In our first psychology class, we all learned about motivation, how central it is to human behavior, and its role in explaining people’s actions and desires. We learned that people are primarily motivated by two things. First, they are motivated by things that are external to them – for example, grades, money, and/or recognition from others. This kind of motivation is known as extrinsic motivation. Secondly, people’s behavior is motivated by things that come from within them – for example, working toward individual goals or merely engaging in an activity or performing a task that is meaningful and rewarding in and of itself. This kind of motivation is referred to as intrinsic motivation.
A type of intrinsic motivation that is gaining increased attention is that of “flow.” Named by Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, flow refers to a mental state in which a person performing an activity is fully focused and immersed (almost absorbed) in the activity. In the process of being so fully engaged in a task, individuals are energized by the challenge of the task and the fact that they are being successful in completing the task to a point that they may lose track of time (“Oh, is it time for dinner?”). Achieving flow is often colloquially referred to as “being in the zone.”
Teachers know that motivation is central to the learning process. In an ideal world, their students would be motivated intrinsically and frequently have flow-type motivational experiences on tasks that contribute positively to their growth and development. Achieving those things for a single child during a limited time frame is extremely difficult . . . doing so for an entire class of students over a sustained period of time is nearly impossible. However, research on flow motivation points to some things that can help teachers move their students closer to the intrinsic end of the motivation continuum.
Educators who have studied flow in the classroom have identified some characteristics of an educational environment that promote intrinsic motivation and possible flow experiences for students. Two of the most frequently discussed factors are the following.
Sense of agency
Today, in a host of disciplines, practitioners are adopting a “partnership” mindset as an alternative to the traditional authoritarian model to define relationships between people (e.g., between a teacher and a student). Among other things, a partnership approach to teaching is grounded on such principles as equality, dialogue, reflection, reciprocity, voice, and choice (Knight, 2002). The last of these, choice, is a foundational building block for flow. Specifically, it is important for students to be given opportunities to make meaningful choices regarding what to explore/learn and how to approach the learning process. When teachers work with students from a partnership perspective, the chances of deep student engagement in the learning process dramatically increases.
Balance challenge and skill.
Knowing that flow is characterized by complete focus, enjoyment, and absorption with an activity or project, which activities or projects student engage with is critical. On one hand, if a task or project presents a challenge that is too great (and way beyond a student’s skill level), the student may become anxious or frustrated. On the other hand, if a student’s skills are too advanced for the task at hand, then s/he will become bored. The educational challenge for teachers is, in conjunction with input from students, to identify tasks and projects that present a challenge to students that match their skills so they can be successful; however, in order to achieve success, students must give full attention and effort to the task at hand. When they do so, they begin to experience success and become fully absorbed by the project or operating within a flow range – a range in which engagement in the task itself is sufficiently reinforcing to keep students working at a high level of productivity. In Csikszentmihalyi’s words, “Enjoyment appears at the boundary between boredom and anxiety, when the challenges are just balanced with the person’s capacity to act.”
As teachers struggle with the best ways to scaffold learning experiences so students will gradually assume responsibility for much of their learning, there may be value in keeping flow and its underlying principles in mind. A word of caution is, however, in order. The question has been raised: “Can flow be harmful?” The answer is yes. Being engaged in too much flow can be negative if the kind of task in which a student is engaged does not result in positive student growth (e.g., certain types of video games) or if total absorption in a task or project detracts students from other assignments, responsibilities, or commitments.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York, NY: Harper Collins.
Knight, J. (2002). Partnership learning fieldbook. Lawrence, KS: The University of Kansas Center for Research on Learning.