Grit vs Flow – what’s better for learning?

At least it wasn’t Brain Gym!


Having just put up a new classroom display exhorting the benefits of ‘flow’ and using the idea in training materials, I have just had this thrust in front of my slack jawed face by my new bête noire, Alex Quigley! (NB: this is not true – Alex is a thoroughly decent chap, and a man I admire greatly.)

I’ve been fascinated by the idea of ‘flow’ since reading Mihály Csíkszentmihályi‘s book some years ago. The idea is that if you’re totally immersed in the experience of performing a task you will perform it to a higher standard. It’s has been billed as “the ultimate experience in harnessing the emotions in the service of performing and learning.” Who wouldn’t want to feel “a feeling of spontaneous joy, even rapture, while performing a task”? Sounds good, right? Maybe too good.

With arch educational myth buster, Tom Bennett’s warning against being an ideas magpie rattling round in my poor over burdened brain, the sense of wounded pride at being so easily gulled is an almost physical thing. I should have known better. As he says, “75% of the educational research … seems to believe that science, like Adam, sprung ex nihilo, and can be invented in a day.”

Cal Newport’s rather wonderful blog Study Hacks sets out the following very interesting advice for budding concert pianists to counter the feel good molasses that is flow:

Avoid Flow. Do What Does Not Come Easy.

“The mistake most weak pianists make is playing, not practicing. If you walk into a music hall at a local university, you’ll hear people ‘playing’ by running through their pieces. This is a huge mistake. Strong pianists drill the most difficult parts of their music, rarely, if ever playing through their pieces in entirety.”

To Master a Skill, Master Something Harder.

“Strong pianists find clever ways to ‘complicate’ the difficult parts of their music. If we have problem playing something with clarity, we complicate by playing the passage with alternating accent patterns. If we have problems with speed, we confound the rhythms.”

Systematically Eliminate Weakness.

“Strong pianists know our weaknesses and use them to create strength. I have sharp ears, but I am not as in touch with the physical component of piano playing. So, I practice on a mute keyboard.”

Create Beauty, Don’t Avoid Ugliness.

“Weak pianists make music a reactive  task, not a creative task. They start, and react to their performance, fixing problems as they go along. Strong pianists, on the other hand, have an image of what a perfect performance should be like that includes all of the relevant senses. Before we sit down, we know what the piece needs to feel, sound, and even look like in excruciating detail. In performance, weak pianists try to reactively move away from mistakes, while strong pianists move towards a perfect mental image.”

And this advice seems equally pertinent for teachers as well as our students. I love the idea that practice should seek to ‘create beauty’. And as me old ma always said, you ‘ave to suffer to be bootiful!

I made this point in a post on deliberate practice last year:

Hattie says in Visible Learning for Teachers, “Sometimes learning is not fun. Instead, it is just hard work; it is deliberate practice; it is simply doing some things many times over.”

This idea has been knocking around for quite a while. Way back in 1898 Bryan & Harter were apparently telling us that it takes 10 years to become an expert in whatever field you choose to pursue. This was picked up more recently by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers and has since become something of an industry with books like Bounce and The Talent Code dominating best seller lists. The current thinking is that it takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to achieve mastery of anything. It’s worth noting here that practice does not mean rote learning or repetitive ‘skill and drill’.

Guess what? Turns out Gladwell’s 10,000 hours rule is guff too. But, fortunately (else my self-respect might be entirely shredded) Erikson’s theory of deliberate practice still appears to hold up. Just to recap, deliberate practice is intentional, aimed at improving performance, pitched just beyond your current skill level, combined with immediate feedback and repetitious. When these conditions are met, practice improves accuracy and speed of performance on cognitive, perceptual, and motor tasks.

Angela Duckworth (no relation to Vera) has looked at deliberate practice in relation to success at Spelling Bees and explored the concept of ‘grit’. She reports that,

With each year of additional preparation, spellers devoted an increasing proportion of their preparation time to deliberate practice, despite rating the experience of such activities as more effortful and less enjoyable than the alternative preparation activities. Grittier spellers engaged in deliberate practice more so than their less gritty counterparts, and hours of deliberate practice fully mediated the prospective association between grit and spelling performance. Contrary to our prediction, we did not find evidence that the inverse association between the trait of openness to experience and spelling performance was mediated by any of the three preparation activities measured in this study.

So what can we learn from all this?

Well, firstly, there’s no substitute for hard work. And, perhaps, without that feeling that what you’re doing is actually a bit of a slog you won’t ever achieve real mastery. And secondly, sometimes the hard work is checking your facts. Mea culpa. I’m not yet sure whether ‘flow’ is completely blown out of the water as a state to aspire to; possibly this might come down to the difference between learning and performance. Flow looks great, but grit results in learning; flow is the end, and grit is the means.

Is this a false dichotomy? Maybe. But I still have to rethink my display, and my presentation for TLA Berkhamsted!


With the help of Roo Stenning (see comment below) and Pete Jones (on graphic design) we have arrived at a Grand Unified Theory of the Grit/Flow cycle:


And for an even more coherent explanation of deliberate practice as it relates to teacher development, read this wonderful post from Alex Quigley

Related posts

Deliberating about practice
Easy vs Hard
Go with the flow: the 2 minute lesson plan
The problem with progress part 1: learning vs performance

16 Responses to Grit vs Flow – what’s better for learning?

  1. Dai Barnes says:

    Dear David. Bravo. Always good to catch yourself before you fall. I’m on my second preso for TLAB13 which I hope is some consolation. The first one died.

    Like many others, I am always pleased to read of your performances on the classroom and you have plenty to share.

    One question: how did you take that marvellous self-portrait that accompanies this post? 🙂

  2. […] response to Grit Vs Flow (David Didau) First of all, read this:  Sorry to send you away as soon as you got here, but this post is a response to David […]

  3. Jo Hetherington says:

    Another thought provoking blog as always. I thought I read widely in the field of education but the breadth of your reading is impressive. Keep up the good work.

  4. Tom Sherrington (@headguruteacher) says:

    Hi David. I just think that ‘flow’ isn’t properly defined. In my blog I use the skateboarder as the model of someone in flow.. They are never coasting. They are pushing to the limit all the time. Flow suggests a state where the challenge is just ahead all the time, on the limit…so you are driven to continue improving all the time.. That’s why kids play computer games for ever… not because it is easy, but because it is only just within reach all the time, constantly looking to reach the next level. So, for me, Flow and Grit are one and the same. If flow means easy coasting… then we’re talking about something else….

  5. learningspy says:

    Tom – have you read Csíkszentmihályi‘s definition? He says it’s like being “completely carried away”. I’m saying Flow is an optimal performance state. It feels great and, perhaps, tricks you into thinking you are great too. The skater ONLY gets to that state by falling off his board. A lot. Most skaters have suffered a lot of broken bones! When they get they are they really ARE coasting; it’s effortless. You can’t stay in the ‘flow state’ if you’re doing something that is a struggle – the self consciousness needed to focus on overcoming difficulties is too distracting to get ‘carried away’. Think about athletes: they push their bodies to breaking point in order to look effortless in performance.

    Computer games are the antithesis of mastery: it’s circular and meaningless. Kids play them forever because it feels good; reaching the next level is a fix, a con. Where are you actually going? What are you actually mastering?

    Flow is very appealing to the modern, feel good psyche – hard work & effort are for plodders and thickos – we’re raising a generation who think that success should be easy, just like computer games.

    Cheers, David

  6. Tom Sherrington says:

    I think we agree in essence really..except in what flow means. I’d argue that the state of flow a skateboarder is in…or the art class I saw today or maths class last week…has continual challenge built in. Flow, as I see it, is where people are carried away because they love the continual challenge of self directed improvement…ie flow isn’t a safe breezy endpoint; it is an ongoing process of ever increasing difficulty. If the challenge stops, the flow bubble bursts; it’s boring. Flow IS grit …the kind of grit that you just can’t get enough of.. 🙂

  7. learningspy says:

    Sorry to battle on, but flow seems to be the antithesis of grit. Grit is carrying despite the pain. Grit is being able to practise until your finders bleed. Grit is not fun. Grit is doing it even when it’s boring! This is the master skill. We should encourage students to delay the gratification of flow.

    I worry about those lessons that just flow: are they learning or just performing really well? We’re conditioned to look at the tip of the iceberg and the graceful swan above the surface. We often say that learning is messy, but do we believe it? Bjork tells us that when learning is really happening, short term performance is reduced: it looks like we’re getting worse. That is why we shy away from gritty lessons; especially during observations.

  8. Roo - @TheRealMrRoo says:

    My (attempt at a) Grand Unified Theory of Growth Mindset, Grit, Deliberate Practice, “Talent” and Flow:

    In an earlier tweet I summed up my opinion like this: “I think that it’s Growth Mindset/Grit that inspire/support DP. Flow *may* result from the newly developed “talent”…”

    After reading the USDoE report on Promoting Grit, Tenacity, and Perseverance: Critical Factors for Success in the 21st Century (, which argues that: “Learning environments can be designed to promote grit, tenacity, and perseverance” if students are provided with “opportunities to take on ‘optimally challenging’ goals”, i.e. Flow, I now see it more as a cycle, with a Growth Mindset and Grit inspiring and supporting Deliberate Practice and the development of “talent”, which may result in students experiencing Flow. These Flow experiences would then support the development of a Growth Mindset (“Wow, I really am getting better at this!”) and Grit (“All that hard work is really paying off!”), leading to further Deliberate Practice etc. etc. etc.

    So it’s not Grit vs Flow, but how can we foster our students’ Growth Mindsets and Grit, develop their Deliberate Practice and “talent” and provide them with opportunities to experience Flow. Or, as the USDoE report says:

    “Rigorous and supportive learning environments instill, for example, high expectations, a growth mindset, expectations for challenge and early failure, cycles of constructive feedback and iteration, and a sense of belonging; and support for strategies to plan, monitor, and stay on track.”

  9. learningspy says:

    Roo – that all seems pretty sound – I’ve been over it a couple of times and it holds water. A virtuous learning circle. Thanks

  10. […] @LearningSpy – here is a great post from David, as usual, with lots to get you thinking. Personally I’ve always been a champion of Flow, it disguises the Grit!  Grit vs Flow – what’s better for learning? … […]

  11. […] following post goes some way to explaining the huge question mark hovering over ‘flow’ on slide […]

  12. Tom Sherrington (@headguruteacher) says:

    I submit to greater wisdom of the cycle…. phew.

  13. […] Grit vs Flow – what’s best for learning? […]

  14. James Wilson @james1980wilson says:

    Another thought provoking article David. Thank you. I was of a similar view about flow until I read this.

    I can’t remember who posted it, but there was a wonderful article on twitter about practise. The essence of the article was that true practise is difficult, unpleasant and frustrating. It shared a great deal in common with the idea of grit. You are only really making progress if you are moving beyond your current highest level of achievement. This means falling over, making mistakes, playing bum notes etc. Following on from the idea I would suggest a musician flows during a performance. The enjoyment of flow in the performance is the counterbalance to the grit required for practise.

    In defence of flow, I also remember reading that working in a state of flow is beneficial to mental health, having a similar effect to meditation i.e. the mind is focused and not allowed to wander or dwell.

  15. learningspy says:

    James – I agree; doing pleasurable things would certainly be good for mental health and maybe that’s something to bear in mind as a teacher. Too much grit might just result in frustration. And I guess all this is bound up in the learning/performance/progress debate.


  16. […] this blog post by David Didau he brings up the age old debate between grit vs. flow and what is the better route to learning. I always enjoy these deep educational practice debates […]

Constructive feedback is always appreciated

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