Flow States: Ecstasis in the Classroom?

I recently read Stealing Fire, by Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal and subsequently had a flow-like experience pondering all the ways I could create flow in my life, and for my students.

If you do not know what “flow” is- it is best described as the point where you feel your best, perform at your most optimal, and time both speeds up, yet slows down. Think of it as “being in the zone,” during a game of basketball, or that feeling you get when you’ve worked on a piece of art for hours, yet felt like it was a brief moment. My seven year old son can play Minecraft for A LONG TIME, yet when I ask him to stop, he will complain that he “just got started.” It’s a runners high, an adrenaline rush, or that rush of emotion as you go down a rollercoaster.

In the book, Kotler and Wheal detail the thousands of ways to get into “ecstasis,” or to escape reality. These practices range from the slow method of yoga and mindfulness training, to the fun ways of skiing and surfing, to the dangerous methods of elicit drug use. But the one thing that I kept wondering was, “how can I create flow, or ecstasis in my classroom?

Now before you think I’m crazy, please understand there is data for my desire to create flow in the classroom. Kotler explains: “developments in psychology, neurobiology, pharmacology, and technology- have helped us decode this phenomenon with science to move past myths, assumptions and misguided controversies.” Much of the research that affects my desire to create flow in the classroom points to the brain research.

Flow-inducing activities flush stress chemicals out of your body, and also helps quiet your prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain that creates doubt). Flow also stimulates your brain to release a cocktail of six neurochemicals- which creates what the authors call STER: Selflessness (sense of self disappears), Timelessness (hours seem like minutes, or micro-seconds can be seen in vivid detail), Effortlessness (your tasks/mission seems much easier), and Richness (we gain insight and information in vivid detail). Most importantly, studies have shown that people in these flow-like states to have see a 400% increase in motivation and creativity.

Thus, creating an environment that would allow my students to take more risks (safely), flush out stress, increase creativity, and drive deeper feelings of awareness and empathy- seems like a good idea to me. Who wouldn’t want that for our students? Especially in a time where creativity and innovation are greatly desired post-education, yet little time is provided within education.

So- how do we get there? I recently interviewed Steven Kotler on a podcast (Itunes) (Soundcloud) to discuss flow in education. Since the interviewed aired, I have received emails from teachers, researchers, parents, and students all asking what “flow” would look like in school. My answer is: get your culture right first. It’s hard to imagine a formal “sit and get” classroom embracing a radical change like this, but lets’ start from the simple and move our way up.

  1. Mindfulness training. Call it breathing exercises, call it meditation, but be prepared to get parent phone calls. I personally LOVE breathing techniques. It calms the brain, gets the heart rate down, and prepares our students to think beyond themselves. Throw in an empathy exercise and you have something wonderful. However, the push back will come in the form of people asking “why you are “waisting” time to breathe when we have standards to cover?” (Breathe, just breathe).
  2. Yoga. Same basic benefits as #1. Same skepticism. Better for overall health. Be prepared to defend this even more.
  3. Gaming. Yes. Gaming. This can either come in the form of electronics, board games, or physical games (you know, like in recess!) E*sports like League of Legends has become extremely popular (my school now has two e*sports teams), but this will be seen as an after or before school activity. Board games and physical activities can easily (and quickly) be implemented into your weekly activities.
The Noblesville League of Legends team.

4. Mind Gyms. I suggest you check out the “flow dojo” obstacle course that Kotler set up at Google’s campus. It was so well embraced, that the co-founder, Sergey Brin, asked for another dojo to be built in his back yard. I know that this might be a stretch for a school, but I think it’s wonderful.

All of these ideas are just scratching the surface. I would love to hear YOUR ideas. Also, I’m hoping that PE teachers are reading this post and saying, “we do this all the time in class!” In fact, I would point out that PE class is one of THE most important classes to stimulate learning and create flow. Thus, if you are a teacher, reach out to your PE department to help you create “flow” activities. You might create a wonderful environment, making the bond between the departments stronger. If you want to see great PE teachers promoting great learning, please check out Brian Clarke, Jorge Rodriguez, and Justin Schleider.

If you would like to know more about flow, follow Steven Kotler and Jamie Wheal on Twitter and please check out the book, Stealing Fire. You can also get your “flow profile” at the Flow Genome Project, as well as other great research and resources on flow.

Lastly, please consider subscribing to our newsletter, where we give weekly tips, updates on our podcasts (we just recorded with Seth Godin and released the Jocko Willink episode this week). We also provide short videos showcasing great classroom examples of innovation and creativity and encourage interactivity with our vast network. I’m on a mission to make innovation, creativity, and entrepreneurship a top priority in our schools. You can email me directly at: don@startedupinnovation.com

Thanks for reading.