Mindfulness in the Classroom: Fighting Back Against the “Just Do It” Attitude

As part of my teaching assistantship at VT,  I teach a small Food Microbiology lab class . The students are very bright, but have an issue that I see quite often. They tend to panic when there are no strict guidelines for an assignment. One student contacted me regarding the upcoming presentations for class. She asked me if the content she planned on covering was enough, and that the rubric “seems like it wants everything covered in excruciating detail”. I looked at the same rubric, and it said simply to “describe the methods used”. Confused as to what her concern was, I wrote back and told her to cover and explain what she believed was the appropriate amount, that there is no right or wrong answer when it comes to explaining your reasoning.

Scenarios like this are all too common in schools and universities. If students aren’t given precise guidelines for how to complete a task, a panic sets in. They feel that if the assignment isn’t completed in the exact way, their grade will suffer. I believe this feeling stems from K-12 education, where critical thinking and mindfulness aren’t prioritized,  but given a backseat to memorization of facts and figures. Granted, some subjects have little room for anything but mindless memorization (e.g. basic arithmetic), but as the student advances through school, it becomes more and more important for students to approach challenges with an open mind and flexibility. After finding out that I study food science, people will more often than not ask me what shouldn’t they be eating. Human health and proper nutrition are such broad fields with high levels of variance from person-to-person; it’s nearly impossible to label something as 100% “bad for you”.Genetics, food processing, current health status, and interplay with other foods can all have an influence on just one food product. Grapes have tons of antioxidants which are great for individuals predisposed to heart disease, but are loaded with sugars, a not so ideal situation for diabetics.

There are little situations in life that can be definitively answered with a definitive yes or no answer. When we teach our students “this is the only way to do this” or “it can only be solved this way”, we limit the creativity of the student, the ability for them to think outside the box, and prevent them from becoming innovative. If we used a mindless approach when preparing potatoes, believing that the only way to prepare them is by baking, we wouldn’t have potato chips or french fries, two staples of the western food culture. We must encourage students to be mindful, to look at all aspects of the present issue. Don’t say “these foods are the healthiest and should be eaten”, say these foods have been shown to improve this in the body, how can this be applied in a new food or supplement”. Langer provides a number of examples of how we can take a mindful approach to teaching as opposed to force-feeding students information with the same rigid restrictions our grandparents used. Give it a look and let me know what you think!

OK, Google!

OK, Google! does our education system make us dumb? or is it the technology? Well, I hope I did not confuse Google by asking this question.

Did it ever happen to you where a person who is in a middle of conversation or discussion (just to keep their facts straight or just to find something they forgot) say let’s google it or they go straight to ” Ok Google —?”. It has happened to me so many times and to be honest I do that most of the time. Is that a bad thing or does that make us dumb? I guess I can agree with Clive Thompson and say No! it is not. Because as humans we have always done this, but before it was “books” and “weeks” and now it is “search engines” and “OK, Google!” (I mean minutes ). As a graduate student, I can say that these search engines make my life much easier. Let’s say I had to do all my literature survey without the internet. I would not say it is impossible but it will take a much longer time. Also, this advancement in technology helps the research community to grow together efficiently. Because it does not matter where you are in the world you can find any information or any published papers in your field at any time of the day, just using the internet. Moreover, technology has made it easier to bring everyone’s ideas together and has become a one good discussion platform. So technology is not exactly the problem. It does what it exactly is supposed to do, making human life easier and efficient. So technology itself does not make us dumb. But that does not mean it can make you intelligent either. That’s why the education system needs to be properly equipped to “facilitate learning ” (quoting Sir Ken Robinson ). Technology and networking are pretty useful in fulfilling this. But this raises the question of how much technology should be involved in our education system. In the interview with Mr.Thompson, he mentions that kids should not spend all their time on screens, rather they should split up their time to do multiple different things.

Which brings my attention to Sir Ken Robinson’s TED talk where he mentions the importance of exposing kids to all the fields rather than following the education hierarchy. That way they have the opportunity of choosing what they enjoy the most. Because at the end of the day it doesn’t matter how hard the teacher try it will go to waste if the student doesn’t enjoy it and want to learn. In Sir Robinson’s talk, he mentions that human beings are diverse (meaning people have different interests and talents ). It is important to respect this diversity and “facilitate learning”.The next important thing is not to suppress curiosity and imagination. As Sir Robinson mention in his talk, the force that drives humans is their curiosity, so the education system should endure curiosity and imagination, not just literacy. Is that what happens in education today? Sadly not, education systems today (in most countries) focus more on tests. These tests act more like filters where they should have been a diagnostic technique (as mention by Sir Robinson) to help students. Thinking back, I totally agree with Sir Robinson because I’m also one of those students who has spent most part of my education focusing on tests rather than the actual learning. So, for the most part, it’s not the technology which confined us to a box, it’s the education system.

An innovated education system

An innovated education system has been always my matter of concern as I believe the current common teaching system, including tests and grades, cannot help students to foster their potentials to serve the society as their best; but to categorize them in order to identify the most capable ones in specific tasks. The current education system, metaphorically, is like the old story of having rabbits, fishes and pigeons to in a same school and ranking their grades in jumping, swimming and flying altogether. there is no need to teach rabbits to jump but how to jump better. They can try swimming but no need to get ranked upon their fun experience and for sure they need help for that.

Moreover, the competitive filtering system creates one-dimensional mindsets, for example, smart engineers whose world are just numbers, equations, and codes. For sure there are exceptions but statistically, in a competitive environment, individuals get less time to explore and try other aspects of life like art in the engineering example. On the other hand, a grading system in which the variety in abilities, personality and background of students is not considered, cannot be a good evaluation whether students have learned what was taught or not. It can be a tool to identify stronger ones based on the test which adversely causes the students to label themselves under titles of good or bad.  This grading is logical in old school times when individuals had to seek the masters in each skill or science, learn their technics and find a job based on their new mastered skills. Maybe, the employers needed a scale to hire the best ones.

The goal of modern education is to help individuals to achieve their best in their own path.

Human Factors view on attention and multitasking

Many people see multitasking as a way of increasing efficiency in our daily life. However, multitasking is a thread of degrading performance. This is true specially in the classroom environment.  In simple words, when multitasking we are executing two or more tasks that are not equally important: these are the primary and the secondary tasks.

Let's suppose a common example in the classroom environment:
  • Primary Task: Main task a person is concentrating on: paying attention on a lecture and taking notes
  • Secondary Task: Distraction task which has to be executed in parallel: using the cellphone to text
Perfect execution of two parallel tasks is possible but requires learning and depends on several context factors. Usually, automatic tasks that require no attention can have a good time sharing with more difficult tasks. However, being in a classroom involves controlled tasks that require attention. These type of tasks are considered hard and require more attention and cognitive resources. Learning a new subject , taking notes, paying attention to a conversation and texting back are controlled tasks take can not be automate even with practice.  

In fact, these tasks are considered in nature and therefore, they are harder to execute in parallel than more distinct ones. When tasks are similar, they compete for same abstract cognitive resources. As humans, we have a fixed pool of available resources. In this way, conflicts between tasks occur when more resources are concurrently requested than available. We do not allocate resources evenly between tasks. If a conversation is more interesting than a task, more cognitive resources will be allocated to this task. In this way, a perfect time-sharing is not possible. 

Additionally, most dual tasks require enormous “mental effort”. For instance, if you are trying to learn a difficult subject in class but at the same time you are engaged in a controversial subject with your friends using your cellphone, both tasks require enormous resources. If tasks requirements are greater than your available resources, you start experiencing mental workload. Yes! You can get more exhausted in class by using your cellphone!

What are your thoughts on using cellphones in the classroom vs attention and multitasking? 

Changing Lanes again,

… but using turn signals, because there’s nothing wrong with it.

Teaching with non-teaching. Maybe we should just stop teaching. Sort of. Many of the lessons we’re learning in this pedagogy class focus on changing our abilities to teach, on how we can better use the newest tech as tools, and how to let go and allow students to teach themselves. It is as if our ability to adapt will somehow allow all students to be reached, to allow all students to learn, to allow all to succeed. I say, that depends.

I’m going to switch gears for a minute regarding last week’s post so that I can better see both sides and ask more questions from you, dear reader. It’s kind of a devil’s-advocate-view against my own words. In those words, I discussed cross-training and well-rounded students. Now I’m going to ask: What about highly-specialized students instead?

Yes. All students learn differently, and we need to approach them in ways more conducive to their abilities. But what I haven’t heard is this: we’re still teaching all of the students all of the the same material long after many have shown they lack interest. For instance: Basics? Core? Fundamentals? Are they really essential to our lives? I’ve said it before, I don’t always math good. Not all designers are engineers, and not all engineers are designers. I hated my core classes, and it wasn’t until I got into my major that I became excited. Why did I have to take another English course?

Is it possible that some students don’t belong in those 100-plus lecture halls? “Don’t belong” doesn’t mean they are incapable of learning, only that what they’re learning in those classes doesn’t apply well to them. It seems like a waste of time. Again, devil’s advocate voice here.

Flip side: What about the students in their latter years, when they’re starting to get into the meat of their major and really focus on their goals: Are they more focused than in their core classes? I definitely was. So why are we still requiring these ‘fundamentals’ for graduation? I realize the core system is older than the Standards of Learning law, but if you think about it, isn’t this just an extension of the SOLs we so loathe? Why are they in the room if it isn’t important to them? Are they in the right room? #seewhatididthere

I can’t remember his last name, but his first was Chris. He was Swiss, and he was the best CAD teacher I ever had. His background was what Americans might call a high school degree, except his was highly advanced in the construction field. That’s because several countries like Switzerland and Germany allow the educational focus to change according to a student’s abilities. Some kids are more adept with machinery and shop tools. Others are artists and comprehend the nuances of Nietzsche. After their primary years, students are directed into vocational and/or theoretical secondary education depending on their aptitude. This happens when they are around age 11. Secondary education in this manner is meant to prepare you for life-beyond-school, and it begins at eleven in these countries. Eleven. I was trying to figure out how not to get beat up at eleven.

Preparing students for life-beyond-school: what is that? Again, are we beating ourselves up because a few students didn’t read the Odyssey? I’ve read it four different times in four different school systems, including my freshman year in college. It’s a wonderful story, but I can’t think of a context in my life where I’ve used it until just now. It has more than 123,000 words to read, which is time I could have spent better honing the hand skills that my life-beyond-school required. Did I have a bad teacher that did a poor job expressing the metaphors and meanings of this Homeric epic? No. He was humorous and affable, and I picked up the word übermensch from his lectures. I sat right up front and paid attention and read all books and wrote all papers. It just wasn’t my desire to learn more about this material. This fundamental text was not in my lane. And besides, the Iliad has more life lessons in it, am I right?

I think Ellen Langer was misguided in describing her seven mindsets of learning as myths. They aren’t myths to everyone, but to be fair, I also don’t think they are truths. I believe these precepts to be subjective to the person teaching and to the person learning. There are right and wrong answers in air-traffic control – #7. Forgetting to set your alarm will get you fired in life-beyond-school – #5. Rick Perry will never live down that time he forgot what agency he wanted to destroy during the presidential debates. And even though Langer’s driver continued to use a turn signal when no one was around, the law requires he do that. Stupid law, yes, but he was in the right. Change it.

Back to my Swiss-born CAD teacher. Chris lived on a small-town beach in North Carolina with his wife and children. We took study breaks by swimming in the ocean and catching fish. We grilled whatever we caught for dinner, and his kids ran around laughing in English, German and Spanish – his wife’s native language. His skills as a CAD instructor had him flying around the world. He loved what he did and couldn’t have been more welcoming to me.

He also couldn’t stop talking about how the education system in the United State sucked and he was so thankful to have been born somewhere else. He credits that he was setup for success and was encouraged to follow his strengths early on. Similarly, Germany has an 80% rate of hire after graduation, which means there is great value placed on this type system and a high incentive for students to learn.

For some reason, it reminds me of my friend Ty, the designer who stated he went to ‘art school, not smart school.’ Maybe he’s right. He got the art part absolutely right. And the other part about not being smart? He got that right too, but not the way we think. Our society places a high value on certain fields over others, and calls one group smart and another group ignorant.

In reality, it is as much bottom-up as it is top-down. I’m not screaming socialism, but welders are as equally important as engineers in the working of our society – the bridge requires both to function. What if someone had told my teacher Chris that construction work was for drop-outs and engineering school was the way to go? Maybe he would have done well. Maybe he would have burned out. Maybe we should stop teaching students what they don’t need to learn.

I’m not laying blame on teachers teaching poorly. And I’m not laying blame on students skipping lessons. I think there’s another mode where the actual abilities and desires of the students are given more credence and the classes they take are truly important to them on a base level. I believe Chris was right about the differences in our systems. It’s very societal and complex.

We should change that if we can. And please understand I’m not saying a person has to be one thing and only that thing and not anything else. I do not believe this in my heart. We all have many skills and I still encourage their exploration. Some people have lots of them: Think of the jack-of-all-trades, the polymaths – the übermenschen. If my doctor is also an artist – wonderful. But really, I’m not going to cry if she failed my design class – maybe it wasn’t her lane. And truth be told, I’m okay if my heart still looks like a heart and not like a Picasso. I’m fine with that. Does that mean I’m a bad design teacher?

What does your devil’s advocate say?

Mindful Learning: Learning through our Headpsaces?

For a while, I have been thinking about my own learning process. As everyone has a unique character, it can change person to person, but “learning” for me is generally about the logic of “no pain, no gain.” Every time when I study, I tend to jump the conclusion, main ideas, or arguments to get it done. And, what if I have been studying mindlessly?

As opposed to my struggle inside my mind, in her book “The Power of Mindful Learning,” Ellen J. Langer as a psychologist is talking about kind of gain without pain type of learning through, what she calls, “mindful learning.” It is sort of “studying on your headspace.” Indeed, she uses this term quite different from, what we got used to knowing, meditation. For Langer, mindfulness is about openness to wider possibilities or sort of a cognitive recognition of possibilities or alternatives at the time we learn; for instance, it involves awareness and broadened attention. She defines the term and compares it with “mindlessness” as such

A mindful approach to any activity has three characteristics: the continues creation of new categories; openness to new information; and an implicit awareness of more than one perspective. Mindlessness, in contrast, is characterized by entrapment in old categories; by automatic behavior that precludes attending to new signals; and by action that operates from a single perspective. (p. 4)

To overcome mindlessness in learning and teaching, she proposes “sideways learning” by maintaining a mindful state, which she explains

Sideways learning aims at maintaining a mindful state. As we saw, the concept of mindfulness revolves around certain psychological states that are really different versions of the same thing: (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. Each leads to the others and back to itself Learning a subject or skill with an openness to novelty and actively noticing differences, contexts, and perspectives-sideways learning- makes us receptive to changes in an ongoing situation. In such a state of mind, basic skills and information guide our behavior in the present, rather than run it like a computer program.  (p. 23)

Her alternative learning method pushed me to make some self-reflection. I am more inclined to jump to the conclusion of any book or article, by only getting its main arguments-methods etc., rather than really getting into it. Honestly, this has been my way of survival in academia given the assigned tons of readings, as if everyone is able to internalize all those readings. However, this kind of psychological awareness has great potential to enable deeper involvement, concentration, and more importantly being “at present” in learning as well as teaching. From another side of the coin, Langer also shows that how alarming traditional learning techniques restrain creativity due to memorization and repetitive practices to master the theories or concepts. This culture of teaching and subsequent learning technique of the students only deepens being an “auto” pilot, what Langer calls, “mindfulness.”

Undoubtedly, I really appreciated the idea of “sideways learning” and the way how Langer sheds lights on our alarming reality about learning and teaching… 

A hard look at the history of education

While reading Langer’s article on mindful learning, I realized that the whole structure of schooling and education in the present sociocultural context might be a result of mindlessness.

The past causes the present and the present leads to future. Thus to understand the present structure of education, I believe it is imperative that we also analyze and spend some thoughts about the history of education. From the beginning of human history for ages and ages, children have been educating themselves through self-exploration. The only concrete and documented form of imparting knowledge from one generation to another was through the means of stories, fables and fairytales.

But as humankind began to develop and form civilizations, children were put to work as labors alongside adults, in agriculture and industry. They began to master the necessary skills of livelihood. And thus came about the definition of “good children”: the hardest workers, the most disciplined and dutiful ones, the ones that grew out of their curious and unruly childhood all too soon. And while the practice of schooling as a structure of education for children grew and spread all around the world, the societal norms of what was considered “good” were already deeply instilled by then. Schooling replaced labor jobs as “work” for children. There remained no scope for playful learning, no place for willfulness of children. Education became restricted to schools, delivered in form of lessons from teachers to students thus establishing the hierarchy of greater knowledge. Everything outside of school, even reading storybooks became “extracurricular”. The concept of school was designed in the minds of children as some morbid place that is not meant to be fun at all.

And this concept lives up to this day! We have all hated the strict boundaries and rules of school life at some point, we have all dreaded the exams and the penalties of getting low scores on a test. With the advancement in science and technology, and the standard of human lives, schools are predominantly focussed now on the colossal amounts of information they have to disperse to students. Stories, which were the most prevalent form of learning in the past, is not even recognized as an important tool for learning anymore.

While reading about the history of education in Wikipedia, I found the most profound statement: it talks about the Hindu scripture Upanishads dated back to 500 BC as “an exploratory learning process where teachers and students were co-travellers in a search for truth. The teaching methods used reasoning and questioning. Nothing was labeled as the final answer.” This states three very important pillars of what learning should be about and what the current culture of education have mindlessly ignored! Education should be curiosity-driven; there doesn’t always have to a binary right/wrong; peer-learning rather than mainstream teacher-student hierarchy.

Thus, I want to end the article on the note that instead of just brainstorming ideas of revolutionizing education to come up with “new and fun alternatives”, may be we take a look way back in the ancient human history to gain a better understanding of learning; may be we realize that learning is nothing but fun and play and stories and fables!

Mindlessness to Joblessness

As always, I will tell a story. I am from India and in India, the education system is quite different from US. Till the 10th standard (sophomore year of high school), we study (and/or “learn”??) everything- science, maths, history, geography, politics, economics, languages and much more. From junior year, we have to choose a broad field(major) we want to continue our study in and the options are Medical, Non-Medical (Science), Commerce and Arts.

I was always genuinely interested in science, particularly Physics, so for me, the obvious choice was Non-Medical. But this was not the case with most of my other classmates. They had different criteria for deciding the major. The first criterion was “difficulty”. Med and Non-Med are usually considered difficult, so the students who have a higher GPA (presumed “smart” ones) usually go for these and the students who have lower GPA go for the other two. Now many of these “smart” students actually had no or little interest in science or math and they still went for it because “smart” students are expected to go for it (parental pressure and societal pressure). I remember one of my close friends ended up taking Science because of his parents’ pressure although he was really interested in Economics.

The second criterion (which is nowadays becoming the first) was “future jobs”. The usual mentality is Med and Non-Med lead to high paying and better jobs after college. Because of this, many “presumed not-so smart students” who would have taken commerce or arts otherwise, also went for med or non-med (mostly non-med, because it takes forever to become a medical doctor).

What happened as a result, the “smart” ones with minimal interest and “not-so smart” ones with vested interest, did not perform well because whatever they learnt was not mindful (I do not mean to generalize here because there are some who develop interest even if the chosen major wasn’t their first choice). Now most of them did manage into some pathetically low-ranked, high-cost private engineering colleges (these are the colleges, very high in number, with sole purpose to rake money out of students and give them a degree, with a little to no impetus on learning), but failed to get jobs after graduating or are working low-paying jobs (it is so ironic because the main reason for making that choice in school was to get a high paying good job) .

The rate of educated unemployment in India is rising at an alarming rate and one of the biggest reasons is the mismatch between the interests and learnings of students (I don’t want to discuss specific numbers here because the numbers go higher than the population of many countries). My post might have deviated from the main topic “mindful learning”, but I wanted to lay emphasis on how a small mindful advice from parents (to discover and follow interest and not money) and a mindful teaching from teachers ( to understand that the real aim of “learning” is not to get a job, but to gain knowledge) could have prevented my classmates to fall victims to this herd mentality and could have helped them to take a mindful decision towards their future.

Mindfulness Incorporated with Teaching Agriculture

Reading Ellen Langer’s article on Mindful Learning, I kept revisiting how I have taught in the past. More specifically, was I teaching the students to learn mindfully, and if not, how could I improve this. According to Langer, mindfulness is “a flexible state of mind in which we are actively engaged in the present, noticing new things and sensitive to context.” And when it comes to Agriculture, and Dairy farms in particular, context is everything.

I teach a senior-level course at Virginia Tech that focuses on learning how to examine and evaluate dairy farms based on the way they operate. One important aspect that I try to stress with the students is that no two farms are exactly the same. The goals of each farmer may be different. The layout of their farms will differ. The type and number of cows they have on the farm with vary. And the work style of the farmer and their staff will most certainly vary. All of this needs to be taken into consideration when examining an individual dairy farm. However, when beginning to teach student’s these concepts, I start by removing as much of the variables as possible and have them focus on changes in specific areas of the farm (i. e. nutrition, housing, milking, health, etc.). Then as the semester continues, I’ll add a new portion of the farm to examine until they are taking the whole farm into context. This seems to be beneficial, as by the end of the course, the students are typically able to successfully provide recommendations to an actual farm.

However, looking at how I have taught the course, I still think I could help the students learn even more and become even better by intentionally getting the students to mindfully learn. As I question and assess my students, I have noticed they compartmentalize the sections of the farm, thinking about them individually, when in real life there is overlap between a lot of sections of the farm. They are focusing on some context of the situation, but not the whole context. I’m wondering if this is a result of my teaching, and therefore learning, mindlessly, expecting the students to make some of the ties between sections of the farm. It also could be a result of how we typically teach agriculture majors about their specific systems. For animal science, typically, we teach courses that are specific to one section of the farm. An entire class on lactation, then one on nutrition, then one on reproduction, all focusing on that one topic and nothing outside of it. The same seems to be true about other agriculture system. If there was a push to have the students think a little about the context of the entire farm in these topic specific courses, they might start to become more mindful learners and probably better critical thinkers as well. The same could maybe be said about other non-agriculture, but very applied majors, such as engineering or even those on education. However, I am starting to get outside of my sphere of knowledge.

This next semester I teach, I am going to try to teach more mindfully by getting the students to challenge the context a little more. Maybe after we run through a scenario, I could have them come up with a list of what other factors will be affected if one change is made. Or maybe we go over the scenario as if it was a typical United States dairy farm, but them put it in the context of a New Zealand farm that is more seasonal. Let me know what your thought are about mindful teaching in the context of your area of teaching. Is it anywhere similar, or does your department seem to have a better grasp on mindful learning? Thank you!

Embracing Change

Coincidentally, my thoughts have recently centered on the concept of change which made reading this article seemed almost providential. The whole article (pages 39-49 of the link posted below) is well worth the read. (To provide a shameless plug for the article, it is highly consumable, replete with fun facts, figures, anecdotes and everything else that would capture the attention of average fan of Malcolm Gladwell literature). The part of the article that most resonated with me is found on page 43. It says, “Change motivates challenge…It means making the most of living in a world of motion. We can no longer count on being taught or trained to handle each new change in our tools, the media, or the ways we communicate on a case-by-case basis.” This statement, “we can no longer count on being taught or trained” is what might define those who succeed and those don’t.

My professional experience confirms that this is true. Before coming back to school, I spent five years working in the home building industry in Raleigh, NC. The leadership team of that construction management firm was laser focused and determined to beat the competition. And they did, but at the high cost of constant change. In 2013 the group was ranked in the low 20s for largest home-builder by volume and by the time I left in 2018 it was 2nd. Growth by 25-75% year over year is the type of perpetual change that this article is talking about. It is also the brand of change that cleanses an organization of anyone who is counting on others to stop and show them what to do, or in the words of the article “count on being taught or trained” by others. In this firm, each person had to know, from way up at the 10,000 ft view all the way down to the most granular level of detail, what their objectives were. If a person couldn’t he or she wouldn’t last long. The first few years there was a lot of turnover. For example, with the exception of my manager and myself, turnover was 100% in my department. For a two-and-a-half month period I was the only one doing the work of three. I would often get to the office before 6:00 am and wouldn’t leave until after 6:00 pm. This trial by fire paid off and helped me learn the nature of constant, ruthless change. It was terrible at the time, but I feel like I got a year’s worth of experience in a quarter.

To summarize, growth and improvement is impossible without change. Those who are motivated embrace this and look forward with anticipation to work that follows.


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