“The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Optimal experience is thus something we make happen.”
— Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (1990, p. 3)
Flow: Aligning skill and challenge
When the level of skill is aligned with the level of challenge, people experience “flow”: a sense of deep satisfaction and growth. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi described this concept in his book Flow: The Psychology of the Optimal Experience.
Training: Both mental and physical
Csikszentmihalyi described the need for both mental and physical training and skill building to achieve flow. “Athletes know well that to improve performance beyond a certain point they must learn to discipline their minds. And the intrinsic rewards they get include a lot more than just physical well-being: they experience a sense of personal accomplishment and increased feelings of self-esteem. Conversely, most mental activities also rely on the physical dimension. Chess, for instance, is one of the most cerebral games there is; yet advanced chess players train by running and swimming because they are aware that if they are physically unfit they will not be able to sustain the long periods of mental concentration that chess tournaments require.” (Flow, p. 118.)
Flow and learning: Build challenge as skills develop
Learning design contributes to flow by designing challenges that build as learner skills develop. Early in the learning cycle, challenges may be relatively easy. As the learner gains experience, the challenges need to be harder to achieve the state of flow.
Top learners can benefit from the training approaches of top athletes. Athlete training programs include periods of intense training followed by periods of recovery followed by progressively more challenging training to peak for a competition.
Learning programs can be designed in a similar way to combine different learning elements and levels of intensity including in class work, simulation exercises, video, MOOCS / online and field action learning to allow to provide progressively challenging experiences and help the learner achieve a state of flow.
Achieving flow: Goals, immersion, concentration, experience
Achieving flow depends on the individual transforming a situation into something meaningful through four important guidelines (Flow, pp. 209-212)
- Setting goals: one must have clear goals to strive for
- Becoming immersed in the activity: invest attention to the task at hand
- Paying attention to what is happening: concentration leads to involvement
- Learning to enjoy immediate experience: anything that happens can be a source of joy
The right learning design combined with coaching and guidance can help learners to maximize the benefit of the learning program and achieve a state of flow.
Source: Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly (1990) Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.