How do we develop Mindful Learning from very beginning?

People are nature learners. Since they were born, they were exposed to a society that they have not (have not been able to develop) a single idea what is what. They naturally learn from their environment through observing and mimicking. They naturally update their learning through others’ reaction they get from their own action. And while learning, they begin to ask “What is …?” A quick answer is given by their parents. Then, they begin to think “Why is …?” A simple reason is given. As they learn more and more, they begin to figure out “How is …?” Mindful learning is naturally developed through the growing-up.

I can make a bet with you that, parents are always surrounded with children’s questions and questions and questions, just like the famous book “Wonder Why”. Some of the parents are patient. They reply with considerable delicacy as they recognize their children’s cognitive level and they try to mentor their children with a fair mind. Some may not. They reply in a perfunctory manner as they don’t value the important role they are playing in nurturing their children from the very beginning. The attitudes kids have received from their parents either promote their learning, or discourage it. The learning process thus get revised (upgraded or stagnant) based on their family environment.

Without extreme cases (hopefully), parents are always the first educators to get involved in children’s learning process. Then, kids go to school for formal, basic, and higher education. It seems that people are talking more about higher education and how it can change life and society. To be honest, I take more consideration of the parental nurturing and basic education. I do not mean that higher education is not important. What I want to say is basic education is, at least, as important as higher education that should deserve more devotion. I think mindful thinking is an ability of making logical and critical thinking that can be and should be developed from the very beginning of education and it should be strengthened throughout the learning process.

Mindful learning is a process to build up one’s belief of thinking the world in a logical and critical perspective. Belief, on the other hand, is something that once established, can hardly be altered. The establishment of one’s belief is most likely based on one’s family background, personal experience, and societal culture, in which case the preliminary education makes an important role. If we don’t provide an open-minded environment for learning from the very beginning, any higher education based upon that may end up with malfunction as unexpected. If the root deepen inside is not well nourished, it still suffers, even as a tall tree.


Kellyanne Conway & Ellen Langer, They Must Know Each Other

I just finished reading an article by Ellen Langer entitled Mindful Learning.  As I was reading the article, what came to mind was Kellyanne Conway’s mention of “alternative facts” on Meet the Press.  This particular sentence is what made me draw the connection between Langer’s work and Kellyanne’s alternative reality:

“Facts, whether derived from science or not, are not context-free; their meaning and usefulness depend on the situation.“-Langer

This statement illuminates the power that an instructor has over the learning process, and it highlights the importance of grooming students to be mindful.  For example, Langer offers an alternative way of thinking about facts and the learning process.  If an individual typically operates in the mindless track [as described by Langer],  a savvy spin doctor such as Conway—and I’m sure Conway has read Langer’s article–can influence the mindless masses with a well-argued alternative perspective.

Now, shift this example to the classroom.  If a professor’s agenda is to promote a set of specific facts, they could fall into the same colorful bucket as Conway–aliens from the alternative universe.  But if we encourage students to consider multiple perspectives–shift them towards mindfulness–they will be prepared for characters like Conway and have the ability to co-sign alternative facts or detect the intent to manipulate information.

I think mindfulness and critical thinking are pretty much the same, and we definitely need more of it in contemporary learning.

A let’s talk about it note: “Mindfulness coupled with ill-intent = Conway.” -Me

Imaginary death valley

I found Ken Robinson’s TED talk on education quite interesting. He argues that education should take into account two basic traits that all children share. Firstly, each child is different and secondly that children are naturally curious. Education is focused on testing and not teaching, which should facilitate learning. He mentions Finland, which according to him offers more personalized education instead of command and control education, that tops all the scores.

According to the 2015 PISA scores, Finland is not at the top of the rankings, in fact in Math it is not even at the top 10.This does not necessarily negate what Mr. Robinson is arguing for, but it is important to distinguish facts from fiction. Many of the countries that are at the top of the list, such as Singapore, Hong Kong, and other Asian countries have a strong command and control system that is focused on rigorous standardized tests.

There have been publications based on research projects, such as the Project STAR (Steps to Achieving Resilience) from 1999 to 2003 with mixed results.

The next issue that is brought forward is Mindful vs. Mindless learning. Based on the paper by Ellen Langer (2000): “Mindfulness is a flexible state of mind in which we are actively engaged in the present, noticing new things and sensitive to context”. In addition: “When we are in a state of mindlessness, we act like automatons that have been programmed to act according to the sense our behavior made in the past, rather than the present”.

Mindful learning seems promising; however we need more examples on how this can be actualized.

Finally, I understand and I agree that each person is different and ideally we should have a more personalized educational system. Perhaps one of the reasons that command and control might be helpful is because it protects students from unqualified teachers. If the teachers are not objective in what they teach, objective as in teaching based on scientific facts, there should be some sort of monitoring and command and control system.

In addition, we should not forget the historical context in which our modern centralized educational school system was established. One of the most important goals was to establish a sense of nationhood and ethnic consciousness among the population. In many cases, the languages had to be “cleaned” from foreign words and school was the most effective way to do it. This has been the experience in most, if not all, European countries.

Dinosaurs, Mindful Thinking, and Unicorns*

I just had an “Aha!” moment. Often, when I read about the problems of modern education, I find myself thinking that to solve some of them, we just need to allow students to learn about the nature of science. It turns out that science can be considered a form of mindful thinking. In “The Power of Mindful Learning” Langer compares the habit of mindful thinking to the habit of thinking like a scientist.

“A mindful approach to any activity has three characteristics: the continuous creation of new categories; openness to new information; and an implicit awareness of more than one perspective.”

Doing science requires this type of thinking. The body of human knowledge has been written collectively over time. While scientists build on existing knowledge, they understand that existing knowledge is not written in stone. It is always open to change. Generally, changes in ideas are small, but occasionally, there is a huge change in the way we model the universe. Scientists understand this and accept that there are no absolute truths in science. Indeed, the ability to change existing models as new data are created is one of the great strengths of science as a way of knowing.

Science is a process by which knowledge is developed. Sadly, this important point is often lost in science classes. It gets buried in seas of facts and procedures that establish themselves in student’s heads as sets of absolute truths and as science. One way for students to understand the nature of science is for them to engage in the process–to conduct real experiments, those for which no answer is known. However, this is difficult to manage well as a teacher and, as a result, rarely occurs. Another way to help students understand the nature of science is for them to spend time discussing (and perhaps arguing about) it in class and to see how this process 

Zhao Chuang; courtesy of Peking Natural Science Organization

Yes. Some dinosaurs appear to have had feathers!


has operated to create historic paradigm shifts. I used the second technique in my first year high school physics classes. When I explained the nature of science to my students—no absolute truths, data-based model creation, science as one way to explain the universe—they reacted with resistance and disbelief. I was asking my students to recategorize science from what they believed to be a body of facts into a model that best fits the existing data and which is open to change. Doing this requires a high level of abstraction. Many students are uncomfortable with the uncertainty of knowledge. Some choose not to think this way. As the teacher, I made sure that I gave my students activities in which they returned to and interacted with the idea throughout the year.

I disagree with Wesch when he argues that:

“The best learning almost always occurs in the absence of a teacher, for it is then that learners are free to pursue with great passion the questions that are meaningful and relevant to their own lives.”

I think that the best learning occurs in classrooms and on computers and in large groups and alone and in loud conversations and silently. Just as only sitting in a lecture is unlikely to engage all students or to encourage them to think deeply, neither is simply setting all students free to pursue their passions. People are all different and students begin class with widely varying sets of beliefs and bodies of knowledge. Good teachers learn to meet their students where they are and figure out what activities their students can do to learn more. They help students fit what they are learning into the larger body of knowledge. They help students understand how to approach their questions. They often answer questions with questions, but not always. They occasionally become the sage on the stage, but not often. They help their students challenge their existing belief systems and, sometimes, to change them. They also expect to continue to have their own “aha” moments alongside their students. (Listen to this episode of “This American Life” for a reminder of how amusing your own moments can be. It refers to unicorns. And it is one of my favorites.)

As I stated earlier, humans have built systems of knowledge and ways of thinking about the world collectively over time. Science is one of these systems and it is incredibly powerful. It allows us to predict the future and to make informed decisions. Learning to think like a scientist takes practice which is helped by the guidance of a good teacher. Understanding that thinking like a scientist is just one way of understanding the world also requires practice—probably more than simply thinking like a scientist. Effective teachers create opportunities to practice these ways of thinking and provide feedback and corrections to students as they incorporate new knowledge into old. Students learn when they are doing, but to learn how to think like a scientist or a philosopher or a musician or a Stormtrooper that doing should be guided by a skilled teacher.

In conclusion, when you are teaching, don’t be a dinosaur (lecture only) and don’t be a unicorn (a mythical creature that provides no guidance). Just be a dinosaur with feathers. And be ready to shed them if necessary.


*The views in this post are those of a retired physics teacher and do not necessarily reflect those of the scientific community as a whole. Feel free to disagree!

More hugs please

My dual roles of teacher and learner help me be mindful that I am not just tasked with fostering an engaging, meaningful, significant, life-changing, experiential learning community for my students; I am a member of the learning community in my own right, accorded by my humanity.

Intense demands of the job that force me–voluntarily–to put the priorities of the institution, department, and class ahead of my own have probably left an impression that I am always “on,” and that my sole purpose is to serve the other learners.  Now that I think about it, the idea of professor as server or servant seems familiar.  A few years ago, before I melded advising and other engagement activities into my daily work, my job was mostly just teaching.  It occurred to me that a common student expectation was that I was there to “serve” up good grades to students (“and make it snappy!”), much like the server who dispensed our lunch at the fast food restaurant across the street.

The (Un)Socratic Method of Philosophy

“He was appalled by the examination system, when it was explained to him; he could not imagine a greater deterrent to the natural wish to learn than this pattern of cramming in information and disgorging it at demand.”
The Dispossesed by Ursula Le Guin (1978, p. 127)

Let us start with a story:

The new Jewish bride is making her first big dinner for her husband and tries her hand at her mother’s brisket recipe, cutting off the ends of the roast the way her mother always did. Hubby thinks the meat is delicious, but says, “Why do you cut off the ends — that’s the best part!” She answers, “That’s the way my mother always made it.”

The next week, they go to the old bubbie’s house, and she prepares the famous brisket recipe, again cutting off the ends. The young bride is sure she must be missing some vital information, so she askes her grandma why she cut off the ends. Grandma says, “Dahlink, that’s the only way it will fit in the pan!” [1]

While this tale, noted by some as a “Tale of the Bungling Bride” trope [2] and stereotype, has religious connotations (the bride, and it’s always a bride or a woman, is usually said to be Jewish) I want to use it in a way that, perhaps, it wasn’t intended to be used. Rather than use it to have a conversation about how to make roasts or the plausible implications of the parable on religious traditions and practices, I want to use it as a frame for a discussion on education.

When I think about my discipline, philosophy, there is a fairly set way that large lectures tend to go. One person, usually a white dude, stands at the front of the room and talks at you about what Plato, Socrates, or Aristotle said for an hour or so. You go home and do something “fun” since reading philosophy is probably not fun and you’re only in the class for a distribution requirement. Then, when it is time for the exam, you write a few essays paraphrasing and miming back whatever it is the instructor said. Unless you continue on in philosophy after that initial class, and even then perhaps only if you specialize in ancient, it is unlikely that you will remember the views all that well. And yet the “talking at” mode continues to be a default for lectures, at least, within the discipline when “dealing” with large groups of seemingly lethargic college students.

It should be little surprise that what I’ve said above is, more or less, taken directly from my past students. In large lecture they are bored. At home they would rather read the sparknotes version of Aristotle’s hylomorphism than trek through page after page (after page) of dry, dense prose. On the exams they want to know what they “need to know” and nothing more and, once they’ve spat it out once, to not have to keep on knowing it.

Within philosophy (and other disciplines of course) I think it is important to have a discussion about how we teach. Within my discipline, the current mode is even how philosophers we read say not to teach it. The Socratic Method is contra the banking method of education that Ellen Langer, Ken Robinson, and Mike Wesch seem to be gesturing at in their respective pieces. And yet, that is the method we continue to use at times. To bring this back to the initial parable, where did we learn that this is the way to do it? More importantly, why do we believe that this is how is has to be done? What would it take for us to imagine, and then create, or maybe to create and then imagine, a myriad of different ways of teaching? While, as with most things, I think that the answers to these questions will be ones that must be collectively discovered, rediscovered, made, and unmade, I have a few initial musings that may be a starting point.

In his TEDTalk, Robinson notes that there are three central traits to humans: we are diverse, curious, and creative beings. Our current model of teaching and instruction seems to be doing a pretty good job at minimizing those elements and forcing students into a shape that works with the system as opposed to reworking and redesigning (or maybe totally scrapping…) the system to put it into the obediential service of the varieties of shapes, sizes, and styles that would be present in our students if it weren’t metaphorically (almost) beaten out of them in K-12 education. To move out of the metaphorical Death Valley of Education, I think that Langer is gesturing at important elements for beginning to tweak the system.

Langer’s construction of mindfulness , in particular, along with notions of frame shift/the “priming” affect would, for philosophy, be helpful in changing the paradigm. [3] As I read Langer, mindfulness constitutes the continuous labor of creating and deconstructing, making and unmaking thoughts, ideas, and persons; a great deal of openness and receptivity; and understanding that there are other perspectives (and I would personally add being open to the possibility that you won’t understand why people with the other perspectives believe what they believe).

When I ask my students to have philosophical discussions one of the tools (or rather games) I have them try out is to pair up with someone who shares the same view about x as they do and then work together to create and motivate an argument against x. For many of my students this is not something they’ve had to do before. In fact, many of them will write that they found the activity very frustrating and it made their heads hurt in their participation page for the day. But usually they start to “get” how arguments and conversations in philosophy are intended to work (i.e., pretty openly) after the activity and they start being much more charitable with views they disagree with. This incorporates the three elements that Langer proposes (somewhat) and while difficult for many of my students it makes doing philosophy “fun” for that day at least (even if it’s also frustrating). It ultimately seems to make them more mindful of how they “do” philosophy.

Their mindfulness extends, sometimes, to the words that they use when they present their ideas. Very often philosophy students will start the semester by using universal statements such as “all x are…” or that “the view for this is y”. Slowly, and sometimes not until the last week, their language can open up and they start to linguistically represent the multiplicity of views even as they argue and motivate the view, or views, they think are correct. And when they meet pushback (it’s a philosophy class; there’s always pushback) they are less likely to default to ad hominems or other so called “fallacies”. Much like Wesch’s child, they show elements of resiliency in response to challenges to their oftentimes deeply held convictions. Much of what I have written here is of course anecdotical. However, it’s interesting to see how some of the smaller things that folks such as Langer intimate can have an impact on students who have been imbedded in an otherwise dry and dusty system.

As I began, I would like to end. Another old parable is that you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make them drink. Maybe the new adage could be: don’t try to lead a horse to water in the first place but, rather, support them and let them lead themselves to the water and choose where to drink. You might have to ask the horse to be curious about what water tastes like, whether different waters taste different, etc. but that’s a separate matter.

That said, try to make sure there aren’t any small birds about or they may try to grab a snack on the way to the water. It turns out the meat eating Horses of Diomedes may have been based on fact insofar as Horses aren’t always herbivores.


[1] “The Pan Was Too Small” by Alan E. Mays in FOAFTale News. June 1996 (pp. 15-16).

[2] See pp. 191-192 in Curses! Broiled Again! (1990) by Jan Harold Brunvand.

[3] The Power of Mindful Learning (1997) by Ellen Langer.

Mindfulness vs. Mindlessness

I never considered the theoretical differences between mindfulness vs. mindlessness. Mindfulness is when we are actively engaged in the present. Mindlessness is when you are automated to think in the past. In research and develop and engineering advancements, engineers and scientists must actively practice mindfulness. The world of engineering, science, and technology is constantly evolving. These professionals need to be able to adapt and based their research on how it will affect today’s society. For example, I am a drinking water quality engineer, and the world of water treatment has evolved much within the last century. Drinking water treatment has evolved tremendously in the last century. In the 20th century, the focus was on the sanitary aspect of water, particularly, waterborne diseases, disinfection, and water quality. In the mid 20th century, the focus included sanitary water and safe water. These factors included VOCs/DBPs protection, more strict criteria, and water quality. Within the last decade or so of the 21st century, tastiness of water has become an important factor–this includes aesthetic problems, distribution systems, and satisfying customers. Without the mindfulness thought process, our drinking water system would not be as advanced as it is today.

School & Learning-Autonomous Synonyms

We go to school to learn and we learn in school, but are these concepts as synonymous as we often believe them to be?

I have to say that I disagree with what Mike Wesch said in his video What Baby George Taught Me About Learning. I find his reaction to the teacher’s statement “Some people aren’t cut out for school” to be a bit of an overreaction. I see the statements “Some people aren’t cut out for school” and “Some people aren’t cut out for learning” to have vastly different meanings. As teachers, we can work for days, hours, or even years on end to make our classrooms as inclusive and and accepting of various types of learners, but there will always be students who cannot be satisfied by “classroom learning”.

Although teachers have become more dedicated to implementing various types of instruction to meet the needs of the diverse students who pass through our classrooms, at some point we have to accept that no matter how hard we try there will be some students who just can’t be reached in the higher education environment.

While writing this post a specific relative comes to mind. This relative is intelligent and hard working. He enjoys reading and learning, but doesn’t enjoy school at all. He hardly graduated high school and flunked out of college after his first semester. He has a passion for culinary arts, but even culinary arts classes aren’t enjoyable to him, at least not enjoyable enough for him to fathom staying in college to take them. He would rather learn culinary skills by working at a Bar-B-Q restaurant. Some people simply aren’t stimulated by college courses regardless of how interactive or hands-on the class is or how interested they are in the subject matter.

For people like my relative, higher education simply isn’t suited to their needs. They hate the schedules, demands, and structure that is the basis of higher education. Even the most hands on courses aren’t real enough for them. They need reality to learn. They need to know that what they are doing is resulting in more than a number or letter that signifies their success or lack thereof.

I am suited for school. I have known this to be true for most of my life. I enjoy going to class. I tolerate (and sometimes even enjoy) homework assignments. I appreciate the strict schedules and guidelines. School is what makes sense to me. Although I think of myself as an intelligent human being, I can admit that I am not as suited for learning as I am for school. The things we discuss in my classes don’t always come easily to me. I have to spend more time than others on some assignments and readings in order to grasp concepts (especially the complex ideas we explore in graduate school). I love classes that have practical applications, but I have a feeling if I were to be challenged with a “real-life” scenario in class and were challenged with the exact same scenario in reality, I would perform better in class simply because I would be within my comfort zone.

I don’t necessarily agree with everything in this video, but I think Suli Breaks makes some amazing points in support of my argument in it.

I strongly believe in the importance of education and I am a huge proponent of catering my classroom to the needs of my students. However, I also believe that some people just aren’t suited for school (which I don’t see as being a bad thing), and I wholeheartedly disagree that being unsuited for school is the same thing as being unsuited for learning.




A Mind Full

Sir Ken Robinson, in his TED talk proposes that there are three principles that are crucial for the human mind to flourish and how we can see the opposite of these principles in our current education system:

  • Human beings are naturally different and diverse (No Child Left Behind policy is based upon conformity)*

*I find it interesting that the current undergraduate students are products of the former No Child Left Behind policies and that I see a lot of Robinson’s comments on this policy in the classroom.

  • Curiosity (the point of teaching is to facilitate learning; testing should not be the dominant culture)
  • Human life is inherently creative (culture of standardization)


Ellen Langer echoes Robinson’s principles in her explanation of mindful and mindlessness learning. She states, “A mindful approach to any activity has three characteristics: the continuous creation of new categories; openness to new information; and an implicit awareness of more than one perspective. Mindlessness, in contrast, is characterized by an entrapment in old categories; by automatic behavior that precludes attending to new signals; and by action that operates from a single perspective. Being mindless, colloquially speaking, is like being on automatic pilot” (1997, p. 4).


So what does this mean to me as an instructor? It actually means a lot. When I started being an instructor of record, I thought back to my own experiences as an undergraduate student and my attitude towards learning. I had not been given any pedagogical instruction, only past syllabi to assist in planning my course. I needed ideas. What was it that excited me? What did professors do to engage me? I realized that they made me feel as if I was an intricate part of the learning process. They were willing to field my questions and listen to my ideas. They helped me express my creativity and go beyond my comfort zone when it came to choosing topics for class presentations or final projects. I was never told outright that I was wrong or that I just didn’t get it. I was usually given a “clue” and asked to retrace my steps to find a different outcome on my own.

“Look! A clue!”

My next thought was how to incorporate these things into my classroom. First I thought about the physical space and I would agree with Mike Wesch, “The physical structure of the classrooms in which I work simply does not inspire dialogue and critical thinking. They are physical manifestations of the pervasive narrow and naïve assumption that learning is simple information gathering, built for teachers to effectively carry out the relatively simple task of conveying information” (Wesch, 6). I wanted to convey information but not as the typical “sage on the stage.” Again, this semester I am trying the no electronic device approach to conveying information. I felt that electronic devices, while connecting students virtually, hindered their connections in the physical realm. In my experience, students seemed more apt to take notes on their laptops when I spoke, but were reluctant to see the possible learning in the questions and comments of their peers. So far, there has been success. Students are attentive. They are asking questions of each other and me. Discussion is lively and thoughtful. Is this the answer? I don’t think so. I know I have to be flexible and adaptable. Each semester has been and will be a new experience and experiment with my “teaching style.”

Anti-Teaching / Mindful Learning

I find this concept of Anti-teaching quite intriguing and especially interesting to detangle as Ken Robinson did in his TedxTalk How to Escape Education’s Death Valley. Robinson mentioned the epidemic of ADHD. While I do very much believe in the behavioral disorder and think it is necessary to treat, he made an excellent point in terms of children’s attention span. That, logically, if you give someone a task to do for an extended period of time, they are likely to get fidgety. This offers insight into how we discuss traditional teaching practices and how we might effectively alter our methods.

One of the more important points that was necessary to think about in this weeks readings is being cautious of teaching AT students and learning how to teach with significance. As Langer suggest, the myths of traditional learning (i.e. delayed gratification, right and wrong answers, paying attention = focusing on one thing at a time) actually undermine true learning. Reimagining the ways in which we teach can be valuable in terms of getting students authentically engaged. When students are taught AT, they understand the educator/professor relationship as one-way. When the learning relationship between educator and professor are dynamic and applicable to the students lives, perhaps the central questions will be less about grades and assignment timelines and more about asking critical questions that are thought provoking and have depth.

I have TA’d a course using Welch’s method of altering the learning environment. We were teaching a course on Feminism. Instead of the standard lecture style, we had the students structure their chairs in a circle where they could see and speak to each other. This was important as it is more valuable for us, as the educators to guide the discussion, and let the students fill in the blanks – bouncing ideas off of each of other, gaining first-hand insight into intersectional approaches to feminism. I found that students were more comfortable speaking up and speaking to each other. They did not feel as though there was a structured relationship between educator and student – but that in some way they were all, at different point in the discussion, educators as well as students. Instead of we, the educators challenging the students, the students challenged each other to think more critically. Our discussions were less structured yet more interactive and therefore significant to the students.

The Feminism course I TA’d was a class of approximately 30. I wonder about suggestions for altering the environment of lecture size (50+) courses.

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