove, my awareness of my body fell away, my focus narrowed, no sense of the passing of time, singleness of purpose. These are, in fact, the hallmarks of a flow event. You can be making art, washing your car, digging a trench, pruning a rosebush, knitting, sewing, changing your transmission, or even scrubbing your cooktop.
Wikipedia defines flow as “the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity”. You cannot deliberately fall into a flow state. You can only put the preconditions in place and hope that it happens. The Wikipedia link above is a nice overview of flow and if you’re interested in this topic I suggest you take a look.
The concept of flow was proposed by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced MEE-hy cheek-SENT-ma-HY-ee). He states that flow is “the optimal human experience”. That’s a pretty powerful statement, but one that is borne out by our own experiences of being in flow. It is immensely satisfying. Some people report a sense of rapture, or deep joy, while in a flow state.
Children, too, love to be in flow. In Montessori classrooms, we regularly see children in that drawn out moment of intense concentration when they are completely oblivious to the world around them. To people unfamiliar with Montessori, this can be eerie, or even downright creepy. Kids are supposed to be rambunctious, right? They’re supposed to be distracted and destructive and hyper and generally out of control, right?
About a decade ago, something awesome happened: Csikszentmihalyi discovered Montessori. As described in Wikipedia:
Around 2000, it came to the attention of Csíkszentmihályi that the principles and practices of the Montessori Method of education seemed to purposefully set up continuous flow opportunities and experiences for students. Csíkszentmihályi and psychologist Kevin Rathunde embarked on a multi-year study of student experiences in Montessori settings and traditional educational settings. The research supported observations that students achieved flow experiences more frequently in Montessori settings.
You can imagine why Csíkszentmihályi was immediately intrigued by this educational method, especially reading that last sentence: students achieved flow experiences more frequently in Montessori settings. Here was a place that not only understood exactly what he was talking about, but went one step further and structured the environment specifically so that flow could happen. Unsurprisingly, he’s been a Montessori ally ever since.
In the Montessori jargon, the mental state of normalization is a direct result of the child’s flow experiences. Normalization is the single most important result of our whole work. When a child is normalized, it simply means they are back on the path of optimum development, that the obstacles to normal development have been removed. They drop their defenses, which typically take the form of tantrums, anger, boredom, irritability, and anti-social tendencies, and become a calm, cooperative, benevolent, motivated, and joyful person. Normalization is the goal, but the mechanism is flow.
So what does this mean for teachers, or for parents? If flow is so incredibly useful, so deeply beneficial, how can we make it happen in our classrooms and homes? Well, firstly remember that you cannot make flow happen. You can only put into place the pre-conditions for it to occur and hope that it does. Fortunately, Csíkszentmihályi gives us three simple pre-conditions to follow. I’ll list them below and describe how they are implemented in Montessori classrooms:
Goals are clear
When I was scrubbing the heck out of my cooktop, I knew precisely what the goal was: to get that sucker clean. There was no ambiguity. The vast majority of Montessori materials have this same feature: there is a clear goal or end result. Children find it hard to enter a flow state with most toys, because frequently they do not have a specific goal. You just “play” with them. In 1907, in Montessori’s very first Casa, some wealthy donors presented the classroom with a magnificent dollhouse, complete with perfect, tiny furniture and beautiful dolls. Montessori writes about this in The Secret of Childhood, in the chapter “What They Showed Me”. This wonderful section appears under the very direct subheading, “They Never Chose the Toys”:
"Though the school contained some really wonderful toys, the children never chose them. This surprised me so much that I myself intervened, to show them how to use such toys, teaching them how to handle the doll’s crockery, lighting the fire in the tiny doll’s kitchen, setting a pretty doll beside it. The children showed interest for a time, but then went away, an they never made such toys the object of their spontaneous choice. And so I understood that in a child’s life play is perhaps something inferior, to which he has recourse for want of something better, but that there were loftier things for which, in the child’s mind, seemed to take precedence over our useless amusements".
Firstly, can we all agree that sounds like a pretty spectacularly awesome dollhouse? I mean, lighting a little fire in the teeny kitchen… holy smoke. Secondly, how strange it seems to our adult minds that a child would prefer to wash a table, or solve a math problem, or match different kinds of fabrics by touch while blindfolded, than play with a dollhouse! But with these activities, there is a clear goal: get the table clean, get the right answer, match each pair of fabric swatches. It's easy to see how these activities are satisfying. In an open-ended activity such as playing with a dollhouse, what is the clear goal? What is the final result? There isn’t one. There’s nothing to aim for. How many of our modern-day toys are like this? What kind of experiences do they offer our children? How does the child gain satisfaction with them?
Feedback is immediate
Montessori materials give feedback instantly; there’s constant communication between the child and the material. This is important because it allows the child to manage their efforts and fine-tune their actions thereby extending the flow state. Almost every Montessori material has some kind of control of error, which is simply instant feedback that the material offers to the child. We’re pretty friendly with error in Montessori. Yes, we know this isn’t in vogue. We know it’s much more fashionable to frown upon error, to ridicule when an error is made, but we’ve never been fashionable. The control of error in the materials also does something beautiful: it liberates the relationship between the teacher and the child. The teacher need no longer wag her finger and tell the child he is wrong; the material, without judgment, does this immediately. It’s just a simple fact: you’re wrong. But it’s okay to be wrong. Want to give it another try? If friendliness with error is fostered in the classroom, or at home, children will be motivated to try again, to concentrate, to repeat, to enter a flow state again.
There’s a balance between opportunity and capacity
For a task to be engaging, it must be appropriately challenging to a person’s skills. It’s not hard, and it’s not easy. You’ve experienced this, I’m certain. A task that’s too easy is boring. A task that’s too hard is frustrating. But something that’s right in the sweet spot is irresistible. It offers more temptation to fall again into that flow state.
So there’s your recipe for flow: provide activities and tasks in which goals are clear, feedback is immediate, and there’s a balance between opportunity and capacity. Looking back at my obsessive scrubbing of the cooktop, it’s clear that each of these ingredients was strongly present. The goal was to get the cooktop clean; I could see instantly how where I needed to scrub harder or wipe away soap; and although it was challenging, it was still within my capabilities.
Keep an eye out for the next time the children in your classroom, or your own children at home, enter that wondrous state of flow. Never interrupt it, but instead observe for those three components of flow; I bet you’ll find them. If flow is not occurring, then look for opportunities to create it by setting the pre-conditions in place and planting the seed for this optimal human experience to appear.