Creative Teacher Support

Creative, practical support and discussion for classroom teachers everywhere

Go with the Flow


What is pupil or learner engagement and how do we get it, see it, measure it?

So the school year begins again and all that we expect and lots that we do not is once more foist upon our senses. Shocked and changed by the first days back into routine, some of us excited, some nervous but all thinking, at least pretty carefully, about those first lessons with new and old classes. Some reaching for the familiar first lesson in the dog eared folder that has served us well for, well, years, others considering new approaches to excite and right the reflections that we have identified to be addressed. And it’s that excitement, or engagement that is potentially the most scrutinised aspect of our lessons, by observers and, more importantly, by the students.


Ofsted are very concerned with this in lessons, and unlike the old days, you can’t count on being seen with your “good” top set that ask “how high” when you say “jump” and stay compliantly quiet, you’ve got to engineer ways for students to demonstrate “learning behaviours”.

To be outstanding, Ofsted want the following:

“Teachers and other adults generate high levels of enthusiasm for, participation in and commitment to learning. Teaching promotes pupils’ high levels of resilience, confidence and independence when they tackle challenging activities.

Marking and constructive feedback from teachers and pupils are frequent and of a consistently high quality, leading to high levels of engagement and interest.”

But this has proven to be extremely difficult for colleagues to calibrate. Some colleagues think silence, even silent reading, means engagement whilst others see it as compliance and “getting through the work” when, actually it’s much more than that.

As an AST, particularly last year, I was fortunate to observe a number of lessons across a number of schools and, in all but one, perhaps two, the element that was truly missing was that of appropriate stretch and challenge. In the best, students were constantly challenged, asked to justify their interpretations and just when I thought that a cloze exercise was going to spoil it, it turned out to be a creative twist on the activity that stumped and inspired the kids in equal measure. To say that it was intuitive belies the pinpoint planning on the part of the teacher who planned it and executed it perfectly. She inspired a state of “flow” in her students.


Flow is a term coined by psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi (I have no idea how to pronounce it but this is the best I’ve found – try it as “cheeks sent me high”) to describe a state of complete immersion in a task.

Essentially flow describes that moment when you are challenged enough to feel that you can and want or need to continue and supported enough to progress. Part of the initial research concerned finding out when we are at our happiest. (check out the TED Talk from the man himself: For me, “flow” really starts  to support thinking about differentiation in our lessons. Asking ourselves what will ensure that students are adequately supported and still challenged at the same time to attain this state that does border other, less desirable feelings.

This is a tricky balancing act for teachers and, it could be argued, is the key job that we do. That trick of matching planning to the ability of your students is key to a whole treasure chest of aspects that can’t all be unpacked in this post. It relates to teachers’ abilities to use data, assessment, subject knowledge, behaviour management and curriculum design and delivery. Too much for now but more to come.

In any lesson, differentiation dictates that students should be appropriately challenged and supported so as not to fall into the areas next to “flow” that undermine learning.

Csíkszentmihályi does present us with some concrete areas that we can begin to translate into our practice. He noted that the task that individuals were engaged in played a central role in constructing a state of “flow”.

“In most flow activities, goals were clear, and feedback with respect to meeting those goals was immediate and forthcoming. The activities were also autotelic, or a goal in-and-of-itself performed for the sheer experience of it—sometimes even in the face of personal risk or danger.”


“Perhaps the most central condition for flow experiences to occur is that the challenge of the activity is well matched to the individual’s skills. That is, the challenges and skills are high and in balance—individuals stretch their skills to their limits in pursuit of a challenging goal.”

(Flow in Schools – Cultivating Engaged Learners and Optimal Learning Environments, DAVID J. SHERNOFF AND MIHALY CSIKSZENTMIHALYI)

Common Sense?

I hope that this grabs you like it did me. I hope that it makes an otherwise abstract idea at least a bit more concrete. Engagement is about “flow” and “flow” is engagement. It may seem like simple common sense that if ability is matched to challenge then we’re both happier and more engaged but it’s in the construction of these states that the pedagogy becomes trickier. How do we engineer these states for our students?

Creating Engagement- Practically

Living in the potentially most stimulating period of history makes the creation of engagement a far more interesting and challenging task. But, it is important to note the witty answer that teachers tend to give to the question, “what do you teach?”, “children”, and consider the brilliant advantage that gives us when we think about engaging the interest of learners. Kids are still, naturally inquisitive, and respond with glee to ideas that capture their interest. So do that.

  • Use lesson starters that engage and interest – they don’t have to be linked to the lesson content, they should be used as an engagement strategy. Think “Thunks” ( and “Thinkers Keys” (Thinkers_Keys_all) or simple brainteasers. Display them or have them on desks as students enter the room – you need to invest energy in ensuring students get straight on task.
  • Provide clear learning objectives and employ good AfL that lets students know how well they are performing and how to improve at short intervals.
  • Use questioning strategies that promote engagement. Think “no hands up”, “think time”, random name generators, lollipop sticks or PPPB (there are a lot of good posts on this but it’s basically: pose, pause, pounce, bounce)
  • Think about how you ask questions. An old question framed in a new way can be a powerful way to elicit better answers. I use a set of writing warmups which ask students to do simple things but in different ways, e.g. “Write a letter to Mr Baillie to persuade him you could beat him in a fight” with maybe four things they have to include. The rephrasing builds motivation and engagement and helps to fool the dorsolateralprefrontal cortex!??! (more in a later post)
  • Break lessons up with what Dylan Wiliam calls “Hinge Questions”: multiple choice questions that aim to predict the potential misconceptions in any learning. Try delivering them as a physical activity with students moving around the room to place themselves at the answer they think is right or “more right”.
  • Try some different structures for organising collaborative learning that takes the focus away from you and the “teaching” and focuses further on the “learning”, e.g. Kagan structures for cooperative learning (
  • Check out this post on getting your students RAMPed – “To maximise learning, get your students RAMPed” (
  • Check out something called “Curiosity 4  Learning” in this post: “Developing Curiosity – The Curiosity Campaign” (

The trick to engagement is to treat it as a tangible aspect of your planning. Carefully planned for and never just relying on presence, personality or control and classroom management. Think variety, engage the senses, shake things up and use laughter and fun  Students are waiting to be engaged, we just need to ensure that we do it for them.


Author: Gordon Baillie

I am an Advanced Skills teacher in a large comprehensive school in the North West of the UK. Trained in Scotland, I have worked in a number of different settings in my almost fifteen years of teaching. I have been working with both my own and other local schools and their teachers to both enhance and improve learning and teaching for a number of years now. I am an experienced trainer of both trainee and experienced teachers and have contributed to both local and national conferences around learning and teaching, particularly around Assessment for Learning as well as being asked to contribute to keynote addresses around other, more generic areas of teaching. I believe that teaching and particularly learning are deeply creative pursuits and that the only way to continue to enhance them and the practice of teachers is to collaborate.

5 thoughts on “Go with the Flow

  1. Great post – thanks. I suppose I’d add “narrative” to your list. Whether it’s in games, or games-based learning, giving the learning a setting or story arc seems to work wonders sometimes.

  2. So many good ideas & concepts: I need to pose less, pause on this, then pounce & bounce in class tomorrow.

  3. I love that Flow is just outside of Control! I am a pre-service teacher and something I felt lacked in my educational experience was appropriate challenge that took me outside my comfort zone. I have only heard of the Flow theory in some of my college lectures and haven’t learned in depth about it yet, but do you have any insight on how to vary levels of challenge in activities to accommodate different levels of current student abilities?

    • Hi. Thanks for your comment! I love that Flow is a little bit intangible too.
      Differentiation or varying challenge for different students has got to be, along with behaviour, one of the biggest challenges for teachers. First consider whether you’re teaching ability group or mixed ability.
      If you’re teaching ability groups this is far easier – all students in the group should be around the same ability. In which case analyse the data and see what skills constitute the “next steps” and teach to those. Telling students what they’re doing helps too. That its new information and that you want them to be challenged. Actively make it hard but ground it in knowledge they already have to reduce anxiety.
      Mixed ability groups are more difficult. Lots of people differentiate by outcome but this can be considered a cop-out. In which case you can differentiate by task – ensuring different groups if students have slightly different task within one bigger topic or task being taught. Google some stuff on question stems related to Blooms taxonomy for support in questions at different levels of complexity. Or differentiate by resource. Give one task or question but varying levels of resource to support or challenge different abilities. This could mean extension or deeper tasks on top of a core task for higher abilities (not just more work). Or writing frames or shorter answer questions building to a core task for lower abilities. All going on at the same time in the one lesson.
      Hope that’s helpful and I’m not just telling you things you’ve already been told.
      Check out some stuff on deliberate practice. Google it or look at a couple of blogs from @LearningSpy and @HuntingEnglish who call into question flow in favour of deliberate practice. Also look at Dwecks work on growth mindset – it relates nicely to AfL.

  4. This is great! I especially found the tips of grounding the new activity with things they already know and differentiating by task using different levels of Blooms taxonomy very helpful. Thank you!

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