Flow in the Music Classroom

I recently read Cain & Walden’s paper  for the British Journal of Music Education entitled Musical diversity in the classroom: Ingenuity and Integrity in sound exploration and found it quite inspirational. The study they carried out involved highlighting the practises of 5 passionate music educators who are successfully integrating music from other cultures into their typically western-focused curricula.

A passage that jumped out at me was this, from Jane – one of the teachers interviewed. She set up an ensemble based on African percussion, interspersed with storytelling:

. . . they don’t have to read music, they don’t have to know anything about music. They get to hit things . . . You’ve got some kids who come in believing they are not going to engage and then they come out at the end of it with a performance. They can be on stage, they can celebrate that learning; their parents can come in and watch them and go, ‘Wow!’

I think the way Jane describes the student’s experience is perfect – he or she goes in with some expectation, and all of a sudden the lesson has flown by and they have achieved something. I think everyone can relate to this, as the old adage goes, time flies when you’re having fun.

This is the feeling formally identified by Csikszentmihalyi’s ‘flow’ model (1992). This describes nine components of enjoyment you may feel when pursuing a hobby or leisure activity:

  • there is no worry of failure
  • there are clear goals every step of the way
  • there is immediate feedback
  • distractions are excluded from consciousness
  • there is a balance of challenge and skill
  • self-consciousness disappears
  • sense of time becomes distorted
  • action and awareness are merged
  • the activity becomes autotelic (worth doing for its own sake)

Any musicians will recognise each one of these from their musical life. Some people get these from snowboarding or reading literature, but no matter the activity involved, if you’re in a state of flow, it feels great. It’s rewarding and fulfilling, and in the case of music, you often have something to take away at the end – a composition or recording – something that you created.

Reading through Cain & Walden’s paper, I get the feeling that each teacher interviewed is working to create environments that are conducive to flow. It got me thinking about how I can plan my spaces and lessons to do the same thing.

After doing a little more research, I found that one factor seems to be the crux – the balance of challenge and skill. When working with groups of differing abilities, a teacher instinctively differentiates tasks – setting more reachable tasks for weaker students, and more challenging extensions for early finishers etc. This is certainly a recurring theme in Cain & Walden’s paper.

There is a wide range of emotions and states that can be realised through this simple balance. Massimini & Carli (1998) expressed this very finely in the figure reproduced below.

Here, we see how flow can be achieved by pitching a high challenge to a highly skilled student, and boredom if you issue the same student a moderate challenge. This much is obvious from common sense, but the spectrum of emotions and states – worry, anxiety, apathy, relaxation – is shown here in a way I find very useful.

While I think it is possible to engender flow in classroom practise, and try to do so for every student, the real challenge remains in assessment. Music assessment often leads to a system where ‘correctness is being rewarded rather than creativity’ Sheridan & Byrne (2002). Is there an assessment model that is compatible with flow, engagement and creativity in the music classroom? Feel free to share your thoughts below.


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