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The Power of Mindful Teaching

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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In essence a mindful approach invites students to the party. It tacitly conveys an honest picture of the known and the unknown that implies respect for students as fellow (if somewhat junior) learners in an ongoing saga of inquiry. Indeed, real learning is always a shared inquiry, not a top down delivery of information. The insights often go both ways. While beginning sentences with a conditional touch fully reflects Langer\'s thinking, she picked up the specific habit from a student: 



The posting below is based on an interview with Harvard psychologist Ellen J. Langer, author of: The Power of Mindful Learning. The article is by James Rhem, executive editor of The National Teaching and Learning Forum (NT&LF) newsletter and is #58 in a series of selected excerpts from The NT&LF reproduced here as part of our \"Shared Mission Partnership.\" NT&LF has a wealth of information on all aspects of teaching and learning. If you are not already a subscriber, you can check it out at [ ] The on-line edition of the Forum--like the printed version - offers subscribers insight from colleagues eager to share new ways of helping students reach the highest levels of learning. National Teaching and Learning Forum Newsletter, Vol. 20, Number 6, October 2011.© Copyright 1996-2011. Published by James Rhem & Associates, Inc. All rights reserved worldwide. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis

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Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning 

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The Power of Mindful Teaching 


Working up five presentations for my September trip to Saudi Arabia in a few short weeks posed a challenge both exciting and daunting. In hope of saying somethings other than the usual tired, if valuable, thinking on the topics I'd been given, I started to review material I'd found especially exciting and thought provoking. So, I picked up my copy of Ellen J. Langer's The Power of Mindful Learning (1997) and thought that skimming through my extensive underlinings would surely guide me toward some fresh ideas about \"critical thinking\" and \"effective teaching.\"

That didn't work. Langer writes so fluidly and engagingly that I couldn't stick to my underlining. By noon I'd reread half the book and emailed Langer saying, \"I'm not sure just what the focus might be at the moment, but I'd like the chance to interview you again. Your books ignite fireworks in my brain.\" I'd interviewed Langer once before in 2003 after first reading The Power of Mindful Learning and then eagerly reading her earlier book, Mindfulness (1989). After a couple of email exchanges and one short phone call, we set a date for a longer conversation after my return from Riyadh.

Langer, the first tenured woman professor of psychology at Harvard, does a lot of interviews. Her thinking, her research, have more than begun to reach a popular audience. A movie starring Jennifer Aniston (as Langer) about some of her most provocative research showing the power of the mind's assumptions over the realities we experience is in development. When I tell her how much I admire her books and how stimulating to my own thinking they have been, she laughs and thanks me saying, \"flattery is always welcome.\" She's being what I would call happily ironic. One of what she calls the \"one-liners\" through which she encapsulates some aspects of her brand of \"mindfulness\" is: \"If you don't take the compliment, you're not vulnerable to the insult.\" She does take the compliment of course, but only as something pleasant, not as proof of anything. That's what I mean by \"happily\" ironic. Langer's skeptical detachment from common ways of looking at things has nothing cynical, nothing negative about it. She sees-and study after study she and collaborators have conducted confirms-positive possibility in simply embracing the uncertainty that embraces us and in continually questioning the implied answers and choices that automatic (or as she calls it, \"mindless\") thinking commonly pushes us toward. For good reason many regard her as the mother of the positive psychology brought to prominence by Martin Seligman, professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and author of Learned Optimism and Authentic Happiness.

\"So, what's your bottom line?\" Langer asks me as we begin to talk. I tell her that I suppose if I had to boil it down it would be something like \"the power of mindful teaching.\" Her book on mindful learning had debunked or at least seriously brought into question the validity of a number of myths about learning. For example, that

• the basics must be learned so well that they become second nature

• paying attention means staying focused on one thing at a time

• delaying gratification is important

  • rote memorization is necessary in education

• forgetting is a problem

• intelligence is knowing \"what's out there,\" and especially that

• there are right and wrong answers

I'd written about this before (NTLF 12/2) and most of the faculty I knew still bridled at the notion that most of these ideas weren't more fact than myth. Still, the conversation about teaching has been changing. The effectiveness of various pedagogies other than traditional lecture and fact-focused learning has begun to open up faculty thinking about the possibilities for increasing student learning. If confronting sacred bovine commonplaces had bruised faculty thinking, perhaps talking about some fundamental processes of mindfulness as they might improve teaching could offer the new health that college teaching is longing for.

The Central Myth in Teaching 

Most all of us approach teaching with a variety of assumptions both about learning and about its compliment, teaching. Some of these, as experience shows, prove ill-founded, but it's often hard to resist commonplace, automatic thinking. In part because it is so commonplace, we see it as true without thinking about it. I asked Langer which of these common assumptions looming over teaching she found the most difficult to confront.

\"I think it's the simple notion of fact,\" she replied, \"for people not to realize that facts are situated understandings that a particular group of people have at a particular time, and that when you add back in this person notion, then people recognize that, well, the facts might have changed, and that at the same time, if other people had been considering the situation, they might have come up with something quite different.\"

Langer likes to illustrate her points with stories from her personal experience, stories that model mindfulness in operation and show how homely and yet profoundly liberating this habit of mind, of simply reflecting on experience rather simply accepting it unthinkingly, can be. To illustrate her point about \"facts,\" she recounts being at a horse event with a friend who asked her to look after his horse while he went to get the horse a hot dog. \"Horses don't eat meat,\" she thought, \"period.\" The idea \"flew in the face of the facts,\" she thought. But then the owner returned with a hot dog and the horse ate it eagerly.

And so the \"fact\" was wrong at least today in this context, and that prompted lots of questions in Langer's mind. \"Which horses [hadn't eaten meat]? When? How hungry were the horses? What kind of horses? [There are] a bunch of questions,\" she says, \"that once we ask them, we see that this information we've been given is probably probabilistic. Indeed, research only gives us probabilities and we transform those probabilities into absolute facts. When you know something is absolute then there's no reason to think about it anymore. But when you know something in this conditional way, then it almost primes thinking of counter instances. There are hidden decisions that go into any research program - What breed of horse? What kind of hot dog?-and once you reveal these hidden decisions, you begin to see how situated and contextual what we accept as facts actually are. One of the cultural myths is a belief in the absolute nature of science, but science itself is based on probability.\"

Probability, Possibility, and Engagement 

It's this quality of engagement from students higher education has been talking about wanting to cultivate, but has done with mixed results. Perhaps the primary limiting factors have been attitudes toward certainty on the one hand and uncertainty on the other. Students often find uncertainty fearful and threatening. And faculty feel enormous pressure to convey accepted understandings. Langer believes real learning gets lost somewhere in between. She sees uncertainty not as fearful, but as an inviting canvas of possibility, a learning adventure waiting to be had (as well as a fundamentally honest appraisal of our existential condition). But how might faculty get there without appearing not to know what students expect them to know and without frightening students with such fluid notions of how protean knowing and knowledge can be?

\"To go back to your original question,\" Langer continues, \"'How do you get a teacher steeped in these myths to teach more mindfully?' One way would be for the teacher to begin most of his or her sentences with 'In my view' or 'From one perspective.' By doing that they make clear to themselves that this information is situated, which means it's true sometimes but not in all contexts and certainly not necessarily over time. And it also sets the student up with the same understanding.\"

In essence a mindful approach invites students to the party. It tacitly conveys an honest picture of the known and the unknown that implies respect for students as fellow (if somewhat junior) learners in an ongoing saga of inquiry. Indeed, real learning is always a shared inquiry, not a top down delivery of information. The insights often go both ways. While beginning sentences with a conditional touch fully reflects Langer's thinking, she picked up the specific habit from a student:

\"I actually had a graduate student about 20 years ago who, in our lab meetings, would begin almost every sentence with 'In my view' and I thought 'Gee, that's charming.' And when you do that even if you are vehemently disagreeing with somebody it doesn't have any harshness.\"

But Then There's Grading 

Teaching, mindful or not, will never be easy, and mindful grading may be the most painful part of it. \"For me, from the beginning, it was the most painful thing. I would read their papers and based on information in a sense-that is, a sense that this is an A, this is a B and so on- [I'd come to one assessment], and then I'd read them again and think 'Well, for the student, this is an A,' and then reading them again I would think that this person is going to be devastated and not really helped with this particular grade and so on. I prefer giving qualitative responses rather than grades.

\"Now I do this thing in my seminar where they write a short paper every other week and rather than a grade or words that are easy to translate into a grade I give them qualitative comments. But grading is always hard for me. When The Power of Mindful Learning came out, it would happen that a student would raise his hand and say 'Are you going to give us a final?' because on page whatever I make the point . . ., and I say to them that I agree completely, that there is something lacking in the system that requires this, but I can't fight all battles. 'So, yes, I am going to give a final and grade you. I can't imagine that any of you are going to fail, but . . . .'

\"I think that if we change the whole business of the way we teach, [grading] would be less of an issue. Right now we start off with the notion of limited resources. If you have limited resources then you have to figure out how to divvy up the ones you have. Whereas resources really aren't limited. Everybody can win. Then with that there's less need to define people-A students, B students, and so on.\"

While the system currently requires grades, it doesn't require unmindful teaching, Langer believes. \"If one is engaged in mindful teaching, so that it's conditional, it allows the C, D, B, and A student each to go with the information in a way that is personally relevant. So if I say to you 'One cause of the Civil War was X' rather than 'The cause of the Civil War was X,' the A student is going to come up with many different possibilities, the B student maybe fewer, and so on; so teaching mindfully can encourage thinking and growth. It's when you're teaching these absolutes that some people know and some people don't you're going to be boring the people who already know. But if you are not teaching facts as absolute truths, then you don't have that problem in the first place.\"

In short, mindful teaching engages everybody or at least invites everybody to become engaged.

More Reasons for Hope 

Things are always changing, says Langer, and while that means in some ways things are always uncertain, it's our mindsets, she's found, that cause us to see this flux at times as fearful. She's optimistic about the future of education. \"I think that it's going to evolve in spite of (it would be nice if it were because of) but in spite of the current modes of education because of the computer. Today's kids are learning and having fun with what they are learning and being creative in ways that they are not getting and never did get from the classroom.\"

Moreover, today they see more color and difference in the world, she says: \"Part of this evolution as I see it comes from [a growing awareness of diversity]. Years ago in this country we had White Supremacy, and then at some point in the '60s we had Black is Beautiful, and then all of a sudden we realize there are Latinos, and so on. And then what happens? Because the world is so much smaller now, we see whole countries behaving differently than we do, which means that there are choices. And so I think that is one of the countervailing forces against the mindless education that so many of us have had and perpetrate.

\"Evolution will take care of it,\" she says. Perhaps with a little more mindfulness we can help it along.