Mindful vs. Mindless Learning: a Case Study

To start with, let us define the meaning of these two keywords: mindfulness and mindlessness. According to “Mindful Learning” by Ellen Langer, “mindfulness is a flexible state of mind in which we are actively engages in the present, noticing new things and sensitive to context”. On the other hand,  when we are mindless we rely on decisions made in the past. As the result, “we are stuck in a single, rigid perspective and oblivious to alternative ways of knowing”.

When it comes to learning, mindful learning is interpreted as an interactive communication between the students and teachers, which engages the students actively thinking about the topic, answering questions, and most importantly asking questions. In contrast, mindless learning pictures teaching as a way to delivering information; therefore, the emphasis is more on what is taught rather than how it is taught. In other words, “mindful learning=active learning”, whereas “mindless learning=passive learning”.

Honestly, I have been a fan of mindless learning for a long while! In particular, when I volunteered to teach an undergraduate course to the computer science major students in summer 2017, I scheduled the semester very heavily to make sure that all the topics are covered and nothing is missed. Although there is nothing wrong with this approach at the first glance, you can imagine how my priorities were geared towards the delivery of information rather than teaching less but more effectively. Interestingly, students did not reflect any issues regarding this approach in their SPOT surveys! This perhaps  implies that this attitude has become a common teaching philosophy, so that students did not recognize it as a drawback.

This semester, I am privileged to develop a graduate course in math/computer science with my advisor. As opposed to me, he put his emphasis on the engagement of students through several lab sessions, projects and presentations. In the beginning, I frowned upon his proposed syllabus, which was very different than the standard ones– those basically cover the major sections of a textbook. Instead, he selected fewer topics but added more hands-on projects and Q&A sessions. Furthermore, his presentations are often made of a few slides containing methodologies and formulas followed by several slides on the real-world examples. Expectedly, students are more involved during the class and follow the topics enthusiastically.

One may argue that an undergraduate course is significantly different than a graduate course in terms of the of the opportunities that the instructor have to customize the syllabus. This is a vey legitimate argument. But, what I am willing to accentuate is the paradigm shift from the conventional easy way of passive teaching to the new and challenging way of active teaching. In my opinion, once this philosophy is set, the courseware to make it happen will flourish accordingly.


8 Replies to “Mindful vs. Mindless Learning: a Case Study”

  1. I do understand how a professor would prefer the method of passive learning over active learning on the part of the students. It is far easier to stand in front of the class, not get interrupted, and just deliver the material for a few hours a week. Once we add in components of the class that is engaging, we as instructors have to get creative. I have been on the learning side more than I have been on the teaching side so I can say that I also prefer active learning. However, were I to ever have my own class, I think I would find it difficult to always be engaging students, particularly if it is a large class.

    1. I totally understand what you mean by preferring passive teaching over active teaching as the latter is mostly the comfort zone of many teachers. In particular, it is absolutely hard for new instructors to not only develop their course material but also think about interactive activities. I believe it is quite acceptable to give yourself some time to settle down, and afterwards think of making your classes aligned with mindful learning.

      1. I think the comfort zone actually extends to students too. Being a passive listener is a great prelude to tuning out 🙂

        It’s so great that your advisor is asking for your involvement in creating the course. Besides the mentoring benefits, I think the structure of a course designed by a team is always more learner-centered. Especially as grad students, we can relate better to students than professors.

        1. Personally, I would rather to be an active listener during the courses which are of my fields of interest.
          This is not the same case for many other courses which I’m somehow forced to take, though 😉

  2. That was a great comparison for active and passive learning/teaching. I think in today’s technological era that students can find different materials, books and documents online and learn independently; the teacher’s job is to make them interested in profound concepts instead of covering all scenarios in class.

    1. Exactly! I believe what really matters is to make students asking questions and helping them out to answer those, rather than just giving them the answers in the beginning.

  3. Negin, I think you’re right on the money with your argument for a paradigm shift and I appreciate your honesty as a fellow recovering fan of the passive model. One way my undergrad history advisor engaged the active learning model was to write an outline of topics on the board while he played a piece of music related to them. He then asked the class why he played the song and then began his lecture. Any PowerPoint slides he had were simply quotes or images for context. He never had bullet points or lists. As such, students had to listen to him and engage with him in order to get notes properly.

    1. Jon, thanks for sharing those successful methodologies. I really like the idea of having succinct yet interactive slides, supported by comprehensive textbooks.

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