Zen and the art of educational system repair

Take a deep breath


focus on one thing,


a single word,


a single phrase,


the most basic mantras of meditation and mindfulness,




now take a deep breath and hold it,


hold it just a second longer,


one second longer,


and now release.


You have now achieved mindfulness of the body and spirit,



Dr. Ellen J. Langer, however, published a paper on mindfulness that deviates slightly from the basics of zen and meditation.

By slightly, of course, I mean almost entirely, but for good reason. She posits that to be truly effective in the classroom as educators, we must have our students achieve mindfulness. She isn’t suggesting however, that we all get on top of our desks and hum in unison, unless you’re teaching a vibrations engineering class like I do.

“If we all hum at the the building’s resonant frequency, we can get the university safety inspector to pay us a visit”

What she, along with Dr. Wesch and Sir Ken Robison are suggesting is that we must throw out some of the old ‘sage on the stage’ and ‘blank stares in chairs’ teaching manuals and start to encourage a more interactive and customizable lesson plan.

“I’m haven’t understood anything since the syllabus and at this point I’m too afraid to ask”

The experts discussed how much more engaged and successful a student can be when they stop taking truths as gospel, when they are allowed to grapple with and own learned knowledge, when they start melding and molding their ideas around what they learned, when they are allowed to go back and forth between different concepts instead of focusing on one idea at a time, and when they get instant feedback on their individual conclusions, either from the instructor, from teaching assistants, or from their peers.

Students wrestling with ideas, together

But as an educator in a so-called ‘hard-science’, I still need to get my subject matter across before the end of the semester while, both myself and my students are being held to standards by the university. What am I to do?  How am I to embrace the diversity of my student body while accepting the conformity of the curriculum? How do I allow my students to express themselves and engage with me and each other, while still transmitting the entirety of each lesson? How do I allow them the time to ponder ideas and gain an individual ownership of them while staying on schedule?

The answer may lie in the discussion we had last week centered around networked learning. Having in-class lessons and discussions that continue online after the students have had time to ponder and perhaps discuss with each other later can be a solution. In addition to that, having interact with content online that is connected to the classroom discussions can be a way to individualize a student’s learning and supplement the curriculum without cutting into valuable classroom time.  Lastly, having assignments that include students generating original content and discussions that occur ‘after-hours’ exists as a way for the students to interact and express themselves, thereby  creating a connection to the classroom material and achieving mindfulness remotely.

“The first hour of enlightenment is free, then it’s $5  per minute of mindfulness after that”

Because, although we aren’t reaching nirvana per se in the classrooms, networked learning techniques may be the key to creating mindfully learning students who can understand subject matter while still expressing themselves and having a sense of individual ownership of their ideas.




In Mindful Learning, Ellen Langer champions what she refers to as “sideways learning.” This type of mindful learning revolves around five different psychological states: “(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.” The nemesis of sideways leaning is overlearning. Overlearning, or the rote performance of habitual behavior is closed, inattentive, insensitive, prejudiced, and hopelessly lost in the past. Sideways leaning recognizes the unique abilities of every learner, abilities that preclude the possibility of a right way to do something. If we, as educators, can foster and promulgate this kind of attitude in the classroom, we can maximize the potential that unfortunately languishes dormant in most students.


Chew and pour; Pass and forget

The title of this blog is a very popular phrase among students in Ghana. From infancy, students are ranked as either good or bad, based on their ability to regurgitate exactly what the teacher wrote on the board, in an exam room with no board. The questions are mostly straight forward like ‘what is osmosis’ and the teacher in turn has a rigid marking scheme where points are taken off if some words are omitted, with no attention paid to how the student understands the term.

As such, students blessed with retentive memories were deemed very smart while students that might not have this ability but are creative enough to truly understand the term and define it in their own way, are at a disadvantage. For a long time as a student, I thanked God and sang all the Hallelujah songs to Him for making me smart. I started to sing a different tune when I got to America. Immediately I stepped foot in an American classroom, my level of smartness reduced significantly and then I started praying fervently for my numerous recent sins to be forgiven, so that I can be smart again.

Being a merciful God, He eventually gave me a renewed mind after I had had the rudest shock of my life in my first semester exams. I had had my basic education through to my first degree in Ghana and only came here for graduate studies. Prior to this exams, I had a 100% success rate of predicting every question that might possibly be asked in an exam. I was the local champion throughout my schooling in Ghana with the special talent for correctly anticipating the questions that a teacher was most likely to ask. I was the special girl with the neat handwriting who wrote out possible questions for a future exam, which got photocopied by everyone and was used as a study guide among my friends. Those were the glorious days when it was cool to be my friend and I got special presents nearing exams time, just so I could bless you with my special sheet of paper with my anticipated questions! Wheew!

So, you can just imagine my shock in my first semester here when I got into examination rooms and instead of ‘what is osmosis?’, I encountered ‘in your own words, help your little brother to understand what osmosis is by designing an experimental illustration that tells him a story that pertains to his life history, which will make his friends laugh, but make his aunt and uncle proud of him, while getting him on the teacher’s favorite pet list’ or something like that! I was horrified!!

I digress. But as I said, God was more merciful to me than I deserved and so after that epic failure in that first semester, I got that special tick to unlearn my old ways of learning, forego my local hometown hero status :( and really understand the context of lectures, if I were ever going to be successful here. It would suffice to say that I made it through my master’s degree and got into a doctoral degree program (thanks to fervent prayers!). I don’t think I got any smarter or I  matured (whatever that means) in graduate school, but because I unlearned to stop ‘chewing and pouring, and passing and forgetting’ and learned how to ‘understand and think, and conceptualize and never forget’. This is what mindful learning is to me.

Isn’t This Human Nature?

When I first started the readings for this prompt and mindfulness was defined as “the simple act of drawing novel distinctions,” I thought “humans do this naturally; why would we need to change how we educate based on this?” I have been in school for 19 years straight, and I have always memorized the material required of me but have still been able to creatively and critically analyze, deconstruct, and expand on that material. I have four nieces and nephews (the oldest 17 and the youngest 2), and  I see those same abilities reflect in all of them. Then the reading made this point: “When we are in a state of mindlessness, we act like automatons who have been programmed to act according to the sense our behavior made in the past, rather than the present…When we believe we know something well, we tend to view it mindlessly.”

This made me think of the number of times I have completely overlooked the simplest or most unique answer to a problem by not thinking past the instructions given to me. The question, parameters, or context can influence my answer or plan of action by putting a box around the possibilities I feel are available to me. When there is uncertainty or ambiguity, the mind has the power of infinite possibilities.

There are still times when more “ridged” learning is unavoidable and/or appropriate. However, this should not be the standard. While thinking mindfully is human nature, there are a number of not-so-obvious limitations being places around our nature that are completely avoidable.

I Google big words

Ok, so I’m going to try to bridge (hopefully not the collapsed Tacoma Narrows Bridge that we saw an image of in class) networked learning and mindfulness for this coming week’s post theme.  I found technology to be such an interesting part of class this week.  I was noticing in class how the computer was helping me to better understand discussions in class.  In seeing that the topic for the week is mindfulness in teaching and learning, I first googled the definition of mindfulness in case I wanted to use it for this post.  Being that mindfulness focuses on the present moment, I am debating if having google is keeping me present or distracting me from class.  I was able to look up several words to better understand class conversations: ubiquitous, diatribe, what years millennials were born in, and the Tacoma Narrows Bridge obviously.  I used to hear words in class that I didn’t understand, and I would have to be a little confused in the moment and look it up later.  Now that I can look up that information in the moment, it may be a small distraction, but it can actually keep me more present in the conversation.  Remaining present in the moment can be such a huge part of education because being distracted and looking up information unrelated to class hinders education, as has been discussed in detail thus far.


While watching the second Michael Wesch video in class, I decided to google what the definition for learning actually is: “the acquisition of knowledge or skills through experience, study, or by being taught.”  I found it fascinating that “being taught” is the last on that list while “experience” comes first.  How much do we actually experience if we just move through life mindlessly?  The answer according to Ellen Langer (Langer_Mindful_Learning+intro+and+chap+one (1)) is not much for Little Red Riding Hood.  Mindfulness itself is a necessary part of learning so that we can experience life!  When I think about each of these forms of learning, experience seems to be the most first hand.  When I think of study, I imagine someone reading a book and not fully experiencing.  “Being taught” (phrased in the passive voice) may remove that even farther as the activity falls on the teacher and the student is just the recipient.  Both Michael Wesch and Ken Robinson speak about how teachers must fully engage students’ individuality, so “being taught” to me just doesn’t sound as engaging as we hope learning to be.


It would seem that similar to the curiosity that children have to learn and explore things (again concepts touched on my Michael Wesch and Ken Robinson), my curiosity to find information is something that can be helpful for learning.  Instead of stifling my curiosity to learn by just focusing on the conversation at hand, I was able to explore some concepts that I was curious about.  One of the myths of learning that Ellen Langer distinguished was that paying attention meant focusing on one thing at a time.  I will agree that this is a myth because by my ability to seek out more information (thank you google!) mid-conversation, I learned something new.  So after all of this debate and engaging in the week’s learning materials, my appraisal of my “distraction” during class is that googling unknown words actually helped me stay on topic and learn better.  What do you think?

No Student Left Behind

The primary role of teaching is to facilitate learning. What is currently happening in many schools around the world is that professors believe their job is to structure and deliver material, and that students should orient themselves to suit the professors’ way of teaching. I believe that one of the challenging key roles of facilitation is to ensure all students are on the same page. Ken Robinson states that “kids prosper best with a curriculum that celebrates their various talents” and Michael Welsch’s states that it is important to get more personal with students that seem to be different, especially when 10% of students are being diagnosed with attention deficient disorder (ADHD) (Robinson, K., 2013).

This brings us to the conclusion that no student should be left behind just because they require different strategies or different techniques to connect. Students place high expectations on professors to “light their spark” (Robinson, K., 2013), but the systemized learning that schools and universities implement sets up a barrier between what students are being taught, and how their talents can be exploited.

Teaching is an artistic profession. It’s not only a way to pass information to students, but rather a way to mentor their education and get more personal with them, allowing them to shine in their own way.


Mike Wesch, What Baby George Taught Me About Learning

Ken Robinson – How to Escape Education’s Death Valley

Experiential learning vs. “teaching to the test”

Education today does not adequately prepare students for the modern world, which is unfortunate considering how important it is. Universities and all other levels of education should be set up to create the next generation of scientists, teachers, scholars, and informed and discerning citizens. As indicated in this TED talk, current instructional practices focus on “teaching to the test.” This is largely due to initiatives that emphasize test scores as the most important metrics of learning. However, learning is a process, not an outcome. Teaching to a test does not teach students to think critically and understand the world around them in a deeper way. I think this is due partly to the fact that education is underfunded, leaving schools and teachers with fewer resources and less time available to work with students. However, this harms students in the end. I don’t think that students benefit very much from multiple choice testing and other similar methods that emphasize rote learning over critical thinking. I am hopeful that we will more towards a more experiential type of model. As we saw in Michael Wesch’s baby George talk, we learn better through experience in a positive, supportive environment than in a drab, stadium seating classroom. Some of my most memorable and beneficial experiences as an undergraduate and graduate student have been from independent research projects and papers. This is something that I think should be available to all students, not just those who are lucky enough to go to a small school for their undergrad or to graduate school. Part of the emphasis on standardized testing comes from the way instructors are evaluated, so this would need to change first. We need to reward instructors for taking the time and effort to truly engage their students. I am hopeful that we will get there eventually!

Supporting our Teachers

This week’s readings reminded me of the value of teachers/educators, something that is often forgotten in today’s world. Growing up, I was fortunate enough to have a mother who was an elementary and middle school teacher, so I witnessed second-hand many of the issues a modern teacher faces.

As Ken Robinson eloquently points out in his TED talk, teachers are “facilitators of learning”, rather than figures who simply deliver information to their students. This is a creative career, rather than a business-oriented one. It’s a career that requires teachers to “awaken the power” of their student’s creativity and empower them to learn and find their passion. But now, teachers often feel pressure from their administration to act and dress professionally– which, in my opinion, creates a further divide between teachers and students.

Robinson mentions that people are organic creatures. We are naturally diverse and unique. So, rather than focusing on standardized testing and conformity, why not shift our focus to educational systems that are personalized, offer strong support, provide diverse curriculums, and attract students from all backgrounds? In conversations with my mom, she always mentioned how she observed a shift in her students learning habits after standardized testing became the norm. Rather than mindfully learning, students began mindlessly reciting information that they expected to be on the next test.

Other countries greatly value professional development, put less focus on standardized testing, and hold educators in high esteem. Why is that not the case here? I’m sure this question has a very convoluted answer, and I am excited to learn more about America’s educational system and where it can be improved.

Not completely on topic with this week’s readings, but here’s something to keep in mind about Robinson’s TED talk: this was filmed in 2013, when No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was the standard, before Common Core Curriculum Standards (CCCS) became alive. Now, both ideas have merit, and both have many issues. For NCLB, the federal government did not give states enough financial support to make it as successful as it could have been. States began adopting CCCS because it had uniformity across state lines, but unfortunately had a huge focus on Standardized Testing. New Jersey, where my mom taught for a decade before her (welcoming) retirement, was one of the first states to jump on the bandwagon of CCCS. They expected their teachers, in a single year, to implement CCCS without proper transition time or training. It was pretty outrageous, IMO.

There are pros and cons to all educational approaches, NCLB and CCCS included. Who knows what will happen in terms of education with the new administration. More than likely they will try to fix everything including things that are not broken. Time will tell!


But Why be Mindful When I Can be Productive?

Mindfulness is something I think my generation struggles with. Of course, saying someone or a group of people struggle with something infers that they actually know what it is. Frankly, I don’t think my generation (1) knows that mindfulness exists, (2) knows what it is, (3) knows how to practice it, and (4) knows why they should practice it. It’s something that I believe a majority of my friends, peers, and colleagues could benefit from and yet none have any inclination to actively practice it.

As I was reading Ellen Langer’s definition of mindfulness, I realized that it differed greatly from my own. So what is mindfulness to me? I had not heard of the term until I visited my aunt in Oregon (we often refer to her as “the hippy aunt”). She expressed to me her concern with my stress levels during undergrad and suggested practicing mindfulness. I  had rolled my eyes and continued on with what I perceived as the more productive daily activities. I eventually came back to the idea of mindfulness after a bout of anxiety attacks. I realized the power of mindfulness and do my best to practice it at least once a day now.

I personally believe mindfulness is an important part of self-care. It’s the ability to mindfulacknowledge and reflect on experiences, emotions, and thoughts without allowing them to overwhelm or control you. It’s giving positive energy to your thoughts, nurturing them, and allowing them to grow peacefully.

Ellen Langer describes a mindful approach as having three characteristics: “the continuous creation of new categories, openness to  new information; and an implicit awareness of more than one perspective.” My first reaction to this is “of course I want to be mindful like that,” but I knew intuitively that it takes an internal calmness to have the ability to practice those three things.

In today’s classrooms, there are so many thoughts running through our students’ (as well as our own) heads. “Am I supposed to meet Bailey at 12 or 12:30 for lunch?” “How long will this paper take me to write?” “Did I let the dog out this morning before I left for my 8 am?” We’re all so scatter brained that our abilities to focus are so diminished that it makes learning and retaining information seem nearly impossible. How do we as instructors combat this? We obviously can’t follow them home and make sure they’re meditating for ten minutes or laying in bed without any distractions. We could make it homework but let’s be honest, maybe 5% would actually do it (and even that’s probably being overly optimistic.) We could have a “No Tech” policy within our classrooms but that still does not guarantee that they’re being mindful or focusing on anything we’d like them to be focusing on.

I think it’s our responsibility as educators to meet our students half way. We need to lead by example and not by lecture. It’s the engagement with our students that will keep them focused, entertained, and feeling like their opinions are respected and valued. Showing our students the benefits of mindfulness is something I believe will benefit them for the rest of their lives. It’s not shoving information down their throats, teaching directly from the book, or death by powerpoint. It’s opening up the conversation to include multiple views, backgrounds, and opinions to be shared in a respectful  atmosphere. Through that we will be able to stimulate new ideas and thoughts internally, acknowledging and reflecting on them without allowing them to control us. It’s taking those new thoughts and ideas and transforming and practicing them with a peace that can be shared.

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