Does School "Flow" for Teens?

by Steve Crabtree, Contributing Editor

Only 16% very often love what they're doing in classroom

In 1990, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi gave a name to the state that people are in when they're performing tasks that make full use of their abilities and completely absorb their attention -- he called it "flow." When a person is in flow, he wrote, "alienation gives way to involvement, enjoyment replaces boredom, helplessness turns into a feeling of control."

How often do students experience such high levels of engagement in the classroom? The latest Gallup Youth Survey* asked 13- to 17-year-olds a series of questions about how emotionally involved they typically feel in class.

When asked how often they "love what they're doing in the classroom," most students -- 62% -- said "sometimes." Only 16% said they very often love what they're doing; only the other hand, just 22% said this is rarely or never the case.

One of the key indicators of flow is the tendency to lose track of time. Thus, the survey asked students how often they get so involved in learning that they lose track of time in the classroom. Only 23% indicate they never or rarely lose track of time. The majority of teens, 57%, say they sometimes lose track of time, and one in five (20%) said it happens very often.

Later in the survey, Gallup asked students to think of the class in which they learned the most, and then asked how often they lose track of time in that class specifically. This time, the percentage who said it happens often was higher, at 38%, while 45% said they sometimes lost track of time in this class.

"Tracking" Student Interest

The practice of "tracking" -- giving students the option to follow curricular paths that emphasize some topic areas over others -- has been controversial. The idea that some classes are more likely to fully engage students than others lends support to tracking programs, but some observers feel tracking may rob students of the well-roundedness they need in the job market.

Students are most likely to feel the benefits outweigh the drawbacks. When asked whether they think spending more time in the classes they enjoy most would help or hurt their overall education, three-fourths (75%) said the effect would be positive overall; 18% said it would hurt their education.

A few verbatim comments illustrate the reasoning behind students' responses to this question.

From the "help my overall education" perspective:

  • "Knowledge can only come out of passion; passionless classes do nothing to further my education." -- 17-year-old girl
  • "It would mean more time spent efficiently learning -- not much is absorbed when bored." -- 17-year-old girl

From the "hurt my overall education" perspective:

  • "I believe that a person needs to have a balanced education (at least until college) and if I simply dropped courses that are essential for being a well-rounded adult, I would soon not be able to perform basic tasks that are needed for work and life in general." -- 15-year-old boy

*These results are based on Web surveys with a randomly selected national sample of 600 teenagers in the Gallup Poll Panel of households, aged 13 to 17, conducted July 6 to Sept. 4, 2005. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum error attributable to sampling and other random effects is ±4 percentage points. In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.

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