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.

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. :-)

 

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.

WEEK 4: MINDFUL LEARNING

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.

Um, Permission to Rebel?

“With organic systems, if conditions are right, life is inevitable.”

Equal parts comedian and educationalist, Sir Ken Robinson’s talk, “How to Escape Education’s Death Valley,” has a serious—though, too, seriously optimistic—message: We’re all humans. We’re all organic. We, in the United States, are not setting up our students to learn. There’s a solution to make our system better.

As humans, we’re born to be curious by nature; and such innate curiosity is what makes humans so advanced, as curiosity is, in Robinson’s words, “the engine of achievement.” Likewise, however, it’s also been an “achievement” of the U.S. to “stifle that ability” to be curious at all. Many of our (mine, included) posts these past couple of weeks have touched on students’ (and our) desire to check the boxes in school. It’s what we’re taught to do, in fact, regardless of the reality that the desire to mechanically move from task to task is not what we’re drawn to do; it’s what we’re compelled to do; it’s a method of self-protection.

This rings true already in these first few weeks of me teaching the new incoming class of freshmen. Have my students come to me—in-person or over email—to discuss the assigned readings, to collaborate on exploring one of their writing assignments, to consider alternatives to their approaches? Nah. But how many questions have I received along the lines of Will we have a final exam or How many pages does this paper need to be or Will you ever quiz us or Could I receive extra credit this semester if I __ or Will we be downgraded if the MLA isn’t perfect?

As an educator, passionate about the content I’m teaching, when asked these questions—especially when asked in the middle of a lesson—I’m thrown off, I squint my eyes, I study the context, I self-question, I…I’m like…what?

Okay, okay. I can’t fault my students. I, too, am a recovering perfectionist and can strongly empathize with students’ fear over missing a detail. I’ve had teachers who’ve downgraded me for not adjusting my page-number font to Times New Roman and who’ve threatened to not accept a paper if it were a minute late. Those are misinformed, troubling and dangerous methods of “teaching.” Who are those practices helping?

In his talk, Robinson credits the No Child Left Behind Act for being part of the problem in teachers’ and students’ conforming approach to education. How, after all, are teachers and students going to teach and learn creatively when existing within a system of conformity that calls for standardized testing, for narrowing the focus on STEM disciplines rather than teach them in conjunction with a broad curriculum that includes and fosters talents in arts, humanities and physical education as well? How can we foster curiosity when teachers are not supported to teach creatively? When our system is set up for the antithesis of individualized teaching and learning? When we’re not attributing a high status to the teaching profession? When we’re giving the power to call the shots to legislators without any education in the field of education?

Again, to feed curiosity, we must teach creatively, and in order to teach creatively, we must support our teachers. After all, as Robinson says, teachers are “the lifeblood of the success of schools.” But, as we know, teachers don’t receive the treatment they’re due.

What especially troubles me now as a GTA and student is to see this system play out at the college level. Growing up with my father as a middle-school teacher who received low pay, who had to purchase his own supplies for his classroom, who brought breakfast to feed his kids (many of whom were below the poverty line and, likewise, not being properly supported), who protested in the state capitol when our governor (who does not even have a bachelor’s degree, himself, and who later felt empowered enough to attempt to run for president) decided to gut (and succeeded in gutting) teachers’ unions in Wisconsin, I was raised with the expectation that our public school teachers would continue to be treated like dirt (because, apparently, they can be), and assumed that helpless children would continue to be subject to the repercussions of the government’s mistreatment of teachers.

College educators, though…their conditions couldn’t be the same. We’re in places of higher education. Campuses saturated with knowledge and respect for those that promote it.  

Nope. Look at the number of GTAs who are thrown into teaching without being given any support beforehand. Look at the GTAs, like me, with 2-2 teaching loads, entire responsibility of classes’ syllabi constructions, of creating daily calendars, of giving daily class instruction, of grading, of corresponding with and supporting students…and, oh, who also have to take a full load of classes and publish and write theses and dissertations.

I am part of the norm. And while, comparatively, I should be grateful for my stipend that lets me cautiously live, I should also point out that this treatment—for me, for any GTA, for any teacher at any level—does not encourage best teaching practices. Quite the opposite. It’s burnout.

I can’t help but connect Robinson’s talk to Ellen J Langer’s The Power of Mindful Learning in which she discusses our culture of “mindlessness”—of entrapment in old categories. That’s what’s happening in education, no? In our treatment of educators? Of students? Our education system as of now is one that does not encourage alternatives, that does not open itself to continuous creation of new categories, openness to new information, and implicit awareness of more than one perspective. In a world marked by doubt and difference, why are we not teaching in a conditional, context-dependent way that values uncertainty? Or, the better way to ask this, as Langer teaches, is to ask: How can we teach in a conditional, context-dependent way that values uncertainty?

“Mindless learning,” Langer states, “ensures mediocrity.” Instead of keeping to this system, we must rebel against education myths that currently rule our system, that “undermine our true learning…stifle our creativity, silence our questions, and diminish our self-esteem.”

I’m standing by my will to teach my students the art of rebellion.

A student of mine said to me last week that, even though the author we were reading used four exclamation marks for one sentence, she, of course, couldn’t do the same in her own writing for class. In response, I asked, “Why not?” to which she responded nonverbally, cocking her head in a BUT GRAMMAR RULES! look of confusion. “Keep playing with your piece,” I said. “I can be convinced that four exclamation marks can be appropriate sometimes.”

I’m sticking by my message. I won’t standardize my students, just like I won’t passively allow for keeping our system of education—at all levels of learning—at its current state.

What does it mean to learn in a “mindless context”?

Image result for mindless learning

When I was doing my master’s degree at VT, I had to conduct a real experiment on the Smart Road at VTTI. The experiment was intended to evaluate the human-vehicle interaction when driving an autonomous vehicle. We had 32 participants that they had to drive the autonomous car several times, passing a signalized intersection. The autonomous vehicle has the ability to manage and communicate with the traffic signal without any input from the driver and thus the vehicle will decelerate, stop, and accelerate by its self. All the participants were told to not react when getting close to the intersection. Interestingly, I had a participant who had a hard time to interact with the autonomous vehicle. Many times, she presses the break when seeing the traffic signal is red although she was required to not touch the break nor the gas peddles. Of course, when the participant presses the gas or break paddles, our experiment would collapse, and we had to repeat it. It took her a while to break this habit and start passing the signalized intersection when it’s red without touching either the break nor the gas peddles.

Think about the previous example and try to generalize it to many things we have learned in our life On a daily basis, we do many tasks without a second thought. We have become computers that are controlled by codes and behave in a predefined way.

In the educational system, this approach of learning leaves no room for accommodating any new change that might happen in the future. Even worse, students get criticized if they deviate from the traditional way and come up with their own approach. Even if their own approach seems to be longer or non-optimal, they should be appreciated for thinking out of the box and come with a different way, they should be appreciated for taking the brave and confidence and think differently.

Back in the 1990s, there was a woman who is very professional in cooking fish. One day, she was asked by one of her friends to teach her cooking, so she went ahead and started grabbing the ingredients and her friend was watching. At the first step of preparing the fish for marinating, she cut the head and tail of the fish and put them together into one plate. Quickly, her friend interrupted her, asking why did you do that? Simply, she said: “I don’t know! This is how I was told!” Then, her friend asked her who told you? She replied: my mom. Then, her friend insisted to go and ask her mom! they went together to her mom and asked the same question: could you please cook fish for us? She welcomed them and started preparing the fish and likewise, she cut the fish into three pieces as her daughter did. Now, both of them asked her: why did you do this? She replied: “This is how I learned from my mom (the grandmother of the daughter)”. This makes all of them eager to know the hidden reason! They were excited to figure out how it related in making it delicious fish. Three of them decided to go and ask their grandmother. They knocked on the door and found her sleeping on her bed. They gently asked her to cook for the fish, and the grandmother was surprised by this unexpected request but she had no choice but to do it. She did the same thing by cutting the fish into three pieces: head, tail, and the rest. Now, all of them asked her: why did you do this? She simply replied: “my plate is too small and cannot fit the whole fish so I had to cut it into three pieces”!!

Now, let’s think, how many times we were taught things/steps that are not part of the learning process? How many times the lack of tools in the class forced and boxed us into a single view? How much time we could have saved if we go on our own way and find the optimal path?

Personally, I think the problem happens because of the way that teachers approach.  In undergrad school, teachers intend to teach in detail, leaving no room for students to show their creativity or individual differences.  They teach in a way makes them think this is the only way to solve this problem. As grad students, when writing a paper and submit for a peer-reviewed journal or conference, we usually get criticized for using an “absolute language” but when we read books, we find they are written in a way that enforces us to believe them without a single doubt! How could we accept to publish books in an absolute language but not journals or conference papers?! Why do we think books are more trustable than papers although these scientific papers could be published as a book chapter? How could we build a fairer educational and research system that doesn’t favorite some people over others?

Un-expecting the Expected

This semester, I’m teaching a class called Principles of New Media. It’s part of a cluster of three courses prescribed to all incoming freshmen who wish to pursue a major within the school of visual arts. One of the goals of PONM is to establish a baseline proficiency in several computer programs that are used extensively in upper level art and design courses.

As technologies are apt to do, these programs are in a constant state of mutability. From year to year, changes are implemented to update their functionality and interface in pursuit of optimization. This creates a learning environment analogous to the description provided by Thomas and Seely Brown in Chapter 3 of A New Culture of Learning. As an educator, it’s challenging to introduce students to these tools knowing that their imminent restructuring is liable to render the specifics of my lessons obsolete. To best prepare my students to use this software in the future, I must be mindful in how I teach them in the present. It requires an approach that acknowledges the fluid nature of digital tools. Teaching with this in mind de-emphasizes the need to master a specific tool and places more importance on cultivating students’ ability to determine what it is they want to do. For example, rather than motivating an assignment through mastery of the specific functionality of a program, instead prioritize the students’ ability to think through the goals of their project, identify the skills and tools they will need to realize those goals, and use my lessons help them feel comfortable working with technology. Importantly, that comfortability must transcend the specifics of any particular tool or method that I demonstrate in the classroom. The reading by Langer showed how something as simple as the language I use to describe and explain these tools can have this effect. Using mindful language can open the door to finding creative solutions and facilitate students’ ability to adapt to changing technologies. Going forward, their ability to do that is much more important to their success than any particular mastery they could gain from my class.

Another challenge centers around expectation – specifically my expectations as a teacher. There is implicit bias in the programs that we use on computers and other devices, built in to their functionality and interface by the people that created them (despite whatever efforts may have been made otherwise). Similarly, as a person who is (in theory) familiar with the capabilities these tools, when I assign a project that requires the use of a particular software, I inherently hold an expectation for what the result of that assignment will be. Undoubtedly, this informs the way I teach, regardless of whether I consciously acknowledge this preconception or not. So, how do we as teachers disengage from our expectations in a way that is still dutiful to our obligation to share our knowledge without impinging on our students’ creativity? Once more, I think the article by Langer is useful in addressing this question. Being mindful of how I teach digital tools directly affects how creative students are when they use them. Teaching students how to use tools in a mindless manner will lead to work that meets expectations but will never generate work that is unexpected.

In some fields, expected results may be a good thing, but in art, the opposite is generally true. Art that shows us something we don’t expect tends to hold our attention longer. It changes our perspective by subverting something familiar and providing it with new context. I believe that this is more important than mastery of any particular skill or technique and imparting this idea to my students likely begins with how I approach my lessons.

Week 3: “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?”

“Ironically, many are unhappy with an educational experience that has only rewarded them… These students have all been tested, tried, and found to be worthy of extreme praise. What does it mean when such an intelligent person gives the wrong answer?”

-Ellen Langer

 

So… when Ellen Langer listed music lessons as one of the places where limiting, hobbling mindsets are cultivated, I was a little piqued. I’d taken music lessons for years and felt a certain time-tested loyalty to The Music Lesson as pedagogical practice: I was accustomed to the rigor, rigidity, and self-discipline (or unhelpful, unhealthy self-criticism), the type-A personalities, the minefields of politics regarding everything from where one sat in an orchestra to how the music was played, and I paused for a moment and realized that this is precisely what Dr. Langer was talking about in her book, The Power of Mindful Learning.

In this book, Dr. Langer pushes back against conventional wisdom about education as well as conventional wisdom itself. Despite the fact that I have learned a great deal about imagining things, places, and people complexly, and despite my rigorous humanities training and the strong emphasis it placed on multiple perspectives, ambiguities and, iconoclastic takedowns of master narratives and Eurocentric models of everything from history to art to music to education, I am still trapped by what Dr. Langer refers to as mindless learning. Both in and out of the practice room, I do things every day simply because “that’s the way they’re done”, or “every other way is wrong”. This is especially ingrained in music: there’s only one correct way to hold a cello bow–all other ways are not only wrong, but could trigger a career-ending injury and subject yourself to a lifetime of “bad habits” (If I had a nickel for every time I heard that phrase in my lessons, I’d be a wealthy woman); the best way to learn technically-demanding passages in a piece is to drill-drill-drill until it’s branded onto your brain and you can play it without a second thought.

Let’s re-examine that, shall we? The goal is to “play it… without a second thought.” As a traditionalist, I can safely admit that I agree with a lot of the conventional wisdom offered by my many teachers (even the ones whose harsh critiques made me cry and quit playing for years at a time), but I do worry about the future of music practice and education when the goal is to learn for the sole purpose of not having to think about it ever again. Just think about the implications of that for a second, and you’ll be concerned, too.

Embracing Change In the 21st Century

It is evident that our current teaching model is based on a presumption of stability, and continuity, and progress in a controlled environment. In today’s internet environment, the production and delivery of information or content are constantly changing and evolving. This is in contrast with the twentieth-century education environment, which as Thomas and Brown rightfully […]
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