Motivation and Flow: The Teenager Edition

Over the past week, I've been writing about the importance of motivation in improving the rate at which kids learn. Typically, when we think about such examples, we tend to think in terms of a particular activity that a kid becomes emotionally invested in. (In my son's case, it was Pokémon, now it's sports.) However, motivation is also affected by structural factors—by how a subject, skill, or sport is taught. Certain ways of teaching enhance motivation, and other means of teaching weaken motivation. This becomes particularly clear in the research on the concept of "flow." 

Almost everyone has experienced the sense of being so engrossed in what they’re working on that they lose sense of time. It doesn’t feel like work: it’s work and play at the same time. These experiences are autotelic, which means intrinsically meaningful, rewarding for their own sake.

Throughout the 1990s, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi became famous for his research on these moments of optimal experience, a state that he called "flow." He had subjects wear wristwatches that beeped about 50 times a week. At that very moment, the subjects wrote down what they were doing and what they were feeling. By analyzing these moments, in many people in many walks of life, Csikszentmihalyi isolated the conditions necessary to make our experience of life more flowlike.

Critical to flow was being challenged but not overwhelmed. The ideal level of challenge demanded all of one’s skills and concentration. People were in control and not anxious. Usually, people were working toward a clear goal or objective that was relevant to them.

While his work on adults is well known, not many are aware that Csikszentmihalyi’s method of analysis has also been applied to the lives of teens in middle school and high school. This research has been done (with Csikszentmihalyi) by David Shernoff of Northern Illinois University in dozens of schools in a variety of Midwestern towns. There, teenagers have also gone about their lives wearing wristwatches that beep. The result is a massive database: snapshots of students’ motivation and engagement at that exact place in time.

So when are teens most engaged, approaching a flowlike state?

It’s highest during sports and extracurricular activities. It’s lowest when teens are at jobs, which, Shernoff notes, are usually of the flipping-burger variety. Interestingly, teens very rarely reach flowlike states when they’re alone, as adults do. When teens are alone, they’re usually doing homework or vegging out. Rather, flow seems to improve when they are both with peers and adults at the same time. The adult is usually a coach, parent, or instructor, pushing them to lean into a challenge.

Since motivation and engagement are especially important to learning, Shernoff was disappointed to see how badly classroom time rated out. Fifty percent of students report that their classes are boring, and one third report surviving the day by goofing off with friends. “On average, flow is lower in class than at any other time during the week, except for when doing their paid job,” says Shernoff.

His research, though, suggested a way to fix this sorry state. Shernoff recognized that students were most flowlike in moments where they were doing group work or individual work. They were active and participating. The opposite was true for lectures and watching videos.

Unfortunately, classrooms where there was the most participation, such as art class, were usually the least challenging. The classes that were the most challenging, such as science, required students to spend the most time being lectured to. His deduction: we need to combine the methods of how art and social science are taught with the demanding nature of math and science classes.

"Only 15 percent of the time students spend in class was interactive, allowing for discussion or group activities,” notes Shernoff. “The abundance of lectures and taking notes leaves little time for active engagement. When active participation is so rarely invited, it’s no wonder students can’t engage.”

Quizzes don’t rate so poorly. Students don’t enjoy quizzes and tests per se, but their concentration is at a peak because they’re being challenged. “Tests have a gamelike quality,” Shernoff says. “Students know what the stakes are, they’re using all their skills, and it’s very clear what their goal is. They know doing well is important.” However, all those good dimensions disappear in students who don’t know the answers to the quiz questions. “For them, the whole experience is debilitating and takes a psychological toll.”

It’s true that students with better grades experience more flow. And many personality dimensions matter, too. But overall, these individual factors were not as powerful as the structural factors described above: whether a situation was challenging, active, and relevant.

Interestingly, Shernoff’s data reveals that flow states were common during after-school programs. Kids love this time, even though the situation shares many elements as the flow-stopping academic day: it’s on the same premises as school and usually with the same kids. There’s a lot of sports in after-school programs, but that alone doesn’t explain it. Because there’s also a lot of academic-enrichment time, in which kids are learning and following an established curriculum. And these academic-enrichment periods produce very high levels of flow.

What do academic-enrichment sessions have that mere academic classes don’t? First, they’re usually more relevant to kids’ experience, whether the curriculum module is about agriculture, or why planes fly, or what causes pollution. Second, they invite participation. They’re often project based. Third, kids can learn without feeling like they’re being ranked on a bell curve and labeled smart or dumb. Kids’ natural thirst for knowledge emerges.

All of which, again, incriminates lecture-style classrooms. I suggested to Shernoff there was a tradeoff here: can’t teachers cover more material through lecture? If they had to slow down and make everything a hands-on project, wouldn’t kids learn less?

“In the long run, kids might be learning far more,” he argued. In today’s classrooms, kids forget most of what they’ve learned very rapidly, because they weren’t truly interested. “When you’re motivated, and when your knowledge is something you can use and keep coming back to, you learn for life.”

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