Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Ph.D. (pronounced Chick-sent-mee-high), former chair of the psychology department, University of Chicago, is the author of the best-seller Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience and Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention.

Dr Mike (as heís known at the U of C) answers questions relating to his work.


Using Ďflowí and creativity to motivate learning in school and home


Chicago Parent Magazine [From Montessori Newz, Sept 1999]

For those unfamiliar with the concept, what is ďFlowĒ?

Itís the name we give to the experience that people report when they are completely involved in something, so they forget themselves, forget time. It seems to be the kind of moments when people feel the most alive and their life is the most meaningful. Over the years, Iíve [tried] to see whether itís possible to transform everyday life ó whether in school or family ó into something that resembles the state of Flow.

Would you say that the problem with education today is that students donít experience the state of Flow often enough?

Right, and some of the things we think are going to make it more Flow-like, donít seem to do it. For instance, we have just been looking at the results from over 1000 teenagers from across the country, whom we have followed for five years, in school and at home. In school, the activities that get closest to Flow are group work and individual work. Lower are lectures and the very lowest one is audiovisual ó watching films and TV.

Tests and quizzes are also high on Flow, but theyíre also high on anxiety. I guess when youíre taking a test, you move between anxiety and Flow, back and forth. But youíre never bored and never apathetic ó or very rarely ó whereas apathy and boredom are pretty typical of lecture and audiovisual.

Anxiety, if itís not extreme, is one of those states that propels you to want to stretch yourself, to develop skills so that you can enter into Flow again.

As I recall, challenge is an important component of Flow.

If you are bored and apathetic, then to get into Flow, you have to get more challenge. If you are anxious, you have to get more skilled. Those are the two parameters that have to be ďuppedĒ if you want to get back into Flow.

How can we apply these principles in the classroom to create Flow-like

atmosphere in schools?

We donít have a set of recipes yet, but we certainly have a lot of information, that will eventually be used. With Flow, itís been very comforting to see how many incredibly diverse applications people have found for it. The North American Montessori Teacherís Association (NAMTA) published a whole issue of their journal on how Flow relates to Montessori education (Vol 22, No 2, Spring 1997 ďRediscovering Normalization: Deepening the Montessori ExperienceĒ). It gives them a whole new way of thinking about what they are doing.

Where there is a tremendous waste of Flow is in home life - how boring and detached people are when they get home. Everybody wants to spend more time at home, yet when people go home, there isnít much that they can do. People donít talk to each other. Itís a surprisingly barren life when you look at it. We use these electronic pagers, and the reports from home are typically pretty pathetic. Thereís not that much of anything challenging, creative, interesting.

Of course, there are exceptions, but those only occur when people plan for it. You have to prepare or create the atmosphere, create the opportunity so there is interaction. The funny thing is, most often families are together when they leave home. At home, they rarely are.

Why arenít teachers creating more of a Flow-like atmosphere in school?

First of all, schools are a recent phenomenon. We have had 200,000 generations who grew up without schools and they learned perfectly well. In the last six generations, we developed this method of teaching, which we call school, and itís a pretty sorry experiment at this point. Education will probably change tremendously down the line. At this point we are stuck with this system where you have one adult who has to find something challenging for, letís say, 25 kids whom they donít really know very well. Each kid has a different interest, different get all of them interested, involved etc. Iím amazed that teachers do as good a job as they do, but itís really beyond human ability to do that.

So the teacher also needs to be in a state of Flow to teach well?

I think that certainly helps a lot. Itís contagious to a certain extent. Itís interesting that almost all of the alternative schools realise that the trick in education is to get the kids to take control over their learning and to enjoy what they are doing.

That is not what the public schools have assumed is their mandate. Some teachers recognise it and do it despite [ but I think eventually the education that will work is the one that builds on the interest and the curiosity of the student.

I think the reason so may kids form bands is [ that itís] likely that theyíre going to become famous, but at least it gives them a chance of learning to organise themselves, doing some sort of activity thatís under their control and which has immediate feedback. So is athletics.

Then there are less desirable things. Most violence and delinquency among minors has to do with respect. They want to feel they are respected and recognised. Itís something you donít get much in [traditional] school where youíre just a number. We need to recognise kids can do more than we give them credit for.