Skills, Flow, and Teaching

 “Contrary to what we usually believe, moments like these, the best moments in our lives, are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times—although such experiences can also be enjoyable, if we have worked hard to attain them. The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Optimal experience is thus something that we make happen. For a child, it could be placing with trembling fingers the last block on a tower she has built, higher than any she has built so far; for a swimmer, it could be trying to beat his own record; for a violinist, mastering an intricate musical passage. For each person there are thousands of opportunities, challenges to expand ourselves.”
― Mihaly CsikszentmihalyiFlow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience


Flow. Chances are you can remember exactly what you were doing the last time you experienced it. You can probably also remember at least a semblance of how it felt. Maybe your breath becomes a little shallower or your heart beats a little faster at the memory. For me, flow has most often occurred when I am playing music or teaching. I started playing the violin in fourth grade and have played it on and off ever since. (I asked my parents for an accordion in third grade. They did not comply. Then I asked to play the bass. The violin was their compromise. Thanks, Mom and Dad!) Even with my inconsistent practice, I have spent a lot of time playing and, along with teaching physics—the other activity I have spent many hours practicing and improving–, it is the activity that has been the most challenging and rewarding in my life. I attribute my musical joy to Jim Lockwood, my middle and high school orchestra director. He chose challenging music that made us play in seventh position (really high notes), move our bows very slowly, and move our fingers very quickly. We practiced. We got better. We experienced joy.

According to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, we experience more desirable emotions (arousal, flow, and control) when we are engaged in activities which challenge us and for which we have at least moderate skill. When we engage in activities which are not challenging, we tend to be bored or apathetic, and when we take on challenges which outpace our skill level, we tend to feel anxious or worried—uncomfortable states. Developing a new skill always requires time spent in this uncomfortable region of the emotional spectrum, and the only way to experience flow is by going through this process of skill development. The path to flow requires us to endure anxiety and worry. Growth and discomfort are necessary bedfellows.

One of the dangers of the digital world is that it can be used to avoid the discomforts of learning and miss the growth that results. We would all probably agree that there is some set of basic information—facts and understanding–that must be acquired in order for us to communicate and think. We need some net of existing knowledge which we can use to sort, interpret, and arrange new information as we encounter it. We cannot look up everything we need to know. As teachers, we get to define that basic information for our classes. The challenge is to choose a set of information that both creates opportunities and leaves space for application. Learning this basic information requires practice. Sometimes it is possible to use the computer as a crutch instead of wrestling with the practice required to learn. Students who use online resources this way never develop the skills needed to attack challenging problems and never experience the joy of solving them.


As teachers, we can encourage and support our students as we lead them through the forest of confusion and discomfort that is a necessary part of learning. Students who fail to practice the hard tasks of learning—reading difficult articles, doing long division, memorizing basic math facts—will lose those skills. Fortunately, our brains can just as easily regain the skills through practice. As teachers, we can define a well-reasoned and insightful set of basic knowledge and provide both opportunities and reasons for the painful and necessary practice needed to master it. We can then create learning experiences in which students can map what they are learning to the ubiquitous expanding digital universe of information. This is where computers can become partners in learning. In this way, students become the “centaurs” that Thompson refers to in his book. In this way, we create a path that increases our students’ skill levels and provides the types of challenges that engender arousal, flow, control, and the addiction of curiosity and learning.