Harvard Professor Ellen Langer, who is sometimes called “the mother of mindfulness,” wrote a book called Mindfulness that was so significant, it was celebrated with a 25th anniversary edition. Now another classic work of hers, The Power of Mindful Learning, has just been published in a second edition, with an extensive new preface.
Mindful learners, Langer explains, are open to new information. They are aware of different ways of seeing things and they generate their own new categories and perspectives. They are also joyful learners, engaged in the process of discovery with little fear of evaluation.
Just thinking about learning can send students into a tizzy, as they worry about getting things wrong, not being able to concentrate, or just being bored. They fantasize about getting the learning over with, so they can do things they love. Langer upends all of those kinds of fears and replaces them with an affirmative, expansive, empowering, and rewarding approach to learning. With a mindful approach, learning itself becomes something students love.
To the students who are labeled as unable to pay attention — and to the parents and teachers mired in anxiety about them — Langer reassures us that “when children or adults are distracted they are paying attention to something else.” When we can’t remember where we left our keys, for example, maybe that’s because we were thinking about something much more interesting or important than our keys when we set them down. That’s a good thing. In the classroom, when students are distracted, Langer suggests that we not jump to the conclusion that the students have some character flaw or learning deficit. Instead, we should figure out what it is that attracted the students’ interest, and see if that can be incorporated into the learning process.
To those who want to beat themselves up over the task they did not accomplish, Langer encourages them to appreciate the task they did accomplish instead. Langer also doesn’t want to hear that you think you are dumb. “From a mindful perspective,” she tells us, “when we are not feeling smart we are not being stupid; rather, we are being sensible from some other perspective.” To teachers tempted to judge students as unintelligent because they got certain answers wrong, Langer suggests that they instead ask students what they mean by their answers. When I taught courses with hundreds of students and used multiple-choice tests, I always gave students the option of explaining their answers. If their explanations made sense, I’d give them credit for their answers, even if the answer key suggested otherwise.
When I was teaching a course on nonverbal communication, I came to class one day excited to tell students about a new finding that I just read about in the latest psychology journal. Some students shared my enthusiasm, but one was upset because the new finding contradicted something she had memorized from the textbook. Langer would know how to explain that. Schools give too much credence to static “facts,” when actually, our knowledge and understanding of the world is constantly evolving. Fundamental to a mindful approach to learning is the recognition that there is rarely just one right answer. Do you think the shortest distance between two points is a straight line? Maybe not, if you are trying to get from Starbucks to your home. Thinking about things in creative ways is more important than memorization, and it is more engaging, too. People who notice novelty, and generate different perspectives, will rarely be bored.
If facts are conditional, then so too are evaluations. Langer thinks stressful evaluations “should either be eliminated or clearly identified as using criteria set for a limited purpose and not relevant to all other skills.”
The Power of Mindful Learning is an inspiring read because of its unapologetic focus on learners’ strengths and potential. Just about anyone can learn to turn just about any task into something more like play than like work. Too often, schools do the opposite. By emphasizing right and wrong answers and grades on tests, and by categorizing students as smart or not, schools can undermine students’ intrinsic motivation. Langer’s model of learning is the kind that happens unselfconsciously, as when we work on games and puzzles because they are fun. We are learning in the process, but in our minds, that’s not the point. If instead we were urged to work harder and faster, and graded on our performance, as we so often are in school, the puzzles would not be so much fun anymore.
I took courses from Ellen Langer when I was a graduate student at Harvard many years ago. I remember fondly the times when she would tell us not to take notes, because she wanted us to think. Her classes were full of surprises. We learned a lot and it was great fun. Thanks to The Power of Mindful Learning, now anyone can avail themselves of the keys to joyful learning. There’s no need to sit in a classroom. Pick up the book and read it under your favorite tree.
The Power of Mindful Learning (Second Edition)
Da Capo Lifelong Books, April 2016
Paperback, 192 pages