Mindful Learning: A Path Out of the Educational Death Valley

What does it mean to be a mindful learner? If you’d asked me this as a child, I’d have told you it meant listening very intently to what my teacher was saying then being able to recall what what said at a later date . My teachers would likely argue this wasn’t something I practiced, but that’s something I’ll touch on a little later on in this post. As I progressed on my academic journey, I came to believe mindful learning meant taking what was being taught and applying it contextually to solve problems in the world around me vs. just being able to  regurgitate the information when prompted. Now, as an aspiring educator taking this GEDI course, the definition of mindful learning is becoming increasingly more complex than what my younger self could even conceive.

A great visual of "mindfulness" Source: https://mindfullearningandliving.wordpress.com/tag/mindfulness-definition/

Source: https://mindfullearningandliving. wordpress.com/tag/mindfulness-definition/

First, I want to touch on what I learned about mindful learning this week. According to Ellen Langer in Mindful Learning,  mindfulness is defined as “as a flexible state of mind in which we are actively engaged in the present, noticing new things, and sensitive to context”. Similarly, in her book on mindful learning, Langer lists three characteristics to mindfulness: the continuous creation of new categories, openness to new information, and an implicit awareness of more than one perspective”. These three characteristics all seem to support the “new method” of teaching proposed by Langer, whom suggests teaching should be based on “…an appreciation of both the conditional, or context-dependent, nature of the world and the value of uncertainty”.

This new method of teaching really resonates with me. Whether it’s due to my INTJ personality, the sign I was born under (Pisces), or the fact I’m a scientist, I have always described my perceptions of the world as “fluid”. To me, pretty much everything is a shade of grey-there are very few things I consider black or white. As knowledge evolves, so do my opinions. To me, it seems only natural that learning should follow a similar pattern. With new knowledge should come new ideas, new context, and new approaches to how things were done previously. Personally, it seems that being a mindful learner means being actively aware of knowledge as it becomes available while critically evaluating its potential to be applied in a variety of present and future contexts.

Remember when I said I’d touch on my (perceived) lack of ability to mindfully learn? Well Ken Robinson’s How To Escape Education’s Death Valley is the perfect “segway” into that topic. In Robinson’s video, he briefly mentioned Attention Hyperactivity Deficit Disorder(ADHD), how a growing number of people are being diagnosed with it, and how he believes it is a symptom of our educational system. Now, I’m not going to delve into whether or not ADHD is a manifestation of the education system. However, I am going to discuss my experience with ADHD as it pertains to mindful learning.

Though bright, I was a considered an average student. I didn’t perform well on tests, homework, or anything that our current educational system uses as a measure of a students’ learning capacity. I will say I excelled in reading and English classes where I found myself incredibly engaged by the material, but I did poorly in mathematics-a class I found horribly boring. As it turns out, I was diagnosed with ADHD midway through my master’s program. In order to validate the diagnosis, I was required to go through a full battery of psychological, intelligence, and achievement testing. Going into the testing, I was under the impression these tests would be similar to those I took in school-they’d be used to see if I met a benchmark for my capacity to learn. In this context, however, the tests were used diagnostically to assess where I was at rather than tell me I didn’t meet a certain “bench mark”. Robinson discussed this subject and how our present educational system uses tests as a benchmark rather than as a diagnostic tool. He made a very valid point about education: it is not a mechanical system, it’s a human system. Testing appears to be one of the many paths leading to the “Educational Death Valley”. Unfortunately, our current educational system seems to be riddled with paths that lead students to this valley-a place where effective learning no longer occurs.

To this day, I firmly believe my educational experience would have been drastically improved had I 1) been diagnosed with ADHD earlier and 2) had a path out of the Educational Death Valley. I think that if we, as educators, can be more cognizant of the pitfalls within the educational system, then we will better recognize when students journey down the path into “Death Valley” and we can be ready to engage them in mindful learning to show them the path out.

A Critical Response to Langer, :D

Langer lists as properties of “sideways learning” “1) openness to novelty; 2) alertness to distinction; 3) sensitivity to different contexts; 4) implicit, if not explicit, awareness of multiple perspectives; and 5) orientation in the present.” I would like to suggest that this is how babies learn, and in doing so, center Langer’s argument on a kind of learning that is nothing new. Infancy, in all the stages of a person’s life, is when one is most open to novelty. Everything is new and unique. A baby absolutely must be alert to distinction. This is a matter of survival. A baby must most certainly have sensitivity to different contexts. This is how distinctions are made. 3 and 4 I think might be the same thing. Finally, a baby has no real relationship with history or the past, no? Where else must their orientation be, if not in the present?

Since this is a blog post, and so not governed by typical rules of organization and subject matter, I’m also going to harp on her use of Little Red Riding Hood as an example of someone not being mindful. In point of fact, Little Red Riding Hood was in its oral form a story quite the opposite of the version Langer uses, composed first by the Grimm Brothers in written form. The history of fairy tales is one of perversion. In its oral form, passed down through generations of peasantry, LRRH was a story of a girl who escapes the wolf through her wit, and comes of age. She goes out on her own, escapes from the clutches of a wolf by her own wit, and replaces the older generation, the grandma. The version Langer uses can be demonstrated to have its roots in male sexual fantasies. LRRH was turned into a story of rape, one that boxes women into an impossible situation where they must not be careless with strange males (wolf), but can also only be saved by a strong one (the hunter). Perhaps if Langer were thinking more mindfully, she could have used LRRH as the opposite example. LOL? My source here is Jack Zipes’ book, Don’t Bet on the Prince.

Is Engineering Curriculum in U.S. Universities Dead?

In Sir Ken Robinson’s TED talk he centered his talk around the idea that there are 3 principles on which human life flourishes:

  1. Diversity
  2. Curiosity
  3. Creativity

He took these 3 principles and illustrated how they are not being used to influence the curriculum of grade schools across the U.S. and how the development of the ‘No Child Left Behind’ act has made it even worse. I would like to take these three principles and use them to comb through undergraduate mechanical engineering curriculum to see if the three principles are carried out.

So, let’s look past the obvious term of diversity and think about the diversity of classes. Does the engineering curriculum properly offer a diverse set of classes? Well…not really for the first couple of years (until your able to take elective courses). But the issue is that the students have to learn engineering basics before they can branch out into classes where they build off of the basics. Some universities do require students to take out of engineering electives. For example, I was forced to take 7 humanities and social sciences courses along with our typical engineering coursework in order to get my Bachelor’s degree. Now I’m not going to say how much information I truly pulled from these classes, but I did enjoy the break that they provided me from the technical engineering courses I was taking.

So in the end, I think there is a small amount of diversity in the curriculum. Maybe not as much diversity as some think there should be. The amount of diversity that is offered is completely dependent on the university, but it seems like all accredited Bachelor’s programs have at least a little bit of diversity.

Let’s be honest here…this is not really a thing. By going into engineering, it is assumed that you have a curiosity for learning how things work and the math/physics behind how things work. But while studying engineering you are not really given an opportunity to express that curiosity. Typically, some courses have projects, but those projects are usually designed by the professor and do not allow the students to weigh in on projects that they would prefer to do.

In order to really bring curiosity into the classroom professors need to allow different types of well formatted/designed projects to be performed in a classroom. There are many projects that can be developed using the same principles, just with different applications/outcomes.

When I was a junior every mechanical engineering student had to take a class called ‘Mechanical Engineering Laboratory’, a very simple string of words that really don’t describe the class well. In this class, we split up into groups of 3 or 4 students to work on a project completely designed/chosen by the students in each group. In the end the projects had to be approved by the professor, but there was complete freedom of what core idea you and your group wanted to study. For this project, each group had to first identify a problem, model the problem, develop an experiment using uncertainty analysis, perform the experiment, and provide the results over the course of a semester. In my class we had projects ranging from comparing the effectiveness of different radiators to testing savonius wind turbines to determining the structural properties of graham crackers/pasta noodles.

This class format really allowed us students to truly learn the ideas of uncertainty analysis and how it effects experimental setup by allowing us to perform a project on a topic that expressed our curiosity. In addition, the professor in charge didn’t have to come up with ideas/design experiments he just had to be there for support and guidance along the way.

Well it’s engineering. I find that usually creativity is not a word commonly used in the same sentence as engineering. Since most courses in the engineering curriculum are designed to shove information down a student’s throat they do not allow for creativity to happen.

Now is creativity completely sucked out of engineering department at universities? I don’t think so because there are still ‘competition teams’ that students are allowed to join. These teams are a great way for students to express their creativity through designing parts and working with their hands to build something. I participated in Formula SAE, a program where every year you are tasked with building an open-wheeled racecar from the ground up. By being part of this team I was able to take the knowledge I learned in class and the knowledge I gained from reading books and papers to exercise my creativity through modeling, design, and analysis of the suspension for the car.

I mean look at this suspension…I think that’s pretty creative in an engineering sense, but I might be a little bias.

Take Away:
Is education dead in the undergraduate engineering curriculum? No!

I mean it isn’t in the best of health, but I do not think it is dead. While, the curriculum does not have much form of curiosity and creativity in them I feel that extra-curricular activities sponsored by the university have these two principles. So, if there was a way to inject bits of these extra-curricular activities into the curriculum maybe its health could be improved and with enough people pushing forward the curriculum can become a young sprit curriculum in the prime of its life.

Understanding the world through art-My grandmother’s story.

“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.”
― Pablo Picasso

I hope my husband doesn’t read my blog. I am dreadfully in love with Sir Ken Robinson, and have been since I heard his first Ted talk entitled  “Do Schools Kill Creativity?” My interpretation of his talk, therefore, may be a bit biased. I think it is so important to bring humor to important topics such as education, for many reasons. The first is that it helps to grab the attention of what may otherwise be an uninterested audience. Also, it brings joy to the simple task of listening. Sir Ken Robinson manages to be both humorous and serious, both joyful and fearful.

When he began discussing the topic of ‘No Child Left Behind’ in his talk, I perked up in my chair. This has been a politically dividing topic for what seems to be the majority of my lifetime. Improving eduction is at the forefront of most every politicians mind, however the way in which we go about improving it is a different topic entirely. What about the students who are in school but do not enjoy being in school? What about the student who learns differently? We certainly don’t want to leave these students behind. We must not only recognize the importance of education, but also acknowledge how different each children is from one another and how differently they learn. We mustn’t conform. He continues, “A real education has to give equal weight to the arts, the humanities, and to physical eduction.”
I’m going to use my grandmother as an example, for a few reasons. She grew up with dyslexia. She is an artist. She is a philanthropist. She donated millions of dollars to have an arts center built on campus. Her name is P. Buckley Moss, my mom’s mother, and she is absolutely incredible. Her childhood, however, was far from incredible. The way her story differs from many other children similar to her was this: a teacher in grade school recognized her talent in the arts and helped her to find a way to incorporate art into her schooling, which she otherwise did not excel. Her dyslexia prevented her from understanding simple math equations. She still spells my name wrong from time to time on birthday cards. For her, it took one person, one teacher, to recognize that she was different and to embrace her talents and interests rather than using them as a crutch to hold her back. Art changed my grandmother’s life for the better, and I wonder where she would be today if her artistic mind was not given the opportunity to flourish in her elementary school classroom. According to Robinson, “the arts aren’t just important because they improve math skills, they are important because they speak to parts of children being which are otherwise untouched.” I’m grateful that my grandmother had the opportunity to learn and grow immersed in her artwork and embraced by her educators.
How important it is for all educators to recognize the support needed by students who learn differently. How important it is for educators to teach them differently. Classrooms and schools mustn’t be molded and shaped to fit the ideals of a group of legislators. We cannot lose sight of the little minds and the little souls inside those little bodies. We cannot forget that at the very root of the word humanities is ‘human.’ Let us praise and celebrate the true and immeasurable beauty of what makes us human– our differences.

This Post is Mindlessly Mindful or Mindfully Mindless

This week’s set of readings and videos struck a chord for me. I am by every interpretation of the phrase a product of my environment. My parents are both in academia/teaching (father in research and mother in public education). I grew up in a household where I was encouraged to figure things out similar to the mindfulness discussed in Langer’s book. I also grew up hearing my mom’s fellow elementary school teachers discussing the state of curricula in their schools and the curse of the SOLs. I learned to resent administrative involvement and protest the idea that somebody can be assessed purely through standardized tests. I saw some schools, like my mom’s, fight back against this expectation. Ken Robinson drives straight to the heart of the matter with his principles and recommendations for escaping education’s Death Valley.

I am still chewing on the thoughts presented in Langer’s chapter and article. Distinguishing between mindlessness and mindfulness is simple enough, but there is a lot that goes into these designations when you throw in teaching a lesson.  At some points in the writing, it is almost as if Langer leaves it up to semantics, but I know this is not simply the case. It appears that Langer is challenging teachers to change out the toolbox, but still teach the tools, just with some flexibility. I would like to try such practices in a lecture that I teach, but I definitely need to sit down and think of how that could be done given the nature of my area.

It really struck me to see in print in Wesch’s anti-teaching article that, “students are struggling to find meaning and significance in their education”. This resonates with me on some level. I served my term in public schools and I completed my undergraduate and Master’s degrees here at Virginia Tech. Often after finishing a class I have questioned its significance and contribution. Thinking back to Langer’s chapter in complement to Wesch’s article and Robinson’s Ted talk, I can’t help but wonder what I would be thinking if some of these proposed methods such as the use of mindfulness were incorporated.

One class that I feel emulated this philosophy for me was John Boyer’s “World Regions” held here at Virginia Tech. It was by far my favorite undergraduate course. I also feel like it was the one that I learned the most from, remember the most, and feel that I can apply tools to the future for without that “one time learning”. Ironically, this class was not part of my major. I took it in order to satisfy a degree requirement in core education. I think it is rather sad that the only class I can legitimately remember anything from is not even remotely related to what my major was at the time.

That being said, I fear that pedagogical enthusiasts might wrap themselves in the nuances of mindfulness and mindlessness. Heck, some might even decide to play the troll arguing for the need of a foundation of “mindlessness” in order to allow for “mindfulness” in later learning. Again, I think aptitude for an area is also up to the individual and how they learn. It will be interesting to see where this research will go once it jumps into the nuance of “how a person learns” (i.e. kinesthetic) in a mindful setting. I can safely tell you that no matter how you talk to me (in a lecture) or read at me, that I generally do not learn as successfully as I do in other forms. How can the use of mindfulness be adapted to this?

I combat a lot in my mind as someone in the process of becoming a teacher. I support the notion of mindfulness and anti-teaching, understanding the culture, and seeing students as individuals. On the other end, I also see that education is also a system with a lot of students to contend with. Where is the balance? Where should it start? How can we build up this momentum without destroying the sanity of teachers nationally?



When I saw the word “mindfulness”, I thought of something spiritual, such as yoga and meditation. “How mindfulness can be used in study? Does it mean that we need to be very concentrated on the learning process and ignore everything else?” With these questions, I started to read the papers about mindful learning. According to Ellen Langer (2016),

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


A reflection of my learning habits makes me realize how a mindless learner I am. For example, when I plan to learn a new skill, such as how to create a poster. I often look for some detailed instructions or templates and try to follow the listed steps carefully. In a class, I often take notes of what the instructor says without thinking, and do the same when I read a book or literature. Why this happens? I think although mindless learning is a universal problem in the world, it becomes even worse due to the education system in China. Since good education resources are very scare there, given its large population, standardized tests dominate students’ life after kindergarten. Learning becomes a tool to pass the tests, which only have one or a few sets of “correct” answers. Although I may be a successor in that education system, my mindless learning habits limits the further development.

Source: http://www.portlandfamily.com/posts/the-montessori-approach-promoting-mindful-learning/

Source: http://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2015/07/08/420559529/unveiling-how-standardized-tests-are-scored

As a future instructor, I wonder how my students can avoid the same experience I had and how to get rid of this habit. I hear about Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 Hour Rule—it takes roughly ten thousand hours of practice to achieve mastery in a field.  However, only a few people can achieve this because most of our students get bored soon before the first 100 hours. What needed in addition to the 10000 hour,  in my opinion, are continuous changes of approaches and thinking about the alternative ways. This requires the instructor to be a life-long learner, who is brave enough to try something new and face the risk of failure. Also, the assessment in education system should change in order to encourage mindful teaching and learning. If there is a lack of creative questions in the tests, student may still prefer instructions written in absolute terms and memorize materials. In a general sense, a key of mindfulness is realizing what you are doing, just like you do this as the first time.  This is true as Heraclitus said “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man”. To improve mindfulness, we also need to realize the subtle differences between situations and people, and to become a good perpetrator of mindlessness.



  1. Langer, Ellen J. The power of mindful learning. Da Capo Press, 2016.

Being a Mindful Learner

The article, “Mindful Learning” by Ellen J. Langer talks about the difference between mindful learning and mindless learning. I definitely agree with her that mindful learners are typically more resourceful of utilizing what they learn in different applications. However, for me when I learn something new I have to be a “mindless” learner first, in order to understand the basics of what I am learning. I have to repetitively drill the new information into my memory. Once I have a grasp of the new information then I can become a mindful learner. A great example of this is that during my undergraduate as an engineering student, I had to keep doing practice problems until they are ingrained into my memory. The demanding curriculum made it very hard for me to stop and think deeper about the problems. I constantly have to memorize the concepts and apply it for the tests, quizzes, and homework. I remember that during those times it was hard for me to ask thought provoking questions in my field of study.

Once I practiced engineering in the industry and came back for my graduate degree. I had the insights to be a mindful student. I was able to relate the theory that I learned in the classroom to the applications that I have seen in the industry and vice versa. Because I have witness the same information from multiple sources, I was able to detect new subtleties that I missed in my undergraduate years. I started to have more thought provoking questions, as well as using the principles that I learned from the classroom and my job to apply it to other areas of my life. A great example of this is that I became fascinated with the culinary world. After being a mindful learner in the culinary arts, I am able to create many intricate dishes. During my experimentation, I had many “failed” dishes. With those failures, I performed a root failure caused analysis using the methods that I learned as a practicing engineer to determine why my dishes failed. From those learnings, I started to implement my understanding of heat transfer, chemical reactions, fluid mechanics, and mechanics from the classroom to achieve the results that I want. This is a prime example of how being a mindful learner allows a student to have a deeper understanding of their field of study. I take my experiences from multiple perspective and develop effective solutions in all aspects of my life.

Additionally, I Googled mindful learning and I found the graphic below. After reading each of the circles, it reminds me of a concept that I constantly try to ingrain in to my students, “active thinking.” In my class, I encourage students to ask questions, and participates in the class discussions. I put many of my students on the spot randomly as you may never know when you need to think on your feet. I encourage them to see multiple perspectives for the issues that they may be facing.





Go Back to the Original Intention of Learning

Everybody must have the doubt more or less as why do we live. It is kind of ironic that we tend to think more about it when we are sad, when we are down at the bottom of our life. When things go so smoothly that we just go with the life and hardly think about the meaning of life. I think that it is the same with the question why do we learn. It is usually when the teaching and learning failed, we will stop, take a look at the path we have been on, and think about the significance of learning. Michael Wesch (2008) said that “the most significant problem with education today is the problem of significance itself.” (p.5) I think that is a good point that need to be address and thought by all the students and teachers in education, especially higher education.

When we come to the phase of higher education, learning sometimes become a machine of routine. We have accomplished our K-12, we go through the exams, we finally come to the stage where we should get higher education. But we often lose the reason and the meaning of learning on our way here. Day after day, we are sitting in classes, accepting the “knowledge” from teachers, and accomplishing assignments before due days. We are doing a mindless learning if we don’t keep think about the big picture. Sometimes life and learning are too hard, we are just too into a piece of it, and forget to seek the significance. However, the danger of mindless learning is that we might realize that we waste too much time on meaningless stuff one day, and it is too late to make up to it. We don’t want that to happen, then we need to conduct mindful learning.

But how to do mindful learning? We need to seek of the meaning of learning and remember that all the time. Going back to the original intention of learning could be a way to remind ourselves the significance of learning. Why human started learning? I think we do it for seeking a better way of living for ourselves and for our society in rude times. So “the value of uncertainly” (Langer, 2000, p. 15) should be an important part in our learning when we try to find a way to the future. Doubts about the learning and knowledge should be valued and encouraged. I think doubts are the root of thinking and creating. When we are trying to do mindful learning, the first thing we need to remember the original intention of learning, thus, we can remind ourselves the significance of learning. The second thing we need to keep in mind is that we need to have doubts and raise questions about learning.



Langer, E. J. (2000). Mindful learning. Current directions in psychological science, 9(6), 220-223.

Wesch, M. (2008). Anti-teaching: Confronting the crisis of significance. Education Canada, 48(2), 4-7.

#WeLearnBy/”Programmed Learning”

Last week, as we did the activity #WeLearnBy…, in and outside my group I noticed a few of my group members and other groups said “repetition”. Because I also learn by repetition and shared that with my group, I then thought to myself, “why do I learn by repetition?”. Then I thought “well maybe because in elementary school when we were given our weekly spelling words we had to write them over and over for a set amount of times and I learned by repeating this notion to this day”…that is how I learning I have to repetitively do the steps or write something down.  Then I thought for the people that said they also learn in repetition if this was their reason why…having been conditioned to repeat write early on in elementary or before.

As I read the “Anti-Teaching_Mindful Learning” piece it started connecting for me. I believe the author mentioned something about programmed teaching or “teaching the basics” but not introducing students to learn and attain information outside those step by step, basic instructions. Is that holding them back? If I would have been exposed different ways of learning spelling words would “repetition” be the way in which I learn and attain information now? Maybe, maybe not but having other options presented to me would have been nice. I remember at the time writing my spelling words over and over seemed so tedious to me and hard to adapt to doing at the time as a 6 year old child. Then I just went with the flow and adapted to it because every year after that each teacher wanted use to write our spelling  words over and over again for a fixed amount of time, so it worked.

I feel like this “mindful” or “mindfulness” concept is a movement, as I learned some mindful skills in therapy and some nutrition and health professionals (my education field) discuss and incorporate Mindful Eating in their curriculum and health education approaches. As I typed in Mindful Learning, just to read a little more on it, I found this quote “Ellen Langer proposes a third approach which she calls ‘sideways learning’. Sideways learning involves maintaining a mindful state that is characterized by openness to novelty, alertness to distinction, sensitivity to different contexts, awareness of multiple perspectives, and orientation in the present”. http://cadres.pepperdine.edu/ccar/ar/c7/Connaghan/MindfulLearning.htm I mean I read this once in the article we had to read for this week but as I read it again in made more sense and connected for me (probably due to my conditioned learning style of repetition learning). But this “sideways learning” outside of the “top to bottom” or “bottom up” approach sound like it is so useful for both instructor and student because at the end of the day a learning style is taught in a way especially at and during the elementary level of learning but every thing does not work for everybody as I believe Langer also subtly argues during the basic learning section.

Politicizing the “Crisis of Significance”

I set out to write about Ken Robinson’s talk “How to escape education’s death valley,” which contains a number of interesting observations about education in the 21st century. Robinson makes important points about the role of human creativity and curiosity. However, after reading Michael Wesch’s short piece “Anti-Teaching: Confronting the Crisis of Significance,” I felt a certain compulsion to render a critique.

In 2008 Michael Wesch made the bold claim that: “The most significant problem with education today is the problem of significance itself. Students – our most important critics – are struggling to find meaning and significance in their education.” He uses his own students for the primary examples of this phenomenon noting that his students often completed less than half of their assigned readings, many bought expensive textbooks that they never used, and only around one quarter found readings relevant to their lives.

I don’t dispute his findings, they largely track with my own anecdotal experience as a high school and undergraduate student as well as my experiences teaching undergraduates. I do, however, dispute the notion that what he calls the “crisis of significance” is somehow a new problem and I dispute the assertion that it is, absent larger context, the most significant problem in education today. Without reference to earlier studies, opinion polls, historical narratives, etc. it is quite impossible to know whether students in the past completed more of their assignments, felt more engaged in classes, and saw a greater “significance” in education. Maybe this is the case, but Wesch makes no attempt to demonstrate that the current period is different than previous periods. My “commonsense” hunch is that some students have always half-heartedly engaged in the materials and processes of learning. Some research seems to indicate students study less than in previous decades but it’s unclear exactly why this is the case (or that this is necessarily a bad thing).

Rather disappointingly, Wesch seems to place significant blame for student disengagement squarely on teachers. He writes: “As teachers we have created and continue to maintain an education system that inevitably produces” students focused on instrumental measures of success rather than asking critical questions. And no doubt we can all learn new techniques for better engaging our students.

But, what’s completely missing from Wesch’s interpretation of contemporary university teaching/learning are recent structural changes and challenges to universities and macro-economic structures that may contribute to a crisis of significance for students. Universities face budget cuts, faculty face challenges to their control and direction of curricula, and there is a push to instrumentalize education. These processes are typified by Wisconsin governor Scott Walker’s attempts to fundamentally restructure (dismantle is my preferred verb) some of the best universities in the country.

Such changes are part of what some call the “neoliberal revolution” begun in the 1970s, which has seen an ideology of so-called free-markets permeate all facets of life. As Wendy Brown writes, neoliberalism works by “extending and disseminating market values to all institutions and social action” (2003, 7). Michel Foucault described this turn as the generalization of markets “beyond monetary exchanges” and to the realms of social and individual behavior (Senellart 2008, 243). In popular discussion and imagination this ideology is exemplified by the late Margaret Thatcher’s assertion of TINA – there is no alternative – to the spread of capitalist free-markets around the world.

Wesch’s concentration on individual teachers’ approaches to education/learning fits well within a neoliberal framework that focuses on “personal responsibility” rather than institutional or collective action. Many in the “education reform” camp have attempted to place all the woes in education on the shoulders of teachers (Uetricht 2014). Furthermore, it is within this ideological hegemony that students are educated and within this context that they must, after graduation, make their way in the world. So I put forward that a crisis of significance may cause students only to ask instrumental questions – will this be on the test? and how will I be graded? – partly because they recognize that they are located within an economic system that offers no guarantee of a materially comfortable life – even with a college or post-graduate degree. In fact, capitalism celebrates this insecurity and precarity. Students must compete in a volatile market to find a job and successfully completing their undergraduate education is increasingly seen as a part of this process. How will I be graded? then implicitly queries how comfortable and secure will my life be? Will an A in this course allow me to pay back my student loans?

Furthermore, students may be asking themselves: what difference does critical thinking make when the system I must enter upon graduation tells me repeatedly that my ability to live a decent life is predicated on accepting the vary narrow parameters of a politics of TINA?

I want to put forward, tentatively, that one of the greatest crises in education may be one of significance brought on by a mismatch between intrinsic human creativity and curiosity, mindful learning practices and brute realities of very narrow options for students. Furthermore, these realities do not exist in a vacuum. Wesch presents his crisis as ubiquitous. He doesn’t allow for the possibility that his anecdotal experience is simply that. I want to suggest that such a crisis cannot be understood as a universal – it must be located in particular temporal, cultural, and political milieus that have brought it about. Truly, how can learning and education be significant at all without such particularities?

Finally, though I find Wesch’s project of a world simulation interesting, I want to argue that confronting a crisis of significance can only be done in an explicitly critical, reflexive, and (re)politicized way. The choices students have available to them are constrained in various ways. However, in many cases, these constraints are not laws of nature but rather human inventions, rules, and institutions. Understanding, debating, altering, and in some cases eliminating these constraints must be an integral part of mindful education. I don’t read this commitment to structural change in Wesch’s argument.


Brown, Wendy. 2003. “Neo-Liberalism and the End of Liberal Democracy.” Theory & Event 7 (1).

Senellart, Michel, ed. 2008. Michel Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1978–79. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Uetricht, Micah. 2014. Strike for America: Chicago Teachers Against Austerity. London and New York: Verso.

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