Mindlessly Mindful, a Tale of Excessive Curiosity

This week’s readings made me realize I should tell y’all something about myself. I’m annoyingly curious. I’m that person who hears the words “I don’t know” and is googling the answer before the sentence is even finished. I’m a strong believer that if we have roughly all of humanity’s knowledge in our pocket, we might as well use it. This curiosity has driven me to waste tons of extra time on various tasks because I want to know just a little bit more.

As I’ve gotten older, this has led to me getting antsy and annoyed at any class that tries to teach me something that I feel won’t lead to a lasting skill or understanding of some sort. From my experience, required classes rarely have more than a 5% application to my research/life, especially if formatted as an information dump. To me, such classes are a waste of my time.

As it turns out, I dislike these courses because they feel mindless to me. I sit in those classes and zone out because enough material is easy/old that it’s difficult to think critically about the information. It’s hard to just accept information as it’s piled on top of you at a rate that doesn’t allow in-depth question/answer sessions.

To combat such classes I’ve started adapting assignments such that they force me to learn something on my own. Instead of throwing data into excel and letting it make an ugly plot, I started taking the time to learn a coding language and analyze the raw data by myself. I ignored software options to calculate peaks and slopes, opting to program derivatives and other things instead. This technique took way more of my time, but it also taught me way more. I was deliberate about my learning and had to think about the content from a variety of angles before I could implement the necessary strategies.

This is to say that while I’m a strong proponent of teachers reworking classes to push students toward mindful learning, sometimes students have to learn to be mindful themselves. We have the ability to turn the tables and say hey, your way isn’t working, but this way worked really well for me.

Ideally, both teacher and student would work towards a mindful learning approach. However, I think this would take extra work for both parties. So my question is, how do we convince people to put in the extra effort? I had wanted to learn to program, so the effort was worth it to understand something I’d been putting off for years. Without that incentive, I think I would have just suffered through the class.

7 Replies to “Mindlessly Mindful, a Tale of Excessive Curiosity”

  1. I think you make a really good point here about students having to want to put in the effort. My fear here is that by adopting these practices, we may push students to two ends of a spectrum. Some will thrive on the chance to learn something for themselves and will grab hold and run with it. Others may feel directionless, especially if it’s in a subject in which they’re not interested/familiar. Sometimes, we as teachers have to come to terms with the fact that not every student will be interested in our topic – in fact, few will probably be as interested as we are. Thinking about how to find the balance between pushing students to take up the mantle of learning themselves and asking too much (especially when they have other classes, assignments, and live events going on) has been something I’ve been thinking about since the start of the semester and is something I’m sure we will continue to ponder.

    1. I think the real goal is to try to make sure students have a usable skill after the class regardless of interest. That way students don’t need to worry about remembering things if they picked up the skill of politely debating, coding, presenting, painting, or whatever. The facts don’t necessarily matter a semester later, but the skills can still help years later.

      1. Hey Bradley,

        I like this point you’re making about how students should exit a course with a usable skill. While facts, formulas and theories can be looked up, does the student know how to apply that knowledge? How did your teachers respond to your approach to learning in their classrooms? I hope they were receptive, it sounds like in pushing the boundaries in a mindful way that you gained knowledge that wouldn’t otherwise have been shown to you. How will you foster that same brand of curiosity in your future students?

  2. Thank you for your post, Brad! Both the readings for this week, and your post especially, made me think about a short story from one of my favorite books, Time Enough for Love by Robert Heinlein. The short story is titled “Tale of the Man Who Was Too Lazy to Fail.” It’s the story of a young naval officer who, when assigned to a particular task, finds shortcuts to complete it more efficiently because he is so lazy and finds the traditional way too laborious. Because he gets his work done faster and better, he gets promoted again and again, and eventually, once discharged from the military, becomes a millionaire by following the same principles in business. Classrooms, as you point out, when formatted as an information dump, are mindless. The information dump format persists even if alternatives would be faster and better for learning because “that’s the way things have always been done.” But, a few creative people, like the man too lazy to fail, you, and one of my friends I used to work with at the tutoring center (who learned how to code and make programs because he enjoyed procrastinating and didn’t want to have to do his math or chemistry assignments by hand), put in the extra effort to find a way to make learning and/or tasks easier and more enjoyable. I don’t know how to inspire more students to be like that. It is against my own nature to put in a lot of effort up front (like learning programming) so things are easier later (like busy work assignments and calculations). I get stuck in mindlessness. You say you chose the mindful route because you wanted to learn to program–however, are there other tips you have for inspiring that kind of motivation and interest that you had in programming?

    1. I’m certainly no expert on mindful learning, I’ve just apparently been doing it mindlessly for a long time. For me, it comes from that curiosity and desire to understand almost every single thing around me as best I can.

      My suggestion would be to sit down and think about yourself and your goals. From there spend some time thinking about how the class can help you reach those goals. Sometimes it means doing a little extra work on the homework, like learning to code. Other times it might look like paintings of a horse’s internal organs (if you’re an artist in a bio class…).

      If you don’t care about the class material, pay attention to how the professor teaches. Take mental notes of what they present well and what confused you more. Think about how you would present it instead. Or maybe make a point of studying with others in the class to make friends. You can keep an eye out for hints that a professor might have a fun story to tell. I’ve found that older professors often have tons of good stories to relate to class, when prompted.

  3. Hi Ben (and Heather),

    Before I had a particular former GTA working for me I didn’t really understand the “too lazy to fail” philosophy. I was frustrated with this grad student because he always challenged my way of doing things for the class. Long story short most of his suggestions were great improvements to the back-side of running the class. It took me a while to realize that he worked harder at modifying/improving my (old fashioned) way of doing things because, ultimately, he was lazy and didn’t want to work hard as a GTA. His drive was great and I haven’t had a great GTA like him since. I miss his crazy/lazy drive.

    1. I’m currently trying to do a similar thing to my lab. The language LaTeX is super for writing papers and such because you have much more definitive control over where figures go when compared to MS Word. I’m also trying to automate a lot of data analysis so I can just click run and have beautiful plots for papers and presentations. My PI is unfamiliar with both of these, so I’m slowly trying to bring him around to the idea of these tools.
      I’m glad you came around to his way of thinking, it gives me hope for my PI.

      In general, I think a lot of people like to do less work up front and deal with the consequences later. I like to think of life like compound interest; the more you put in now, the richer you’ll be later.

      Also, it’s Brad, no worries, just wanted you to know.

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