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The Power of Mindful Learning

by Ellen J. Langer

Paperback: 167 pages
List: $ 12.00

Perseus, 1998; ISBN: 0201339919




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Do we educate to produce parrots or to help people fulfill their potential to live meaningful, productive lives? If it's the latter, our current approach clearly has some drawbacks. And we may be overlooking the really serious ones.

Ellen Langer takes a look at some of Education's most "sacred cows"- the importance of basic skills, of learning to delay gratification, of intelligence. She looks at what constitutes "critical thinking", at what it means to "pay attention", and suggests that our beliefs are holding us back, way back. She presents simple (but not simplistic) approaches that can allow people to learn in extraordinarily effective ways.

Langer backs her ideas and suggestions with research results showing, for example, that the commonly-accepted age-related decline in memory experienced by most Americans doesn't occur in people who don't share our beliefs about old age. She shows how simple changes in the way a physics video was introduced to students either facilitated or interfered with their ability to use the information in the video creatively. Similar differences in presentation either eliminated or preserved the stereotype that boys typically outperform girls at athletics.


One of the most cherished myths in education or any kind of training is that in order to learn a skill one must practice it to the point of doing it without thinking. Whether I ask colleagues concerned with higher education, parents of young children, or students themselves, everyone seems to agree on this approach to what are called the basics. Whether it is learning how to play baseball, drive, or teach, the advice is the same: practice the basics until they become second nature. I think this is the wrong way to start.


Sometimes, however, we want to pay attention, but find it difficult, as when we have trouble becoming involved in a book. Many on-the-job accidents, from airline disasters to accounting mistakes, result when individuals are distracted from the task at hand. It may help to understand why such problems are widespread if we recognize that when we are distracted, we are attracted to something else. From this perspective very different questions come to mind: What is so attractive about the alternative stimulus? What can we learn from that attraction? Can we add the attractive elements to the stimuli to which we want to attend?

Sometimes we are stressed and want distraction. When thoughts about an impending divorce, an operation, or a move to a new city prove anxiety provoking, we often seek relief by trying to occupy our minds with other things. We may find temporary relief, but if the issue in question is important to us our minds find a way back. Rather than trying to think about something else, a more effective strategy may be to think about the problem differently.


We asked half the students simply to learn the material. We expected that this instruction would result in students' trying to memorize the material. We asked the other students to make the material meaningful to themselves: "This may entail thinking about how certain parts of the information remind you of past, present, or future experiences, how the information could be important to yourself or someone else, or simply finding some significance of the story in relation to anyone and/or anything. Remember, what is meaningful to one person is not necessarily meaningful to another...

...The essays were judged by raters who were unaware of the groups' instructions. Students who learned the material in the traditional manner and were told of an impending test performed worse than all other groups. They tended to recall less information, and they showed less improvement from the first test to the second. The students instructed to make the material relevant, regardless of whether they expected to be tested, showed improvement in the intelligence and creativity of their essays.

Although we encouraged half of the subjects not to memorize the information, they did not necessarily follow our instructions. After each test we asked the students how they went about learning the material. Twelve of the twenty-eight students asked to make the material relevant nonetheless used only memorization to learn it. When we compared these students with the students who did follow the instruction, we found that the students who did not rely on memorization outperformed the others on every measure: they recalled more information from both readings; the essays they wrote were judged to be more creative and intelligent; and their scores improved from the first to the second test.

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