Achieving ‘flow’ - Clare Jarmy in TES

Posted on 18th December 2017

In an article for TES, Bedales Head of Academic Enrichment and Head of Religious Studies and Philosophy, Clare Jarmy, argues that making ‘focus’ the centre of what teachers try to achieve would affect not just students’ learning power now and in the future, but also their current and adult happiness.

When she was a trainee teacher, Clare was struck by the realisation that students never truly focused, not even on the shortest of tasks. What her mentor told her stuck - children’s attention spans have become fractured. When they watch TV, they’re also checking their emails, searching online and replying to instant messages. They need lots of structure to focus completely on a task.

This is a problem, she says, that also extends to teachers: “One of the nicest things about teaching is the variety and pace of the day, but it is also a continual challenge. For teachers, and I daresay many others, the working environment often prevents us from homing in on something that requires focus, thought and time. At any point, your email can ping, students can knock on the door, or something can crop up. You’re also on a countdown to your next lesson or meeting.”

Yet, deep focus is what is essential for real thought and learning to take place. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls this state of deep focus “flow”. When we achieve flow, the task is engrossing; gives us great clarity of purpose; is doable, but still challenging; takes us out of the everyday; and makes us less aware of time passing. Real, high-quality thinking takes place when people are in this state, and Clare says that it is this kind of experience that teachers should seek to foster in students.

To be happy, psychologist Martin Seligman has shown, people need to feel there is something in their life in which they can truly engage, in which they see deep importance, to which they commit, and to which they devote their time.

Seligman’s observation is hardly a new one, although more groundbreaking is his work in the quantification of happiness. Recently, his work has been applied by educationalist Alejandro Adler in a small-scale study of school students in Bhutan where, famously, happiness is measured over GDP by the state.

Clare concludes: “Schools need to get good at focused, deep, engaging working for students to flourish, both academically and more generally. We should not simply be found blowing in the wind of the ambient culture. The reason that our job is such a responsibility is that we play a central part in creating culture.”

The full article is available on the TES website (subscription may be required).

TES | Clare Jarmy | Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi | Martin Seligman