More than 10 years ago I read Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book, Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life (1996). For me, this was fascinating reading, and it certainly was relevant to my overall life and to my professional life.
More recently I heard about Jenova Chen’s work in game design and how she and other game developers draw on the theories developed by Csikszentmihalyi. Quoting from Chen (2007):
Csikszentmihalyi’s research and personal observations identified eight major components of Flow:
- A challenging activity requiring skill;
- A merging of action and awareness;
- Clear goals;
- Direct, immediate feedback;
- Concentration on the task at hand;
- A sense of control;
- A loss of self-consciousness; and
- An altered sense of time.
I have experienced flow in such diverse areas as talking with my wife, playing computer games, writing computer programs, developing and using a spreadsheet, solving math problems, writing articles and books, and reading books. For me, it is a pleasurable experience to be “in the Zone.”
Each item in the list could serve as a discussion item in analyzing our educational system. Surely our educational system would be more successful if we had more student success in the first five items on the list.
Here is a personal conjecture: Many of today’s youth achieve flow in their texting activities. Achieving such a flow state may well be helped by simultaneously listening to music. Suppose this is a correct conjecture. Then this situation represents a major competitor for time that we educators feel students should be applying to learning traditional school content.
The following quote from Chen summarizes video games as a very powerful competitor for student’s attention:
As the result of more than three decades of commercial competition, most of today’s video games deliberately include and leverage the eight components of Flow. They deliver instantaneous, accessible sensory feedback and offer clear goals the player accomplishes through the mastery of specific gameplay skills. In order to evaluate and compare the quality of the Flow experience in video games and other forms of interactive experience, the duration of the Flow experience becomes the major criteria determining whether or not a player is transported to the Zone.
Now, think about this in terms of education. It is possible to create educational experiences in which a person may experience flow. Quoting again from Chen:
Due to the natural relationship between challenge and ability, Flow has been used by designers, teachers, and coaches in such wide-ranging fields as sports, tutoring, and increasingly in video game design.
Assuming the content and premise are inherently appealing to the audience, designing any interactive experience, including video games, centers on how to keep players in the Flow throughout its duration. The game must reflect the right balance of challenge and ability in order to keep players inside the Flow Zone. However, designing such a balance becomes a greater and greater challenge as the size of the potential audience grows.
For me, this begins to explain a major challenge to our educational system. We face this challenge as we try to engage students in their own learning process through trying to develop intrinsic motivation and by doing our best in providing extrinsic motivation.
Csikszentmihalyi (2008) summarizes this well. He emphasizes that research shows that a key aspect of Flow is having developed a high level of expertise in the area in which one wants to experience Flow. He mentions the often quoted “10 years of hard work” needed to approach one’s potential for expertise in a particular area.
However, one certainly does not need to play computer games or a particular computer game for 10 years in order to achieve Flow in playing a computer game. Game designers are not constrained by the game player needing a high level of discipline-specific expertise. They can design/create content that is specific to achieving Flow. Game designers are increasingly successful in their endeavors.
What You Can Do
First, examine your own life for situations in which you experience flow. Study the concept so that you have the confidence to broach the topic with your colleagues and students.
Then discuss the concept of flow with your students. Have them share personal examples of situations in which they have experienced flow. Your goal in this exercise is help your students learn about flow and for you to learn about how/when your students experience flow. This will give you better insight into the competition ordinary schooling is facing from computer games in the life of students.
Suggested Readings from IAE and Other Publications
You can use Google to search all of the IAE publications.
Then click in the IAE Search box that is provided, insert your search terms, and click on the Search button.
Click here to search the entire collection of IAE Blog entries.
Here are some examples of publications that might interest you.
A new kind of learner. See http://i-a-e.org/iae-blog/a-new-kind-of-learner.html.
Personal professional development for educators. See http://i-a-e.org/iae-blog/personal-professional-development-for-educators.html.
Chen, J. (April, 2007). Flow in games (and everything else). Communications of the ACM. Retrieved 2/5/2011 from http://www.jenovachen.com/flowingames/p31-chen.pdf.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2008). Creativity, fulfillment and flow (19-minute video.) TED Talks. Retrieved 2/5/2011 from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fXleFJCqsPs.oks.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1996). Finding flow: The psychology of engagement with everyday life. NY: Basic Books.
Wikipedia. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flow_(psychology).