If I sing my instructions or dramatize a science experiment, am I practicing the art of teaching?
Does practicing the art of teaching mean that I have to do everything in a new, different, and creative way every year?Does it mean that I throw out anything premade or scripted?
For the sake of clarity, let’s replace the word “art” with the word “skill”. This gets rid of any notion of having to be an entertainer all day. Now let’s ask instead, What does skillful teaching look like in action? Not a simple question! Some might view a messy, boisterous classroom with many different activities going on as the sign of skillful teaching. Others might see a teacher leading a group activity with 100% participation as skilled teaching. The word “skilled” will bring up a lot of value judgments!
There are many aspects of skillful teaching. The ability to engage students in subject material, the ability to connect with students, skill in handling discipline… the list goes on.
I am going to touch on one aspect of skilled teaching that is usually overlooked. It’s based on the Flow Theory put forth by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (Mee-hi Chick-sent-mee-hi). The Flow Theory is based on many years that Csikszentmihalyi spent studying thousands of people to find answers to the questions, “What makes people happy?” and “What gives meaning to life?” He found that people are happiest when in a state of “flow”. Flow is a state of consciousness when we are doing an activity that is challenging but not defeating for us. It’s the sweet spot between boredom and anxiety.
Flow can happen while playing a sport or game, working at a job, expressing creativity in some way, or having a good discussion, among many other possibilities. We can’t be in flow 100% of the time, but it’s a state of mind we can cultivate, which is what much of what Csikszentmihalyi’s writing is about.
I believe that the research around “flow”, which is considered very solid, is some of the most important research in relation to schools and student learning and behavior. When students are in flow, they are NOT bored or anxious, with all the negative behaviors that go along with those states of mind. If you are a classroom teacher, you have an immediate scenario of what bored and anxious kids are doing!
When students are in flow, they are engaged. However, engagement doesn’t always mean flow. If your students are engaged with coloring or watching a video, it may be relaxing but not challenging.
It’s also interesting to note that control isn’t “flow” either. Students being well-behaved and doing their work doesn’t mean that flow is happening.
To me, learning how to get this flow going for every student is at the heart of teaching. How do we have high-level thinking without leaving some students behind? How can we supply enough background knowledge to novice learners without boring the kids who already know a lot? This is the core of the art of teaching. We need curriculum that is designed to keep everyone in “flow”.
When teachers have great lesson plans, the true art of teaching can begin. That’s when we can hone in on individual students who need more help either with skills or with more challenge. Teaching becomes enjoyable and more of a flow activity for us!
If you want to learn even more about flow and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi click here.