Mind the Learning Gap

“Once upon a time there was a mindless little girl named Little Red Riding Hood “

So begins Ellen Langer’s introduction to her delightful The Power of Mindful Learning.

 Long before the word  was the trend du jour in education there was Ellen Langer’s Mindfulness (1990) and then The Power of Mindful Learning (1997).

Screen Shot 2015-02-22 at 8.46.54 AMHer initial example – the tale of Little Red Riding Hood – is perfect.

Any mindful child would think:

How come she doesn’t know what her grandmother looks and sounds like? What is wrong with that girl?

How come she is fooled by the wolf?

Makes no sense.

As Langer writes:

“Certain myths and fairy tales help advance a culture by passing on a profound and complex wisdom to succeeding generations. Others, however, deserve to be questioned. This book is about seven pervasive myths, or mindsets, that undermine the process of learning and how we can avoid their debilitating effects in a wide variety of settings.”

So here is her shortlist of the myths and assumptions that bind the mind:

  • 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.”
  • There are right and wrong answers.
I read The Power of Mindful Learning in 2005 with both relief and delight. It’s time to read it again. So many deadening beliefs and behaviorist assumptions about learning turned upside down in one short and highly readable book.
There they all were – the myths that lock us into a functional stupidly when it comes to learning all neatly lined up ready to be shredded by a little mindfulness.
These myths she says undermine true learning because they stifle our creativity, silence our questions and diminish our self-esteem.

Mindful learning is an approach she defines as:

  • The continuous creation of new categories. (An expansive approach to definitions and clarifications. This is like that but not quite that. It is something new and needs fresh definition. Don’t be trapped.  Don’t get boxed in.)
  • Openness to new information. (There’s always more to know. Keep learning. Don’t go on automatic pilot. You don’t know everything yet!)
  • An awareness of more than one perspective. (There’s always another angle, perspective, point of view. Think of possibilities and options. There are always ambiguities. Information and truth exist only in context.)

Unmindful learning is the cruise control of those who’ve been there, done that, know everything and are done with learning.

Think about the implications of this statement:

“Memorizing is a strategy for taking in material that has no personal meaning. ”

Why would we ever ask someone to do that? Why would we ever do it to ourselves?

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