With a Mind for Learnin’: Some Thoughts on Mindfulness in Higher Education

“You know, darlin, you’ve got a mind for learnin’,” my grandmother said to me countless times while washing dishes, peeling potatoes, or making cakes. My grandmother has always encouraged and emphasized my interest in what she refers to as “book learnin'” and has continually encouraged me to follow my dream of becoming a college professor — not the strange, quirky, “sage on the stage” type, but the type of educator that truly changed my life, offering me encouragement and a love of lifelong learning that I never knew I would discover. My grandmother, as well as my parents, sister, and amazing significant other, have been so encouraging of my hope to become like a Professor Lane, a Dr. Schmitz, a Dr. Rodrick, and a Dr. Goldey — to become like the educators that had such a powerful influence on my own life.

Yet, since beginning my doctorate, I have become afraid that just having a “mind for learnin'” may not be enough to be an excellent educator. This fear, sadly, comes at least in part from my realization that being good at research, producing brilliant theories and a plethora of articles, is in no way indicative of being a high-quality teacher. As a GTA (graduate teaching assistant) for a course that is struggling to say the least, I have often felt downtrodden that my own interest in continual, perpetual learning, may not be enough to make me a good educator.

Luckily, thanks to Virginia Tech’s Contemporary Pedagogy course, I recently discovered the concept of “mindful learning” a principle that will undoubtedly influence my pedagogy and can hopefully help me design curricula to encourage and interest students, infusing a love of learning in my students that extend beyond my own (admittedly wide-ranging) interests.

In The Power of Mindful Learning, Ellen J. Langer suggests that there are “seven pervasive myths, or mindsets, that undermine the process of learning” including:

“1. The basics must be learned so well that they become second nature
2. Paying attention means staying focused on one things at a time
3. Delaying gratification is important
4. Rote memorization is necessary in education
5. Forgetting is a problem
6. Intelligence is knowing ‘what’s out there’ and
7. There are right and wrong answers” (2).

Langer argues that “these myths undermine true learning. They stifle our creativity, silence our questions, and diminish our self-esteem” (2). Yet Langer also suggests that uprooting all of these myths in a massive overhaul of the educational system would be meaningless and useless, “unless students are given the opportunity to learn more mindfully” (3). Langer defines “mindful learning” in a specific way, offering three characteristics of any mindful approach including: “the continuous creation of new categories; openness to new information; and an implicit awareness of more than one perspective” (4).

Langer argues in The Power of Mindful Learning, that “One of the most cherished myths in education or any kind of training is that in order to learn a skill one must practice it to the point of doing it without thinking. Whether I ask colleagues concerned with higher education, parents of young children, or students themselves, everyone seems to agree on this approach to waht are called the basics. Whether it is learning how to play basketball, drive, or teach, the advice is the same: practice the basics until they become second nature. I think this is the wrong way to start” (10).

Langer’s argument not only prompts a paradigm shift for how we conceive of education, but her ideas also uproot contemporary understandings of pedagogy (or at least my own understanding of pedagogy up until reading Langer’s work) as she writes, “One of the ‘basic skills’ of teachers, and all lecturers, is the ability to take a large quantity of information and present it into bite-sized pieces to students. For those of us who teach, reducing and organizing information becomes second nature. How often do we, so practiced in how to prepare information for a lecture, continue to present a prepared lesson without noticing that the class is no longer paying attention? Presenting all the prepared content too often overtakes the goal of teaching” (12). Again, as a GTA, I often feel stuck with the assignments and information that I must present according to my supervising instructor. Personally, I am only fond of brief lectures that provide background for class discussion and collaborative projects, yet the dismal reality is that as GTAs, we are often not allowed to develop our own pedagogies in the classroom for which we are “teaching assistants,” but I am grateful for Langer’s ideas to help me think about how I will teach my own classes in the future.

Langer offers a rather straight-forward method for approaching mindful learning, writing that “The simple process of mindful learning, of actively drawing distinctions and noticing new things–seeing the familiar in the novel and the novel in the familiar–is a way to ensure that our minds are active, that we are involved, and that we are situated in the present. The result is that we are then able to avert the danger not yet arisen and take advantage of opportunities that may present themselves. Teaching mindfully not only sets students up for these advantages, but has advantages for teachers as well” (222). Even in my current limited teaching experiences, by widening collaboration and class discussions to include not only my own lecture slides, but also student opinions, I have already seen student abilities as a wonderful thing, as a way for me to see new things in the material that I teach. Langer’s ideas about mindful learning only encourage me to incorporate this practice into my future teaching.

I don’t mean to begin this post about my sweet grandmother to make others feel strange or odd. I just include it to suggest that I don’t think of graduate education and become an educator as a college / university as a means to “get above my raisin'” but rather to follow my own innate passion for learning and hopefully help students discover their own interest in learning. And I think mindful learning is an excellent way to go about it!

11 Replies to “With a Mind for Learnin’: Some Thoughts on Mindfulness in Higher Education”

  1. Hey Savannah, I really liked your post. I have only taught as a GTA one semester so far, but I had the freedom to make my class my own in the past when I was teaching high-school level biology, and the restrictions of teaching to the primary instructor’s goals was the main thing the other TA and I discussed when we were working on the class last year. It can be so frustrating to realize how different your teaching philosophy and what you value in a subject is from what the instructor thinks and values, but I do think there is a positive there. I think that facing the frustration helps us to develop and articulate our own philosophy of teaching, which will help us be better when we’re the professors in the future.

    1. Hi Dana, thanks for reading! What great advice — I think you’re totally right! Even though having to teach someone else’s assignments can be frustrating, there is definitely a lot to learn, even if you learn you would prefer to do things differently!

  2. To bounce off from Dana says, I think the idea of feeling teaching in a constrained space can feel limiting. Teaching contains an element of trial and error. Just like the seventh myth of teaching that you brought up, there isn’t a right or wrong, but rather it’s the notion of finding the teaching style for you and your students takes precedent. Sometimes being faced with something that doesn’t work best for you can help your future teaching style. Which is exciting for when you do teach!

    1. Hi Devin, thanks for reading! I agree that developing teaching styles is sort of a “Goldilocks” approach to find a pedagogy that fits “just right.” That is great advice — thank you!

  3. Savannah,

    Interesting post. We are sometimes limited in the pedagogical choices that we can make. However, I also think that applying a mindful approach to how we teach within these restraints can help us to make our instruction more engaging and more productive. For example, when I was doing my student internship for middle/high school education years ago, I worked in a class where we used an annotated note-taking system. I taught along with these notes but I would also occasionally pause to give my students interactive, hands-on activities to help them understand the concepts. Sometimes I would literally make these up on the fly during the first class of the day and then continue to refine them throughout the day. I definitely think the mindful approach is beneficial both in terms of how we want our students to think as they learn, but also how we approach the teaching process ourselves.

    1. Hi Heath, Thanks for reading! I really like your description of how to teach mindfully despite constraints. I agree that mindfulness not only applies to how we hope students approach learning but also how we learn to teach!

  4. Hi Savannah!

    I definitely empathize with your concern about having a “mind for learning” and how it relates to being a good educator. I’ve noticed myself how the two are not always connected, yet there is definitely something refreshing about taking a class with a professor that is passionate about learning! Personally, I hope that when I’m teaching, my students are able to engage and feel their own zest for education.

    1. Thanks for reading! I agree, there is nothing better than a teacher who is clearly passionate about the subject matter, teaching, and students! Seems like GEDI is a great way to become at least a little bit more like the professors we admire!

  5. Nice post, Savannah! I agree with your thoughts that “mind for learning” may not always translate in being a good teacher. I feel it is similar to having a passion for something (say a sport) and being good at doing it. We can rather say that having a ‘mind for learning’ is one of the important characteristics for being a good educator but certainly not the only one. I have been a TA for a lab class but haven’t experienced teaching in the first-hand, as the professor still led the lab-class. But I find these concepts of mindfulness very interesting and do hope that I use them when I teach my first-class. It is weird but I am already nervous and anxious about it as I know and understand that traditional methods are not the answer but still not sure how to design it that works well for everyone involved.

    1. Hi Akshay, thanks for you thoughtful feedback! I agree that being a committed learner is one part of being a good educator but is certainly not the only component! I, too, feel some tension about developing my own innovative pedagogy and feeling that traditional methods are largely ineffectual. As graduate students, it seems particularly difficult to devote the time and head space to classroom innovation, but it seems like GEDI is a great place to start! 🙂

  6. Hi Savannah, such a nice post! I could relate to your experiences of feeling constrained in incorporating innovative and more mindful learning practices as a TA in my first two years of graduate school. However, I have also made a commitment to myself on how I am going to work on changing the learning environment in my class as well as listening to the insights of others. Thanks for your post.

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