In the flow

This is number 6 in my blog series on major learning theories. My plan is to work through the alphabet of psychologists and provide a brief overview of their theories, and how each can be applied in education. In the last post we examined the work of Craik and Lockhart on Levels of Processing theory. In this post, we explore the work of Mihály Csíkszentmihályi on Flow Theory. This is a simplified interpretation of the theory, so if you wish to learn more, please refer to the original work of the theorist.

There is an interesting news report on the BBC News website this morning. It is a piece claiming that children who use technology at home are finding that they are not able to concentrate in school. They are not able to focus, claims the report, because 'they're spending so much time on digital games or social media.' Yeah right. It's easy to blame lack of concentration on technology, but what about the quality of the lessons they are attending? The onus is on teachers to make lessons more interesting, and that is what they are trained to do. Part of the solution might be to incorporate these digital games and social media into some of the lessons. Just how can we engage students more effectively? Here's Flow Theory:

The theory

You know that moment when you are in the zone, on the ball, completely focused? You become so absorbed by what you are doing that your forget what the time is, you forget to eat, you miss sleep. That's essentially what flow is. According to Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, being in the flow is the ultimate in focused intrinsic motivation. In simplistic terms, being in the flow is where students find themselves in that narrow channel between disinterest and fear. There is a fine balance between the challenge of the task, and the skills the learner has at their disposal. Maintaining this balance avoids disillusionment if your skills don't measure up to the challenge, or boredom if the task is too simple and easy to achieve.

How it can be applied in education

Learners who are immersed in their studies tend to be single-mindedly motivated to explore their topic. Getting them to the place where they fall so in love with learning that little else matters is another matter entirely. One of the ways teachers can help students to focus more on their studies is to make learning so irresistible that there is seems to be no other option. Games and gamification may offer students the fine equilibrium between boredom and anxiety, as will other forms of immersive learning such as role play, simulation and problem solving. As long as the learning resource is designed to have the appropriate levels of challenge built into it, students will be interested. The graphic illustrates this clearly. P2 and P3 are positions that should be traversed quickly if students are to remain in the flow.

To be successful, challenge based learning requires achievable goals that require some incremental development of skills beyond the average, and where the challenge rises commensurately to match those skills (student progresses from P1 to P4). If the subject matter is made interesting and enjoyable enough, teachers won't have to work too hard to encourage students to actively engage. They will do so naturally, because they will want to rise to the challenge, and succeed because they see no other possible outcome.


Csíkszentmihályi, M. (1990) Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. London: Harper and Row.

In the next post: Experiential learning - Dewey

Previous posts in this series:

Anderson ACT-R Cognitive Architecture
Argyris Double Loop Learning
Bandura Social Learning Theory
Bruner Scaffolding Theory
Craik and Lockhart Levels of Processing

Photo by Randy on Wikimedia Commons
Graphic by Steve Wheeler

Creative Commons License
In the flow by Steve Wheeler is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


Steve Turnbull said…
Love it :) For me this is fundamental - teacher training 101. I used to be a teacher trainer. I'm now an educational games/apps developer. I think the memory game, Memneon, I designed is an interesting Flow case study. Once players overcome their initial anxiety about the level of challenge (there's a Hint button to help) they get into the Flow zone - fully engaged. When I look back on the most rewarding experiences I've had as a learner they've always been like this. But I think you're absolutely right Steve - designing and facilitating 'flow' learning is the key. And if you don't understand the theory, you won't deliver the practice.
Nigel Rushman said…
Very interesting Thank you
Howard said…
It's funny, but on one level it seems to be a behaviourist way of thinking to try to programme students into 'flow' and potentially controversial. It isn't so straightforward to negotiate these realms and move the student into this ambiguous 'zone' - it's almost alchemical, like trying to coerce students through a liminal space, since this 'flow zone' is an inner state of consciousness. What also hinders the concept are the usual physical things: disruption and noise in a classroom, students working at their own rate - or working in pairs or groups. Interesting to know more about how groups working together experience 'flow'.
Steve Wheeler said…
Thanks Howard. You raise some interesting questions, especially around how groups might experience flow, and this was not something implied in the post upstairs. I would also suggest that those interested in pursuing this see being in the flow as something learners instigate themselves. I'm not convinced that teachers can or should try to programmes students into flow, as you put it - this would be behaviouristic in approach and it's not one I espouse. Most of what I'm referring to above is about students finding their own flow, while teachers simply attempt to create the environments in which this might be supported. These are two entirely different concepts/approaches to pedagogy, I feel.

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