Flow theory and motivation

Say this last name five times fast (pronounced chick-sent-me-high-ee).  Ready? Csikszentmihalyi, Csikszentmihalyi, Csikszentmihalyi, Csikszentmihalyi, Csikszentmihalyi.  Kind of a mouthful, huh?  This professor of psychology is brilliant.  Maybe the more letters in your last name, the more brilliant you are.  ...I only have four letters in my last name.....bad theory.

Can you think of a time where you thoroughly enjoyed yourself?  Where the minutes and hours melted away and you lost all sense of yourself?  Blogging right now does that to me.  If I didn't have to eat, grade papers or be a mom, I could type, innovate, and create for hours.  That, my friendly blog reader, is "flow."

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes flow, throughout his work, as "an intense emotional involvement" or "being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. [Where] the ego falls away.  Time flies.  Every action, movement and thought follows inevitably from the previous one....[where] your whole being is involved, and you're using your skills to the utmost." 

There are seven components to flow; sometimes you will find this list expanded to nine.  The spirit of flow includes that......
  1. You are completely involved in what you are doing.  You have focus and concentration.
  2. You have a sense of ecstasy - or being outside reality.
  3. You have greater clarity.  You know what needs to be done and have a sense of how you are proceeding towards that activity, goal or task.
  4. You know the activity is doable and that you have adequate skills.
  5. You have a sense of serenity. You have no worries about yourself; you grow past the boundaries of your ego.
  6. You feel a sense of timelessness.  You are focused on the present; the minutes and hours just slip away.
  7. You have intrinsic motivation. Whatever you are engaged in becomes its own reward.  You work, learn or do for its own sake.  Take that carrots and sticks!
To achieve flow, Csikszentmihalyi believes you (or your students) need just the right balance of "challenge" and "skill level."  Too much or too little of one, and not the other, and you are no-flow - my hyphenated words, not his.  This graphic gleaned from a Google image search shows this visually:

Image from andreivanchuk.com
According to Csikszentmihalyi, the best way to get to a state of "flow," if you aren't there already, is to access it by one of it's neighbors - control or arousal.  Control means you are comfortable with the current task or activity, but you are not in flow.  To get to flow from here, you need to increase the challenge you face.  Arousal is when you are over challenged, but your skill level isn't quite there yet.  Think of Vygotsky's zone of proximal development.  If you need a refresher, click here. In arousal, you need to be gently nudged to develop your skills.  The less flow-like in the visual above is apathy - low challenge and low skills.  Think complete indifference and absence of interest.

Yuck.  Have you ever had a student who felt apathetic?

Next time you teach a lesson, engage in an activity or just do something you or your students love - sit back and observe.  Are you in flow?  Are they?  If yes, high five!  If not, how can you inch over to it?

All the best,

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