Context-Embedded Learning Part IV: Flow

Here’s another segment that is much shorter than I expected it would be. It’s a concept I didn’t put much time into researching, but which came up in places and which I thought should be included.

This is part of the Context-Embedded Learning section of my dissertation lit review:


Ideally, the student in an environment where they can learn by doing will be challenged without being frustrated, and thus remain in a state of flow, an ideal state of learning (or performance). Csikszentmihalyi (1997) described flow experiences as “exceptional moments” (p. 29) that tend to occur “when a person’s skills are fully involved in overcoming a challenge that is just about manageable… a fine balance between one’s ability to act, and the available opportunities for action” (p. 30). This bears resemblance to Vygotsky’s (1978) Zone of Proximal Development, which also describes the way in which students learn when challenged just beyond the horizon of their mastery, but not so far beyond that they become frustrated. Early in his description of the optimal experiences that generate flow states, Csikszentmihalyi (1997) noted that “it is easy to enter flow in games” (p. 29), at least in part because games, like other flow activities, “provide immediate feedback” (p. 30).

Videogames, in particular, are designed to provide individualized levels of challenge and feedback for players. Shaffer (2006) made the connection between video games and Csikszentmihalyi’s work, pointing out that “we learn best when working on things that are neither too easy nor too hard” (p.125). Shaffer went on to point out that, as Dewey suggested “the obstacles have to be relevant to the thing you are trying to do: They have to push back on issues that are related to the task at hand, rather than being something irrelevant or extraneous that you have to overcome in order to keep working” (p. 125). Relevance, which is treated in more detail below, is key to the use of flow experiences for learning – and needs to be present in educational games. Massively multiplayer online roleplaying games (MMORPGs) are a medium in which such relevance might be easily incorporated; as Steinkuehler (2004b) points out, in an MMORGP “information is given ‘just in time,’ always in the context of the goal-driven activity that it’s actually useful for – and made meaningful by – and always at a time when it can be immediately put to use” (p. 7), thus facilitating playing and learning in a state of flow.

I’m seeking feedback on this writing, so please let me know what you think in the comments.