What does it mean to learn in a “mindless context”?

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When I was doing my master’s degree at VT, I had to conduct a real experiment on the Smart Road at VTTI. The experiment was intended to evaluate the human-vehicle interaction when driving an autonomous vehicle. We had 32 participants that they had to drive the autonomous car several times, passing a signalized intersection. The autonomous vehicle has the ability to manage and communicate with the traffic signal without any input from the driver and thus the vehicle will decelerate, stop, and accelerate by its self. All the participants were told to not react when getting close to the intersection. Interestingly, I had a participant who had a hard time to interact with the autonomous vehicle. Many times, she presses the break when seeing the traffic signal is red although she was required to not touch the break nor the gas peddles. Of course, when the participant presses the gas or break paddles, our experiment would collapse, and we had to repeat it. It took her a while to break this habit and start passing the signalized intersection when it’s red without touching either the break nor the gas peddles.

Think about the previous example and try to generalize it to many things we have learned in our life On a daily basis, we do many tasks without a second thought. We have become computers that are controlled by codes and behave in a predefined way.

In the educational system, this approach of learning leaves no room for accommodating any new change that might happen in the future. Even worse, students get criticized if they deviate from the traditional way and come up with their own approach. Even if their own approach seems to be longer or non-optimal, they should be appreciated for thinking out of the box and come with a different way, they should be appreciated for taking the brave and confidence and think differently.

Back in the 1990s, there was a woman who is very professional in cooking fish. One day, she was asked by one of her friends to teach her cooking, so she went ahead and started grabbing the ingredients and her friend was watching. At the first step of preparing the fish for marinating, she cut the head and tail of the fish and put them together into one plate. Quickly, her friend interrupted her, asking why did you do that? Simply, she said: “I don’t know! This is how I was told!” Then, her friend asked her who told you? She replied: my mom. Then, her friend insisted to go and ask her mom! they went together to her mom and asked the same question: could you please cook fish for us? She welcomed them and started preparing the fish and likewise, she cut the fish into three pieces as her daughter did. Now, both of them asked her: why did you do this? She replied: “This is how I learned from my mom (the grandmother of the daughter)”. This makes all of them eager to know the hidden reason! They were excited to figure out how it related in making it delicious fish. Three of them decided to go and ask their grandmother. They knocked on the door and found her sleeping on her bed. They gently asked her to cook for the fish, and the grandmother was surprised by this unexpected request but she had no choice but to do it. She did the same thing by cutting the fish into three pieces: head, tail, and the rest. Now, all of them asked her: why did you do this? She simply replied: “my plate is too small and cannot fit the whole fish so I had to cut it into three pieces”!!

Now, let’s think, how many times we were taught things/steps that are not part of the learning process? How many times the lack of tools in the class forced and boxed us into a single view? How much time we could have saved if we go on our own way and find the optimal path?

Personally, I think the problem happens because of the way that teachers approach.  In undergrad school, teachers intend to teach in detail, leaving no room for students to show their creativity or individual differences.  They teach in a way makes them think this is the only way to solve this problem. As grad students, when writing a paper and submit for a peer-reviewed journal or conference, we usually get criticized for using an “absolute language” but when we read books, we find they are written in a way that enforces us to believe them without a single doubt! How could we accept to publish books in an absolute language but not journals or conference papers?! Why do we think books are more trustable than papers although these scientific papers could be published as a book chapter? How could we build a fairer educational and research system that doesn’t favorite some people over others?

6 Replies to “What does it mean to learn in a “mindless context”?”

  1. These are great stories and thoughts! I definitely agree with the mindset that we do things because it’s what we know/we have not been allowed to deviate from that due to the constraints of school or academia or perhaps even family tradition. It is when we defy the norm that we grow the most. Within education, this is much easier said than done. There are many, many trends in education, but most are short-lived at best. Very rarely does something change education in a revolutionary way. Technology and computers have evolved, but has what we have learned really changed, or has the means by which we learn it changed? Does this technology further the divide among SES and education? There are definitely more questions than answers, but this is an important conversation.

    1. Hey, so you have to know that the story about the traditional way to prepare a fish has been with me all week. I read your post on Sunday but didn’t write a comment yet…but I can’t stop thinking about the fable of each woman asking their elder about the method. In my life, I sometimes question methods because I am wondering why it is one way or another has become the Best Practice. In my discipline, some concepts seem intuitive; others are still cumbersome. I suppose there is room for innovation everywhere!

      I was also appreciating how you had a different take on the mindfulness discussion. We approach education in a habitual way because that is how we have been conditioned. This is the problem. Looking forward to continuing this discussion in class. Thanks for your insight!

      1. Thank you, slharrell, for reflecting on this blog. I think when we say “Best Practise” we mean until this minute but we are waiting for the “Better One”!

    2. Thank you, Kathleen, for sharing your thoughts. Those are great questions and should be discussed further. Most importantly, did we use the technology optimally? Are the cons more than prons?

  2. I learned US education system from my kids and other friends we know in US and my own Ph.D. study. To be honest, I like US education system, it is way better than Chinese education system. I know I only know part of US education right now since my son is in elementary. My son receives many creative opportunities to do projects and learning various things in different areas, not just math and reading. When I study Ph.D. beside research, we must have a creative thought and do things nobody did before in order to complete your Ph.D. program.

    1. Yes, P.h.D. is all about creativity and this should be propagated to our students when we graduate and teach. This is the challenge!

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