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The Power of Mindful Learning

A generation that questions mindless rules, is skeptical of grades, and is comfortable with uncertainty could change the world. That is the power of mindful learning. – Ellen Langer

Mindfulness has been a very trendy topic in recent years. As a result, many people dismiss it out of hand as something not to be taken seriously. When it comes to effective learning, however, that’s dead wrong.

Part of the problem is our understanding of what mindfulness is. It has become conflated with meditation, and is easy to view as a “woo woo” concept with little real substance to it. Personally, I prefer the way that Harvard professor Ellen Langer defines mindfulness: the simple process of noticing new things.

In an interview I did with Langer, she went on to say “and as you notice new things, that puts you in the present, makes you sensitive to context and perspective, and it’s a process of engagement—it’s the essence of what we’re doing when we’re having fun.”

Ah, an approach to learning as fun. How refreshing.

Langer discusses her perspective on mindfulness and learning in detail in the The Power of Mindful Learning. I’m not going to provide a synopsis of the book here – I urge you to read it  – but I do want to highlight the seven myths of learning that Langer discusses because I think they are great food for thought for all lifelong learners. (Note: All of the page numbers in what follows are from the Kindle edition.)

7 Myths of Mindless Learning

Langer argues that these myths represent beliefs that are pervasive and undermine the process of learning. You may find many of them counterintuitive. As you read through them, and my brief comments on each, I challenge you to reflect on how they may be impact your learning or the learning of those around you.

1. The basics must be learned so well that they become second nature.

If we over learn the basics of a skill we may struggle – or simply fail – to adjust and adapt to new conditions. And, what counts as “the basics” usually varies from person to person, depending on the specific context and needs of the person. As Langer puts it,

…when people overlearn a task so that they can perform it by rote, the individual steps that make up the skill come together into larger and larger units.2 As a consequence, the smaller components of the activity are essentially lost, yet it is by adjusting and varying these pieces that we can improve our performance. (9-10)

Yes, practice. Yes, master the basics, but hang on to your beginner’s mind. Don’t let the outcomes of your learning make you inflexible.

2. Paying attention means staying focused on one thing at a time. 

Langer makes the case that successful concentration occurs naturally when the target of our attention varies – not when we attempt to stay intensely focused on the same thing.

This view makes complete sense when you consider the importance of “elaboration” in successful learning. Elaboration involves shifting our attention from whatever we are doing to other parts of our life and work – and drawing the connections that make the learning stick.

3. Delaying gratification is important. 

This idea is woven deeply into many cultures: delay gratification now and you will be rewarded later. It pervades our education systems: study hard so that you will be at the top of your class, pass the important tests, get into a top university, get a high paying job, etc.

Of course, as soon as you start to fall short in this model, education – and with it, learning – can start to feel like an unpleasant chore.

Langer isn’t saying that learning doesn’t involve work, but rather that work does not have to be unpleasant. Being in the present, actually noticing and enjoying what you are doing for its own sake, is the essence of mindfulness and – as the passage I referenced earlier suggests – fun.

And, there are bigger, more philosophical implications for this one. As Langer puts it:

For children to learn that they should forgo immediate pleasures and invest time and energy in activities that will have greater payoffs in the future, they have to assume that the world is just and orderly and predictable, that is, that we all get what we deserve.1 The belief in a just world offers further support for the idea of delayed gratification. (It also supports a tendency to blame the victim. If people are seen as getting what they deserve, it is a small step to believing that victims must have deserved what they got.) (45)

Of course, the same perspective applies to adults.

4. Rote memorization is necessary in education. 

I suspect many Mission to Learn readers will agree wholeheartedly that this is a myth, and yet  there is still something in us that say “surely it is necessary sometimes.”

As I see it, “rote” is the key word here: it implies memorization simply for the sake of memorization, disconnected from meaningful context. As Langer puts it,

Education traditionally has given students packages of information that are largely context free. Even when context is provided, the manner in which the information is presented still encourages mindless processing. (60)

When we are able to connect context and information in a meaningful way, the need for memorization as we typically think of it may all but evaporate.

Musical scales offer an example in my own life. I have repeatedly memorized – and repeatedly forgotten – most of the common musical scales for guitar over a number of decades. The only scale I have consistently remembered is the blue scales and I am sure this is entirely because (a) I like and play the blues, and (b) I consistently use the blues scale in the context of actual songs.

In the case of the blues scale, I am  sure I made some efforts at rote memorization early on, but I did not really learn it until it became full relevant to what I do as a musician. I am sure I will not truly learn other scales until the same things happens with them.

5. Forgetting is a problem.

What we already know – our prior knowledge – is well established as an important basis for further learning, but it can also be a barrier. As some of the earlier points suggest, being too fixated on what we already know can keep us from seeing and experiencing things in a new light. As Langer puts  it,

Remembered facts are likely to be considered true. Yet truth often changes depending on context and over time. Forgetting allows us to arrive at better solutions because the new solutions are based on more experience and take into consideration the present context. (78)

From this perspective, forgetting – at least in the sense of having memories that are less than complete –  becomes an asset. Indeed, it is because of forgetting that we may feel most compelled to fill gaps, to try different approaches – in short, to do the types of things that lead to significant learning.

6. Intelligence is knowing “what’s out there.” 

Langer asserts that commonly accepted theories of intelligence “assume that there is an absolute reality out there, and the more intelligent the person, the greater his or her awareness of this reality.” (90) This assumption is even at the root of claims for “multiple” intelligences.

From this perspective, how intelligent we are depends on how optimally we relate to “reality” – with the assumption that there is a reality we can accept as stable and true.

Langer’s discussion of this point is nuanced. I won’t be able to do it justice here, but I’ll draw on a quote she used from William James in The Meaning of Truth to suggest the mindful perspective on intelligence:

Owing to the fact that all experience is a process, no point of view can ever be the last one. Every one is insufficient and off its balance, and responsible to later points of view than itself. (97)

Mindful intelligence, then, comes from stepping back from any given experience – any given process – and being aware of the possibilities it presents.

7. There are right and wrong answers.

This myth flows naturally from the previous myth about intelligence. With many ways to perceive and interpret reality, it becomes difficult to maintain that there are right and wrong answers.

While it’s tempting to dismiss this view as pure sophistry, there is ample evidence that we can be misguided and even trapped by our insistence – very often unconscious – that we (or others on whom we rely) are right. This insistence it is at the root of much bias and of the lack of availability for learning that all of us exhibit to at least some degree.

I particularly like the way in which Langer suggests the value of the uncertainty created by abolishing right and wrong answers. As she puts it,

From a mindful perspective … uncertainty creates the freedom to discover meaning. If there are meaningful choices, there is uncertainty. If there is no choice, there is no uncertainty and no opportunity for control.  (117-118)

Choice, arguably, is the basis not just for creativity, but for all learning.

Mindfulness and Its Discontents

While I’ve supported Langer’s perspective in most  of my comments above, I won’t pretend that I found The Power of Mindful Learning to be a book I could swallow hook, line, and sinker. It is not an easy read in the sense that it is often an uneasy read.

I have lived – and I expect most readers here have lived – most of these myths for most of my life. Even as logical and well presented as Langer’s arguments are, letting go of the myths fully can feel quite uncomfortable. And, of course, I assume that Langer herself would not assert that she has discovered the “right” answers to the issues she raises.

As learners, though, this is precisely the kind of discomfort – of good stress – we need to seek out to help us grow and develop.

I’ll close with two quotes from Langer that I think suggest the power – the learning power – of being willing to embrace a much more mindful approach to learning. Both align very much with the philosophy of learning I advocate at Mission to Learn. First:

At every moment in a mindful state, we are learning something, we are changing in some way, we are interacting with the environment so that both we and the environment are changed. From this perspective, a moment spent on one activity as opposed to another is not consequential. Once we realize that whenever we tackle any particular task we are learning and growing, we do not measure ourselves by the type or program or course we are in. By the same token, once we realize that the reason we did not accomplish one task was because another task was accomplished, we no longer need to evaluate ourselves negatively for not accomplishing the first task. (124-125)

And, finally:

How can we know if we do not ask? Why should we ask if we are certain we know? All answers come out of the question. If we pay attention to our questions, we increase the power of mindful learning. (128)

JTC

P.S. – Be sure to check out this interview I did with Langer: Mindfulness and Learning with Dr. Ellen Langer

About the Author Jeff Cobb

I am an avid lifelong learner who writes and speaks frequently on the critical role of learning in our fast-changing world.

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