A Teacher Creates His Toughest Test

A Teacher Creates His Toughest Test

Are students energized by my lessons or thinking of something else?

Irving Ponders the Nature of Consciousness by Matte Stevens

Chasing dreams and pursuing gratifying yet challenging activities produce a euphoric state called flow: Troubles disappear, ruminating thoughts are forgotten, and the passage of time goes unnoticed. Why? The process of setting and reaching personally meaningful goals requires concentration and absorption in the present moment. Athletes may experience flow during competition, journalists during interviews, and scientists when they experiment. Since psychologists have found flow to be a signpost of meaningful work—indicative of both happiness and self-actualization—creating flow for students seems a worthy goal for classroom teachers. So, with the help of the company Metric Wire, I decided to examine my effectiveness as a teacher in promoting flow in my ninth-grade English class.

My experiment was inspired by the “father of flow,” psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who paid participants to carry pagers that randomly administered questions to assess their emotions, concentration, and engagement in daily tasks, leisure activities, work, and school. His work with students led him to an alarming conclusion: The typical student experience throughout the school day is extremely low-flow. If our nation wants to build gritty and passionate lifelong learners, we need to end the drought.

So I programmed two questions about flow into the Metric Wire platform, which my students downloaded as an app. Over the course of eight weeks, the students were then triggered to answer two questions (on a scale of 1 to 10) several times throughout their hour in English class:

  • “Right now I feel energized in this lesson.”
  • “Right now I am thinking about something else.”

For the purposes of my research design, I conceptualized flow with an equation: FLOW = ENERGY – DISTRACTION. As it turned out, the three days when my classes experienced the highest flow (highest energy with least distraction) were three consecutive days of my introduction to philosophy.


Students began the philosophy lesson by responding to a question: “Are all human lives equal?” Next, a thought experiment asked students to choose between allowing a bomb to detonate near several family members or next to a much larger population of innocent people. The overwhelming majority of students reported: (1) yes, all lives are equal, and (2) they will protect their family and detonate the bomb near a larger crowd. With a little prompting, the class recognized their hypocrisy, and gained some appreciation for the utility of thought experiments.

The students then traveled around the room commenting on the various thought experiments proposed on chart paper. Depending on the color of their marker, students either indicated what they would do in that situation or determined whether another student’s response to the thought experiments suggested that humans are more selfish or more altruistic. I then presented a clip from the TV show What Would You Do? The show uses actors to enact immoral behaviors, such as refusing to serve a customer based on race, to determine whether unknowing bystanders would take action or walk away.

Students then wrote a description of the video experiment and whether it demonstrated that people are naturally more selfish or more altruistic. Another brief class discussion allowed students to connect the chart paper activity to their written explanation of the video. In the final minutes of class, students imagined themselves on a sinking cruise ship with only enough room for a few other passengers in the lifeboat. Each of 10 candidates for the available spots had complex narratives: Some lived corrupt but philanthropic lives. Others were deceitful but very young. The student had to decide whom to save. We ended class by connecting the first question I asked to the sinking ship scenario and reflecting on the questions: (1) Is human nature naturally selfish or altruistic? And (2) How do we weigh the value of human lives?


The next and second-highest flow day began with another thought experiment: asking students, after witnessing a crime, whether to report it to the police, knowing that a jail sentence would surely leave the criminal’s children hungry, destitute, and possibly homeless. A quick vocabulary review followed, which included six “transition” words from throughout the year. Students then practiced a quick fill-in-the-blank exercise using the six words to ensure that they understood the distinct use of each. Afterward, students were released into groups to create their own thought experiment using the transition words.


The third-highest flow day began by reviewing some common grammatical mistakes when using transition words. Then we examined two adapted moral dilemmas with a rich history in philosophy: a doctor who violates the Hippocratic Oath to execute a cruel dictator, and an innocent bystander who could be sacrificed for the greater good of humanity. A structured debate comprised the remaining class time.

Looking back, I don’t think my experiment is as much a testament to the power of philosophy as it is an example of what happens when lessons are meaningful for students. Too often, I find schools quick to purchase curricula or select readings because of the ease of skill instruction (e.g., a collection of vapid stories with salient symbolism). While I want my students to demonstrate concrete skills, such as the ability to write grammatically correct arguments with hypothetical examples, I also want them to create meaning for themselves—and that proved to be measurable as flow. I think other teachers can benefit from technology that collects data on a lesson’s ability to capture the concentration and interest of students.

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