The tightrope between fear and futility.

By: Daniel Cabrera

This post is a summary and commentary on Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi‘s (CHICK-sent-mee-hi) work on flow and its relation to education, particularly his book “Applications of Flow in Human Development and Education”.

I first heard of Csikszentmihalyi’s work while listening to Chris Hicks discuss stress inoculation. During the lecture,  Csikszentmihalyi’s  concept of flow focused on the setting of exceptional rendition under stressful circumstances.

Flow is described as the optimal psychological experience where consciousness becomes autotelic. In others words, it’s a mindset where the psychological state leads to ideal physical representation and performance. The original concept was focused on artistic creativity and the pursuit of happiness, but the core ideas have been transferred to other domains.

In terms of the application of flow to education, Csikszentmihalyi upholds the paradigm that learning/knowledge acquisition is and must be an enjoyable endeavor, which contrasts with his observation of the educational experience of many learners.  He believes the main issue is not a cognitive problem but an affective or motivational one. Simply put, learners who are not motivated enough to learn may find the process tedious and meaningless.

One of the key concepts of flow in education is the critical balance between a challenge and an impossible stretch goal. If the task is too difficult for the current set of skills anxiety results. If the challenge is too easy, the process is boring. The learners need to walk a fine line between anxiety/fear and boredom/futility in order to achieve optimal performance in learning.


This actually fits well with the principles of deliberate practice , where the repetitive practice of a task is incrementally increased in difficulty. Csikszentmihalyi believes that multiple emotions/psychological states can originate from the interaction between current state and an accepted challenge with flow the optimal state. The opposite to flow is either apathy (where the challenge is minimal) or anxiety (where the challenge is impossible).


The classic description of the necessary conditions for a flow experience are described below.


The main role of the teacher is to facilitate flow. It is important to make evident to the learners the raison-d’etre to learn a particular skill or concept. As important as a clear main goal are the creation of purposeful, actionable micro-goals serving the main goal. Feedback that is immediate and focused on the task is critical, avoiding ego-threats to the learners and self-consciousness.

Csikszentmihalyi believes teachers need to experience flow in their domain of expertise in order to facilitate flow in others. If a teacher does not exhibit motivation, he or she can’t imprint motivation.

Finally, the distinction between internal and  external motivation is important. External motivation, based on rewards outside of the process of knowledge acquisition (e.g., grades) is difficult to maintain. The main goal of the teacher is to create internally motivated learners, where the process of learning is as important (if not more) than the outcome, where the acquisition of information turns into an autotelic experience, achieving flow.

Sources and further reading

Image 1. Quinn Dombrowski via Flickr under Creative Commons License CC2.0

Image 2. Original. Adapted from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

Image 3. Oliverbeatson. Wikipedia. Public domain.