PS22 is an elementary school in Staten Island, New York which has reached superstar status for its school chorus program. No, it’s not a special private school or art school, but what it does have that’s special is one of its music teachers, Gregg Breinberg. Gregg turned the school around with his unique style of engaging his students. His class went viral on YouTube, has been visited by many celebrity pop artists, and is inspiring audiences everywhere. The school’s principal says that not a single student in the choir has ever gone to summer school. So this seems to suggest that this choir is helping their academic life as well.
But what makes Breinberg’s teaching style so unique? Well, one thing that he does well is that he encourages his students to “get in the moment” when they sing. While he also teaches and expects high levels of technical quality from his students (which is also important), Breinberg wants his students to feel the music, rather than just sing it.
A psychologist by the name of Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi proposed a concept known as flow. He has performed many studies and has written many books about the subject. Flow is “a state of concentration or complete absorption with the activity at hand and the situation. It is a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter” (Csikszentmihalyi,1990). Flow has shown to provide many benefits, including improved performance “in a wide variety of areas including teaching, learning, athletics and artistic creativity.” (Click here to read a bit more about Flow, and get the ball rolling, if you’re interested.)
I believe that Mr. B. is turning music class into a flow experience for the kids, and that’s what’s motivating them and giving them a sense of meaning in school.
Can this translate elsewhere?
Flow theory would says that any activity has the capacity to become a flow experience. I would say that, under this premise, every school subject has the potential to be flow experience for students.
And these is just the kind of educational experiences that kids are “begging” for, whether they describe it this way or not. Currently, students are tired of the regular classroom environment, which is all too often often, uninspiring, and harsh in tone. Lectures are often monotone and stiff, leaving the students bored and restless. Sometimes, the teacher herself is visibly uninspired by the material! But I believe that learning and discovering at its core is anything but boring, uninspiring, and stiff, and like Mr. B is doing, we ought to show that to students.
Now granted, for certain topics, it’s acceptable to deliver them with less of an emotional “punch.” Like with math, for instance. And not everything needs to sweep students up into euphoria; not every class can realistically be a flow experience for every student.
But even with a topic like math, the teacher can spend a bit of time describing the value that mathematical concepts can add to the students’ lives and to our society. The important thing here is to convey why the lessons you’re teaching are valuable and meaningful. And that’s one thing that can motivate students to stay in school, to care about, and to get excited about learning.