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