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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  1. WOW! I guess this chart explains a lot about my students in terms of where they are and their various misbehaviors during lessons. I see kids get in the "control-flow-arousal zone" constantly, and that is the ticket to a successful lesson. However, during my lessons, I often have students in the "boredom-apathy-worry zone." I would love to try out using this chart to have students reflect on how they are feeling about the lesson so that they can figure out their strengths/weaknesses and their level of ease acquiring the material. Then, the goal would be to figure out how I can get as many students (ALL!) to the FLOW level. Thanks Csikszentmihalyi. Maybe I can use your last name on a spelling test, but that might just cause anxiety.

  2. Eliza - I love your idea about having students reflect on where they are with regard to flow. That is fantastic! The visual would sure be a help, too.

    Love that,

  3. So sometimes my colleagues and I spy on our grade 1 students during recess through my classroom window. Reflecting on this post, and February's post about Dr, Mitra's hole in the wall here's what came to mind during our recess spy- session:
    Play is mostly spent in a state of flow!
    Learning is the most intense during play because its all happening in a state of flow. So how do we allow students' the same freedom that occurs during play while still controlling (somewhat) the content they are learning?

    Hole in the wall post: http://upcyclededucation.blogspot.com/2011/02/when-less-is-more-theories-on-thursday.html

  4. I really enjoy this concept, i want to make it my goal in life to achieve flow during teaching. Its pretty vague but thats the best part about it, once you have it your students will be involved with your own flow spreading to them which im hoping in my classroom will cause total zen.
    Gyler T

  5. Is it bad that I’m having trouble remembering when my last flow moment was? I feel like I should be having a flow moment every day.

    I assume it can be tricky for a teacher when a student is in a state of “arousal.” Since this is the point where the teacher can nudge the student just enough to get him to develop his skills, she would need to find just the right strategy to help the student reach the flow moment. I think that if the teacher isn’t careful during this process, she could send the child into anxiety, at which point the student could reach apathy for the specific subject or lesson. I consider this to be a delicate place for the teacher and the student.

    I suppose that if the teacher can nudge the student enough to reach flow, she would reach a state of flow herself.
    Patricia L.

  6. It's an awesome experience when you've been working with students and they look up at the clock and say "Wow, it's 11:45 already?". You know that not only were they with you, but they were enjoying being with you. It doesn't happen all of the time but when it does it's incredibly motivating.

    Meredith L.

  7. What a great feeling it is when your in a state of flow. To be able to provide that for your students would be awesome! Daniel Pink also offered the following to achieve flow: Quality (the quality of your lesson), Appropriate level (is your lesson within their zone of proximal development?), incentive and time. If QUAIT is in perfect balance your students are in flow. Thanks for such a great lesson Prof. Lara!

  8. As a student I have definitely experience the flow theory. I love science and I took an astronomy class and I felt like the time just flew by. I actually looked forward to the class because I knew that it would be interesting and fun. One day I would love for my students to feel the same way about my class. I do understand that QAIT helps the flow to occur quality, appropriate level, incentive and time must be incorporated. Also just the right amount of ability and challenge are the main components to reach flow. Ana V.

  9. Perfectly honest? I was sitting here thinking, am I ever in Flow?? Or am I always in Freakout? Then I realized I have been reading your blog, commenting, fantasizing about my future classroom and the awesome ways I will change my parenting tomorrow and I just realized I've been on here for over two hours!!! Flow, No? Maybe because I am in control of a couple T's here! Also, as an aside...there are a lot of letters in my last name!

  10. Csikszentmihaly--Staying Alive

    Travolta images aside, Dr. C thematizes a notion that is seemingly common-sensical, but even better as subjected to empirical research.

    Flow theory--simply put, if you don't engage other areas of the student's neurocognition--maybe the limbic system, even--then you are going to put them to sleep.

    Remember Ferris Bueller? Ben Stein is half-dead in front of the class and drones monotonically even BEFORE the class begins.

    Motivation may be an extension of the teachers' personal charisma, but the lion's share of interesting, motivational teaching appears to stem from extra-linguistic means. In order to be motivational for our students, we must MOTIVATE.

    This motivation does not heavily depend on Dr. Cs way of examining the degrees of motivation; rather, Cs research shows much about the dynamics of motivation, and what a teacher can do about motivational issues.

    John H

  11. Flowing, flowing, flowing on the river...

    Ok, some CCR here...

    I agree with Dr. Cs schema of motivation, but I tend to believe that much of this cannot be empirically quantified. In other words, flow theory looks like pure qualitative research.

    If so, then perhaps C could benefit from studies in psychopharmacology to expand the quantitative aspects of neuropsychological flow..

    John H

  12. Can't get over the way that words can be utilized this flawlessly.