This diagram is based on the research by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a renowned psychology professor, known for his work on the psychological concept ‘flow’. It can be adapted to fit any environment but I want to explain the implcations it has for teachers at secondary schools. It explains how they can create a situation where optimal performance can happen and thus help their students to achieve their best.
On the diagram you can see two axes, one for the skill level (from low to high) and the other for the challenge level (from low to high). Depending on the combination of a learner’s skill and challenge level, different emotions are caused which facilitate or impede optimal learning and development.
Let me give you a concrete example so you have a better understanding of what that means. Let’s say you have three students in your class who factually have the same high skill level but their perception of their skill level is different.
In our example, student A believes they have a high skill level, student B believes their skill level is medium and student C believes they have a very low skill level, when in fact, to make this clear again, all of them have the same high skill level.
If student A is presented with exercises that are not challenging and too easy for them, they will feel relaxation, meaning that they know they are capable of completing the tasks without much effort. The result is that student A does not feel involved in the task. This is not what we want as a teacher because that means that this student does not make the progress they are theoretically capable of.
If we now raise the challenge level for student A (who believes that they have a high skill level), they will feel in control. At this stage student A does not push beyond what they are capable of, you could say that this is their comfort zone. They will still be able to complete the task but with a bit more effort. However, at this stage their learning potential is not optimal yet, this is the level where you want them to be when they revise for a test or take an exam.
For optimal learning to take place, a student should be in the zone of flow, a state where their (perceived & real) high skill level is matched by a high challenge level. This means that they feel that the task is very difficult and a bit beyond what they are capable of. Student A, however, because of their belief in their high skill level does not give up and will eventually manage to complete the task.
Let’s look at student B now who believes that their skill level is medium. If they are presented with tasks that are very easy, they will feel boredom which is different to student A who feels control. But in this state student B will also not feel very involved in the task. If the challenge level is now raised and student B (who believes they only have a medium skill level) feels that the task becomes too difficult for them, they will feel arousal, a state when they believe that the challenge level is too high for them to complete the task and they will therefore most likely give up. In this state student B will be able to make progress but they will not be able to achieve their best because the emotions they feel will not allow them to make use of all of their abilities.
Let’s now look at student C who believes that they have a low skill level. If they are presented with a task that is not challenging they will feel apathy, if the task becomes more challenging, they will feel worry, if the task becomes too challenging, they will feel anxiety. Neither of these feelings are positive and student C will most likely not feel positive about their learning and thus not make the progress that their skills would enable them to make. Student C will always perform worse than they could and struggle with their self-judgement because the beliefs they hold about themselves and their skills are not representative of the reality (which in our example is that student A, B and C have the same high skill level). A learner like student C will generally underperform, possibly be shy or frustrated and not engaged in learning.
The perception of their skill level might also contribute to students overperforming or underperforming at secondary schools. Student A who has a high skills level and actually believes they do will react differently to a difficult task than student B or C. When student A gets to a point where it becomes very challenging for them, they do not give up but try their best to solve the problem because they believe that they have the skills to accomplish that and they eventually manage to do so. Student B might give up more easily because they will feel that their skill level is not enough to complete the difficult task. Student C who believes that their skill level is low will always experience negative feelings no matter how low or high the challenge level is. The reason why student B and C perform worse than they could is their lack of confidence in their skills.
Of course, applying this knowledge successfully in practice and actually using it to the benefit of students is neither an easy nor a straightforward process because it requires skills and in-depth knowledge about psychology, flow and motivation and it also requires the ability of a teacher to raise the ‘real’ skill level of a student, not only their belief in the same.
The most important aspects for teachers is, however, to truly believe in their students’ ability to achieve anything they put their minds to. No matter which school subject or what task, under the guidance of a well-trained teacher there is nothing a student cannot (eventually) achieve.
In order to make this point clear again, this diagram shows that it is not enough for a teacher to just help their students acquire high skills, it is equally important to make sure that they have the necessary confidence in their skills and themselves.
This knowledge also has far reaching implications for many others, no matter in which profession. What if the reason for you not performing at your optimal level and making the most of your abilities is more a matter of your own perception of your skills than your actual skills?
To learn more about this topic, I would recommend watching Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's TED talk 'Flow, the secret to happiness' or reading this article about Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's research.