Instilling better learning in children

As students, we often struggle(d) to make it to class, let alone be mindful of what we are learning, or being taught. Unless, of course, the class is one that is interesting and designed to engage all students. Growing up, children are rarely exposed to experiences that help understand the important of learning and to hold value to it. Instead, learning is associated with difficulty and boredom. This has led to the continuation of mindless learning as adults, even in fields that they develop passion for.

Mindless learning is not an issue that has only come to exist now. Yet the massive fast pace growth in technology (which may lead to distractions) has made it more transparent. To become mindful learners, instilling that value in children is of utmost importance. This is especially essential in elementary and middle school children since it is the age at which the learning experiences children have are a major determinant of the way they perceive education and learning in general.

Although digital learning in today’s world can enhance the learning process through engaging students, educators not interested to incorporate newer technologies should still improve their pedagogical skills in the ‘regular’ classroom setting. A way in which to increase the curiosity of all students and make them more mindful is through establishing the basis that makes the knowledge significant (in the present or to the future). This can be done by relating the theory of concepts to their applications and to how they, in some way or another, resonate with each individual by being part of what is or what shapes the society they live in.

Everybody has to take the same exam

Ellen Langer article about Mindful Learning points out three important myths; that although seem very obvious about the truth, it got to my attention how current experiences show me that our reality still has not defy those myths. I am going to share a personal experience that relates to the first myth.

The first myth reads “The basics should be learned so well that they become second nature”.  When you reflect on this, this seems very obvious. I tried to learn english using various approaches, and I was left with having to do a study abroad year in a small college in PA so learning english became a survival skill.  One of my closest friends, join me along he learning experiencing, however, he did not need to go the whole path as Idid, because somehow he caught english language a lot faster than me. But he time I went to study abroad, his english was as good–or bad–as when I came back from 13 months studying in PA. I feel that I at least put as much effort as he did, I certainly Aced all my grammar quiz and grammatical examinations, while my friend did not. What happened?  One way is that each of us have different needs, skills, and weaknesses; and learning occur within that context, which is personal.

The previous example shows me that the myth should be so obvious and not necessary to be explained or shared with other educators. However, we still find students learning basic procedures without understanding why or how they work. We find educators using the same tight structured pedagogy approaches to teach to such a diverse group of learners, as any students group is. The following picture does not need words to be explained.

I think, as Sir Ken Robinson pointed out, education should have common goals, but the paths to them are infinite, and all of they work as long as they aim for the mind of the learner to flourish.

Mindful teaching and learning

In my college time, when my Chemistry professor was teaching us the periodic table, he showed the blank spaces in the periodic table and told us that we still can win the noble prize by filling up the blanks. At that time, there were 109 elements in the periodic table and now it is 118. I was not aware of mindful practice at that time, but that was a mindful teaching technique by my professor. It instigated thought in me and my friends about the periodic table and I remember, we did some detailed reading on the periodic table. On the contrary, in my Physics class, when my teacher was teaching us Newton’s laws, his first comment was that these laws are universal. Although this was true, by making this statement, he somewhat blocked the thought process of the students. Any universal law of Physics can still give the students a wide space for thinking if it is taught in that manner. Anyways, it was a mindless teaching approach by my Physics teachers that I can understand now. Mindfulness and mindlessness can happen both in teaching and learning. The above two examples were on mindfulness and mindlessness in teaching. To make teaching mindful, teachers should not stay with a preplanned presentation, rather a natural way of presenting the content should be used. Using own style and giving importance to the connection over perfection may help the teacher in terms of practicing the mindful teaching in class.

Mindful and mindless learning by students are mainly dictated by the perception of students toward a certain problem. If someone takes a problem as it is and don’t want to think out of the box, mindless learning will prevail. The belief of knowing a topic completely sometimes close the path of further thinking and introduces a state of mindlessness. It’s good to be open to ideas or thoughts to see what else can be extracted from a problem or situation. The idea of ever-present gratification can help to be mindful. For example, if someone thinks that something great is waiting at the end, the perception of a problem may change significantly. It’s good to mindfully choose something and fail rather than mindlessly follow others.


Modes of Being in the Classroom: What is meaningful in our classes?

What type of assignments and activities provide for meaningful engagement for students in a social sciences course? By meaningful, I mean the extent to which an activity, discussion, or assignment facilitates personal reflection, prompts thinking about one’s own role with respect to wider systems, developments within those systems, or the others that live within those systems, as well as instances that allow space for each student to make a decision and/or assert a claim related to the topic at hand.

My approach to meaningful engagement finds consonance with those advocated by Langer as well as Thomas and Seely Brown. I strive to use assignments and activities to create fora for students to produce meanings. For example, “what does ‘security’ mean to you?” was one of the first questions I posed to my international security course last spring. Security is best understood as what William Connolly refers to as an “essentially contested concept” insofar as it has a vague meaning, but is best thought of as relational to specific circumstances. Thus, students should be introduced to different analytical frameworks to better grapple with their own decision on which definition best relates to their own perspective. These efforts boil down to one term: participation.

Thomas and Seely Brown (2011) underscore the importance of participation in both shaping mediums, but individual learning. They claim “the more we interact with these informational spaces [participatory mediums], the more the environment changes, and the very act of finding information reshapes not only the context that gives that information meaning but also the meaning itself. (42). [emphasis added]” This idea relates to my current classroom (Arab-Israeli Dispute) in the sense that I seek to create “seams” that afford student opportunities to “read” themselves into the materials. For instance, I had my students read the first chapter in Bruno Latour’s Science in Action (1987) – in which he explores the “opening of the black box” of knowledge production – at the outset of the Arab-Israeli Dispute course. Many were understandably confused how this reading related to the topic. But the space between the reading and the topic (or within the context of the course) was productive in that the students needed to draw connections very much on their own terms. Of course, the idea of the black box provides a powerful tool to engage assumptions about established “facts” or historical narratives (I realize this seems horrible in our current reality of “alternative facts”, but Latour establishes a useful metaphor and framework for thinking about narratives as starting points for investigation into wider arrays of actors, practices, and systems which produce and validate historical narratives). Ultimately, the space between the reading and the focus of the course enabled students to make their own connections through reflection, speculation, and deductive reasoning. In other words, they became the participant drivers for making those connections.

This was very much an exploration (for me), but a bit of a breakthrough – very much in the same vein as Langer’s sideways learning, but with a bit of a distinction. Langer (1997) claims sideways learning encourages students to use objects or knowledge in creative ways (19), whereas my emphasis is less on the creativity, and more oriented toward the objective: individual ownership. Of course, the former somewhat precedes the latter, but I think of them as different. I seek to foster student ownership through a deeper engagement by facilitating fora for them to make connections between different perspectives, as this is the foundation for the Arab-Israeli Dispute course. Each reading or material is framed as a “provocation” to help students grapple with and create dialogue between the different perspectives on such developments as Israeli Independence Day or The Nakba (Palestinian catastrophe of displacement). I like to think this approach empowers decision-making and facilitates a deeper engagement with the learning process.

Yet this is not without challenges. First, the most difficult challenge is finding the right balance between giving too much information and just the right amount to enable the students to make connections. It seems like a very delicate balance. Second, one of my fears is to enable and give space to students with more extreme views in the classroom. My hope is students would intervene in response to such views – this happened in the International Security course I taught last semester. I find myself remaining extremely sensitive to such situations, and responding – in the event a student would not do so – by either asking the student to clarify, posing the question “why” (to challenge the student a bit), or by stating that this is merely “one perspective out of innumerable”. I’m still struggling with my role in such situations, but I hope this will develop over time. In any case, I’ve discovered through my own experiences in the Arab-Israeli Dispute and confirmed through these readings that my goal is to find ways to allow students to make connections between readings, materials, or perspectives. In this way, I firmly believe the students are learning more than about the Arab-Israeli Dispute, or the production of historical narratives, but most importantly, about the the innumerable perspectives that can be challenged or accepted, but always subject to meaningful engagement that remains with them moments, hours, days, or hopefully, years later.

How would you like CPR to be taught?

In the last paragraph of our first reading by Ellen Langer she brings up a scenario where a friend’s seven year old daughter needs CPR after an accident in the pool. She poses the question about whether we would want our training to have been conditionally rather than “mindlessly sequential” and then asked how should we teach CPR? I’m having trouble answering her questions.

Without a doubt, I think the mindful learning as a whole is a great concept. The example she provided about the musicians that were taught “mindfully” performing better and enjoying their practice shows how tasks that are so traditionally rooted in memorization (oh god all those scales… up and down up and down…. now D minor…. up and down) and repetition don’t necessarily have to rely on those two factors.

But, in the case of CPR I think it gets a little muddled. While I’ve never had to perform CPR and hope that I never will, it’s a high stress situation. You essentially have a corpse in front of you, and CPR alone is not going to revive them. Perhaps you’re the only trained person in the vicinity so it’s on you to act as their heart until medical help can arrive. Every step can potentially make a large difference in whether they are able to be revived and also in the quality of life if they are revived.   Would small “mindlessly sequential” methodical steps taught absolutely work in this situation? I think so. I think that could help a person work through the stress. There’s a reason they include easy to recall acronyms-ABC airway-breathing-compression.

Now maybe that’s the wrong way to look at it. Maybe Langer is saying that there should be a mindful component to CPR training. She specifies that the young girl is much smaller than your average adult at only 50 lbs. So the mindful component would focus on how hard one would have to push to achieve the proper compression. Maybe there is a mindful addition to the ‘assess the scene’ component. A restaurant is  a very different location than a crosswalk. These I will agree should be taught in the CPR class, but I don’t think that they take the place of the small mindless methodical steps.

Maybe a sort of hybrid style would work better in this situation. One that teaches the sequential steps that must be met, but expands upon those steps as well.


Behave like a robot or not?

“A robot is a machine—especially one programmable by a computer— capable of carrying out a complex series of actions automatically.” This is a description of robot in Wikipedia. The way that a robot is working is very similar like mindlessness process. Instead of thinking by themselves, robots always follow the designed produces to solve problems. What makes human beings different from the robot is the mindfulness learning process.

As defined in Ellen J. Langer’s paper, “Mindfulness is a flexible state of mind in which we are actively engaged in the present, noticing new things and sensitive to context”, I think “mindfulness learning” is a great word to describe the initiative learning process. On the other hand, I would take mindlessness learning similar like a spoon-feeding classroom in which teachers simply give information and answers. Students will accept whatever the teachers give and pay less attention to other related questions. Some people would prefer mindlessness learning since it’s easy and energy-saving. Others would prefer mindfulness learning due to the participation and creativity. Which one is the smarter choice?


I would like to share my opinion about this question based on my experience. My major is environmental engineering. For undergraduate education, I took classes like environmental chemistry, microbiology, hydromechanics, electrotechnology, water pollution control engineering, etc. All these subjects are related to wastewater treatment and I have obtained abundant information about wastewater treatment technological process. Then I took a project design class which required the students to design a wastewater treatment plant, which including the parameter setting, construction, instrument selection, workman assign, etc. The design is totally different from just taking classes because it need comprehensive understanding of the project and involved extensive problems regarding various aspects. Different from memorizing reaction equations and formulas, I would say this process is consist of a lot of mindfulness learning. However, I do not think I can make the design if I have not taken the previous less mindfulness courses. So my choice of the way to learning depends

Even though I always consider initiative learning more efficient and impressive than passive learning. I would admit that it is easier to get some fundamental background information by mindlessness learning first. Then save some energy to do a great job in the following progress.


To have dessert or to not have dessert


The world’s most famous chef approaches you in an empty room. You are sitting on a chair and there is only a table in the room. Opposite you is another chair. The chef sits down and says, “Today is your lucky day! I will make your favorite dessert and for free! It doesn’t matter if you are allergic to any ingredients, I will work around your dietary restrictions, if there are any, and make you a dessert worthy of any five star restaurant! There are a few conditions though. One, I spoke to your best friend so I already know what to make. In fact, I have already made your favorite dessert and it is ready for your consumption. (The chef places the dessert on the table in front of you) If you can wait one hour, I will go ahead and make you two more. However, if you feel that you can’t wait, go ahead and eat the dessert in front of you. Remember, if you eat the dessert before the hour is up, that is all you get. I will be back in one hour, and yes, there is a camera in this room.


Given the information above, what do you think you would do? Feel free to let me know in the comments section, and of course, be honest. Before reading the remainder of this post, please decide, mentally of course, what you would do if you were to find yourself in the situation above.


Thank you for playing along. I will be honest in saying that the incident above is by no means original nor a future dissertation topic. The motivation behind the narrative comes from the Stanford Marshmallow test, and there have been many articles written about it. The study explored delayed gratification and I immediately thought of it as I read Mindful Learning by Ellen Langer. This isn’t the first time human beings have expressed a desire to understand decision making, mindfulness and delayed gratification. I did find it interesting to read about the experiment and to make the connections between those topics. What was also interesting to notice is not whether an individual will wait or eat the dessert, but what garners my attention is the rationale. I am interested in how we develop a rationale for the choices we make and how it relates to our overall decision making and mindfulness. Being mindful is about being aware of not only what you, but why you do it.


Given what I know now about making decisions and reading the article on mindfulness, I feel capable in knowing that I would be able to last the whole hour and maybe more. The question then is, am I more mindful because I can last that whole hour or more? The answer is no. I think the first mistake we make on our path to mindfulness is assuming that we are mindful. A truly mindful person will never acknowledge that they are mindful. Other people, friends and family may describe them as mindful but that should not serve as a confirmation. To be mindful is to operate under the assumption that you can never be mindful. This allows you to consistently find new ways of learning how to be mindful and developing your knowledge and practice of mindfulness.


I am aware that this appears to be a somewhat philosophical post. That truly was never my intention, but it is the perspective I have now. Being mindful is about a journey, not about the destination. Similar to education and learning, it never stops, and so should our quest to be mindful individuals. Being mindful should be seen as an act that is forever changing similar to education and technology. There are going to be new ways of exercising mindfulness and in order to take advantage of them, we as individuals should recognize the many possibilities that may exist. OK, I have talked enough about mindfulness, dessert anyone?

GEDI Post III: The Buddhist And The Hot Dog Vendor

[course assignment]

One of my favorite songs by one of my favorite bands has this lyric as a refrain:

“Change is the thing that is what we do, change is the change that’s changing you…”

It’s surreal, not really logical, but that’s why I like it — it emphasizes the disorienting quality of change. Theorizing the causes and nature of change has been a big project for contemporary philosophers, and there’s no reason why educators shouldn’t incorporate some deep reflection on change as part of their teaching. I approached the Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown reading from this perspective.

Okay, some of their musings on contemporary change struck me as glib, and my first reaction was to fall back on the same basic critique I’ve had with many of our readings: in their embrace of the new, they fail to acknowledge the unique character of older teaching methods that can’t simply be updated and made more accessible through the, uhhhh, magic of technology. (Although I hated it at the time, I’m actually glad my sophomore year Medieval Literature professor made me memorize the opening to Canterbury Tales in the original Middle English). But the project of rendering change visible can not only equip students to deal with the world beyond the classroom (which is, for better or worse, in a state of constantly-accelerating flux), it can offer a good philosophical message about the status of knowledge: facts are constructed. That doesn’t mean they can’t be true, but they are the result of methods and inquiry which are themselves a product of human innovation. Bodies of knowledge change, presumptions are overhauled — and if you’ve read Thomas Kuhn, you know that sometimes entire scientific paradigms shift so dramatically that we can speak of qualitative breaks in our shared understanding of the world.

Focusing learning programs on this notion of change and inherent instability could (and maybe they should) represent a break in pedagogy where students come to a deep awareness of their own agency in producing knowledge. Wikipedia is a great example of transparent knowledge production, and using Wikipedia edit records as a way to emphasize the constantly-changing, actively-generated nature of knowledge is an interesting idea. This awareness shouldn’t be limited to philosophy students with a focus on epistemology, the study of knowledge itself. The tenuous status of knowledge and informational authority is too present in the real world right now, and I suspect that ambiguity is only on the rise. (Unfortunately… I’m thinking of fake news…)

Meanwhile, I have no problems at all with Ellen J. Langer’s article — except that, maybe, its emphasis on presence and focus seems to challenge the technology-happy work we’ve done so far! I insist that my students put away their internet-connected devices at the beginning of class, not because I inherently dislike smartphones and laptops (that’s another issue), but because I want to create the conditions for mindfulness. Her observations on mindfulness and adaptability to change really hit home for me. Doing coursework in an interdisciplinary PhD program means constantly adapting to not only new content, but new ways of thinking about things. I didn’t major in any of the departments that I take ASPECT courses in, so I often find myself sitting in history, political science or cultural studies classes, attempting to grasp the methodological / epistemological assumptions of historians, political scientists, and so on. (Stuff that some people picked up as undergrads and master’s students, to be sure). The only way I’ve accomplished this while maintaining a sense of clarity and consistency is by paying very close attention to context. I adopt the idea that I’m coming into new disciplines not just to learn the explicit content, but to grok the assumptions that professors and long-term students of a discipline take for granted. This has been completely necessary whenever I’ve encountered quantitative methods… I’ve learned that those who see themselves as math and numbers people somehow appear to intuitively grasp contextual frameworks in ways that I don’t. That’s a bit unfair, but math becomes much easier for me when I try to explain those frameworks to myself before learning a new equation or concept. (It means I spend less time thinking about “why” we use a certain equation, who came up with these methods anyway, and how, and so on…). Hopefully that makes sense. The project of becoming aware of context is so, so important when trying to make sense of content in environments subject to rapid change. Mindfulness is a key component of this.

By the way, all this thinking about change and mindfulness reminds me of a dumb joke about a Buddhist monk and a hot dog vendor. It starts with a cheesy one-liner and then gets even worse.

A Buddhist goes up to a hot dog vendor and says “make me one with everything.” 

When he asks for change, the vendor replies: “change comes from within.”

And I’ll end this post here!


For anyone reading this not in GEDI class, here is the first article I’m responding to: , pp. 39-49. The second is only available through the Virginia Tech network.


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