Over the last few days, I've been reading a book by Michael W. Smith and Jeffrey D. Wilhelm called "Reading Don't Fix No Chevys": Literacy in the Lives of Young Men. It's a really interesting book on a number of levels, but one of the most important concepts I've gained from reading this book is the idea of "flow."
Smith and Wilhelm summarize the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi a psychologist who focuses on what seems to bring people happiness. From what I can tell, he coined the term "flow," "joy, creativity, the process of total involvement with life." He also broke this concept down, specifying four qualities of flow (I'll use Smith and Wilhelm's words here):
- A sense of control and competence
- A challenge that requires an appropriate level of skill
- Clear goals and feedback
- A focus on the immediate experience (29-30)
I would guess that we all experience "flow," the feeling of losing a sense of time, even ourselves in an activity we enjoy. I've experienced "flow" in playing Scrabble, exercising, reading, even cooking. Usually, we experience "flow" when we're doing something that we love, but also something that we feel we're good at, in spite of how challenging it may be.
Smith and Wilhelm suggest that teachers create curriculum that will allow students to experience "flow," that instead of creating stand-alone units, teachers create a series of units that build knowledge and skills, that allow students to connect what they're learning with what they've previously learned, that help students build confidence in their expertise, and that are deeply satisfying to their students.
They use the example of plays, saying that most students probably encounter only one play per school year and thus are confused by the process of reading drama. They describe what teachers could do to prepare students to make meaning of plays: "We wonder how he [a student] would have felt if he had experienced reading short dialogues and then one-act plays as a way to gain experience in understanding the sub-text of dialogue, and of imagining scenes in which that dialogue takes place" (52). Their idea is that students would be more likely to be engaged in reading a long play if they felt they had the skills to do so effectively.
Smith and Wilhelm posit that students can experience "flow" in the classroom if teachers plan carefully. Isn't that what we want? Students who are deeply engaged in and who care profoundly about the content we teach? If this IS what we want, then we need to help students learn the skills necessary to engage with confidence in our curriculum.