A couple of years ago, I was working on a prototype of a holiday platform game, called Winter Lights, just for the fun of it. I had a lot of time during my winter break to make a game while I’m in my relaxed non-teaching mode. From writing the programs of each of the game objects, creating the pixel background, title rooms, transition, and more . . . I found myself immersed in a project that I wasn’t required to do yet I was moved to do it. I just wanted to learn how to make a platform game which was my goal. Unfortunately, work and life got in the way and I took a pause in making this game. I hope in the near future, I’ll continue the production of this game.

Through this process, I was unaware of how much time was spent doing this while I was deeply focused on making this game for about a week. This state of mind I was in was a nice sweet spot where even though making a computer is a challenging feat, I was able to keep moving forward and keep working at it. I also realized that in making this game, I had some prior computer science skillset. If I didn’t have this skill set in place, my engagement level would be almost non-existent because I wouldn’t know where to begin. This state that I was in is a psychological phenomenon called flow which we are going to explore more deeply as we define what flow is, why flow is important, and how we design learning experiences so that our learners experience a state of flow.

State of Flow

According to psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, when you experience a state of flow, you are completely consumed by an engaging activity to a point where time flies and nothing else matters except for the activity When you experience the state of flow, you are in the mode of trying to attain the goal, you are completely focused, you lose yourself in the process to a point where you forget about time and sometimes in my case forget to go the bathroom, get some sunshine, or even eat.

Getting into a state of flow requires a number of conditions:

  • The activity and the goal that you are pursuing is intrinsically motivating.
  • You are at a particular experience level where you are able to pursue the challenge, grow, and take on further challenges. You are able to track your growth and progress.
  • You attain immediate feedback and use that feedback to improve and grow.
  • You must be present and making sure that all forms of distraction are absents so that you focus on the task.

EASY!!! RIGHT?
So how do we design a learning environment where our student are able to get into the zone.

Why Flow?

Before we get into the zone and design a learning environment where our students are in the zone, Why Flow? When learning is intrinsically motivating, the learner is motivated to push themselves in that zone of proximal development — that sort of uncomfortable zone.

In that zone, the learner struggles, but is hyperfocused because they have just enough skill set to accomplish the goal. Being the state of flow improves performance because the learner is confident that they can reach the goal when the goal is within that zone of proximal development. If the activity is outside of the learners’ zone proximal development, our students will either become bored if the challenge is low but their skillset is high or feel threatened and stressed out if the challenge is high but and their skillset is low.

Once that skillset has been practiced over and over again, that skillset becomes automatic and that is when we know that the learner has mastered the skillset. Mastery means that skill is now transferred from the pre-frontal cortex of the brain, an area where information gets processed, into the hippocampus and cerebellum where memory is stored long-term. When skillsets are still in the process of being learned, there is a lot of stimulation going on in the pre-frontal cortex. As we become more proficient at the skill set, the stimulation decreases as the brain is processing less and the learner at this point is just adjusting their performance depending on the context that they are in. Once the skillset is mastered, the skill becomes unconsciously automatic.

Getting into the Zone

Now back to the question, how do we design a learning experience where our learners are able to experience a state of flow?

From a big picture point of view, what is the bigger learning goal? Are you students presenting something? Are they trying to solve a global problem? Are they making a story or a song? Are they performing skit? What is the goal? Once that goal has been defined, we have to design experiences where are students are building themselves up for that big picture performance. Back to my boxing analogy, you don’t get good at boxing by reading or watching boxing, you get good at the sport by practicing the skillset that is close enough to big picture event which is a boxing match. So whether your students are preparing for an open mic session or a musical theater performance, we have to make sure that these scaffolds and learning experience closely emulates GAME DAY, the day where they have to demonstrate their mastery, so that when GAME DAY comes, the learner is prepared, less processing happens, and the state of flow will emerge.

From an environmental point of view, our students are highly distracted and there are many things competing for the attention of our students which is why mastery doesn’t happen very well in traditional school. Students have 6-7 class and many learning standards to meet. If that’s the case, our students will be choosing what they want to be good at if they feel overwhelmed. We have to decrease the distractions and make sure that somewhere all the skillset that our students learn in school is somehow building to the bigger picture and that big picture vision needs to be shared throughout the learning community so that we all know what we are work towards.

Remember —

Getting into a state of flow requires a number of conditions:

  • The activity and the goal that you are pursuing are intrinsically motivating.
  • You are at a particular experience level where you are able to pursue the challenge, grow, and take on further challenges. You are able to track your growth and progress.
  • You attain immediate feedback and use that feedback to improve and grow.
  • You must be present and making sure that all forms of distraction are absents so that you focus on the task.

How are you going to implement these conditions in your learning environment?

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