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.