The Power of Mindful Learning

Based on the Book, The Power of Mindful Learning by Ellen J. Langer.

Myth often serves to help cultures advance, to teach us all how to live.  In ancient times, these served to support important cultural transmissions.  In her book, The Power of Mindful Learning, Ellen Langer states that some myths need to be questioned.  In particular, she identifies seven pervasive myths, or mindsets that undermine learning.  These myths have implications for teachers and leaders.

The term mindful learning immediately activates your brain and sparks a curiosity.  What is mindful learning, and how is it different from learning?  What would your interest have been in the title had it been, The Power of Learning?  Probably not as inquisitive as your interest is in the title, The Power of Mindful Learning. What is mindful learning?  To tackle that question, let’s take a look at the myths, or more precisely, what mindful learning isn’t.

  • Myth #1 –The basics must be learned so well that they become second nature.
  • Myth #2 – Paying attention means staying focused on one thing at a time.
  • Myth #3 – Delaying gratification is important.
  • Myth #4 – Rote memorization is necessary in education
  • Myth #5 – Forgetting is a problem
  • Myth #6 – Intelligence is knowing “what’s out there.”
  • Myth #7 – There are right and wrong answers.

According to the author, these myths undermine true learning and actually hold our students back from reaching and developing their true cognitive potential.  The myths are present in all areas of life, not just at school.  As educators, we often get trapped in a singled-minded set and then pass that along to others.  Along the way, we’ll encounter questions that will cause us to re-think and re-examine what achievement, cognition, knowledge, and intelligence really are.

What is mindful learning?  A mindful approach to any activity has three characteristics:  a) the continuous creation of new categories; b) openness to new information; and c) an implicit awareness of more than one perspective.

By contrast, mindlessness is – an entrapment in old categories; by automatic behavior that precludes attending to new signals; and by action that operates from a single perspective.  It’s like being on automatic pilot.

Implication:  resurrecting that technology committee, giving it a new name, copying the structure and models of other committees from the past,  inviting the district directors, tech support personnel,  teachers as a way to innovate and reinvent interest in technology was a mindless act born out of automaticity.  Let’s keep this example in mind as we learn more about mindful learning.

The 5 stages to adopting ideas:

  1. It’s impossible
  2. Maybe it’s possible, but it’s weak and uninteresting
  3. It is true and I told you so
  4. I thought of it first
  5. We always knew that.  How could it be otherwise

Myth #1  The basics – over-learned. 

This is a well recognized, highly popular myth that is supported by numerous educators across the globe.  According to Ellen Langer, this belief causes us to learn mindlessly rather than mindfully.  The point is made that we are often taught to drill ourselves in a certain skill so that it becomes second nature.  In so doing, are we setting limits on ourselves by practicing to the point of over-learning and becoming mindless?  If mindful learning is our goal, then rote learning will most surely produce mediocrity.  Doubt is quite valuable—this sets the stage for contextual differences.  The world is not set in stone.  An example from the book illustrates the idea of contextual differences.  When you ask a student how large a given population is, they will often be able to tell you if it is from their current unit of study.  However, it isn’t a fact, it’s as contextual as birth, death, immigration, etc. these all impact this statistic.  As Langer points out, we are all taught to take this information in—as though it is true without regard to context.

Myth #2 – Paying attention means staying focused on one thing at a time.

Ask yourself, what does it mean for a student (or you) to pay attention, focus, or concentrate on something?  What does paying attention look like?  We’ll pause while you think about this.  For many teachers it means fixing your mind on one thing and holding that image still.  Langer asked several teachers whether they meant that the students should “hold the picture still” in their mind or did they mean that the students should “vary the picture” in their minds?  The teachers overwhelming choose the first choice.  When asked the same question, students also choose the first alternative.  So, the meaning seems clear to both the teachers and the students.  Where then is the problem.  According to Langer, for us to pay attention to anything for a length of time, we must vary the image.  Students who have trouble paying attention, may in fact be following the second alternative.  When Langer polled twenty-five Harvard students about paying attention they gave mindless strategies like look at the professor, write down what is said, things of that nature.  Novelty is one key to learning mindfully.  When something is novel we notice different things about it.  Changes in context or perspective lead us to notice novelty.  Change in perspective or context assists us in thinking outside the box.  Changes in perspective or context helps us to innovate.  Why then do we, as teachers push students to the opposite alternative for paying attention?

Myth #3 – Delaying gratification is important.

We tend to avoid things we don’t really like to do like work, homework, laundry.  Does it really have to be this way?  We often associate work with deadlines, fatigue, rules and play as energizing and fun.  We don’t view play as being conducive to an outcome.  Does it need to be this way?  In her book, Langer presents this possibility:

Traditionally, you learn anatomy by memorizing all the parts of the body—in this manner your learning is mindless and tedious.  Imagine learning anatomy through a board game or a jigsaw puzzle in which you assembled or disassembled people you know.  Another examples she gives is that medical students often think they have virtually every disease they study—once you really think you have a disease, learning the symptoms, etiology, and sure may not be fun, but it isn’t as hard as before.

Turn work into play—make it fun.  Several alternatives are possible.  The process of going from not knowing to knowing is quite engaging, but often not offered to students.  Virtually any task can be made pleasurable if we approach it with a different attitude.  Attune to the differences, look from a new perspective, see with new eyes.

Myth #4 – Rote Memorization is necessary in education.

Does a terrific job of helping us look through new eyes and think differently and is doing so causes us to think more mindfully than before.  While I have touched on the key points, there is so much more in this book, that provides details and support to the idea of mindful learning.  Purchase your copy today.

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