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Flow and the Autotelic Classroom

PositiviteitI’ve mentioned the concept of ‘Flow’ recently after reading Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s seminal work Flow: the psychology of optimal experience. As is often the case with books that are discussed a lot, on the front cover it has a quotation indirectly urging you to buy it. In this case it’s an accurate and brief exhortation from a New York Times review:

Important… Illuminates the way to happiness.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” I thought. But after reading it, I can confirm that it’s a life-changing book. I’d add the qualifier “at least for me,” but it would seem that pretty much everyone who’s read it agrees. ๐Ÿ˜€

flow_bookBeing a teacher by both trade and vocation I have, of course, thought of the implications of the concept of ‘Flow’ for my classroom. How can I promote Flow states in my students? There’s certainly a lot of institutional things that militate against it in the average secondary school – not least the ringing of the school bell every 50 minutes! ๐Ÿ˜ฎ

I was looking through Csikszentmihalyi’s book for a succinct definition of what ‘autotelic’ means, but he teases out the concept throughout his work. That’s not at all a criticism, as he does it well, but it does make it rather difficult to get across in the space of a blog post! Autotelic comes from two Greek words – auto (self) and telos (goal) and ‘refers to a self-contained activity, one that is done not with the expectation of some future benefit, but simply because the doing itself is the reward.’ (p.67) I think the current Wikipedia definition of Autotelic explains the term a little better:

Autotelic is used to describe people who are internally driven, and as such may exhibit a sense of purpose and curiosity. This determination is an exclusive difference from being externally driven, where things such as comfort, money, power, or fame are the motivating force.

These externally-driven motivating forces are known as exotelic, with Csikszentmihalyi keen to point out that most things we do involve combinations of autotelic and exotelic factors.

If this difference obtains in the real world – and I think that it does – then it is vitally important that we educate young people how to become more autotelic and therefore achieve Flow states. The idea of Flow is perhaps best summed up by this graph (many thanks to Wes Fryer for making it available under a Creative Commons license via Flickr and including it in his blog post from 2006)

Flow graph

I believe that any educator seeing the above graph for the first time will see something they recognise: the fine line between creating a learning activity and experience that is too easy, too hard, involves too much challenge or involves anxiety for the learner.

The state of Flow, Csikszentmihalyi states, is not good in and of itself, but ‘because it increases the strength and complexity of the self.’ There are good and bad forms of Flow: for example the Marquis de Sade ‘perfected the infliction of pain into a form of pleasure’, but then almost everything and anything can be either good or bad depending on context. In the classroom, allowing one student to achieve a Flow state should not be to the detriment of another.

Csikszentmihalyi sets out four ways in which those who have developed autotelic habits can transform ‘potentially entropic experience[s]’ into Flow states. These quotations are taken from pages 209 to 213.

1. Setting goals

A person with an autotelic self learns to make choices… without much fuss and the minimum of panic… As soon as the goals and challenges define a system of action, they in turn suggest the skills necessary to operate within it… And to develop skills, one needs to pay attention to the results of one’s actions – to monitor the feedback… One of the basic differences between a person with an autotelic self and one without it is that the former knows that it is she who has chosen whatever goal she is pusuing. What she does is not random, nor is it the result of outside determining forces.

2. Becoming immersed in the activity

After choosing a system of action, a person with an autotelic personality grows deeply involved with whatever he is doing… To do so successfully one must learn to balance the opportunities for action with the skills one possesses… To achieve involvement with an action system, one must find a relatively close mesh between the demands of the environment and one’s capacity to act.

Involvement is greatly facilitated by the ability to concentrate. People who suffer from attentional disorders, who cannot keep their minds from wandering, always feel left out of the flow of life. They are at the mercy of whatever stray stimulus happens to flash by. To be distracted against one’s will is the surest sign that one is not in control.

3. Paying attention to what is happening

Concentration leads to involvement, which can only be maintained by constant inputs of attention.

Having an autotelic self implies the ability to sustain involvement. Self-consciousness, which is the most common source of distraction, is not a problem for such a person. Instead of worrying about how he is doing, how he looks from the outside, he is wholeheartedly committed to his goals.

4. Learning to enjoy immediate experience

The outcome of having an autotelic self… is that one can enjoy life even when objective circumstances are brutish and nasty. Being in control of the mind means that literally anything that happens can be a source of joy.

To achieve this control, however, requires determination and discipline. Optimal experience is not the result of a hedonistic, lotus-eating approach to life… [instead] one must develop skills that stretch capacities, that make one become more than what one is.


How does one go about starting to seek Flow activities? As Csikszentmihalyi quite rightly points out, it does not really matter where one starts, as you will end up at the same place:

The elements of the autotelic personality are related to one another by links of mutual causation. It does not matter where one starts – whether one chooses goals first, develops skills, cultivates the ability to concentrate, or gets rid of self-consciousness. One can start anywhere, because once the flow experience is in motion the other elements will be much easier to attain.

This will be a relief to educators, like me, who have control only over what goes on in their classroom. We can help make a difference! How?

  • Build goal-setting and target-achieving into the work we do on a weekly basis. Make students feel the ‘buzz’ of having planned for, and achieved, something.
  • Develop concentration skills. Build up students’ ability to focus on details for greater periods of time gradually over a series of lessons.
  • Get students involved. Don’t let them just sit in the corner and be passive. Help them to play an active role in what goes on in your classroom. Involve them in their own learning!
  • Share instances with students of when you have had to overcome adversity to achieve something. At a time when people are feeling down, give them something to be cheerful about. Model autotelic behaviour. ๐Ÿ™‚

If that’s whetted your appetite, I’d encourage you to invest in the book and watch this video of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in action at the TED Conference (2004)

What are your views on Flow? Are you au fait with Csikszentmihalyi’s work? Add your views in the comments. ๐Ÿ™‚

(Image by JasperVisser @ Flickr)

The six month slap-in-the-face for UK teachers

My video response to the news that the UK government is proposing 6-month teacher training ‘fast-track’ schemes. This is apparently to make it easier for those made unemployed in the economic downturn to enter (what has been called up until this point) the ‘teaching profession’.

Relevant links:

Podcasting: a 3-step guide

Podcasting overview (2)

Some members staff were unable to make some or all of the E-Learning sessions I put on regarding podcasting. I’m therefore re-running them this half-term over the next three weeks.

Alternative ways of presenting content and information to pupils


Powerpoint and other slideshow-based forms of presentation can be useful. They certainly have a place in my teaching. But variation is the spice of life and certainly helps in terms of pupils being able to remember important information they may need for examinations, etc.

If you just want cool ways of jazzing up your exisiting Powerpoint, then you could try CoolIris or Rich Chart Live. If, however, you’d like a different way of presenting, keep reading!

In what follows I’d like to take you through three tools that should help liven up your presentations. They are:

  1. Glogster
  2. Prezi
  3. Animoto


The best way to describe Glogster is that it’s like an online, multimedia poster. It’s very easy to use and, as it can be made to display full-screen, making it an ideal presentational tool. You can add (hyperlinked) text as well as embedding images, video and audio. The added bonus is that it’s already online for your pupils to see when they get home! ๐Ÿ™‚

An example of a very basic ‘glog’ is this one I created to show my pupils how it was done. They did a much better job – for example this one by Merrick S.


At the time of writing, Prezi is currently in ‘private beta mode’, meaning you have to request a login by signing up. In practice, it only takes a couple of days before you get your account.

Like Glogster, Prezi allows you to embed multimedia objects such as images and video (in the form of .flv files – try Describing itself as ‘the zooming presentation editor’, Prezi is like a giant canvas upon which you focus in on various parts.

Prezi can be viewed, and collaborated upon, online – but each presentation can also be downloaded for use offline. Perfect if your network connection is less than 100% guaranteed! ๐Ÿ™‚

Here’s a very straightforward Prezi I created on the League of Nations to show you the style.


Animoto is an easy video creation tool. It ‘feels’ your music and presents the images you upload to it in time with the beat. Animoto has recently become a lot more powerful in that you can now add text. It is therefore now useful as a story-telling tool, and especially as a ‘hook’ for pupils at the start of a lesson!

I created the above video last month to entice Year 9 to choose the new Vocational GCSE in History!

“You can tell a lot about someone from what they’re like.”

…so said the wise Harry Hill. But it would seem that you can also tell a lot about someone from they way they blog. I came across a website yesterday called Typealyzer, thanks to Vicki Davis. Typealyzer analyses blogs and websites and does some clever semantic processing to decide which of the Myers-Briggs personality types the author fits into. As Vicki quite rightly pointed out in her post, there’s a great variety of personality types in the edublogosphere! What am I? INTJ (standing for Introversion, iNtuition, Thinking, Judgement):

INTJ - The Scientist

I’m not a big fan of pigeon-holing people or stereotyping, so was a bit skeptical. Ironically, after some further research, I found that this is exactly what INTJ personality types are known for. This is from the Myers & Briggs Foundation website (my emphasis):

Have original minds and great drive for implementing their ideas and achieving their goals. Quickly see patterns in external events and develop long-range explanatory perspectives. When committed, organize a job and carry it through. Skeptical and independent, have high standards of competence and performance โ€“ for themselves and others.

What I am, and increasingly a fan of, are heuristics. These are rules-of-thumb and methods of problem solving that ‘just work’. My use of and belief in the power of heuristics fits in well with my Pragmatist outlook. If the sixteen personality types were all much-of-a-muchness and I could see myself in all of them, then I would dismiss the power of such talk. However, looking at the list, I’m certainly not anything like any of the personality types beginning with ‘E’ (for extroverted, presumably). In fact, the only other one remotely like me is INTP (the ‘P’ standing for Perception).

As Vicki Davis remarked in a follow-up tweet, the overviews tend only to talk about the positive traits of the personality types rather than including the negative elements. And then there’s the fact that Typealyzer looks at the web page towards which you direct it. As typing in would only take it to the front page of this site with summaries of blog posts, the results are likely to be distorted.

To gain some clarification and a second opinion, I searched for websites where you could take Myers-Briggs personality tests online. I took three. Here are the websites with the results underneath:

Kisa test - INTJ

OK, I thought. Well this is just a test on someone’s homepage. And I may have just been answering the questions in a way that would get me to be INTJ. On with the next test…

INTJ - HumanMetrics

OK, OK, but these aren’t exactly rigorous tests are they? So I searched for something with a bit more clout – and came across…

BBC – Science & Nature – What am I like?


So there we have it. I’m of the personality type INTJ. Apparently this is one of the rarest personality types! You can read more about INTJs at the BBC website, at PersonalityPages, or at Wikipedia. There’s some fascinating (at least, for me!) stuff in there.

If one of the most powerful things an individual can do in order to be successful and happy in life is to know thyself, then the quick Typealyzer blog test has got to be worth a try as a starting point.

What did YOU come out as?

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The evolution of EdTechRoundUp

ETRU logoIn late 2007 I helped bring together a group of UK-based educators with the intention of releasing regular podcasts about real-world educational technology. That group became known as EdTechRoundup. It was officially launched during the TeachMeet at BETT in January 2008. Later in the year, with the weekly discussions becoming well-attended, we made the decision to release our discussions as a separate podcast: EdTechRoundup Weekly.

During February 2009 even bigger changes have taken place. Following a successful ‘special’ on student blogging and WordPress Multi-User, I called a meeting of those for ease-of-reference I called the ‘admin team’. These are simply people who have already got involved with the behind-the-scenes work of extracting the audio from the FlashMeeting, tidying up the wiki, editing podcasts, etc. As such, membership of this team is open to anyone.

The result of our discussion can be found here on the blog. We decided to focus more on developing the community and therefore the following has come about:

  • We shall use the hashtag #ETRU on Twitter and other social media sites (#ETR was already taken!)
  • As a consequence of the above, we shall be known as EdTechRoundUp (note upper-case ‘U’)
  • Those intending to attend our weekly FlashMeetings should sign up on the relevant wiki page. This is to prevent problems if the FlashMeeting becomes full.
  • A new subdomain, brings together blog posts relating to educational technology from those involved in the community. Any regular attender of the weekly discussions can ask to have their blog posts syndicated.
  • In order to facilitate better feedback from those who listen to the ETRU podcast a forum has been set up at Listeners can then ask questions and seek clarification, as well as it being a place weekly discussion participants can continue their conversations!

If you weren’t aware of what EdTechRoundUp have been up to, we would invite you to come and join us! We meet at 8.30PM every Sunday evening for around an hour. Failing that, please do listen to the podcast, read our syndicated blog posts, and get involved in the forum! ๐Ÿ˜€

Ways to find great resources and ideas for lessons



Where do you get your lesson ideas from? Do you just follow the scheme of work? When you innovate what is the spark for your inspiration?

Do you sometimes struggle to find time to discover resources and wish there was somewhere you could go to prevent you from doing the lesson planning equivalent of rediscovering the wheel?

Where can I go other than search on Google?

Teachers in the UK are probably aware of the TESconnect Resource Hub. If you’re not, that’s a great place to start! Before the TES launched this, one of the main UK-based repositories for lesson plans and ideas was the Teacher Resource Exchange, run by the National Grid for Learning (NGfL).

Talking of the NGfL, they have regional hubs which can be found quickly by typing (for example) NGfL resources into your favourite search engine. ๐Ÿ™‚

Learning from colleagues in other schools

Most school subjects have spawned forums on the Internet where teachers of those subjects can discuss ideas, resources and issues. I know of the ones for subjects I currently teach (or have in the past) For example, History teachers have the History Teachers’ Discussion Forum and, Geography teachers have Staffordshire Learning Net, and teachers of ICT have the Forum.*

Searching for the name of your subject plus the word ‘forum’ in a search engine should bring up some promising links. Alternatively, try the excellent Links galore! ๐Ÿ™‚

Digging deeper

What about if you want do something original or obscure, though? That’s when finding websites that previous visitors have marked as especially useful would help you on your quest. Enter social bookmarking services. There are many of these, but the two main ones are Delicious and Diigo. The former has been discussed on elearnr before, but in a slightly different context.

The idea behind social bookmarking sites is that instead of saving your ‘favourites’ or ‘bookmarks’ in the web browser of one computer, you store them in an account online. You can then ‘tag’ these with keywords and make them visible for others to see. These sites then, as you can imagine, become very useful as hotbeds of links to fantastically useful websites.

Have a go right now. Head over to Delicious and Diigo and type in the name of your subject followed by resources. Click to enlarge the images below which show the results I obtained when entering history resources!

Delicious search results - 'History resources' Diigo search results - 'History resources'

The ultimate targeted resource and lesson idea finder

All of the above are great ways of using the power of communities to help you find something, but what about if you need something very, very specific – and fast? Enter Twitter.

Twitter is a micro-blogging social network. It’s like text messaging meets Facebook in that you have 140-characters to send a message. Educators worldwide use it en masse to share good practice, ask questions and find fast answers. A future E-Learning Staff Session and elearnr blog post will tell you all you need to get you signed up and interacting. ๐Ÿ™‚

What? You can’t wait? Head over to Twitter For Teachers to find out more!


* My Twitter network directed me towards these additional forums:

** Thanks @mtechman for reminder of this excellent resource!

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Quasi-motivational posters

My post on demotivational posters remains one of the most popular on this blog. In the spirit of giving people what they want to see, here’s the result of a great site called I discovered that randomly creates quasi-motivational posters upon each web page refresh!

Here’s the ones that made me chuckle:




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Under-promise and Over-deliver: the language of productivity.

Remember time lost cannot be regained

I’m not going to look up the fancy psychological name for the process, but it’s a truism that we often don’t know what our opinions are or where we stand on a subject before we talk about it with someone else. That back-and-forth and interface with others not only helps cement our views on a topic, but helps to form our identity. It’s natural, therefore, that interactions with colleagues and friends shapes our self-identity.

When you’re communicating with others, you’re actually also communicating with yourself. Why? Because you’re the type of person who says the things that you’re saying. I’m sure I’m not the only one who is about to fire off an angry email, but goes back and re-drafts it in order not to further fan the flames. What I’m saying is that what you say about yourself to other people can actually shape how you are.

Most people over-promise and under-deliver. They say they’re going to be back from work before dinner. Then they’re not. They say that they’ll be able to achieve a certain target. Then they fail to hit it. I was the same until I read a productivity blog last year (I forget which) that talked about Tom Peters‘ mantra that you should under-promise and over-deliver. No-one is surprised when you achieve something you said you would or arrive at an agreed time. However, surpassing the target, or arriving early is often looked upon as a very positive trait in an individual.

Allied to this is the language you then use in your interactions. Be the type of person who can be trusted, the type of person who delivers. Which of the following would you rather receive?

Response A

Thanks for your email. Just got it. I’m working on a portfolio until late tomorrow, but will get the file to you then!

Followed by:

Here’s the file I promised you. Look forward to catching up next week!

Response B

On the other hand, there’s the usual:

Sorry I haven’t got back to you for a couple of days. I’ve been snowed under and then forgot! Oh well, apologies again, and please find the file you wanted attached.

Response A gives off the vibe of someone in control and who can cope with what’s being thrown at them. They’re the type of person who can deliver. Response B, however, smacks of someone who can barely cope with their inbox on a daily basis.

Who would you rather do business with?

(Image = Time Lost by gothick_matt @ Flickr)

Open Source Schools curriculum meeting

I spent yesterday afternoon with a like-minded group of educators who are part of the Becta-funded Open Source Schools project. We spent four hours (!) discussing the ins-and-outs of what educatorsย  want and need from us. We were joined virtually by a number of educators from the FlashMeetingย  (see replay). In the spirit of being open and sharing, here’s an overview of what was discussed! ๐Ÿ˜€

  • We’re concerned with not replicating what is already available elsewhere in the Open Source community. Our focus should, and is, on pedagogical application of Open Source Software (OSS).
  • Starting with the half-term after Easter, we shall have a ‘push’ in a given subject area. This will not be at the expense of providing resources, links and discussion for other subject areas. We have a number of historians who are part of the project (including myself), and so will be kicking things off with either History or Design and Technology, where teachers have also expressed a strong interest.
  • The idea of ‘having a competition’ was raised at various points at the meeting. Usually it was in an attempt to get students engaged. I had misgivings about this, especially after Clarence Fisher’s excellent recent post.
  • As would be expected, there was much discussion of Moodle. I’m not against it, I’m just not a huge fan. The problem is with Moodle is that there’s a fair learning curve, and it’s best deployed as a whole-school learning platform. I’m more concerned with getting teachers, students and parents using OSS they can install easily and locally. :-p
  • I floated the idea of having posters that could be downloaded from the site and printed off by educators who want to promote OSS and the Open Source Schools website. We discussed getting professional designers to come up with these, but eventually decided that user-generated ones (after exemplars) would beย  more in keeping with the community spirit.
  • I mentioned that a good way to get parents engaged might be to show ways in which they can control their children’s access to the Internet at home. We need to explore this more as existing OSS solutions we could think of are difficult to deploy on a single machine. I suggested OpenDNS, but it turns out that this is free, but not Open Source. ๐Ÿ™
  • We discussed how to get teachers started with OSS. I pointed out the fact that our unique selling point is pedagogical use of OSS, not just being a one-stop shop for everything Open Source! To this end, we’re not going to be providing step-by-step guides on how to download and install programs (unless we’re specifically asked to, of course…)
  • It was agreed that video is a powerful medium, and that 5-minute TeachersTV-style examples of OSS being used in an educational context would be useful. This could take the form of screencasts (created using Wink, for example) or videos recorded and uploaded to These would be created by educators on a voluntary basis (after being seeded with some examples) instead of being of broadcast-quality by film crews parachuted into schools!

If you’d like to get involved in the Open Source Schools project, please head over to the website. We’re keen for as many people to get involved as possible and it’s far from an exclusive club.

See you over there! ๐Ÿ˜€