November 22, 2012

The power of mindful learning by Ellen J. Langer

The power of mindful learning by Ellen J. Langer

Author says the following are just myths.

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 necessary in education
Forgetting is a problem
Intelligence is knowing ‘what is out there’
There are right and wrong answers.

The way the information is learned will determine how, why and when it is used. A mindful approach to any activity has three characteristics: the continuous creation of new categories; openness to new information; and an implicit awareness of more than one perspective.

When Practice makes Imperfect:

[When he arrived on the planet he respectfully saluted the lamplighter.
"Good morning. Why have you just put out your lamp?"
"Those are the orders," replied the lamplighter. "Good morning."
"What are the orders?"
"The orders are that I put out my lamp. Good evening."
And he lighted his lamp again.
"But why have you just lighted it again?"
"Those are the orders," replied the lamplighter.
"I do not understand," said the little prince.
"There is nothing to understand," said the lamplighter. "Orders are orders. Good morning."
And he put out his lamp.
Then he mopped his forehead with a handkerchief decorated with red squares.
"I follow a terrible profession. In the old days it was reasonable. I put the lamp out in the morning, and in the evening I lighted it again. I had the rest of the day for relaxation and the rest of the night for sleep."
"And the orders have been changed since that time?"
"The orders have not been changed," said the lamplighter. "That is the tragedy! From year to year the planet has turned more rapidly and the orders have not been changed!"
"Then what?" asked the little prince.
"Then--the planet now makes a complete turn every minute, and I no longer have a single second for repose. Once every minute I have to light my lamp and put it out!"
(from The little prince by Antoine de Saint Exupéry)].

When we first learn a skill, we necessarily attend to each individual step. If we over-learn the drill, we essentially lose sight of the individual components and we find it hard to make small adjustments. If we learn the basics but do not over-learn them, we can vary them as we change or as the situation changes. We found that only those students taught conditionally thought to use the objects in creative ways.

Our hypothesis was that motivation to be a good girl would lead to taking in information about the basics in an absolute or mindless way. Similarly, being a bit rebellious (real boy attitude) was expected to result in conditional or mindful learning. While girls outperform boys in early math classes, the reverse typically becomes the case in late high school and college. Much of what we are taught about math initially has to be amended as we approach more advanced topics. Initially there are numbers; later we find out that there are prime numbers, irrational numbers, different number systems, etc. The more rigidly we learn the original information, the harder it may be open up those closed packages to accommodate the new information. ‘Good girls’ learn the basics in an absolute way from the teacher /authority.

The two standard approaches to teaching new skills are top-down and bottom-up. The top-down method relies on discursive lecturing to instruct students. The bottom-up path relies on direct experience, repeated practice of the new activity in a systematic way. The third method suggested by the author is called sideways learning which aims at maintaining a mindful state. As we saw the concept of mindfulness revolves around certain psychological states that are really different versions of the same thing:

Openness to novelty
Alertness to distinction
Sensitivity to different contexts
Implicit awareness of multiple perspectives
Orientation in the present.

This makes us receptive to changes in an ongoing situation. J.R. Anderson has described three stages of experience that result in the acquisition of a new skill.  The cognitive stage involves first taking in enough information about the skill to permit the learner to perform the desired behavior in at least some crude approximation. The associative stage involves smoothing out performance. The autonomous stage is one of ongoing gradual improvement in performance. In this stage improvement can continue indefinitely.

The most effective way to increase our ability to pay attention is to look for the novelty within the stimulus situation. How to seek out novelty and thus pay mindful attention appear to enhance performance.

Pleasure is the state of being
brought about by what you
learning is the process of
entering into the experience of this
kind of pleasure.
No pleasure, no learning.
No learning, no pleasure.

When we are mindful, we implicitly or explicitly do the following
View a situation from several perspective
See information presented in the situation as novel
Attend to the context in which we are perceiving the information and eventually
Create a new categories through which this information may be understood.

In ancient times the beautiful woman Mi Tzu-hsia was the favorite of the lord of Wei. Now, according to the law of Wei, anyone who rode in the king's carriage without permission would be punished by amputation of the foot. When Mi Tzu-hsia's mother fell ill, someone brought the news to her in the middle of the night. So she took the king's carriage and went out, and the king only praised her for it. "Such filial devotion!" he said. "For her mother's sake she risked the punishment of amputation!"
Another day she was dallying with the lord of Wei in the fruit garden. She took a peach, which she found so sweet that instead of finishing it she handed it to the lord to taste. "How she loves me," said the lord of Wei, "forgetting the pleasure of her own taste to share with me!"
But when Mi Tzu-hsia's beauty began to fade, the lord of Wei's affection cooled. And when she offended the lord of Wei, he said, "Didn't she once take my carriage without permission? And didn't she once give me a peach theat she had already chewed on?"
- by Han Fei Tzu]

Mi Tzu-hsia, like all of us, was dealing with an ever-shifting environment. She was so confident of the king’s devotion that she did not protect herself against the possibility that circumstances could change. The lord of Wei, however was bound by no such single perspective. While he clearly had the upper hand, perhaps an awareness of the possibility of shifting affections could have kept Mi Tzu-hsia in some control, more wary, more capable of ensuring her own survival.

[One day Soshi was walking on the bank of a river with a friend.

"How delightfully the fishes are enjoying themselves in the water!" exclaimed Soshi.

His friend spoke to him thus: "You are not a fish; how do you know that the fishes are enjoying themselves?"

"You are not myself," returned Soshi; "how do you know that I do not know that the fishes are enjoying themselves?"

—from Kakuzo Okakura, The Book of Tea]

How can we know if we do not ask? Why should we ask if we are certain we know? All answers come out of the question. If we pay attention to our questions, we increase power of mindful learning.

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