I am continuing to read “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience” by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and am seeing lots of connections for educators and learners. At the outset of chapter 4, Csikszentmihalyi summarizes the “common characteristics of optimal experience” or flow:
- …a sense that one’s skills are adequate to cope with the challenges at hand, in a goal-directed, rule-bound action system that provides clear clues as to how well one is performing.
- Concentration is so intense that there is no attention left over to think about anything irrelevant, or to worry about problems.
- Self-consciousness disappears, and the sense of time becomes distorted.
- An activity that produces such experiences is so gratifying that people are willing to do it for its own sake, with little concern for what they will get out of it, even when it is difficult, or dangerous.
For me, I think reading, writing, blogging and podcasting have often come to constitute a “flow experience.” For that reason, it has been very difficult to embark on a 40 day fast of evening technology use! This experience is proving to be worthwhile, but certainly challenging.
The following graph of page 74 of Csikszentmihalyi’s book communicates a great deal about the conditions required for a flow experience and the dynamical nature of flow:
As we think about the need to engage students in authentic learning experiences inside and outside of school and the conditions of “engagement,” I think this graph and these ideas about “flow” are helpful. As a learner, I am intrinsically motivated to seek conditiions of flow. Csikszentmihalyi identifies “skills” and “challenges” as the two key variables in the flow experience, placing them on the respective X and Y axes of this graph. As my skills (and knowledge) in a particular area grow, I will naturally move out of the flow channel if the level of challenge I am facing remains static. This is shown on the graph by the movement from position A1 to A2. This condition leads to boredom.
If I do not increase my knowledge and skills but the challenges I face increase, I will experience anxiety: This is shown on the graph as the movement from A1 to A3. When we have students in our classrooms facing anxiety, I think this graph may be descriptive of their psychological experience.
As classroom teacher-leaders, I think it is helpful to think about the PERCEPTIONS of skills and challenges that the learners in our care have in given contexts. I think as teacher-leaders, one of our educational objectives should be helping students experience and maintain conditions of “flow” in their own learning. Is this idealistic? Of course. But I think the ideas Csikszentmihalyi is highlighting here in terms of “optimal experience” relate directly to the sort of authentic, meaningful learning experiences that both cannot be faked and are likely to be recorded in LONG TERM memory which we should actively promote inside and outside our classrooms.
Everything we do in school or outside of school may not be able to constitute a “flow” experience, but it is interesting to note that our perceptions of events and contexts are of primary importance in the flow experience. As learners, we can learn to shape our perceptions of consciousness and thereby shape with greater levels of control our own experiences inside “the flow channel.” This may sound like psychological mumbo-jumbo to some, but I think there is a GREAT deal of validity in these ideas. I have not finished the book yet (I’m just about one-fourth of the way through it) but I’m sure I’ll continue to see more connections to the learning process as I read more. Csikszentmihalyi’s view of learning seems to fit well with my own conceptions of “dynamical learning” that I’ve written and presented about previously.
Writing and blogging about what I am reading is an important part of my own effort to “own” these ideas and keep them within my own consiousness– both consciously and subconsciously. It’s amazing how the more we read, talk about, and write about ideas– our minds continue to process and develop those thoughts into new syntheses.
It’s Thanksgiving, and I’m thankful for MANY things– but one thing I’m very thankful for is the opportunity to have access to such rich texts and ideas both in book and electronic form, to think, talk and write about those ideas, and the chance to publish my thoughts here and elsewhere to invite your feedback and ideas! Thoughts like these from Csikszentmihalyi continue to increase my perceived level of “challenges” on the flow graph, and provide incentive to improve my cognitive skill set to understand and apply those ideas within my own worldview. I’m guessing this may explain (at least in part) the reason you’re here, reading this blog post!
Happy Thanksgiving! 🙂
(And for more info on “flow” if you don’t have one of Csikszentmihalyi’s books, you can check out the WikiPedia entry on this topic!)
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