The Power of Mindful Learning

It's fairly likely that you've heard someone talk about "mindfulness." It's less likely that you know exactly what mindfulness entails, and even less likely that you've heard of Ellen Langer, the "mother of mindfulness" in Western academia. In fact, even if you Googled mindfulness you'd find credit for its popularity in the West given to a man named Jon Kabat-Zinn. Langer's name doesn't appear anywhere on the first page of Google's results, so you probably wouldn't learn that she earned her PhD and began her line of research around the same time as Kabat-Zinn, and that the groundbreaking nature of her work led her to become the first woman tenured in the Psychology Department at Harvard in 1981. Her research has had profound effects on how we think about everything from aging and mental health to decision-making and learning. So even if you don't know her name, it is likely that in one way or another you are familiar with some of her research. The focus of this blog is The Power of Mindful Learning, a book she wrote to qualify or overturn seven pervasive attitudes toward education that often undermine the process.

First is the idea that the basics must be learned to the point of becoming second nature. While building a strong foundation is a natural part of developing expertise in any area, the problem arises when the goal is to practice to the point of doing something without thinking. To do something mindlessly is to do it irrespective of context and variability. That is precisely what happens when our goal is to automate behavior. Langer gives the example of being taught to hold a baseball bat in a certain way when she was young; now, after years of lifting weights imperfectly, her right arm is stronger than her left. Does it make sense to hold the bat in the exact same way? As a tutor, I help students prepare for standardized tests. By definition standardized tests are the same for every student, but the students themselves are not the same. Does it make sense to follow a cookie-cutter approach with every student? In general, does it make sense to apply any skill in the exact same way we originally learned it, despite changes in context and in our own strengths and weaknesses? By attending to context we are more likely to notice important distinctions and effectively apply what we know.

Second is the idea that paying attention means staying still and acting like a motionless camera fixated on the task at hand. Teachers and students both agreed that in order to pay attention "holding the picture still" was preferable to "varying the picture" in their minds. However, when we're paying attention to something we enjoy, our minds don't work like that. If we're at a concert to see a performer we love, our most salient memories are not of the lyrics we already knew - they're of the crazy outfit, the new song, the dance, the gaffe. We remember novelty and notice what is different. Learning should be approached in the same way. In one study, Langer asked adults traveling by train to read short stories. In the experimental condition, participants were asked to vary aspects of each story (e.g. by thinking about the story from the perspective of other characters, coming up with alternative endings, etc). The control group read the stories without any specific instructions. When asked to list all they could remember from the stories they had just read, those in the experimental condition remembered significantly more than those in the control group. Moreover, those who varied more aspects of the stories remembered more than those who varied less. "The most effective way to increase our ability to pay attention is to look for the novelty within the stimulus situation, whether it is a story, a map, or a painting." Engaging with what we learn is not only more enjoyable, it's also more effective.

Third is the assumption underlying the term "delayed gratification": that the process is necessarily unpleasant. It isn't always. "If we don't open the presents until Christmas, or if we plan a trip for after the new year, aren't we delaying gratification? We are not, if the anticipation itself is positive." This approach relates to the second strategy I talk about in my blog on Willpower & Learning. Emotions can be powerful drivers of behavior, and positive anticipation is one way to stay focused while making the process itself enjoyable. In contrast, repetition, fear of evaluation, and letting the outcome overshadow the process tend to make work feel like work. In one study, Langer found that disliked tasks were made more pleasurable when participants attended to novelty within the task. The more novelty participants noticed, the more they liked the activity. "Virtually any task can be made pleasurable if we approach it with a different attitude. If we have long held a mindset that a particular activity is arduous, changing to a mindful attitude may be difficult, but the difficulty stems from the mindset and not the activity."

Fourth and fifth respectively are the ideas that rote memorization is useful and that forgetting is a problem. Rote memorization is boring and prevents students from attaching deeper meaning to concepts. A better approach is to develop knowledge through a flexible understanding of course material. In math, that involves thinking about what a problem means and considering multiple solutions. In science, it means pairing memorization with hands-on research and discovery. In English, it means emphasizing the process of writing and exploring literature over the memorization of grammar rules. In history, it means thinking of the past as a continuous narrative with many characters, plots, and subplots rather than a collection of seemingly random dates and facts. The common thread is to actively engage with the material. If we approach learning in this way, we needn't be worried about forgetting. When remembering is an active process, we have a general idea but search for the right details in context. For example, one of Langer's experiments asked participants to build a bridge over an imaginary river using small, custom-made wooden blocks. Half of the participants were shown examples of how the blocks could be used, while the other half had no prior exposure to the blocks. (In other words, half were allowed to memorize solutions and half had to actively generate ideas.) Fully 92 percent of the first group used blocks in identical formations to the ones they had been shown, whereas only 8 percent of the latter group used such formations. Moreover, the memorization group only came up with two solutions, while the "unprepared" group came up with ten. "Memorizing keeps us in the past; forgetting forces us into the present." The more present we are, the more mindful we are likely to be.

Sixth is the idea that "intelligence is knowing 'what's our there'" and seventh is the related assumption that there are right and wrong answers. To be sure, Langer is not saying that certain ideas are not better suited to certain contexts, or that certain answers are not better than others from certain perspectives. Rather, she is simply elevating context and perspective in her conception of intelligence. She gives the example of a child painstakingly measuring the angles of a triangle on a carpeted floor and coming up with a sum of 183 degrees. Pleased with her calculation, she tells her teacher and is quickly corrected: the angles in a triangle always sum to 180 degrees, he tells her. The teacher's response is automatic and confident, but he is wrong. The perfectly flat surfaces of plane geometry are an abstraction. A small amount of variation in the surface of the carpet could easily account for the child's measurements. The teacher made the mistake of ignoring context when considering the child's perspective. In general, "if we fail to explore several perspectives, we risk confusing the stability of our own mindset with the stability of the phenomenon itself." Wrong answers and failures from one perspective can sometimes be seen as astute observations and unique opportunities from another.

At the heart of mindfulness theory is the idea that everything is subject to context and variability. From a mindful perspective, the uncertainty inherent in this worldview creates the freedom to discover meaning and the opportunity to experience personal control. We can learn the basics without doing so mindlessly, pay attention without torturing our minds, delay gratification and simultaneously feel gratified, approach learning flexibly and thus be confident that if we forget something we will be able to appropriately recall it in context, and understand that intelligence is a matter of context and perspective as much as it is an ability to "know what's out there." The most exciting aspect of Langer's research is that not only does mindfulness result in superior outcomes, it also makes life more enjoyable.


Peter A.

Harvard PhD Student | Expert SAT, ACT, & GRE Tutor

900+ hours
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