The Power of Mindful Learning
Ellen J. Langer
Project by Scott Allen, Karen Connaghan, Karen Elinch, Christian Greer, Sari Jensen

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Overview: The Power of Mindful Learning sets forth a theory of learning that argues that learning should be taught conditionally and not "overlearned". Learning mindfully encourages us to seek a variety of perspectives and an awareness of different approaches and answers.

Chapter One When Practice Makes Imperfect
Summarized by Scott Allen
Chapter Five

A New Look at Forgetting
Summarized by Sari Jensen


Chapter Two

Creative Distraction
Summarized by Karen Connaghan

Chapter Six

Mindfulness and Intelligence
Summarized by Karen Connaghan


Chapter Three

The Myth of Delayed Gratification
Summarized by Karen Elinch


Chapter Seven

The Illusion of Right Answers
Summarized by Scott Allen


Chapter Four

1066 What? Or the Hazards of Rote Memory
Summarized by Christian Greer



Chapter One - When Practice Makes Imperfect
Summarized by: Scott Allen

One of the pervading views in education is that in order to learn a skill one must practice until the action takes place without thought.  Performing a skill over and over again so that it becomes second nature may lead to thoughtless or mindless interaction with the skill or concept.  Mindlessness is a hindrance to discovery.  Discovery often occurs because of a variance of the "basics".

Teaching in a conditional manner allows the learner to recognize that there may be varying situations that require a varied response.  Teachers often eliminate factors that would lead students away from the "correct" outcome.  We come to learn that events occur in a predictable manner and lose sight of some of the factors that contribute to the outcome.  For example, physics students are instructed to neglect friction for most of the situations they deal with.  This produces a discrepancy between actual and theoretical results and may dampen a students ability to see distinctions.

Research has shown that information presented conditionally versus in absolute form enhances the creativity of the students.  In a study done by Alison Piper,  groups of students were given information on a set of objects conditionally and in absolute form.  The students that were given the information conditionally had a tendency to be more creative than the students that had the information presented in absolute form.

The standard approach to teaching new skills rely on either lecturing to instruct students or using direct experience to instruct students.  Ellen Langer proposes a third approach which she calls "sideways learning".  Sideways learning involves maintaining a mindful state that is characterized by openness to novelty, alertness to distinction, sensitivity to different contexts, awareness of multiple perspectives, and orientation in the present.  The standard approach involves breaking down a task into discrete parts which may stifle novelty and alertness to distinction.  Sideways learning makes it possible to create unlimited categories and distinctions.   The distinctions are essential to mindfulness.

Langer asks and answers the question, "Can a text teach mindfully?"  She gives examples of obscure tax code and the ability of students to apply the code to a variety of situations.  Students that read the section of tax code in its original language had a more difficult time adjusting to situations that weren't spelled out in the code.  The group of the students that studied the code that was slightly altered with "could be" and "possibly" instead of "is" were more successful in application.

In this chapter, Langer makes the case for mindful learning by opening our minds to multiple possibilities.  She proposes that creativity is stifled when information is presented in absolute form.



Chapter Two - Creative Distraction
Summarized by Karen Connaghan

The chapter begins with a tale of a father who is trying to "teach" his son. The father is disappointed when the boy fails to "learn" what the father is trying to "teach." The father decides to send the boy to a famous teacher. When the boy returns and the father asks what he has learned, the boy responds that he has learned the language of dogs. The father is angry and sends him to another teacher. In all, the father sends the boy to three different teachers and each time the boy returns home, the father is disappointed that he hasn't "learned." The interesting feature of this tale is that the boy has actually learned many things, just not the things that his father wanted him to learn. In the end, the skills the boy learns become invaluable to him in his life.

The author points out that many times we are told to "pay attention." This is usually said by a teacher to a student. However, it's not the we aren't paying attention, it's that we attracted to something else. This something else could lead to bigger ideas. So, being distracted is really be attracted to something different than what is expected. The boy in our tale was attracted to different things than what the father wanted. When looked at in this light (distraction is being attracted to something else), questions develop that should be looked at. What is it that is attracting us, what can we learn from it, can we use this attraction to stimulate attraction to something we want to attend to?

There are many examples of times when we paying attention isn't a problem at all. These times are really instances where we have to attune to multiple things: finding a phone number, playing computers games, selecting clothing. Through all of these tasks we must consider multiple tasks (what's the weather, are these clothes ironed, do I have a meeting). The author suggests that since we are successful at paying attention for most of the day, we should look more closely at the times when we find it difficult to pay attention. The premise is that the lack of attention is probably due to something other than lack of mental ability or maturity of the person.

High school teachers, when asked what they meant by paying attention said that they felt that paying attention was like "holding a picture still in their mind, rather than "varying the picture." Yet, when we examine the times when we do pay attention without effort, we discover that it's the variety that helps us to do so. Interestingly enough, students also reported that "holding a picture still in their mind" was what paying attention means.

Varying an image assists us in paying attention to it for any length of time. This means that for students who have difficulty in this area they may be trying to "hold a picture still in their mind." The overwhelming strategy among students and adults for paying attention appears to be some attempt to fix attention on one thing. By looking at times when we don't see problems of attention, we discover that when at play, people have no difficulty in paying attention. Novelty items help us notice different things. Changes lead us to notice novelty. "The idea that to pay attention means to act like a motion-less camera is so ingrained in us that when we do pay attention successfully we are usually unintentionally changing the context or finding novel features in our subject."

The author's notion of mindful learning is not unique, but probably new to many educators. Looking at things in different ways is being mindful: it's varying the image. So, perhaps what we should be asking students to do is to "be mindful" not to "pay attention." What we should be asking students to do is to vary aspects of what they are learning and look at things from different perspective. Not only will this result in more powerful learning, it will also require less effort and be less frustrating. Similar to when we perform tasks such as getting dressed or finding a telephone number. We are mindful and attuned to many variations throughout the process.

How do you increase variability of concepts to be learned. Using games, varying perspective in relation to stimulus, teach children to look for novelty within given situations (stories, maps, drawing). "This ability enables them to be relatively independent of other people and of their physical environment. If novelty (and interest) is in the mind of the attender, it doesn't matter that a teacher presents the same old thing or tells us to sit still and concentrate in a fixed manner.

ADHD may be a learned behavior rather than genetic. The author suggests that ADHD patients may have learned the behaviors from their parents. Medication does not fix the problem, just treats they symptoms and most certainly doesn't make the patient a better student. Langer recommends changing the context of how we present our information and the environment we present in. "Hyperactivity may be the child's implicit effort to create novelty." Is the hyperactivity really just the child's inability to focus on the specific task the instructor is providing? ADHD students may need help in finding ways to pay attention. As educators, we can "give instructions to vary the target of attention--this leads to an improvement in the ability to pay attention to a subject and remember what was learned."

Creating novelty or differences in learning activity will help students to learn better.



Chapter Three – The Myth of Delayed Gratification
Summarized by Karen Elinch

This chapter explores the notions of delayed gratification that permeate our educational system.

If we survive these courses, we'll get our master's degrees and then we'll have better lives......VERSUS......If we approach these courses mindfully, we'll enjoy every day of our learning and have better lives, such that we don't even care about the master's degree at the end.  [note: that's my personal interpretation, not Langer's.]

Notes from Langer:

Why do we think of learning and education as "work?"

Work implies pressure, deadlines, possibility of failure, drudgery.

Play is other side of coin: energizing, fun, relaxing.

When the rewards outweigh the work, no real learning happens.
When the work is its own reward (and the subsequent reward seems trivial), real learning happens.

Turning play into work is dangerous too. Need to be careful not to merge the two concepts in ways that damage both. Some things that initially seem like play (beginning a garden) can easily come to feel like work (weeding).

Great story about the kids who come to play under the window of the writer. He pays them to go play elsewhere. Eventually, he stops paying them. They stop playing.

Turning work into play...virtually any task can be made pleasurable if we approach it with a different attitude.

By applying mindfulness approaches, a task can be tolerated, even enjoyed.

The mindful engagement approach described here was to notice novel draw novel distinctions.

Drawing distinctions opens up choices. When the choices emerge, the internalization of the learning can proceed.



Chapter Four - 1066 What? or the Hazards of Rote Memory
Summarized by Christian Greer

The title of the chapter is "1066 What? or The Hazards of Rote Memory"

Summary: In this chapter, Langer explores the limitations of rote memory and sites interesting examples of how rote memory tactics can create the appearance of knowledge gained on the surface but potentially handicap the learner when greater perspective is needed to make personal connections and create relevance."

This chapter is divided into three parts:

Locking up information
Keeping information available
Drawing distinctions

Part 1: Locking up information

In this section, Langer describes memorization as "...a strategy to taking in material that has no personal meaning." Her title for Chapter 4 represented how basic memorization although useful for learning becomes useless when context is not present. Her reference to 1066 (a date she had always associated with the Battle of Hastings) was simply a fact that she recalled from school but had no real connection to anything meaningful to her.

She uses this idea to illustrate that sometimes random facts are stored within our heads but have no meaningful connections to anything else in our lives.

She also states that "Closed packets of information are taken as facts. Facts are taken as absolute truths to be learned as is, to be memorized, leaving little reason to think about them. Without any reason to open up the package, there is little chance that the information will lead to any conceptual insights or even be rethought in a new context. We can think of such encapsulated information as over learned."

She goes on to point out that memorization is usually done for the purpose of evaluation of others and is typically inefficient for long-term retention.

Part 2: Keeping information available

Langer in this section proposes some alternatives to rote memorization. She focuses on relevancy and meaning making as more "mindful" ways for us to digest information. She suggests that we cling to information that is about ourselves or things that we care personally about.

She also describes two ways in which a teacher can make facts seem personally important to the learner. One way is to pre-interpret and shape ideas into bits that relate to our interests and curiosities. The second way is to allow students to change their own attitudes by taking the raw information and finding their own meanings.

Part 3: Drawing distinctions

In this section Langer highlights the point that allowing the learner to draw distinctions between facts and ideas gives better perspective and allows the learner to visualize multiple sides of an issue. She presents some of the findings of a study that she and Matt Lieberman did on the effects of mindful attitudes on the learning of reading selections. The results were that the students did not rely on simply memorization out performed students that did in almost every category.

She concludes with a brief reflection on the story of Hansel and Gretel and illustrates that "a mindful scan of the surroundings will often help us navigate successfully."



Chapter Five - A New Look at Forgetting
Summarized by Sari Jensen

This chapter focuses on forgetting as an effective method to deal with past experiences, sensations and enabling inventive thinking.  A shift in paradigm allows for a new interpretation of the act of forgetting.  Is remembering everything all it's cracked up to be?

Staying the Present

Intense memory would reduce the power of sensations that we experience in the present.Forgetting or loss of positive memories is not necessarily the negative people envision.  Forgetting allows a similar experience/sensation to be experienced anew, perhaps with a new perspective based on your life's changing experiences.   Being in the present can benefit from both memory and memory loss.  Memory can be a life preserving asset.  A child remembers touching a hot stove in the past and refrains from touching it in the present.  Yet, remembering all the intensity of a painful sensation could negate consideration of the same future experience.  Childbirth's pain, if remembered in intense detail instead of being dulled by the joy of a new life, is an example of a "good" forgetting.  Remembering the overview while forgetting painful details enables one to experience and enjoy the present without fear. Learning can be more difficult if we must first unlearn data in order to learn new data or processes.  My personal example of the author's premise relates to my work as a director in theatre.  When an actor states that he/she has "done the part,"  I tend to look at that as a negative.  Every director has his/her vision of the script.  Having "done the part" before means they have another director¿s vision not mine.    An experiment focusing on memory (prior knowledge) and creativity was very interesting and reminded me of our Martian land rover task.  The investigation was centered on whether or not a small amount of prior knowledge about a problem would reduce the creation of original ideas.  The hypothesis stated that prior knowledge would reduce creativity as measured by number of original ideas in a task.  In the experiment, participants had to build a bridge over a river.  Half were shown examples while the other half were not exposed to any models.  Preparations led one group to develop two ideas/solutions while the group without preparations developed 10 ideas/solutions.  The hypothesis was proven. 

Dangers of Mindless Memory

Remembering is classified as either mindful or mindless.  Mindful learning is sensitive to context and to the situation at present which may change the way in which we view/use the information we learned.  Rote memorization or mindless memorization results in a regurgitation of the data with little regard for the time or place (i.e., context) that may influence the data.   

Absentminded versus Other Minded

Realization that we have forgotten something causes us to focus on the present situation and rediscover or create another alternative for what we need to know.  In a sense, forgetting something and realizing that forgetfulness stimulates us to be more mindful and creative. Does memory decline? I found this section to be an affirmation of some of my beliefs so I liked it!  Americans view aging and the elderly as negative.  The stereotypes of the elderly all include a loss of memory.  The question became, "is aging and loss of memory determined biologically?" Between researchers there was no real consensus. The hypothesis became memory loss is a self-fulfilling expectation and not a physiological fact wired into our biology.  Three distinctive subgroups were studied.  The American Deaf, the Chinese and the hearing American.  The groups were chosen based on the perspective on aging and the elderly.  For the American group, aging was viewed as a very negative act and the elderly as less than beneficial.  The two other groups were removed from much of the current mass media stereotypes of the elderly and were, in fact, recognized for respect and regard given to the elderly.  The results of the study revealed that the two subcultures with few negative stereotypes of the elderly and aging showed a far less memory loss than the group exposed to the negative stereotypes.  My final thought in this section  was that you become what you expect yourself to become.  Your memory and forgetting can be positive -- the ending results are yours.




Chapter Six - Mindfulness and Intelligence
Summarized by Karen Connaghan

To many people, intelligence is generally thought of as knowing what is out there. In order to "know what is out there," we have to assume that there is a reality out there. And, in order to "know what is out there," we have to assume that the most intelligent people have a greater awareness of this reality. In this chapter, we are challenged to examine our own beliefs about intelligence and how those beliefs and assumptions effect our perceptions of self, of others, of personal control, and the education process itself. (pg 100)

In a mindless state, individual may always examine their relation to their environment in a variety of ways, thus essentially creating the reality that is out there. In essence, 19th century theories of intelligence state that "one"s perceptions must correspond to the environment and that the level of correspondence to the environment is a measure of intelligence." So, is there one reality out there if we, as individuals create it? Who's reality is the absolute one? "The belief that there is an absolute external reality impacts, in possibly detrimental ways, our self-perception, perception of others, personal control, and the education process."

Langer discussion two major theories in chapter 6:

Evolutionary intelligence " the ability to retain and organize perceptions that enhance our chances for survival¿ as this theory failed to uphold it's assumptions under scrutiny, another theory arose" (pg 105)

Optimum Fit: individuals must use their thinking skills to cope with the environment those who cope better with their environment are more intelligent (pg 107)

The Alternative Ability - This is a concept of mindfulness that introduces the notion of correspondence: that all experience is a process and no point of view can ever be the last one. When we are mindful we:

View a situation from several perspectives

See information presented in the situations as novel

Attend to the context in which we are perceiving the information, and eventually

Create new categories through which this information may be understood.

In effect, we are constructing meaning. Throughout our journey in OMET we are a Community of Learning who are mindful in that we see and consider the viewpoints of others. This community assists us in considering multiple perspectives that develops in us a flexibility to experience new information rather than rely on a pre-constructed reality. Langer states this flexibility this way, "we have to maintain what some have called intelligent ignorance to make the best of any situation."

Anytime we look at things from new perspectives, we are being mindful. Langer illustrates this way:

These examples illustrate that being mindful doesn't move directly from the problem to the solution. Snowmaking machines did not begin with the problem or snowmaking, it began with something else. Mindful learners move from one perspective to another. "Had the rigidly continued to seek solutions for the original problems, they would have missed these alternative possibilities." In the education process, side effects, illusion of right answers, alternative solutions would be viewed as wrong in a the setting. This is what Langer means when she stated that, "absolute external reality impacts, in possibly detrimental ways, our self-perception, perception of others, personal control, and the education process." (pg 100   )

Each of use has a variety of strategies and procedures that we use in our day to day interactions. "The larger our repertoire is and the less we are attached to any one specific procedure or strategy, the more flexible our thinking is likely to be." Intelligent thinking is a process through which we sort, select, and assess the appropriate strategies and procedures to apply to a novel task. Being mindful means that we implicitly know that there is no one absolute standard for action. (pg 113)

"From a mindful perspective, one's response to a particular situation is not an attempt to make the best choice from among available options but to create options. Rather than look for an external standard of optimum fit or the right answer, one discovers that, in the words of William James, the standard perpetually grows up endogenously inside the web of experience." (pg 114)



Chapter Seven - The Illusion of Right Answers
Summarized by Scott Allen

In this chapter, Langer expands upon the usefulness of openmindedness and uncertainty in producing novel ideas.  The traditional views of intelligence are compared to mindfulness.  Intelligence as opposed to mindfulness is viewed as the capacity to achieve desirable outcomes.  It is Langer's belief that these outcomes are a hindrance to mindfulness.  An outcomes desirability is dependent on context.  It is the freedom to explore the world with attentiveness to understanding experiences that lead to novel ideas and hypotheses.  Intelligence based on outcomes is limited by experts view of valued skills.   Learners are bound by a specific set of skills.Uncertainty is essential to enhance creative thinking.  Uncertainty creates the freedom to discover meaning.  Data considered to be a source of ambiguity enables the observer to become more observant. An example given by Langer involves the interaction between a teacher and a young geometry student.  The young student measured the angles of a triangle and determined the sum to be 183 degrees.  The teacher, not looking at the data as a source of ambiguity, squashed the child's opportunity to discover differences between geometry of two dimensions and the geometry of curved surfaces.

The emphasis of chapter 7 is on the learners ability to view experiences, data, etc. from multiple perspectives.  This seemed to be the theme throughout Langer's book, "The Power of Mindful Learning."