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Mihály Csíkszentmihályi and ‘Flow’

Csíkszentmihályi’s concept of ‘flow’ presents a way of thinking about how students react to challenge, or the lack of it.
© STEM Learning
Csíkszentmihályi’s concept of ‘flow’ presents a way of thinking about how students react to challenge, or the lack of it.
Csíkszentmihályi’s theory states that people are happiest when they are in a state of flow. It is a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter. The flow state is an optimal state of intrinsic motivation (sometimes thought of as internal motivation), where the person is fully immersed in what they are doing.
Csíkszentmihályi explains that ‘flow’ is likely to occur when an individual is faced with a task that has clear goals that require specific responses. “If challenge is too low, one gets back to flow by increasing it. If the challenge is too great, one can return to the flow state by learning new skills.”
As educators the challenge is therefore to balance the demands of the task against the skill proficiency of the learner.
Mihály Csíkszentmihályi and Flow represented on 2 axes. The skill level on the horizontal axis, the challenge level on the vertical axis. Flow has high skill, high challenge.
Image adapted from: OliverBeatson / Wikimedia Commons.

Five things you can do to achieve flow

  1. Your skills need to be well-matched to the task. According to Csíkszentmihályi, flow is most likely to occur when your skill level is perfectly aligned to the challenge that the activity presents. So a runner might experience flow during a marathon that he or she is well-prepared for, or a chess-player might reach this state during a game that presents the perfect challenge. In other words, gaining practice, experience and expertise in an activity will make it more likely that you will achieve flow in the future.
  2. In some cases, striving for something that challenges your existing skills can lead to a state of flow. A slight stretching of your skills, or attempting something that is a little more advanced than your current abilities, can also foster a flow state. For a dancer, this might involve attempting a move that presents a bit of a challenge. For a graphic designer, it might involve taking on a project that requires utilizing a new type of software. Focus on adding new challenges on a regular basis. Not only will you become more skilled, you may find that the state of flow becomes much easier to achieve.
  3. Have clear goals. You need to have a specific purpose for focusing on the task, such as winning an athletic contest, playing a particular piece of music or finishing a work project. That is not to say you should only engage in an activity in order to achieve a goal. People who achieve flow frequently are often intrinsically motivated to perform certain actions. In other words, they may have specific goals in mind, but they engage in these actions for their own sake as well.
  4. Avoid interruptions. It is important to devote all of your concentration to the task at hand. Multitasking and other distractions will disrupt the flow state. Set aside a time and space that will allow you to work on a project without being interrupted or distracted. Turn off your phone, television or other devices that might pull you away from the task at hand.
  5. It is essential to focus on the process and not the end state. While having a goal is important, flow requires enjoying the journey and not just fixating on the end product. Allow yourself to simply live in the present moment without worrying too much about the ultimate outcome of your efforts.
Achieving flow can be a pleasurable experience, but it may also have other benefits as well. Research suggests that the benefits of flow include increased skill development and improved performance. Becoming more skilled and capable at a task can help improve your self-esteem in that area and give you a boost of self-confidence related to those skills.
Adapted from Cheery, K., 2016, Understanding the Psychology of Flow.


Across the course you have been developing your thoughts about what differentiation is.
Using Csíkszentmihályi’s concept of flow, how might you refine those ideas? Or perhaps there are some ideas here which you had already included?
Provide an update what differentiation means to you in the comments below.
© STEM Learning
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