Being Mindful about Mindlessness and Mindfulness

When first approaching the term “mindlessness” from a perspective of learning, it seems inherently unproductive.  In her work, Ellen Langer defines mindfulness as “a flexible state of mind in which we are actively engaged in the present, noticing new things and sensitive to context,” which sounds entirely superior to acting mindlessly, “like automatons who have been programmed to act according to the sense our behavior made it the past.”  However, to accept that at face value would be mindlessly learning about mindfulness.  The context of mindlessness is also important when we live in a world where repetition and single exposure (the elements that Langer notes bring about mindlessness) are inherent.  While it is often important to be mindful, there are also times when it’s more productive to ignore the contextual nature of knowledge for the sake of efficiency.

A routine, which is necessary to some degree for effective functioning, is rooted in mindlessness.  By not considering context and new perspectives in brushing my teeth, driving to the store, or walking to class, I save time and mental energy for more meaningful pursuits.  Similarly, with so much information readily available to us, it would be stressful (if not impossible) to critically consider the context of every post, tweet, article, and video I view.  Additionally, there is some knowledge that seems unchanging enough to assume a level of objectivity, for example multiplication tables or how to read the English alphabet.  Furthermore, as young people approach learning, they may not be at a level of cognitive development where they will be able to approach knowledge as subjective and contextual.  Hence, mindless learning might be a necessity when someone is young or new to a subject.  (For example, you might need to learn that 1+1=2 before you deeply consider the nature of number systems.)  While it sounds like a bad thing, mindlessness can also be viewed as maintaining a sense of objectivity.  Nothing may truly be objective, but by assuming it is, we have a basis for complex thought.

Still, it is important for everyone to develop the capacity for mindful learning.  To listen to “authorities and experts” mindlessly can be dangerous, particularly since information is so easy to spread via technology regardless of its validity.  Additionally, sending students into the world without preparing them to deal with subjectivity, context, and ambiguity is doing them a disservice.  Life poses complex problems, and a single mindless view cannot be used to tackle them.  Regardless if a student is studying education, engineering, or fine arts, they will need the ability to acknowledge the contextual nature of knowledge to solve real problems.

When I considered how we might help students learn mindfully, I quickly recalled the cognitive domain of Bloom’s taxonomy.  Bloom’s taxonomy is a series of increasingly complex objectives which is well demonstrated below in the infographic from the Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching.

While the low levels of the system can be achieved by mindless learning, the steps of analysis, evaluation, and creation require students to acknowledge ambiguities stemming from the context of knowledge; there is no one answer.  We can tap into these levels of Bloom’s taxonomy just by being intentional in what we ask of students.  If we ask them to memorize, describe, or solve, they may be able to do so mindlessly, but if we ask them to differentiate, argue, or design, they are more likely to mindfully engage with the material.  This holds true regardless of discipline.

The solution of tapping into higher levels of Bloom’s taxonomy is simple in theory, but poses problems in practice.  First, we must be intentional in asking students to work at a level that matches their cognitive ability; if they are unable to understand a concept, they certainly can’t evaluate it.  However, even if students are able, it’s more difficult to motivate students to create and evaluate than to remember and understand; it requires more support, and it’s harder to assess.  It’s a scholarly essay versus a scantron. 

The scantron only asks students to remember concepts and promotes an objective worldview since there is literally one right answer.  However, with little effort on the part of the educator, it provides an objective grade that a student can hardly argue.  The essay will take more time on the part of the student, likely require more support from the educator, and necessitate a more difficult grading process, which can be disputed.  It’s undeniably a lot more work, but it certainly engages students in context and ambiguity.  Mindful learning is undoubtedly harder, but true learning is worth the effort.  While there may be ways to make it easier, willingness and time investment to do the work that is mindful learning are an obvious first step.

12 thoughts on “Being Mindful about Mindlessness and Mindfulness

  1. I like your comment “sending students into the world without preparing them to deal with subjectivity, context, and ambiguity is doing them a disservice.” I think that concepts/skills like these should be intentionally included in any undergraduate program.
    I found it very hard to teach students to question authorities or published work. Perhaps partially based on how they’re taught to memorize “facts” without question?

    • jagarner says:

      I can relate to your experience of having difficulty in teaching students to challenge the perspectives of authorities and experts. When I consider those conversations, I tend to think back to cognitive development theories and how I can guide the conversation in a way that challenges their current ways of thinking but is not so removed from that level that they can still work with it. It’s tricky work.

  2. Devin says:

    The chart is very intriguing where I think it reflects the idea of process vs product. A student can create something, a working machine or an essay, in a classroom to receive a grade. That’s usually the thing where students worry the most about and focus on. But the more important thing is the tools and the knowledge how they make that end product. If a student can actually discuss more on their process can help indicate that a student is able to learn/grasp the subject more.

    • jagarner says:

      That’s an interesting point you bring up! I see how a rubric is necessary, but when the focus becomes hitting the marks on that tool of measurement, I think they can rely more on the lower levels of Bloom’s taxonomy. In that case, I might make the argument that they aren’t so much creating as replicating something that has already been done.

  3. mkdec says:

    Hey there! I really liked how you incorporated Bloom’s taxonomy, I hadn’t thought about it in the classroom before, but it was really applicable to the topic this week! Likewise, I appreciated your emphasis that it is “simple in theory, but poses problems in practice”- I feel like that can be such a running theme in education! So many great ideas, but sometimes they’re hard to implement. I definitely agree with your thoughts on test standardization as well – objective grades sometimes take away a bit of the humanity in students’ learning. Great post!

    • jagarner says:

      Thanks for that feedback! I think it’s really important to address those gaps from theory to practice. If the theory is too hard to implement, it’s not doing anyone any good.

  4. OUMOULE NDIAYE says:

    I really like your blog. The title says everything. Currently, there are many theories on learning and teaching and this is good as we all need advancement, we want to explore new things and these theories contribute tremendously to that. Individuals feel happy when they create, achieve or contribute to some realization. But being careful with theories is good because as you have said: “sending students into the world without preparing them to deal with subjectivity, context, and ambiguity is doing them a disservice.” I think engaging students in practices and discussions that will improve the way they approach or do things based on previous knowledge make more sense. I think by doing so, they become more creative and this can lead to new discoveries and invention. Wanting them to come up with some realizations or overcome challenges while ignoring the surroundings is a little too much.

    • jagarner says:

      I appreciate that narrative you provided because I think it comments on the cumulative nature of Bloom’s taxonomy. That highest level of creation (or contribution or discovery) can’t take place if students don’t start from the bottom and remember, then understand, then apply, and so on.

  5. I really like your example at the end about a scantron vs an essay… It really starts to get at the heart of what is best vs what is most practical. These concepts seem to be in constant contention in classrooms where the teacher must chose where to strike that balance. Ideally, the best way to engage students and test their knowledge and abilities is what is “best” as well as being practical… But I suppose trying to strike that balance is where we got short answer questions from!

    • jagarner says:

      I totally agree, Michelle. The best learning takes time and isn’t always as measurable as something like a standardized test is, but in a reality where time is limited and grading is considered a necessity, we have to cut corners from that ideal. Being intentional of where and why we do that is vital.

  6. Patrick Sullivan says:

    I think the ‘mindless’ learning happening today is becoming less useful, and therefore given less focus when teaching. With resources like the internet, there is less of a need to memorize facts to be able to accomplish something. With modern resources, I don’t need to memorize how many cups are in a quart to follow a recipe; I don’t have to recall the difference between ‘reversed(list)’ and ‘list.reverse()’ in order to complete a large programming project. I think that mindless learning is less valuable today because of those open information resources, which affects the learning environment in a similar way automation does to the job market. (Interesting note: Teaching jobs are one of the *least* likely jobs to be taken by automation)

    • jagarner says:

      I appreciate the point you make, Patrick, and I agree. There’s a lot less need for memorization, and meaningful learning probably doesn’t include much of the mindless stuff.

      Still, I might argue that pieces of that mindless learning are necessary to make progress to the mindful learning. While I agree it’s not essential that it’s key to memorizing how many cups are in a quart, you’ll need to have learned that more objective notion of measurement to learn unit conversions, which leads into dimensional analysis, which is a part of more advanced topics for engineering.

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