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Introduction to Flow Pedagogy 

Optimal Teaching & Learning 
Student Engagement, Motivation and Intercultural Learning 2022 

R.K Shari - Sustainable Learning Coordinator 

Renowned psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1988) developed ‘Flow Theory’ as a psychological and metacognitive approach to understanding elevated levels of human subjective experience, performance and transcendence from studying the interconnection between motivational psychology and cognitive development. 

 

Csikszentmihalyi’s work on the psychology of happiness as ‘optimal experience’ produced ground-breaking work in the fields of psychiatry, education, and the neuroscience of emotional well-being. Csikszentmihalyi’ collected works on optimal experience and ‘Flow’ science introduced several significant concepts for understanding and evaluating the complexity of motivational psychological and cognitive learning processes specifically the influence of the autonomic nervous systems and neurobiological response networks on subjective experience and motivation. Since the 1980s, western researchers of Flow science have studied flow as a ‘state’ of consciousness investigating how neurochemistry determines an individual’s response to their environment, leading to the development of bio-cultural theories of optimal human experience and performance. 

 

Flow Theory, grounded in motivational psychology and learning theory, intersects the psychology and neuroscience of learning. ‘Flow state’, also referred to as ‘peak performance’ and ‘optimal performance’, is characterised as a state of mind, achieved from focused states of consciousness where an individual is able to slow down or disengage from thought and the external environment, often by focusing all five senses on the present moment (Csikszentmihalyi: 1991; 1997; 2015; Kotler:2014a). Csikszentmihalyi (1990) defined flow state as follows:

In the flow state, action follows upon action according to an internal logic that seems to need no conscious intervention by the actor. He experiences it as a unified flowing from one moment to the next, in which he is in control of his actions, and in which there is little distinction between self and environment, between stimulus and response, or between past, present, and future.

 

Csikszentmihalyi (1993,1997) identified dimensions of the ‘flow’ construct and attributed several environmental and experiential components that determine the conduciveness of conditions for the occurrence of ‘flow state’ in individuals. According to Csikszentmihalyi, ‘Flow’ is an optimal quality of an individual’s subjective experience brought about by a  balance between situational challenges and one’s self-regulated practice and self-efficacy in overcoming those challenges. The concept of ‘Challenge-Skill’ balance, as developed by Csikszentmihalyi (1993, 1991, 2005), is considered a primary condition or antecedent for experiencing ‘flow state’ as an individual becomes intrinsically motivated. Cognitive processes, such as informational retrieval and pattern recognition, become ‘highly ordered’ due enhanced neurochemistry and changes in neurotransmitter mechanisms thus activating a sense of heightened cognition, engagement and enjoyment (Csikszentmihalyi 1988; Kotler: 2014a; Hogarth: 2019). 

Csikszentmihalyi’s (1997) Challenge-Skills model illustrates a range of outcomes according to dimensions of which challenge-skills ratio can be experienced. See image 1D:

 

Image 1D: Csikszentmihalyi (1997) adaptation of Challenge-Skills Balance Diagram

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 ‘Flow state’ is therefore described as neurological phenomenon of intense concentration and focus. It is marked by the disappearance of self-consciousness and the experience of ‘being in the zone’ (Csikszentmihalyi: 1997). When experiencing ‘flow state’, an individual is completely immersed in the task at hand, giving way to emotions characteristic of intense excitement, happiness and self-empowerment. The experience can be intrinsically rewarding producing a state increased present moment awareness and total absorption attributed to the neurological foundations of ‘flow state’ involving the release of dopamine, norepinephrine, and endorphins, neurotransmitters associated with pleasure, arousal, and excitement. Harmat et al (2016) further clarifies that ‘flow state’ is characteristic by of the following behaviours and emotions: intense joy; intrinsic motivation, excitement, highly engaged in activity; prolonged and uninterrupted focus; high levels of creativity; confidence; purpose-oriented (Harmat et al:2016; Csikszentmihalyi: 1991, 1997).

 

Csikszentmihalyi (1997) further differentiated between desirable and non-desirable outcomes and demonstrates the connection between ‘flow state’ and an individual’s ability to regulate personal development from balancing the ratio of ‘Challenge-Skills’. Csikszentmihalyi (1997) described the differentiated approach for ‘challenge-skills’ in achieving ‘flow state’, inclusive of emotion-regulation, ‘concentration and control over the activities’ (Harmat et al: 2016. p23). If challenges are too high one gets frustrated, then worried, and eventually anxious. If challenges are too low relative to one’s skills one gets relaxed, then bored. If both challenges and skills are perceived to be low, one gets to feel apathetic. But when high challenges are matched with high skills, then the deep involvement that sets flow apart from ordinary life is likely to occur. (p. 30)

 

Education research into ‘flow state’ conducted by Harmat et al (2016) discovered that learners experiencing ‘flow state’ demonstrated characteristics of increased ‘present moment awareness’ where they became absorbed in a specific task and were unaware or undisturbed by time. According to Csikszentmihalyi (1998) self-efficacy is highly significant in determining an individual’s readiness to experience ‘flow state’ and explains the nuances of optimising the level of challenge and an individual’s ability to achieve their desired outcome. Csikszentmihalyi development of ‘Challenge-Skills ratio’ as a method of optimising conditions and increased the conducive of flow state within a controlled environment was a significant discovery and is further supported by Victor Vroom’s (1964) Expectancy Value Theory. Earlier mentions for what is now characterised as ‘flow state’ was described by John Dewey (1973) as the harmonising of one’s subjective and objective experience stating: 

 

“- experience is the result, the sign, and the reward of that interaction between organism and environment that, if carried out to its highest potential, leads to a transformation of interaction into participation and communication”.  

Flow theory, as developed by Csikszentmihalyi (Csikszentmihalyi: 1998; Engeser: 2012; Harmat et al: 2016) distinguishes between two important concepts related to ‘flow state’, ‘optimal experience’ and ‘optimal performance’. Both concepts are useful for understanding varying domains of competence in education. ‘Optimal experience’, states that the individual is able to experience ‘flow state’ beyond the confines of their personality and subjective view. This is significant for understanding social learning interactions and higher order cognitive processing during collaboration as ‘optimal experience’ it is the prerequisite for enhancing learning conditions favourable for problem solving, collective decision making, group creativity, and collaboration. ‘Optimal experience’ and social learning experience are contingent on each individual’s ability, those that are involved in the interaction, to enter ‘flow state’ autonomously and maintain this within a social learning environment. Conditions conducive to ‘flow state’ can be tested in a classroom environment, or as situational factors that can be controlled through optimisation which lead to proximal conditions conducive to ‘flow state’. Proximal conditions as tested within the natural environment is a significant feature when considering the application of Flow theory within the context of intercultural learning environments around the world. 

Flow Pedagogy  workbook available

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