Mindful Teaching

I really enjoyed the articles and videos from this week’s topic.  There were some great articles and comments on how we can improve both teaching and learning.  One of my favorite comments was from Ellen Langer in the intro to her Mindful Learning book (the one on Canvas).  In discussing myths that inhibit mindful learning, she states, “The ideas offered here to loosen the grip of these debilitating myths are very simple. Their fundamental simplicity points to yet another inhibiting myth: that only a massive overhaul can give us a more effective educational system.”  What a great point.  We have thrown so much money and manpower at our educational system and often the results are minimal improvements (if that) in the quality of our education and student success.  While I do think that increased funding and, particularly, increased parent involvement, as well a host of other activities and actions can help improve learning, it’s often small changes in our mindsets and behaviors that make the most difference.

I thought Langer’s discussion about teaching in conditionals was interesting.  I’d be interested in seeing more studies done, but from the ones presented, it seemed like simply changing the language used in teaching and explaining a concept from an absolute (i.e. – this is how this done) to a conditional (i.e. – it can be done this way), students were better prepared to think creatively and adapt learning.  I think about my experiences and I can see how that could be.  We are often taught and trained to do things the right way to the exclusion of all others, even when there are other ways that are equally suitable or better to accomplishing a task.  When we teach our students in absolutes, we may unknowingly be implying that the methods and concepts we are teaching are the only way to do things, which discourages adaption, innovation, and creativity.  Interesting that something so simple could make such a huge difference.  I think that as teachers, we fall into the same mindset as our students in thinking that there is one right way to do things or one right way to teach things.   Like Langer mentions, we get so ingrained in our teaching routine that we forget about the need to adapt or change what we’re doing to fit a specific class/student/topic.  We end up focusing more on the teaching than on learning to the detriment of our students.  And why is it so easy to do that?  Because it’s a lot easier to recite lesson plans than to actually teach mindfully.  Adaptation is hard and engaging students in a customized way can be difficult.  Beyond that, we just don’t change our mindset to one where we are open to adaptation and change or to adaptation or creativity in our students.

Funny the things that stick with you, but when I thought about mindful learning I was reminded of an experience I had in pre-calculus in high school.  We had a test which involved something like calculating the rate at which water level rose in a pyramidal pool for a given inflow or something thrilling like that.  I remember finishing my test and turning it in to the teacher, apparently a lot faster than she expected us to finish.  She looked over my test and then asked me to redo it.  I asked her why and she explained that I hadn’t done the problem the right way.  I asked if I had found the right answer and she said yes, but not in the right way.  The test hadn’t specified what method to use or anything like that, but since I had found a faster method than what we had been taught in class, I was asked to redo it.  So, I took my test back, redid the problem a different way, and turned it back in after having gotten the same final answer.  She looked it over and AGAIN said I had done it the wrong way and I needed to do it again.  I took back my test and had to figure out what way she wanted me to do it, then redo the problem again (reaching the same, correct final answer), and turn it in.  Thankfully the third time she was okay with what I had done.  The experience wasn’t a big deal and I didn’t hold any hateful grudges against my teacher (haha, except I apparently still remember it 17 years later), but it is illustrative to consider the effect that kind of teaching has on students.  I doubt I was quite as eager to innovate or look for new and better ways to solve problems after that experience.   I do believe that my teacher had good intentions.  She wanted me to learn principles in doing that problem “the right way” that would be foundational for later work in the class, and that’s probably true.  That’s why we teach basic principles and encourage students to learn them down pat.  I think there’s nothing wrong with encouraging students to learn those things because we are teaching basics so we can someday teach more advanced topics.  But maybe the focus should be internalizing basic principles instead of memorizing them.  Teach concepts and ideas instead of methods and we may be surprised at how much more our students learns and how creative they can be.  And, frankly, how much more they might enjoy learning.


4 Replies to “Mindful Teaching”

  1. I’m so glad you honed in on the Langer quote at the beginning of your post. Because the problems with education are so big, we often forget there are small things we can do to improve educational outcomes in our classes (or even as students). Langer later uses the example of making a cheesecake. One time she uses heavy cream, another milk. Those aren’t big changes. She isn’t using a categorically different ingredient.

    I wonder if your experience in class would have felt different if the teacher had taught three different ways to do the problem? (If students absolutely need to learn one specific way as a building block then maybe they learn all three and on a test of 5 questions they have to demonstrate each way?) I always try to be really honest with my students. I’m teaching Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle with them right now, and I’ve been really upfront about the fact that I have not read it since high school and how different my second experience reading it has been. I wonder if the teacher had been more transparent about why she wanted you to learn it the other way would have been helpful?

  2. I really enjoyed your post and it really resonated with me. I completely agree that small changes can lead to big differences. One collection of articles that I found really interesting and helpful when I was teaching was Small Changes in Teaching (https://www.chronicle.com/specialreport/Small-Changes-in-Teaching/44). These articles have a lot of great suggestions for things that educators can do throughout a class to impact student learning. And I love the idea of showing students multiple ways to approach a problem so that less emphasis is placed on the correct procedures and more emphasis is placed on concepts. Thanks for the post!

  3. Small changes can make a big impact. And maybe all we need is some professional support for teachers to learn these small changes and decide what best fits their classrooms. After all, I think when teachers feel like they have a sufficient amount of autonomy (and support from their schools/administrations/parents) they have a lot more satisfaction and success in their classes.

  4. I really appreciated reading your blog post and your thoughts on teaching in conditionals. I absolutely agree with your whole reflection. It’s interesting to think that we’ve been trained to (and are currently training students) accept what people tell us as ‘Just the way things are done’ rather than question whether there is another way.

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