Finding flow in the learning process

By Francisco Mireles. Posted

Examples of the students’ algorithmic art creations

Francisco Mireles explores the theory behind the state of flow and shares how he applies this knowledge with his students using the concept of low floors, high ceilings, and wide walls

It’s 3 am and you are absorbed in your favourite video game. You are overcoming challenges and winning at every turn. You are fully present — so much so that you don’t even feel time passing by, because you are engaged and enjoying every second.

The state of consciousness described above is better known as the flow state. As defined by renowned psychology professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, the flow state is “the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it”. People may also enter a flow state when they are engaged in things such as playing music, creating art, or playing sport — essentially, any endeavour that they can become fully immersed in.

Csikszentmihalyi further describes how you reach this consciousness sweet spot, including several conditions needed to achieve it. These conditions include: that the activity you are performing demands enough of you to avoid boredom and keep the experience challenging — but is not so challenging that it could make you anxious; that the efforts you put into the activity are voluntarily given; and that you find the activity worthwhile.

It can be said that the more you engage with a state of flow, the more optimal experiences you may have. The more optimal experiences you have, the more you stretch your skills and develop your knowledge. I would guess that many people who have come across the flow concept have seen it as a way of improving productivity. I have found that there is a bigger, more profound benefit to achieving flow in any kind of activity — that you become happier. The more you lose yourself in optimal experiences, the more you take control of what is happening, which can in turn be very satisfying.

Now, wouldn’t it be great to apply what we know of the flow state to the way we, as educators, design learning experiences? In this article I will explore how teachers can encourage a flow state in their students through the concept of ‘low floors, high ceilings, and wide walls’ as described by the renowned educator Seymour Papert and MIT’s Mitchel Resnick. I will also share how I put this concept into practice with my fourth grade technology class.

Applying the flow state concept in your classroom

If you are a teacher like me, you probably want — as much as I do — to stretch all of your students’ cognitive and creative skills to the maximum and have them enjoy every second they are at school. But you also know how different they are; every student has their own particular set of skills, knowledge, and interests.

Low floors, high ceilings, and wide walls

When thinking about how to apply the flow state concept in my own classroom, I had the following questions:

  • How can I provide the specific challenge needed for each student?

  • What should I decide to teach, when the interests of my students are so varied?

Other teachers looking to encourage a flow state in their students will probably have similar concerns. I decided that these two questions can be addressed with the concept of low floors, high ceilings, and wide walls, brilliantly described by Mitchel Resnick, director of the Lifelong Kindergarten Research Group in the Media Lab at MIT, in his book Lifelong Kindergarten: Cultivating Creativity Through Projects, Passion, Peers, and Play.

As for the first question, Resnick writes: “Seymour Papert often emphasized the importance of ‘low floors’ and ‘high ceilings’. For a technology to be effective, he said, it should provide easy ways for novices to get started (low floors) but also ways for them to work on increasingly sophisticated projects over time (high ceilings).”

To use an analogy: I see a teacher as someone who tries to get all of their rocks down a hill by setting them in a rolling motion — the rocks being the students in this scenario. In any given lesson, some students get off to a slow start, while others race ahead. It is our job, as teachers, to set them in motion so that they can roll on their own, while still providing support if they get stuck. Sometimes the ones that were behind suddenly exceed every other rock, while the ones that were at the front may fall behind.

Teachers set their students’ learning in motion as they would set rocks rolling down a hill

By designing activities that have low floors, we can ensure that every student can get started, no matter what their experience. Similarly, by making sure that the activity has a high ceiling, we ensure that students who have already achieved the minimum required, and want to increase the complexity, can go for it.

As for the second question, regarding your students’ wide range of interests, Resnick writes: “As my Lifelong Kindergarten group develops new technologies … we add another dimension: wide walls. That is, we try to design technologies that support and suggest a wide range of different types of projects.” 

To return to the rolling stones analogy, what I aim for as an educator is for every rock to roll through its preferred path; some of them may prefer grassy surfaces, and others, sandy paths. The idea behind this part of the analogy is that students should be able to pursue their interests through the activity itself.

An algorithmic example

In my fourth grade technology class (ages 9–10) we are working on a project called Algorithmic Art Sticker. The idea is that every student creates a cool piece of procedural art that then gets printed on sticker paper and sent to every student’s home. We are using the Artist tool from code.org.

The results so far have been astounding. To refer back to Papert’s and Resnick’s ideas about low floors, high ceilings, and wide walls, as discussed earlier, here are my thoughts as to why this may be:

Low floors:

During each session, students learn a new concept that sets the standard of what must be done as a minimum.

High ceilings:

As students only have one session per week, at the end of each session they are encouraged to keep playing and experimenting, in order for them to understand what other things could be done.

Wide walls:

Students are invited to try different shapes, colours, and even themes for their work. The aim is not just to get their creative engines started — which is definitely important — but also for them to make their projects their own. In my experience, students become more invested when they are working towards something that they have defined themselves.

While looking through my students’ projects, I noticed something nice — that there were many versions of the projects. It’s worth mentioning that while I asked them to make one project to work on during our sessions, I also told them that they could experiment freely, without worrying about messing anything up that would impact on future sessions. They were free to create other projects to play around with — and they did; some students even had five or more projects! That proved to me that some of my students achieved a flow state; they strove to put the concepts into practice and to advance their existing skills — and for some, this resulted in multiple projects.

So here is my invitation: let’s work together as educators towards getting all of our students rolling within the parameters of the flow channel. By designing learning experiences with low floors, high ceilings, and wide walls, we can support our students’ engagement and growth.

Further reading

  • Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. [e-book] New York: HarperCollins, p.4

  • Resnick, M. (2017). Lifelong Kindergarten: Cultivating Creativity Through Projects, Passion, Peers, and Play. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, p.64


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