Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi is one of my heroes. His book Flow is one of the ten non-fiction books that has most influenced my life (and it occurs to me that I only say that about this book). The book taught me that the question “What am I passionate about?” is much more important to ask than “What will this get me?” when we make decisions about our life’s work. Flow teaches that engagement is crucial for happiness and success, so if we follow our passion, the rest often works out.
Csikszentmihalyi came to our center at the University of Kansas as a consultant back in the early 1990s. To position this in time, since we struggled to pronounce his name, we called him the “Flowmeister.” He is a wonderful man, whose knowledge and mind were a delight to experience during his visit. When he was at KUCRL, he shared his research about optimal experience, what we do when we are at our best, which he also calls a flow experience.
What the Flowmeister explained was that there are many subjective and structural elements to happiness. When we are at our best, time flies, we feel in control, we are not self-conscious, and we are 100% engaged. According to Csikszentmihalyi, when we are in what I call a sweet spot for learning, we are tackling a challenge that is perfectly appropriate for the skills we bring to the task.
In situations where our skill level is low, he said, for an optimal flow experience, we need a challenge that is pretty easy. A highly challenging task that we are underprepared for, however, usually makes us feel anxious or frustrated.
At the same time, when we are highly skilled a too easy challenge keeps us out of optimal flow experience (we called this the Flow zone!). If we are really skilled and the challenge is one we can do in our sleep, chances are, we will be bored. Too challenging or too easy = no flow experience.
The best situation is one where our challenges are appropriate for our skills. When we tackle a challenge that pushes a us a little beyond our skills, we are in the sweet spot. If we are to stay engaged, the challenge should increase always as our skill increases. The folks who create video games totally understand this. Any video game starts off so easy your grandmother could do it, but as you get better, the game moves you to ever increasing higher levels of challenge. The result is an activity that keeps kids engaged for hours.
The importance of balancing challenge and skill has significant implications for the classroom. If we want student engagement, we need to do our best to put them in the sweet spot. This requires using (a) something like assessment for learning to determine how skilled our students are and (b) direct instruction in learning strategies so they learn how to learn and thus are able to take on meaningful challenges.
The sweet spot also applies to our own learning. If we tackle something that is way beyond where we currently are, we can end up frustrated, anxious or disappointed. But staying the same and not challenging ourselves leads to boredom, which leads inevitably to resignation, burn out, and a lack of faith in our own abilities.
Growth and learning are the fuel that fire radical learners. But we need to grow at our own pace, in our own time, in the way that works best for us. And, of course, so do our students.