It’s Not ‘What’ You Do, It’s ‘How’ You Do It

Back when I used to play in my High School’s marching band, my director would say this to us often. Now, whenever I describe the importance of band to others, I always include this saying. Yes, when you’re older, knowing scales, standard step-sizes, or alternate fingerings is not really important (that is, unless that’s you’re job). However, being a part of marching band is so much more than what marching band is on the surface. Younger students  Ironically, if you ask students why they are in marching band, they probably won’t mention marching or music.

Imagine my surprise when this phrase comes up again, this time in reference to learning from Harry Potter. In addition, learning music is an easy environment to observe an example of mindless overlearning. So then, I absolutely found this week’s reading particularly fascinating, especially Langer’s The Power of Mindful Learning.

Facts and truth are important, yes, however learning is more than just the information. It also includes how you process information. I think that is something we lack in our education. We shouldn’t stop at “This is true”. That’s where rote memorization stops. We need to expand; think about other questions. “Why is this true?” “Why is this not true?” “Can this be false?” “When is this false?”  You’re learning information, but not learning how to think.

Well, let’s tie this back to mathematics again! One theme of mindful learning is valuing the uncertainty of information. As a mathematician, that’s a bit difficult isn’t it? “2 plus 2 is 4”. “Closed and bounded implies compact.” Mathematics seems to be built upon immovable theorems and unyielding truths. While it’s true when Langer said “one plus one does not equal two in all number systems”, you can’t escape the fact that mathematicians pride themselves with making proofs that are absolute.

As much as I love mathematics, I envy the… “malleable” nature of other fields. If you study Foreign Affairs, a single news story can change the context of a class you’ve been preparing all summer for. There are new interpretations of literary classics that have been around for decades. Last class, I described mathematics as “dead” knowledge to my group. That is, it’s just… there. In contrast, something like history is “alive”. You can debate about different historical perspectives and implications; contrasting ideas don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

Mathematics is a blatant culprit of mindless learning. I’m surprised Langer doesn’t bash on us more in the first two chapters.

So can we be mindful when we teach math? Well, YES! Thinking back, I’ve witnessed the effect of mindful & mindless learning when it comes to mathematics. A particularly clear example is teaching integrals at the Math Empo (I worked there for two and a half semesters). There are so many integration rules students learn. They go to the Math Empo and grind away at practice problems, almost to the point of overlearning (!). I often hear “I’ll keep doing them until I don’t see any new integrals”. Color me shocked when I also hear “It’s not fair, the quiz had an integral that wasn’t in the practice problems”. When math teachers focus so much on teaching the rules we lose out on the “thinking process” of the integrals. If we don’t practice mindful learning, of course we will have students fail to apply math skills to new problems.

As math teachers, we should also be expressing the problem solving strategies that we think of as we go through a problem. Why do students have trouble with word problems? Because we aren’t teaching them in a mindful way. We teach the equations, but not how to think between the sentences and the equations. When you write a theorem down, think about how the proof doesn’t work if you are missing a hypothesis. When students ask you a question in office hours, don’t just tell them the answer, lead them there! When people ask tutors at the Math Empo for help, we (the tutors) always ask questions back. People complain all the time. Yet, that’s mindful learning. We are trying to have the student engage with math themselves.

Mathematics is about problem solving, not solved problems. When we focus so much on rote memorization, you lose out on the bigger picture. So again, let’s end with our favorite saying:

It’s not about what you do, it’s about how you do it. 

Build it, and they will complain

Windy, inspiring messages about change and innovation are abound in many facets of our society. The promise of change prompts voters to select their hopeful candidate. The advent of new technologies will free up time for us to perform less mundane tasks. Change is the answer.

I don’t disagree. An object at rest stays at rest, unless acted upon by an external force. But without proper execution, even a new and improved reaction can be inhibited by unforeseen friction.

The buzz around disruptive education and “anti-teaching” encourages student learning rather than student compliance. The rhetoric surrounding these ideas empowers students and teachers alike. They nod their heads in agreement in regards to subjects with negative connotations, such as tests and grades. A different system is needed, they concur, one that is tailored to students’ individual experiences.

Again, I agree. But all I can think of while reading or listening to TED talks surrounding the subject is the friction. Implement new learning practices, and watch the complaints roll in. Complaints from the students, who are oftentimes so under-socialized that the thought of talking to someone on the phone gives them anxiety; complaints from the teachers, who are sometimes already so overworked that brainstorming and fine-tailoring individualized lesson plans may put them over the edge; complaints from other teachers, who have taught the same lessons and used the same handouts for decades; complaints from parents, who were measured by grades and ACT scores and feel this served them just fine.

The friction is inevitable. It slows progress, but it also serves a purpose. Feeling fuzzy and warm is an important ignitor for change, but genuine concerns are just as important. Before everyone jumps on the change train, they should be sure the track is built, and built well.

 

-J

Mindful Learning: Myths of Learning

This week’s reading focuses on mindful learning. I’ve heard about the concept of mindfulness but never thought about it as it pertains to learning. The introduction of the book The Power of Mindful Learning, states seven myths of learning including:

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

Reading these myths, I thought about how they truly do stifle not just mindful learning but learning in general. As someone who has never been a big proponent of school, I often felt stifled in the classroom. Because my mind didn’t seem to function in the same manner as the other students, I always felt ostracized and left out of intellectual spaces. In the workforce however, I found that I learned concepts quickly an was often able to make meaning for myself of certain tasks and policies. As someone pursuing a higher degree of learning, I understand now that often times, the reason why I felt stifled in the classroom is because my teachers and professors were attempting to fit me into a box that I often rebelled against. The 5 myth, “forgetting is a problem” is a learning myth that resonates highly with me because often, I have been taught to study and learn for the test and not so concepts and ideas make sense to me. I needed to put information on a piece of paper to pass the class, who cares if I learned or not. Because my bachelor’s degree is in kinesiology, I often felt ill-prepared when interning in the field (e.g. with cardiac patients, football and volleyball teams, etc.) because I often forgot what I was learning in the classroom. It wasn’t until one of my professors asked me to come to her office hours and we truly talked through the class material and she asked me how would I go about remembering the material for myself did I finally understand that it wasn’t necessarily my fault that I was forgetting the material. It was because I was not allowed to engage in mindful learning and therefore, I cared less about the material and forgot about it upon leaving the classroom space

I can’t say that I have a solution on how to engage in mindful learning in the classroom, but I would say that professors should open up the floor and allow multiple ways for students to grasp ideas and concepts instead of focusing on  one particular avenue. Learning happens in many different ways and as student demographics continue to shift, college and university professors should also be working to shift the classroom culture of learning.

Education Against Inspiration

Bob Marley (1945–1981) was an international musical icon who once said: “We don’t have education, we have inspiration; if I was educated I would be a damn fool.” Marley’s quote somehow summarizes Langer’s discussion on the need for maintaining a mindful versus a mindless state of learning. Langer (2000) refers to five psychological states (e.g., openness to novelty) that relate to the same concept: mindfulness. However, the history of education shows that much of human education has been based on mindlessness and a lack of dynamism. There is no wonder why Orwell (1903-1950) doubted whether classical education could be carried out without corporal punishment. Thomas and Brown (2011) referred to the mechanistic view of conventional methods, which are based on standardization, and called for a need for an organic transformation to adapt to the dynamics of a new world.

Jean Piaget (1896–1980), is known as the first psychologist who systematically studied human cognitive development (McLeod, 2015). His constructivist views had profound impacts on the contemporary theories of education and the critical role of experiences (interactions with the environment) in children’s learning. Piaget emphasized that the goal of education is not to make conformists by increasing the amount of their knowledge. Rather, education should make creators and inventors by providing opportunities for students. Accordingly, Thomas and Brown (2011) referred to the obsoleteness of memorization and emphasized the need for the usability of course content and its connection with the real environment. This forced memorization of isolated information and the lack of engagement with the material on a deep level seems to play a role in students’ dislike of conventional education.

Thomas and Brown (2011) discussed that learning through play and imagination is a way to engage students with the constantly changing world. Nevertheless, there is still a lack of proper technological infrastructure to bridge the gap between the classroom and the real-world experiences. Langer (2000) put a heavier emphasis on teaching methods and questioned the prevailing approaches to teaching, such as unconditional acceptance, lack of openness, and the value of overlearning, as the cause of mindless education. In general, new approaches to education seem to commonly insist on inspiration as an important goal of education and the need for an organic connection with real-world experiences. As John Dewey (1859-1952) said: “Education, therefore, is a process of living and not a preparation for future living”.

References:

  • Langer, E. J. (2000). Mindful learning. Current directions in psychological science, 9(6), 220-223.
  • McLeod, S. (2015) Jean Piaget. Retrieved from: https://www.simplypsychology.org/piaget.html
  • Thomas, D., & Brown, J. S. (2011). A new culture of learning: Cultivating the imagination for a world of constant change (Vol. 219). Lexington, KY: CreateSpace.

Teaching Through Children’s Storybooks

“Respect for diversity often creates a dilemma regarding the choice of teaching material. How can teachers find material that will be meaningful to people with such different cultural backgrounds as we find in many of our schools?”

This is a quote that I read towards the end of the Mindful Learning article by Ellen Langer.

It puts me in the mind of a mindful learning practice that I am helping to develop with a few other students in a seminar course. The professor of the course has us thinking of ways to teach a diversity in agriculture undergraduate course.  She came up with the idea to use children’s storybooks that detail experiences in agriculture according to children of various backgrounds. The idea is that the undergraduates will be able to discuss how same, similar, and different cultures represent agriculture.

I like the idea of using storybooks as a teaching material because it places less emphasis on formal, academic literature and allows the students to connect with the content in a different way.

Mindfulness, Learning, and Education

“Mindfulness is a flexible state of mind in which we are actively engaged in the present, noticing new things and sensitive to context.”

Mindfulness is not something that is a priority in the learning process. As someone who struggled through primary and secondary school I am against standardized testing. I am not attacking other disciplines and I am only speaking to my own experience. Math and science have never been easy to me. Once students entered middle school we were broken up into different math classes from 1-4. It does not take a genius to realize which class rank was the advanced math course and which was for the students that struggled with math concepts and needed more assistance. I was placed into “Math 4” with a variety of students, but the general assumption from classmates was that I was dumb, lazy, or “slow”. This was the only form of individualized learning I received, but the goal continued to be that each student passed the Standards of Learning (SOL) exams.

If my education had been different I may have chosen a different career path. I think mindfulness can take place outside of the classroom, but there just does not seem enough time to focus on mindfulness until students reach college. As a graduate student I feel like I have seen mindfulness play more of a role and take precedent over standardized learning. Every student is different and has different strengths therefore standardized testing does not make sense for younger students.

Mindfulness improves health

My post is related to health because I am interested in that subject. According to Langer, “Mindfulness results in an increase in competence; a decrease in accidents; an increase in memory, creativity, and positive affect; a decrease in stress; and an increase in health and longevity, to name a few of the benefits” (Langer, 2000, p.220). I decided to find out more about the connection between mindfulness and health. Mindfulness can be described as “living in the moment” (Schwarb, 2012). A University of Utah study examined three techniques: mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, mindfulness-based stress reduction, and Zen meditation (Schwarb, 2012). “The treatments were found to be effective weapons against depression, anxiety and psychological distress. And in healthy people, some mindfulness techniques helped manage stress and improve psychological health and well-being. Other recent research has suggested that these mindfulness practices can improve brain function and structure, which could help explain their benefits to the human psyche” (Schwarb, 2012). I think it is important to recognize connections between our ways of thinking and our health, which can impact learning.

Langer, E. (2000). Mindful Learning. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 9(6), 220-223. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/20182675

Schwarb, A.W. (2012, October 18). Practicing mindfulness improves physical and mental health. University of Florida Health Podcasts. Retrieved from http://news.health.ufl.edu/2012/20140/multimedia/health-in-a-heartbeat/practicing-mindfulness-improves-physical-and-mental-health/

Super Bowl Teams are the Best Mindful Football Players

The irony is not lost on me that I am reading about mindful learning, and attempting to blog on the topic while also watching Super Bowl LII. Although, Ellen J. Langer (2000) suggests the idea of constant focus on something does not equate to paying attention to it. Indeed, paying attention while playing football requires mindful learning.

In the past decade or so, mindfulness as a meditative practice has become an increasingly popular trend. When practiced appropriately (a topic for another time), mindfulness has incredible health and relational benefits. It is no surprise that mindfulness has now been connected to teaching and learning.

Langer (1997; 2000) discusses several myths regarding our ideas of traditional learning. Traditional learning, or mindless learning, she posits, is a focus on old categories, one perspective, and automatic behavior. The myths she discusses that I found the most interesting are:

  1. Paying attention means staying focused on one thing at a time.
  2. Rote memorization is necessary in education.
  3. Forgetting is a problem.
  4. There are right and wrong answers.

Each of these myths connect to me either personally or professionally. The automatic responses we have as learners to memorize facts as they are given to us, without question, is clearly problematic. We do not learn through this process- more specifically we do not learn how the facts present in “real” life and across all contexts. Personally, I am thankful that forgetting is not really a problem after all!

As I was reading Langer discuss mindful learning, I realized that it is similar to, or perhaps the same, as critical thinking. In the online class I teach on Family Relationships, I heavily stress the importance of students demonstrating critical thinking and attention to context in their discussion posts. In fact, critical thinking is a large portion of the grading rubric. I have found that many of my students struggle with this aspect of the discussion posts and often repeat the facts that are presented in the textbook, even with scaffolding. I realize now, that these students are on auto-pilot in their learning. They are mindlessly learning, even though the topics are so close to home for them.

I am beginning to think about the idea of transparency in my teaching. How might students respond if I told them what my approach is and why I believe it is important for their learning? Would this impact their ability to engage in critical thinking? In attending to contextual issues? In learning in my class and beyond? I am interested in giving this a try in the future.

Can “we” practice change in education?

The readings this week echo concerns of creativity and the lack of skills from current models of education. In some ways I agree, in others I am not as convinced. The Langer section on learning has merit in terms of methods of learning and teaching creatively, yet there is something to knowing the basics of a discipline that help a student in the long run. I agree that being able to interpret and apply knowledge is the most important outcome of education, but if certain traits are not developed early on it may be hard for a student to find a discipline worth pursuing or that they can pursue. For instance, if one wants to work in philosophy they probably need to know Aristotle, Nietzsche, Foucault, and so on. Memorization is a valuable tool that cannot be discounted in any discipline,  different tools are needed for different disciplines.

I agree with the need to diversify, and create new paths to the same knowledge, but I still believe having a set base for a discipline is not a bad thing in its formation. Changing up how we learn that set base is up in the air for me, I think it is better to know how to apply it rather than blindly picking the theorist it belongs to. For instance, I teach global econ and world politics, and I provide my students with the proper background information on how the economy has developed the way it has, and historically that narrative can change with new discoveries but it is a narrative. The terminology and economic policies implemented by the countries in question is where students can get creative, and I encourage it. How we look at economic growth and public policy can change day by day due to our current state of information. The question then becomes what do we do we economically, and how do we account for the political actors with the power to make such decisions?

Many times the answers are not simple, but rather convoluted and at time esoteric, thus having a background of historical facts and terminology helps the students apply their knowledge. I agree methods should be flexible and open for change with an emphasis on application. However, I also think that older methods of education are extremely effective for both memorization and application. Overall, I do not disagree with the points Langer,  and Thomas and Brown, but I am hesitant in embracing their arguments.

Why are we taught to be sheep?

Although I study animals, I do not study domesticated animals. Despite this, I know that sheep like to remain in flocks (or is it herds?), as they take the evolutionary approach of survival based upon the power of numbers. They follow each other around and do not stray far from others. They do not seek alone time; they do not follow a butterfly to greener pastures; and they do not question their version of authority. Because of this (and because they have no sharp teeth or claws to defend themselves with), sheep are considered meek. We even define the word sheepish as lacking self-confidence. Yet, our education system “trains” us to be just like sheep. We are taught that certain things are facts, and that is just the way it is. We are typically not taught to question, to ask “why”, or to contradict what authority says is true. In fact, it is commonly stated that once you get to graduate school you have to “learn to think for yourself.” So, let me get this straight – we spend 20+ years learning to think like others before it is ubiquitously expected for us to think individually!?!?

Image result for sheep meme wake up sheeple

Reading Ellen Langer’s article “Mindful Learning” really hit this home for me. She discusses how we are taught the basics until the basics become second nature. We automatically drive on the right side of the road (in the US); we put forks on the left side of the plate when setting the table; and we don’t question “why.” Now, I am not suggesting that you got out tomorrow and see how you feel about driving on the left side of the road around here – some things we are taught should be followed. However, if you travel to England, you have to ditch your learned “second-nature” of driving on the right to be safe. I particularly liked the example about how we set the table. I had never thought about why we put the fork on the left side of the plate and the knife on the right. It really doesn’t make sense for the majority of the population, as right-handed folk typically hold their forks in their right hands and knives in the left. As a child, I was just taught that “this is how it is done,” and so, I accepted it.

As I got older, I was rewarded in school for blindly accepting what I was taught. I got A’s if I memorized what my teachers told me and did not do well when I didn’t. But what if the teachers are wrong (and having taught in the past, I can assure you that I was wrong sometimes)? Every day, research is showing us how things that were historically considered “common knowledge” are now incorrect (e.g., the world is flat; the Earth is the center of the universe; smoking doesn’t cause cancer). Every day, people prove that pushing the boundaries and not listening to what everyone told them furthers our understanding of the world. If everyone stayed a sheep, there would be no change. We need to start teaching children to think for themselves – it is as simple as saying “this COULD BE the answer to that question” vs “this IS the answer to that question”. In part, graduate school is so challenging because it is the first time we are truly and consistently evaluated on how well we can think for ourselves. Maybe, graduate school would be less daunting, less stressful, and less likely to cause or contribute to mental health concerns if we were “taught” how to think for ourselves.

I could go on and on about this topic. But I leave you with this: it’s good to be the “black” sheep (even though we are taught it is not). It’s even better to be a rainbow-colored lion. So go out there and ROAR!

Image result for sheep individuality meme

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