Mindful And More

I decided, after listening to an interview of Ellen Langer, to read more about her mindfulness research. Having done so, I certainly appreciate her insight into mindfulness generally, and for education specifically, but I’m skeptical about her proposed solutions.

Her research, Langer explains, focuses on the costs of mindlessness and the benefits, including greater control and more opportunities, of mindfulness. “Mindlessness,” she (2014) maintains, is “pervasive” and contributes to “virtually all of our problems” (xiii). Mindfulness, which as Langer understands it involves attention to context and variability, creates heightened awareness of and more control over contexts, as well as increased authenticity, new possibilities, and more hope and change (xviii, xxv-xxvi). Moreover, it can make work more like play and play as important as work, and it can lead to changes in the ways see others and ourselves, as well as our health, abilities, and even happiness (xxvi).  

I was especially interested in her work with education. Schools, she (2016) argues, teach mindlessness by encouraging the pursuit or acceptance of knowledge as absolute and the evaluation of others and ourselves. In particular, this educational mindlessness results from an emphasis upon basic skills and rote memorization, a misunderstanding of distraction as inattention, and a misrepresentation of learning as work and intelligence as either a correspondence between perception and environment or an ability to achieve specific outcomes.

Langer generally promotes the notion that instruction should suggest that learning is not absolute but conditional. At the same time, she specifically suggests that evaluations, especially stressful ones, should be eliminated or at least described as representing specific criteria for limited use and not reflecting general abilities and that assessments should measure the knowledge students have instead of knowledge they lack. In addition, she encourages teachers, parents, employers, and others to seek different perspectives in responses from students, children, employees, and others, and she suggests the usefulness of uncertainty, which is a realistic condition of different and changing perspectives.

I can certainly see the value in these and other insights into meaning-making and mindful learning. At the same time, I am hesitant less as a result of disagreement and more as an outcome of experience. For more than a quarter of a century, I’ve been working with adults on producing and consuming texts, and I’ve often found these students to resist contingent and constructed meaning. They seem more satisfied when they think I’m suggesting something transcendental and absolute, and they are bewildered when they believe I’m offering something more local and specific, in which case they often conclude that I’m just confusing.

That means more conflict and increased cost, which makes me less inclined to approach my courses in these ways. Such perspectives might have more intellectual integrity — these seem most consistent with the world of ideas as I know it — but, as approaches, represent complication and challenge, and might actually inhibit learning, at least in exigencies of fifteen- to sixteen-week semesters of most American universities.

And in such spaces today, student consumers, administrator managers seem to suggest, are always right. Who wants to be on the wrong side of that?

Langer, Ellen J. 2016. The Power of Mindful Learning. 2nd ed. Boston: Da Capo Press.

—. 2014. Mindfulness. Boston: Da Capo Press.

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