Mindful Learning: Learning through our Headspace?

For a while, I have been thinking about my own learning process. As everyone has a unique character, it can change person to person, but “learning” for me is generally about the logic of “no pain, no gain.” Every time when I study, I tend to jump the conclusion, main ideas, or arguments to get it done. And, what if I have been studying mindlessly?

As opposed to my struggle inside my mind, in her book “The Power of Mindful Learning,” Ellen J. Langer as a psychologist is talking about kind of gain without pain type of learning through, what she calls, “mindful learning.” It is sort of “studying on your headspace.” Indeed, she uses this term quite different from, what we got used to knowing, meditation. For Langer, mindfulness is about openness to wider possibilities or sort of a cognitive recognition of possibilities or alternatives at the time we learn; for instance, it involves awareness and broadened attention. She defines the term and compares it with “mindlessness” as such

A mindful approach to any activity has three characteristics: the continues creation of new categories; openness to new information; and an implicit awareness of more than one perspective. Mindlessness, in contrast, is characterized by entrapment in old categories; by automatic behavior that precludes attending to new signals; and by action that operates from a single perspective. (p. 4)

To overcome mindlessness in learning and teaching, she proposes “sideways learning” by maintaining a mindful state, which she explains

Sideways learning aims at maintaining a mindful state. As we saw, the concept of mindfulness revolves around certain psychological states that are really different versions of the same thing: (1) openness to novelty; (2) alertness to distinction; (3) sensitivity to different contexts; (4) implicit, if not explicit, awareness of multiple perspectives; and (5) orientation in the present. Each leads to the others and back to itself Learning a subject or skill with an openness to novelty and actively noticing differences, contexts, and perspectives-sideways learning- makes us receptive to changes in an ongoing situation. In such a state of mind, basic skills and information guide our behavior in the present, rather than run it like a computer program.  (p. 23)

Her alternative learning method pushed me to make some self-reflection. I am more inclined to jump to the conclusion of any book or article, by only getting its main arguments-methods etc., rather than really getting into it. Honestly, this has been my way of survival in academia given the assigned tons of readings, as if everyone is able to internalize all those readings. However, this kind of psychological awareness has great potential to enable deeper involvement, concentration, and more importantly being “at present” in learning as well as teaching. From another side of the coin, Langer also shows that how alarming traditional learning techniques restrain creativity due to memorization and repetitive practices to master the theories or concepts. This culture of teaching and subsequent learning technique of the students only deepens being an “auto” pilot, what Langer calls, “mindfulness.”

Undoubtedly, I really appreciated the idea of “sideways learning” and the way how Langer sheds lights on our alarming reality about learning and teaching… 

10 Responses

  1. I always read, study, watch the same by first paying attention to what is going to happen at the end and then if I repeat for example reading then I can pay attention to details; so, I sometimes jump to the end to be able to focus on details with the perspective of how the details are going to play their role in the conclusion. And memorising never worked for me.

    1. Thank you for commenting and sharing your opinion. Right, memorizing might work in a very short run. As I have to read tons of books, I have to figure out how to read effectively in a short period of time. In this regard, mindful learning by personalizing the things we deal with is a way better approach than rote or mindless memorization, for sure…

  2. I often find myself thinking about whether or not we are trying to cram too many things into our students brains, and therefore they are only able to retain the broad strokes. If we were able to cover less material, would we then be able to dig deeper into the ability to study multiple perspectives?

    1. Thank you very much for your comment!
      I really believe that covering “less” material would definitely enable us / students not only to study multiple perspectives but also to internalize the materials more than we ever imagine. I really struggle to understand the rationale behind covering more materials. The only thing that we can do in this current situation is to develop some pragmatic strategies that stem from “get it done mentality.” In this kind of survival mood, it is hard though to learn mindfully.

  3. I completely echo your sentiments. Social sciences are both reading and writing intensive. We end up getting into the trap of both reading and writing without thinking how much and what are we are learning. You can feel the impact of neoliberalism in academia where the quantity of (as in the number of books, journal articles, etc.) we know/ read matter more and then in how in-depth we know them. This also impacts the way we perceive our world and lives- in a hierarchal fashion. Great Post!

    1. Pallavi, many thanks for your comment! I hear your neo-liberal critique in academic, where any knowledge is subject to measure in term of quantity, which leads us to compare our productivity according to how many conferences we are “able” to go, how many journals we are able to write. You are absolutely right in saying that how this shapes our perceptions and lives in which we feel ‘insecure’ and even sometimes ‘inferior.’ Thanks for your thoughts!

  4. Hi Şengül,

    I appreciate the ideas you are working through in your post. I think we all have moments where we are mindlessly drilling on in our tasks (actually, I think it’s probably the norm for most). So it is good to break free of those traps and strive to study and think with this mindful approach that prepares us for novel ideas and discoveries. How do you think you will incorporate these ideas of mindfulness and/or introduce mindfulness in your future classrooms?

    1. Hi Sara,

      Thanks for reading and commenting!
      I am “trying” on that too in the class that I am teaching this semester. After we watched Dr. Micheal Wesch’s TED-talks for our class, I started showing this video in my class in order to have a discussion about “real learning” and their learning process. I asked my students to write a prompt for me about these “big questions” (Who am I, Why am I here, Am I going to make it?), while being aware of how difficult is to answer them. Yet, most of them made really valuable self-reflection on them, some of them appreciated that I provided this opportunity to them, some of them came to my office to talk about their anxieties for their futures. I am glad that I could apply what I learned from this class to my own class and I have been able to build some connection with them. In the same vein, in my yesterday “international relations theory” class, instead of asking “what are your takeaways from the previous class” and forcing them to memorize main tenets of theories, in order to make them aware of “different perspectives,” I assigned them to different groups, each of them represents different theory, and asked them to apply their specific theory to a topic that I provided. Then, we had an incredibly lively discussion as they could respond to other groups’ argumentations while they unconsciously internalized theories in this kind of simulation. Yet, this is not enough for sure, I am thinking to provide something to improve their “own mindful” learning process in terms of “being present” and “alertness to distinctions.” Honestly, this is also my own struggle. I hope I can take something from our today’s class.

  5. Hi Şengül, Thanks so much for this! I share your sense that the way we “bust a book” in academia is both an essential survival skill and a great example of “mindfulness.” I do enjoy “really reading” or listening to a good book, but figuring out what a book has to offer in a couple of hours requires concentrated attention and the ability to scaffold and remix from what you already know in order to incorporate the new insight.

    1. Dear Dr. Nelson,
      I appreciate your comment and thank you for your suggestion.
      I really miss, what you said, “really reading.” As of now, I am trying to follow your suggestion and seeking to connect what I read to my previous knowledge so that I try to raise my own reading in the class. In that way, I can “sometimes” catch work-life balance in my Ph.D. life.

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