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Flow (Skills-Challenge)

Based on their responses, students are placed in one of four groupings based on the combination of their skills and how challenging they feel their learning tasks are:

  • low-skills/low-challenge – students in this grouping are likely to feel apathetic. These students may feel apathy about learning because they have low skill and are asked to perform learning tasks that are low in challenge. (In the example below: 1%)
  • low-skills/high-challenge – students in this grouping are likely to feel anxious. These students may feel anxious since they have low skill and are asked to perform learning tasks that are high in challenge. (In the example below: 8%)
  • high-skills/low-challenge – students in this grouping are likely to feel bored. These students may feel bored since the learning tasks that they are given are not challenging enough given their high skill level. (In the example below: 23%)
  • high-skills/high-challenge – students in this ideal grouping are likely to experience flow. These students are likely to feel that the learning tasks they are given match their skill level. (In the example below: 68%)

The ideal educational outcome is to have students who have skill levels that allow them to be challenged and engaged in the learning environment, or more specifically students who are classified as high-skills/high-challenge (in ‘flow’). The goal should be to move students from the other groupings into flow.

How is it defined?

Skills-challenge, or instructional challenge, refers to the balance between students’ skill levels and the challenge of their school work. Csikszentmihalyi (1991) used the term “flow” to describe the state when a person is deeply engaged in an activity that is intrinsically interesting. He maintained that this occurs when there is a balance between the challenge inherent in a task and the skills required to accomplish it. In the school setting, students are most engaged when they are presented challenging tasks and they feel they have the skills to accomplish them.

The Learning Bar’s framework on student engagement includes measures of social, institutional, and intellectual engagement. Intellectual engagement refers to students having a serious emotional and cognitive investment in their learning (Dunleavy, Milton, & Willms, 2012). Flow is a key component of intellectual engagement, situated alongside effort and interest and motivation.

Why is it important?

  • People learn best when they are trying to do things that are both challenging and of deep interest to them (Csikszentmihalyi, 1991).
  • Students with high skills and low challenge tend to find school boring and of little relevance (Willms, Friesen, & Milton, 2009).
  • Students with low skills and high challenge are almost twice as likely to experience anxiety as their peers with high skills experiencing high levels of challenge (Tramonte & Willms, 2010).
  • Students with low engagement and low academic skills are at an increased risk of dropping out of school (Bagnell, Tramonte, & Willms, 2008).

How do we measure it?

In the OurSCHOOL elementary school survey, students respond to Likert questions regarding the extent to which they feel challenged at school and whether they feel confident in their skills.  On the secondary school survey, students respond to Likert questions regarding the extent to which they feel challenged at school and their skill level is gauged by their self-reported grades in Language Arts, Math and Science.

In both questionnaires, students are classified into four groups: “low skills–high challenge”, “high skills–high challenge”, “low skills–low challenge”, and “high skills–low challenge”. The results are reported as a two-by-two table showing the percentage of students in each of the four quadrants.

If you are interested in learning more about the Flow (Skills-Challenge) chart, click here for an explanation.


References

Bagnell, A., Tramonte, L., & Willms, J. D. (2008). The prevalence of significant mental health problems among Canadian youth and their comorbidity with cognitive and health problems. Ottawa: Human Resources and Skills Development Canada.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1991). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York, NY: Harper & Row.

Dunleavy, J., Milton, P., & Willms, J. D. (2012). Trends in Intellectual Engagement. What did you do in School Today? Research Series Report Number Three. Toronto: Canadian Education Association.

Tramonte, L., & Willms, J. D. (2010). The prevalence of anxiety among middle and secondary school students in Canada. Canadian Journal of Public Health, 101(Suppl.3), S19–S22.

Willms, J. D., Friesen, S., & Milton, P. (2009). What did you do in school today? Transforming classrooms through social, academic, and intellectual engagement. (First National Report) Toronto: Canadian Education Association.