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On Optimal Challenge

Monday, December 7th, 2009

From Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience:

The optimal state of inner experience is one in which there is order in consciousness. This happens when psychic energy—or attention—is invested in realistic goals, and when skills match the opportunities for action. (p.6)

Wow, what an aphorism! I think this description of optimal consciousness coincidentally happens to describe the process of good teaching, whether you’re teaching someone else or teaching yourself.

Every nanosecond that I spend with my students, I’m trying to present them with realistic goals by giving them things to do that I know they can do or that I’ve just shown them how to do. It’s not a question of “dumbing” anything down, but figuring out what they already know and building from there.

I also always try to match my students’ “opportunities for action,” also known as “math problems,” to their skill level. I give them material that they can do using what they’ve just learned, and I sometimes add some problems that are a bit of an extra stretch if I think the student is up for it.

I didn’t realize that, along the way, we were creating something as delicious as order in consciousness.

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