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David Baxter PhD

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Author advises students in Boca: Go with the 'flow'
April 17, 2004
By Tal Abbady
The Sun-Sentinel

Boca Raton — While the teacher spouts information, the student's mind drifts. That rite of passage eats up at least 13 years of life for most young people, according to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of the best-selling Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.

Csikszentmihalyi, a professor at Claremont Graduate University, has spent decades researching and writing about the heightened state achieved by artists, scientists, athletes, writers and others who are passionately engaged in what they do. He believes that state of utter absorption, or "flow," can be inspired in the classroom, and made the case for it before a packed audience Thursday night at Lynn University in a talk organized by the Unicorn Children's Foundation and Lynn's College of Education and Human Services.

"We expect young people to sit quietly in a place for 13 years not doing anything that requires responsibility, judgment, risk... It goes against the grain of what we're like as human beings. Most students sitting there don't have their minds sitting there. Their minds are on a fishing trip or playing football or planning the weekend."

The natural condition of children is to love learning, the author said, and in early childhood, "flow" is close to the surface -- a spontaneous fascination with life that over time is dulled by regimens devoid of creativity.

Csikszentmihalyi did not outline an approach to teaching that would bring students' minds back from their wanderings, except to suggest that in ancient cultures, "flow" was achieved not on a blackboard, but in temples, museums, the outdoors. Parents who expose their children to these settings stand a chance of fostering in them a love of learning and an ability to be engaged with the world.

In its most pure form, flow induces a sense of timelessness and focus akin to a religious experience, Csikszentmihalyi's research shows. He quoted one composer: "My hand seems devoid of myself and I have nothing to do with what is happening."

But what's a teacher reeling from pressures of the FCAT to do to inspire this kind of out-of-body experience in the classroom? There was little in the way of prescriptions, though audience members shared Csikszentmihalyi's optimism.

"With the right kind of teacher, flow is absolutely possible," said Richard Cohen, Lynn's dean of education. "Learning is pretty sophisticated, and I hope our students understand that you need to take the whole child into consideration."

Iliana Jangi, 18, a student at American Heritage school, is a budding photographer who hopes to study her art in college.

"Teachers need to talk less and understand that students have different ways of learning," Jangi said. "For me, flow happens when I'm taking pictures. I'll be at the beach, capturing the light from different angles, and it'll happen. It's something from within."
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