Authentic Active Learning Activities Create Flow Opportunities

Authentic Active Learning Activities Create Flow Opportunities

Authentic Active Learning Activities Create Flow Opportunities

Another Look at Authenticity in Active Learning Activities

A previous post on this blog examined ten different ways in which to look at authenticity in Active Learning activities. The idea of flow offers yet another and more comprehensive way to view authenticity. The premise is that authentic Active Learning activities create flow opportunities.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Csikszentmihalyi (“sick-sent-mi-high-yi”) is a Hungarian-born psychologist noted for his studies of happiness and creativity. He is best known for the idea of flow and for substantial research on the topic. His well known book is Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience


His investigations show that what makes experience genuinely satisfying is a state of consciousness called flow.  In this state our concentration is so focused that we become completely absorbed in what we are doing. We are all in flow  from time to time. We are likely to feel strong, alert, in effortless control, unselfconscious, and at the peak of our abilities. Awareness of time and emotional problems seem to disappear; we feel exhilarated. And this pleasurable state can be controlled by setting ourselves appropriate challenges.

These tasks must be neither too difficult nor too simple for our abilities. Csikszentmihalyi’s research suggests that there is a combination of elements that can cause a sense of deep enjoyment that is so rewarding people are willing to expend a great deal of energy in order to feel it.

In describing their most positive experiences people mention at least one, and often all, of the following:

  1. We confront tasks we have a chance of completing.
  2. We must be able to concentrate on what we are doing.
  3. The task has clear goals.
  4. The task provides immediate feedback.
  5. One acts with deep, but effortless involvement, that removes from awareness the worries and frustrations of everyday life.
  6. One exercises a sense of control over their actions.
  7. Concern for the self disappears, yet, paradoxically the sense of self emerges stronger after the flow experience is over.
  8. The sense of duration of time is altered.

Goals and feedback are therefore very important in our Active Learning activities. Students will have to have a clear idea of what they are trying to achieve and they will need the kind of timely feedback that can confirm what they have accomplished.

Challenge is central to the idea of flow but competition can be a negative factor.

For those who do not have the right skills, an activity is not challenging; it is simply meaningless. Challenges of competition were found to be stimulating and enjoyable. But when beating the opponent takes precedence in the mind over performing as well as possible, enjoyment tends to disappear. Competition is enjoyable only when it is a means to perfect one’s skills; when it becomes an end in itself, it ceases to be fun.

As teachers we often struggle trying to motivate students who seem uninterested. Thinking about flow can help us better understand our challenge.

Most enjoyable activities are not natural; they demand an effort that initially one is reluctant to make. But once the interaction starts to provide feedback to the person’s skills, it usually begins to be intrinsically rewarding.

In attempting to use flow to our advantage as teachers we have to focus our attention on the relationship between the level of challenge in our activities and the skills of our students. As the image above shows, flow is only achieved when both the challenge and the student’s skills are high. If our students seem bored or apathetic it may be that the tasks we have set for them are not sufficiently challenging. Conversely, worry and anxiety, or even defeat, can be the stress-filled result of a challenge that is too far beyond students’ abilities.

There two important footnotes to this idea. First, creating good flow opportunities contains a hidden challenge to teachers. We know that modern classes are composed of greater and greater diversity, including wide ranging prior knowledge and skill levels. The question then becomes how to design activities that can be customized to each student’s abilities. One way to provide flexibility is to offer a range of choices in the media used for the activity, alternative presentation forms such as written, oral, audio, or video, for example. A carefully prepared rubric will enable the teacher to evaluate the outputs of projects even when the medium used varies from one student to the other. The good news is that creating these more flexible kinds of activities helps the teacher to better align assessments with the learning objectives, varying the medium, or other elements,  in order to focus on the message. An interesting way to test the flexibility of an activity is to imagine that the class has one student who is blind and another who is deaf.

Manu Kapur ‘s research on Productive Failure reminds us, however,  that sometimes a particularly difficult task can be an effective preparation for activities that will follow at a more attainable level. The important distinction lies in how the challenge is treated. In the flow model a challenge that is too difficult is one which results in permanent failure and leaves the learner defeated. In Kapur’s model the difficult task is only preparation for what follows and does not involve a summative penalty for failure. Students know that, as the teaching proceeds, they will have the opportunity to eventually master the content.

The Rewards of  Teaching

Most teachers experience their feelings of accomplishment in those moments when students finally show they have understood a difficult concept. There is also a reward in seeing students vigorously engaged in trying to understand something important. This is Csikszentmihalyi’s flow state. Now, thanks to the Hungarian psychologist with the unpronounceable name, we know how to guide our students to it. And there is even a bonus!


According to Csikszentmihalyi’s research, happiness comes from inner harmony. Those that have this inner harmony lead stimulating lives, are receptive to a wide range of experiences, learn throughout their lives, and have strong connections and bonds with other people and their environment. They enjoy what they do, even when it’s repetitive or difficult; they are rarely bored, and they can handle anything that comes their way. This is living in a state of flow and it comes from being able to set tasks for themselves that combine a high level of challenge with an appropriate level of skill. Tasks that are too simple lead to boredom and apathy while tasks that are too difficult lead to worry and anxiety. One could say that it is about self programming for success. We can both program for our students’ success in the design of our learning activities while, at the same time, showing them how to program for their own success.

In previous posts we have described several characteristics of authenticity as they appear in the design of Active Learning activities. Understanding the notion of flow may provide an alternative, one-step path to creating authentic Active Learning activities. For surely, if you find your students working in a state of flow, there can be little doubt that the activity in which they are engaged is authentic and appropriately challenging. Does that sound like motivation to you?

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  1. Informative iBook on Active Learning. Thanks.
    Quote ” In a recent white paper the Manitoba Ministry of Education describes two dimen- sions of metacognition, Knowledge of Cognition and Regulation of Cognition.”
    is dead.
    Can you provide another link or the paper itself?
    Thank you.
    Michael Vallance

    • James Sparks says:

      Thanks Michael. The original document has apparently been removed from the web. I have updated the link with another.

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