Mindfulness and Learning

Ellen Langer, in her book The Power of Mindful Learning (1997), talks about the importance of teaching conditionally (or mindfully) rather than in ways that encourage concrete thinking and rote memorization. She gives numerous fascinating examples of individuals being taught new information in either a conditional (mindful) manner or in mindless, memorization-focused way. These experiments indicate that, when taught mindfully, people are equally likely to recall the information given and are more likely to be able to apply the information in situations that require adaptation, flexibility, and creative thinking. Additionally, it was found that individuals taught using mindful techniques reported a greater level of enjoyment. Many of the studies involve telling the individuals that there are alternate ways of viewing the material or including wording changes such as adding “may” before stating a piece of information. I find it truly remarkable that simply telling individuals to be flexible in their thinking leads to them being flexible in their thinking.

That the students did similarly well (regardless of mindful or mindless teaching approaches) in the factual retention of information on the portion of the test aimed at assessing concrete, direct knowledge of the material offers an explanation of why we have for so long and continue to teach these ways. Also, at first glance I believe it also seems more logical to assume that when we teach students facts as though they are concrete and unchangeable it would lead to more clear and solid retention of those facts rather than wording the information in a way that makes it sound like it is only a possibility or only occasionally true. Langer’s (1997) research indicates that this not seem to be the case. Further, this should bring us to take a closer look at how often any particular fact actually is true in all situations.

As I continue to form and reform my own views on pedagogy, I am reassured by the acknowledgment that traditional (or “mindless”) ways of teaching seem to remain at least moderately effective for retention of concrete facts. This makes it easier for me to accept that there may certainly be more effective ways of teaching that encourage adaption and application of these same facts.

Reference

Langer, E. J. (1997). The power of mindful learning. Hachette UK.

6 Replies to “Mindfulness and Learning”

  1. Thank you for your note. I agree that the traditional method of teaching is based on memorization and retention and it might be true for facts; however, students should be able to even question facts. And they have to learn those by understanding the logic behind them and how they are obtained instead of just accepting those without comprehending why and for what.

    • I absolutely agree about the importance of understanding the whys and hows behind information. I have found that I have a much greater understanding and retention rate when I have the whole context for a piece of information rather than a only the fact itself.

  2. Thanks for the post. I have used the traditional old school method of memorization my whole life. There is nothing wrong with it. But, I feel it can be improved. Mindful learning does facilitate that in a way. It is true that we do not think out of the box in a traditional classroom setting. However, if you are doing research, you have ample time to question the facts and think about innovation. Facts are important and need to be memorized but I feel one should also get involved creative learning and innovative thinking especially in a classroom.

    • Thanks for your response! One thing that you mention is settings in which we have time to explore further. I wonder if lack of time is one of the constraints that keeps us (both as students and as teachers) from pursuing a more mindful approach to learning.

  3. Hi Shannon,

    Your review of Langer’s article gets to one of the core matters in mindful teaching and learning: when we rely solely on rote memorization, our thinking can be very rigid and we are less likely to imagine new possibilities or solutions. As you reflect on your pedagogy, think about what you were saying with respect to the importance of language. Small shifts in our approach are sometimes all that’s needed to help students develop an open, critical thinking mindset.

    • Thanks for your response! Your points about the importance of small shifts and how we use language ring true based on my own experiences in other areas of life. In interactions with others even a slight change in wording can direct a conversation down a completely different path than another word that might have basically the same meaning (but with slightly different connotations).

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