Optimal Flow: The Key to Sustained Practice

A Seven-Part Series | Part Two 

by Robert Sun

The U.S. educational system is arguably facing greater challenges than at any time in its history. The need to prepare students to compete in a global economy, the impact of technology, budgetary constraints, and a system that continues to struggle with achievement standards at the state and national levels all place pressure on schools to improve student performance.

Essential to performance in the classroom, especially in process-rich areas like mathematics, is the idea of Deep Practice—deliberate, focused practice that causes neurological change in the brain. Deep Practice grows and maintains skill circuits that move students toward mastery.

This series of articles identifies the seven essential elements to look for in a digital practice program. In the last column, we discussed the first of these elements: comprehensive content that can be accessed progressively (see “Stocking the Pantry”). The second essential component in a well-designed program is multiple points of entry.

Some months back, we discussed the pioneering research of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Csikszentmihalyi is fascinated by the mental state wherein an individual is so engaged in a task that he or she loses all track of time—a state in which worries are forgotten. In sports they call it being “in the zone.” Csikszentmihalyi labels it “flow.”

In flow, the activity is so inherently pleasurable it becomes the reward itself.

Flow is critical if we want to sustain Deep Practice over the long haul. This is an important lesson for educators; students are rarely in a state of flow when a task is imposed on them arbitrarily. However, if children can discover flow on their own through a challenge they’re convinced they can overcome, they’ll have the intrinsic motivation to persevere.

Csikszentmihalyi states that optimal flow requires three conditions: one, clarity of both long-term and moment-to-moment goals; two, an immediate feedback loop that gives information about the individual’s progress toward achieving those goals; and three, a balance between the challenges presented and the skills the person possesses.

Schools have the ability to satisfy these three conditions and give students the opportunity to experience flow—if not constantly, at least often enough to make school engaging. Many times, however, regimented curricula and instructional expediency get in the way of optimal flow, particularly in the balance between what children are asked to do and their perception of the skills they possess to accomplish those tasks.

When that balance is out of whack, children can experience negative emotions. If the challenge is too low, boredom results. Roughly one-third of U.S. students today are simply bored with math. If, on the other hand, the challenge is too great and the child perceives her or his skills to be inadequate, he or she becomes intensely anxious. The majority of American children experience that kind of anxiety on a regular basis.

In today’s educational system, high-stakes testing only compounds the problem. Common Core, for example, sets higher expectations for the level of rigor in skill acquisition; there’s nothing wrong with this, as long as schools have the time and tools necessary to build out those skills. Without sufficient resources, a deeper state of anxiety is engendered—one that only makes achievement more difficult.

Reducing anxiety and creating an environment for optimal flow should be a priority for every school that has embraced technology. Online games, especially games with multiple, easily accessible skill levels, can help make it happen.

Csikszentmihalyi emphasizes that, to achieve flow, individuals need a sense of separation from daily concerns; it’s why sports so easily become flow activities. This same notion applies to a game-based learning environment where the child is offered multiple entry points of increasing difficulty. Distinctly different from traditional daily worksheets, this platform allows students to immediately seek out the level of challenge appropriate for them, master it—and then move on.

Math practice, at its best, should produce a state of optimal flow in which children can perceive a goal, realize they can practice at a level commensurate with their skills, and get immediate feedback. Add in the fun that a game presents, and you achieve sustained practice.

In the next article on the seven essential practice program elements, we’ll discuss the importance of providing a highly engaging experience.

Miss part one? Read it here.

Robert Sun

Robert Sun

ROBERT SUN is the CEO of Suntex International and inventor of First In Math, an online program designed for energizing every child to learn, love and live mathematics.