The Flow Model

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Ross Morrison McGill founded @TeacherToolkit in 2010, and today, he is one of the 'most followed educators'on social media in the world. In 2015, he was nominated as one of the '500 Most Influential People in Britain' by The Sunday Times as a result of...
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How can teachers enable pupils to learn more effectively?

In 1961, the Hungarian/American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi wrote: ‘While happiness itself is sought for its own sake, every other goal – health, beauty, money or power – is valued only because we expect that it will make us happy.’ (The Decision Book).

Csikszentmihalyi coined the term ‘flow’ to describe a state of feeling happy and it got me thinking about the times when I have taught students and the informal feedback you receive as a teacher to say things are going well. Indications include a productive working atmosphere or a fleeting comment from a student: “Wow! Sir, that lesson went quick!”

Happy or Learning?

But being happy is not to be conflated with learning. Just because a student is enjoying something in your class, does not necessarily mean that they are learning anything – learning must be assessed in some capacity and this could be achieved by the teacher or by the individual student.

However, Csikszentmihalyi’s research concluded when happiness or ‘flow’ takes place, the 5 things that happen are:

  1. learners are intensely focused on an activity
  2. activity of our own choosing, that is
  3. neither under challenging (boreout) nor over-challenging (burnout), that has
  4. a clear objective and that receives
  5. immediate feedback.

As adults, we feel this too. Just take a moment to think of the professional development days that you attend at your place of work. When given a choice, training has more meaning to you and your role in education – it is likely to have more impact. We all know the one size fits all training model hangs precariously on tenterhooks if a teacher cannot take ideas back to their classroom the next day. Learning is about the impact and how knowledge can be applied.

Watch Csikszentmihalyi discuss ‘flow’:

Csikszentmihalyi discussed ‘flow’ in detail around 14m 30 seconds.


Immersed in Learning

Csikszentmihalyi concluded that people who are ‘in flow’ not only felt satisfied, but they lost track of time and became immersed in learning. When last did you become immersed in learning as a teacher? When last did your students become immersed in the project/topic in your class?

If there is an intense focus on an activity which is self-selecting and has a clear objective, students are more likely to work between being over-challenged and under-challenged, they can move from apathy to flow. They become immersed in their learning.

Csikszentmihalyi #FlowModel

We have seen this model in various guises online. This is my interpretation of the ‘struggle zone’ – students learning between high-anxiety and low-threat.

Your thoughts please about how this flow can be achieved in the classroom …

8 thoughts on “The Flow Model

  1. Different flow model for your consideration. Cheers !

    Why the Flow Channel is illogical: A contrarian perspective on Flow from the perspective of affective neuroscience

    On the surface, the graphical representation of the flow channel is simple to understand. When you arrange a demand/skill match, flow happens. For any task, the problem is that although demand moves up or down dependent upon the exigencies of the moment, skill should be relatively stable during or within the performance, and only change, and for the most part gradually between performances. Thus, one may accomplish a task that from moment to moment varies in demand, but the skills brought to that task are the same regardless of demand. What this means is that for any one-performance set, skill is not a variable, but a constant. That is, one cannot adjust skill against demand during performance because skill can only change negligibly during performance, or in other words does not move. Thus, for performance that requires any skill set, the only variable that can be manipulated is demand. For moment to moment behavior the adjustable variable that elicits flow is demand and demand alone. But that leaves us with figuring out what demand exactly is.
    A demand may be defined as simple response-outcome contingency. Thus, if you do X, Y will occur or not occur. It is thus inferred that demand entails a fully predictable means-end relationship or expectancy. But the inference that the act-outcome expectancy is always fully predictable is not true. Although a response-outcome is fully predictable when skill overmatches demand, as demand rises to match and surpass skill, uncertainty in the prediction of a performance outcome also rises. At first, the uncertainty is positive, and reaches its highest level when a skill matches the level of demand. This represents a ‘touch and go’ experience wherein every move most likely will result in a positive outcome in a calm or non-stressed state. It is here that many individuals report euphoric flow like states. Passing that, the moment-to-moment uncertainty of a bad outcome increases, along with a corresponding rise in tension and anxiety.
    Momentary positive uncertainty as a logical function of the moment to moment variance occurring when demand matches skill does not translate into a predictor for flow, and is ignored in Csikszentmihalyi’s model because uncertainty by implication does not elicit affect. Rather, affect is imputed to metaphorical concepts of immersion, involvement, and focused attention that are not grounded to any specific neurological processes. However, the fact that act-outcome discrepancy in relaxed states alone has been correlated with specific neuro-chemical changes in the brain that map to euphoric, involved, timeless , or immersive states, namely the co-activation of dopamine and opioid systems due to continuous positive act/outcome discrepancy and relaxation, narrows the cause of flow to abstract elements of perception rather than metaphorical aspects of performance. These abstract perceptual elements denote information and can easily be defined and be reliably mapped to behavior.
    A final perceptual aspect of demand that correlates with the elicitation of dopamine is the importance of the result or goal of behavior. Specifically, dopaminergic systems are activated by the in tandem perception of discrepancy and the predicted utility or value of result of a response contingency. The flow model maps behavior to demand and skill, but not only is skill fixed, so is the importance of the goal state that predicates demand. However, the relative importance of the goal state correlates with the intensity of affect. For example, representing a task that matches his skills, a rock climber calmly ascending a difficult cliff would be euphoric if the moment to moment result was high, namely avoiding a fatal fall, but would be far less so if he was attached to a tether, and would suffer only an injury to his pride is he were to slip. Finally, the flow experience correlates also with a state of relaxation and the concomitant activation of opioid systems along with a dopamine induced arousal state that together impart a feeling of euphoria, which would also be predicted as choices in flow are singular and clear and therefore avoid perseverative cognition. It is the sense of relaxation induced pleasure and a feeling of attentive arousal that constitutes the flow experience.

    I offer a more detailed theoretical explanation in pp. 47-52, and pp 82-86 of my open source book on the neuroscience of resting states, ‘The Book of Rest’, linked below.

    The Psychology of Rest

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