Mindful Learning, Good. How About Mindful Decision Making?

Education happens everywhere and it is an important element if not the most the most important one in an individual professional and socio-economic growth nowadays.  And it is all about learning and teaching meant to transfer knowledge and skills. Mindful learning as described in contrast to mindless learning by Ellen J. Langer in Mindful Learning is a perfect tool to overcome challenges and hurdles. I think it would be great if mindful learning was applicable everywhere in all circumstances as “being mindful leads us to greater sensitivity to context and perspective, and ultimately to greater control over our lives” as stated by the same author.  To my point of view, “standardizing” this way of learning would not only lead to good learning outcome but would as well make life easier for certain groups of people. For instance, some people mostly minorities who not only can undergo inadequate learning approaches or experience calls the seven pervasive myths in “The power of mindful learning” as anybody else, they can also be victims of stereotypes. And these in addition to being limiting factors on students’ performance at school also affect their evolution within the communities in which they evolve and society in general.

I have put standardizing in quote because I do not think that it is feasible and my thought is based on reasons such as those given by Sir Ken Robinson in the TED video “How to escape education’s Death Valley” while talking about countries (Australia Canada, etc) that did have a good education system compared to America. He said: “They individualize teaching and learning; they attribute a very high status to the teaching profession; they devolve responsibility to the school level for getting the job done. While all is happening in those countries, according to him “One of the culture here (meaning America) has been to de-professionalized teachers.

I was surprised by this fact because even though I did not know that much about American education system. If this was said in regards to some countries which organize conferences and other evens to improve their education system or bring some changes while the situation is not evolving at all I would not have the same reaction.  But life is a continual learning we always learn from what we do.

What countries who are left behind in term of good education system can do to fix their problems I think will not only be applying or encouraging mindful learning at school level but at the upper level as well where most of the important decisions are made there is a need for “mindful decision making” if it is correct to say it that way. Maybe that will help avoid the establishment of mind-sets that lead to neglecting the main actors of a given sector while making decisions. This delays advancements.

With a Mind for Learnin’: Some Thoughts on Mindfulness in Higher Education

“You know, darlin, you’ve got a mind for learnin’,” my grandmother said to me countless times while washing dishes, peeling potatoes, or making cakes. My grandmother has always encouraged and emphasized my interest in what she refers to as “book learnin'” and has continually encouraged me to follow my dream of becoming a college professor — not the strange, quirky, “sage on the stage” type, but the type of educator that truly changed my life, offering me encouragement and a love of lifelong learning that I never knew I would discover. My grandmother, as well as my parents, sister, and amazing significant other, have been so encouraging of my hope to become like a Professor Lane, a Dr. Schmitz, a Dr. Rodrick, and a Dr. Goldey — to become like the educators that had such a powerful influence on my own life.

Yet, since beginning my doctorate, I have become afraid that just having a “mind for learnin'” may not be enough to be an excellent educator. This fear, sadly, comes at least in part from my realization that being good at research, producing brilliant theories and a plethora of articles, is in no way indicative of being a high-quality teacher. As a GTA (graduate teaching assistant) for a course that is struggling to say the least, I have often felt downtrodden that my own interest in continual, perpetual learning, may not be enough to make me a good educator.

Luckily, thanks to Virginia Tech’s Contemporary Pedagogy course, I recently discovered the concept of “mindful learning” a principle that will undoubtedly influence my pedagogy and can hopefully help me design curricula to encourage and interest students, infusing a love of learning in my students that extend beyond my own (admittedly wide-ranging) interests.

In The Power of Mindful Learning, Ellen J. Langer suggests that there are “seven pervasive myths, or mindsets, that undermine the process 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’ and
7. There are right and wrong answers” (2).

Langer argues that “these myths undermine true learning. They stifle our creativity, silence our questions, and diminish our self-esteem” (2). Yet Langer also suggests that uprooting all of these myths in a massive overhaul of the educational system would be meaningless and useless, “unless students are given the opportunity to learn more mindfully” (3). Langer defines “mindful learning” in a specific way, offering three characteristics of any mindful approach including: “the continuous creation of new categories; openness to new information; and an implicit awareness of more than one perspective” (4).

Langer argues in The Power of Mindful Learning, that “One of the most cherished myths in education or any kind of training is that in order to learn a skill one must practice it to the point of doing it without thinking. Whether I ask colleagues concerned with higher education, parents of young children, or students themselves, everyone seems to agree on this approach to waht are called the basics. Whether it is learning how to play basketball, drive, or teach, the advice is the same: practice the basics until they become second nature. I think this is the wrong way to start” (10).

Langer’s argument not only prompts a paradigm shift for how we conceive of education, but her ideas also uproot contemporary understandings of pedagogy (or at least my own understanding of pedagogy up until reading Langer’s work) as she writes, “One of the ‘basic skills’ of teachers, and all lecturers, is the ability to take a large quantity of information and present it into bite-sized pieces to students. For those of us who teach, reducing and organizing information becomes second nature. How often do we, so practiced in how to prepare information for a lecture, continue to present a prepared lesson without noticing that the class is no longer paying attention? Presenting all the prepared content too often overtakes the goal of teaching” (12). Again, as a GTA, I often feel stuck with the assignments and information that I must present according to my supervising instructor. Personally, I am only fond of brief lectures that provide background for class discussion and collaborative projects, yet the dismal reality is that as GTAs, we are often not allowed to develop our own pedagogies in the classroom for which we are “teaching assistants,” but I am grateful for Langer’s ideas to help me think about how I will teach my own classes in the future.

Langer offers a rather straight-forward method for approaching mindful learning, writing that “The simple process of mindful learning, of actively drawing distinctions and noticing new things–seeing the familiar in the novel and the novel in the familiar–is a way to ensure that our minds are active, that we are involved, and that we are situated in the present. The result is that we are then able to avert the danger not yet arisen and take advantage of opportunities that may present themselves. Teaching mindfully not only sets students up for these advantages, but has advantages for teachers as well” (222). Even in my current limited teaching experiences, by widening collaboration and class discussions to include not only my own lecture slides, but also student opinions, I have already seen student abilities as a wonderful thing, as a way for me to see new things in the material that I teach. Langer’s ideas about mindful learning only encourage me to incorporate this practice into my future teaching.

I don’t mean to begin this post about my sweet grandmother to make others feel strange or odd. I just include it to suggest that I don’t think of graduate education and become an educator as a college / university as a means to “get above my raisin'” but rather to follow my own innate passion for learning and hopefully help students discover their own interest in learning. And I think mindful learning is an excellent way to go about it!

Being Mindful about Mindlessness and Mindfulness

When first approaching the term “mindlessness” from a perspective of learning, it seems inherently unproductive.  In her work, Ellen Langer defines mindfulness as “a flexible state of mind in which we are actively engaged in the present, noticing new things and sensitive to context,” which sounds entirely superior to acting mindlessly, “like automatons who have been programmed to act according to the sense our behavior made it the past.”  However, to accept that at face value would be mindlessly learning about mindfulness.  The context of mindlessness is also important when we live in a world where repetition and single exposure (the elements that Langer notes bring about mindlessness) are inherent.  While it is often important to be mindful, there are also times when it’s more productive to ignore the contextual nature of knowledge for the sake of efficiency.

A routine, which is necessary to some degree for effective functioning, is rooted in mindlessness.  By not considering context and new perspectives in brushing my teeth, driving to the store, or walking to class, I save time and mental energy for more meaningful pursuits.  Similarly, with so much information readily available to us, it would be stressful (if not impossible) to critically consider the context of every post, tweet, article, and video I view.  Additionally, there is some knowledge that seems unchanging enough to assume a level of objectivity, for example multiplication tables or how to read the English alphabet.  Furthermore, as young people approach learning, they may not be at a level of cognitive development where they will be able to approach knowledge as subjective and contextual.  Hence, mindless learning might be a necessity when someone is young or new to a subject.  (For example, you might need to learn that 1+1=2 before you deeply consider the nature of number systems.)  While it sounds like a bad thing, mindlessness can also be viewed as maintaining a sense of objectivity.  Nothing may truly be objective, but by assuming it is, we have a basis for complex thought.

Still, it is important for everyone to develop the capacity for mindful learning.  To listen to “authorities and experts” mindlessly can be dangerous, particularly since information is so easy to spread via technology regardless of its validity.  Additionally, sending students into the world without preparing them to deal with subjectivity, context, and ambiguity is doing them a disservice.  Life poses complex problems, and a single mindless view cannot be used to tackle them.  Regardless if a student is studying education, engineering, or fine arts, they will need the ability to acknowledge the contextual nature of knowledge to solve real problems.

When I considered how we might help students learn mindfully, I quickly recalled the cognitive domain of Bloom’s taxonomy.  Bloom’s taxonomy is a series of increasingly complex objectives which is well demonstrated below in the infographic from the Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching.

While the low levels of the system can be achieved by mindless learning, the steps of analysis, evaluation, and creation require students to acknowledge ambiguities stemming from the context of knowledge; there is no one answer.  We can tap into these levels of Bloom’s taxonomy just by being intentional in what we ask of students.  If we ask them to memorize, describe, or solve, they may be able to do so mindlessly, but if we ask them to differentiate, argue, or design, they are more likely to mindfully engage with the material.  This holds true regardless of discipline.

The solution of tapping into higher levels of Bloom’s taxonomy is simple in theory, but poses problems in practice.  First, we must be intentional in asking students to work at a level that matches their cognitive ability; if they are unable to understand a concept, they certainly can’t evaluate it.  However, even if students are able, it’s more difficult to motivate students to create and evaluate than to remember and understand; it requires more support, and it’s harder to assess.  It’s a scholarly essay versus a scantron. 

The scantron only asks students to remember concepts and promotes an objective worldview since there is literally one right answer.  However, with little effort on the part of the educator, it provides an objective grade that a student can hardly argue.  The essay will take more time on the part of the student, likely require more support from the educator, and necessitate a more difficult grading process, which can be disputed.  It’s undeniably a lot more work, but it certainly engages students in context and ambiguity.  Mindful learning is undoubtedly harder, but true learning is worth the effort.  While there may be ways to make it easier, willingness and time investment to do the work that is mindful learning are an obvious first step.

“It’s only crazy until you do it”

I really enjoyed reading “The Power of Mindful Learning” by Ellen Langer. I think that it is easy to get on “auto pilot” as the article states. We are going through our daily life and we know what we have to do to get from day to day. What I think that gets difficult, is taking the time to create moments of intentionality and questioning, why we do what we do and how can we get out of the autopilot mode. I am the first to admit, I am a creature of habit and that I am very grateful for people that automatically just go against the grain. However, this article really made me think about my practices with my students, and how I can get into autopilot mode and the dangers that possesses.

However, this article made think about the overall concept of learning and it reminded me of the new Nike Ad with Colin Kaepernick. The ad really conveyed the idea that “it’s only crazy until you do it”, really trying to drive home the point that we keep trying to emulate these sports stars, but what we should be doing is imagining ourselves as those sports stars (Nike Ad). In my mind, I saw clear connection with our reading, “The Power of Mindful Learning”. In the reading, it stated that we get so used to just learning or doing what those before us that we do not think of new ways to improve or do it differently. We just see what others have done or are doing, and do it the way they do it. The article really talked about how if we just continue doing the norm, nothing is ever going to progress for the better. The article stated “when faced with something that hasn’t been done before, people frequently express the belief that it can’t be done. All progress, of course, depends on questioning that belief. Everything is the same until it is not”. That we can idly just do the routine, but what we need to do is shake things up so that we give our students room to imagine the possibility of the situation.

I know that incorporating this mindfulness practice is more work and it requires more front planning as educators to not just do the standard lecture or classroom knowledge delivery. However, think of all that we could do if we incorporated more mindfulness into our practice and really tried to not just stick to what we know and to give students a chance to be able to very their approaches—all the new ideas/things that could be achieved. I know that from this reading, I will really try to do more conditional practices in my day to day to work with my students and staff.

I’d rather be playing soccer than working

I really enjoyed the GEDI F18 Week 4 prompts on Mindful Learning. Sir Ken Robinson’s TED talk was particularly moving, inspirational, and at times, laugh-out-loud funny. However, I was also saddened by the reminder that the United States’ educational system has many avoidable deficiencies. I just don’t understand why American politicians and some educators continue to promote standardized testing and uniformity in teaching despite there being strong evidence that these methods do not promote mindful learning or a culture of learning.

I found Ellen J. Langer’s article on Mindful Learning (Current Directions in Psychological Science, 9, 2000, 220-223), both informative and relatable to my own experiences with coaching. Langer explains that subjects respond more mindfully to activities that are described as play rather than work (Myth 3). I have also found this to be true when I coach soccer. In fact, I often use this strategy to encourage my players during practices. For example, when working on passing patterns (e.g., player 1 passes to player 2, who passes to 3, who passes to 4), if I describe the activity as a drill, most players will mindlessly go through the passing motions unconcerned with the quality or speed of their passes. However, if I describe the activity as a competition between groups, the players are immediately more attentive; they listen to the instructions, are concerned about the quality of their passes, move the ball more quickly, and are frustrated when their passes are inaccurate. All in all, the players are more focused and determined when they think they are in competition with each other, which translates into them working harder to improve their performance. Thus, the change in the players’ learning experiences is unrelated to the drill itself, but to how the drill is presented to them.

Thinking about what motivates my players also brings me back to our in-class discussion on gamification. I am reminded that in order to promote student learning, every lesson does not need to be presented as a fun game. Rather, the material just needs to be presented in a way that gives the lessons meaning and encourages the students to want to learn. I am looking forward to our class discussion on mindful learning with our guest speaker, Professor Emily Satterwhite.

Mindful Teaching

Today we hear a lot about a term called mindful learning, but what about mindful teaching? If “the role of the teacher is to facilitate learning,” as Sir Ken Robinson says, then wouldn’t that involve a mindful approach to teaching? If teaching is such a creative profession, why aren’t more teachers getting creative in the classroom?

Being a mother is a lot like being a teacher, just on a much larger scale. Therefore, when I look at my teaching style, I believe it resembles my mothering style pretty similarly. Watching my daughter grow and learn I absolutely agree that children are natural learners. We as parents and teachers are there to mentor, stimulate, provoke, and engage their passions, but this process involves so much more time and energy than the stereotypical lecture-based course in typical college courses.

I loved the segment of Sir Ken Robinson’s TED Talk when he says, “The arts are not just important because they improve math scores, but they also speak to parts of a children’s being that are otherwise untouched.” This statement particularly resonated with me because I have always been an artist from a very young age. When I was in kindergarten and beginning of first grade I was sent to a private school with very strict rules. Not only did I get in trouble on a regular basis for being too fidgety and disruptive in class, but my parents were forced to remove me from the school after they refused to put me on ADHD medications. I specifically remember my first grade teacher ripping an assignment out of my hands when I refused to circle items and instead drew stars and hearts.

When I transferred to public school, I was placed in a first grade classroom with a teacher who was miles ahead of her time. Mrs. Montgomery had a class rabbit and in the spring we hatched and raised baby chicks and ducks in the classroom. Thinking back on it, I don’t know how she was able to get a bunch of first graders to focus on anything else, but she did!  I also had the opportunity to audition and was accepted to an after school gifted art program. It was through this program that I was able to find an outlet that engaged my inner creative side.

Given our current educational culture of standardization, it’s really no wonder that so many students are treated for ADHD or difficulty focusing in class. When teachers don’t teach to the individual, all individuality and creativity gets lost in the shuffle of standardized tests and lectures and then we sit here wondering why student aren’t learning.

So, now that I have gone on and on about becoming a more creative teacher and how it stems from me being a mother, what have I done in order to be a more mindful teacher? I had my college students color. And they loved it. :-)


“It’s in the doing that the idea comes”

The process with which we learn and acquire knowledge is complex. At different stages of our lives, we learn in different ways. Even among our peers, learning differs from a person to another. Learning involves receiving, processing, and assimilating information. As we come from diverse backgrounds, enjoy different experiences, and possess various abilities; the collection of information we accumulate define who we are.  Therefore, with expanding avenues of disbursed knowledge, there is no size that fits all in terms of conveying knowledge.

For this blog, I wanted to explore an idea regarding how we learn. In my undergraduate studies, I came across a saying by the famous architect Edmund Bacon that goes, “It’s in the doing that the idea comes.” Being an architect and urban planner, it is most likely that Bacon meant that the process of exploring options either by sketching or modeling help ideas to crystallize. In the context of mindful learning, the act of testing alternatives to reach an intended goal is a useful tool for learning.

To me, this is not the same as training to learn a skill until it becomes a second nature. Unlike learning basics, which often does not involve thinking, the ideas the Bacon presents a visceral involvement between the mind and other senses. His idea of exploring (or “doing”) could stimulate triggers in the mind that when collided with other triggers could lead to a breakthrough (or “idea”). Learning in this light is similar to searching for a missing puzzle piece and the journey of finding it defines what is learned.

Mindful Learning and History

Reading Ellen Langer’s The Power of Mindful Learning, I couldn’t help but notice that the characteristics she described as central to mindfulness were similar to the characteristics that I see as being at the root of historical research. Just as mindfulness is based on “the continuous creation of new categories; openness to new information; and implicit awareness of more than one perspective,” historical research is based on the continual questioning of preexisting narratives about the past. (Langer, 4) Historians are taught to consider whether the documents and artifacts we explore are littered with either explicit or implicit bias and we also tend to question whether the narratives constructed by previous historians are accurate reflections of the past. (Indeed, we pretty well have to question the narratives of previous historians, because if we took them at their word then there wouldn’t be enough research to keep us all busy.) This line of thought got me thinking about how we teach history.


In popular culture history classes tend to be portrayed as an endless stream of people, places and dates. This might be a gross oversimplification but maybe the teachers of history are partially to blame. Outside of methods courses (and graduate school) how often do we acknowledge the contested nature of the narratives that we give our students? How often do we expose our students to conflicting viewpoints about the past and how often do we admit that it is entirely possible that the facts and interpretations we give them may subsequently be proven to be misguided? By taking a mindful approach to teaching history, historians can help students understand the complicated and contested nature of the past. I believe this philosophy of instruction can be useful on a number of levels. First of all, it is a more honest approach than presenting one specific narrative as if it were the only narrative. Second of all, the mindful approach to history can also be applied outside of the classroom. The mindful approach will allow students to look critically at people who use historical narratives to justify current policy and, more generally, it will hopefully help students to think critically about rhetorical arguments in general.


I believe that the mindful approach can also help students think about how their own backgrounds and beliefs influence the way that they approach history. For example, my thesis research focuses on how British officials in Iraq developed their ideas about Shi’i Iraqis. Looking critically at British sources, I discovered that officials tended to explain the beliefs and actions of the Shi’i religious leadership in terms of the officials’ own understanding of Christianity, often borrowing terms from Christianity and making comparisons between church-state relations in Europe and church-state relations in Iraq. Naturally, I began to look into the religious backgrounds of the officials I was studying. As I attempted to get a grasp of what these officials believed, I forced myself to step back and I realized that I was thinking about their beliefs and experiences in terms of my own background. Hopefully, this moment of self-reflection will help me to avoid reading my own experiences into the subjects that I am studying. By encouraging my students to develop this sort of meta-cognitive process, I can hopefully help them to see how their own influences shape the way that they view both history and the world. I am curious to see what students from other disciplines had to say about mindful learning and the rest of this week’s reading.


In reviewing the material for this week I began with the TedTalk by Sir Ken Robinson. His interpretation of the no child left behind law and the comparison to other European education systems was insightful, and listening to his discussion resonates with other critiques of the standardized testing approach used in the USA.  I certainly agree with most of his points, that our current approach to the educational system can be improved and that those in the education system need to be considered in a higher regard. What hit me the strongest was his identification of the three things that humans need to flourish that the educational system contradicts with standardization; that we as humans are,

  1. Naturally different and diverse
  2. Naturally curios (Natural learners)
  3. Creative

I think we as future professors have a responsibility to understand these characteristics and be able to identify methods in which students can learn the material. One of the points I took away, is that we can teach all we want, but if there is no learning happening then we are not meeting our objective. One of my favorite quotes was Sir Ken Robinson’s statement that Education is not a mechanical system its a human system. And in an In an organic system, life/learning is inevitable under the right conditions.

In A New Culture of Learning CULTIVATING THE  IMAGINATION FOR A WORLD  OF CONSTANT CHANGE By Douglas Thomas, the embracing change chapter was in my opinion very accurate. In the discipline of Civil Engineering, I feel that we are now more than ever required to become multidisciplinary to not-only solve current issues but also be more efficient in solving traditional problems. For example, the field of transportation engineering is seeing a significant change in adapting to new available technologies and preparing or anticipated future technologies. Thus adapting to and understanding the constructs of new technologies that will soon be available requires an understanding of the discipline that are generating them. In my opinion, for transportation engineers to remain relevant in the incoming future we must have a strong understanding of our own discipline, but also in the multidisciplinary, open minded and remain informed of the fields of electrical, computer, mechanical, statistical and machine learning fields. In my opinion having the ability to be open minded to change certainly opens up many opportunities and abilities to pick up new skills useful for your current discipline and make yourself of higher value to the organization that you represent.

The paper by Dr. Langer, brought forth the idea of mindfulness. I certainly agree that being mindful at the task at hand is necessary for learning and also for work tasks or general tasks. If we are not mindful, we may not even be able recall taking part in whatever task or action we were involved in. Personally, I feel that we need to balance our day between mindful and mindless activities. In a research setting, mindfulness is extremely important as we are in what I refer to as sponge mode, aware of what we are reading and truly trying to understand what we are involved with. Mindlessness is also nice when a repetitive task is being taken on, or during a leisure activity or exercise and just gives your brain some time to relax.

Effective Learning

A number of posts this week have discussed various themes that have emerged since beginning this class, its readings and discussions. For me, each week, I consider balance to be the theme applied in different contexts.

I think the idea of engaged and mindful learning is noble, but like this post I also acknowledge that we can’t always do that. I think we, as educators, need to spend meaningful time examining our course content and finding the places where we can effectively engage technology, mindful learning and other more innovative methods of education, to balance out the places where we might have to give a basic lecture.

This post mentioned GTAs who are thrown into teaching without adequate preparation, and I agree that’s a huge problem and likely contributes to the less effective (mindless) learning that we see in some areas more than others. My department has a really great teaching apprenticeship program, wherein the semester before GTAs become instructors of record, they shadow and act as TAs for the course they will eventually teach. Our introductory course uses an online textbook with integrated quizzes, as well as other helpful resources, such as flash cards, glossaries and interactive material, that students are required to read. When preparing my first guest lecture, my apprenticeship supervisor told me that students, on average, only retain 10% of course material in a lecture that goes broad but not deep. He advised me to go over the material from the book, find the concepts that would be most challenging to students and focus my lecture on 20-30% of the textbook material, then work on ways to engage students so they might take away 90% of the content from my lecture. I still won’t be covering everything, but I’ll hopefully engage their learning, build on their previous readings and help them to come away with more than if I had just done a lecture that covered everything in the textbook over again.

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