BOOK REVIEW: The Power of Mindful Learning, Introduction

In my post “Meet Me” I mentioned my interest in psychology and in “Why I’m Here” I mentioned that psychology has shown that we learn by teaching, quoting a Hadith(saying of Muhammad), “Knowledge is maintained through teaching” (Bukhari 3:10). I also mentioned that I want to share my thoughts. So, one way to do this is to do reviews of books that have been meaningful to me.

One reason I chose The Power of Mindful Learning by Dr. Ellen J. Langer is due to my inquisitive mind, my desire to learn new things. As teaching helps you learn, I want to share my thoughts, and start a discussion on these themes, so that we can learn together. This image I found on Twitter sums it up: .


In the introduction, Dr. Langer lists seven mindsets that, chapter by chapter, she shows through psychological research actually undermine learning, “stifle our creativity, silence our questions, and diminish our self-esteem”:
1)The basics must be practiced until they are second nature.
2)Paying attention means staying focused on one thing at a time.
3)Delaying gratification is important.
4)Rote memorization is necessary in education.
5)Forgetting is a problem.
6)Intelligence is knowing “what’s out there”.
7)There are right and wrong answers. (from p. 2)
She proceeds to list the characteristics of mindfulness: ” the continuous creation of new categories; openness to new information; and an implicit awareness of more than one perspective”, and of mindlessness, characterized “by an entrapment in old categories; by automatic behavior that precludes attending to new signals; and by action that operates from a single perspective.” (p. 4).

Commenting on this, one would expect it to be intuitive that there is more than one perspective, but we have a tendency to exclude alternative narratives from our awareness. As I’ve said many a time, one of my favorite allegories is Plato’s Cave Allegory. You could say the guys in the cave were mindless: they operated from a single perspective and were entrapped in the old categories. And in my Evangelical/Fundamentalist background operating from a single perspective and entrapment in old ideas was suspected, and God was projected onto those ideas. (Dr. Langer doesn’t address religion or foreign languages in the book; since these are of interest to me, I’m going to offer my thoughts on these areas.) Of course, since certain behavior is pushed in Fundamentalism as being the Will of God(TM), the radar to pick up on new signals is jammed. Personally I think God prefers the mindful approach, as the Bible challenged the perspectives and categories of its day.(I’m not Muslim but I’m pretty sure the Quran also challenged the perspectives of its day; if you’re Muslim, I’m interested in your thoughts.) I think in religion (no matter which one), we need to be aware of multiple perspectives on our holy books and to approach them mindfully. To mention foreign languages, the meanings of words between languages often do not cover the exact same ground, and our native languages can send is signals that hinder our language learning.

Based on her observations of her students at Harvard, Dr. Langer, noticing dissatisfaction with their educational experience, wonders if ideas like, “Study now, play later” have contributed to the unhappiness. She asks questions such as the following: “Why is study itself not gratifying? If not, how could it be? If rote memorization is a tedious way to prepare for an exam, is there a more effective and gratifying way?” (p. 6). My answer to these questions is “yes”, because for me learning about things like philosophy, psychology, history, and languages is intrinsically motivating (meaning learning is the reward in and of itself). In school studying was a drag(possibly due to its being mandatory and not having guidelines), but after graduation and getting interested in psychology I started reading about learning theories, which propose methods I wish I’d known beforehand.

Other questions asked: ” What does it mean when an intelligent person gives a wrong answer? Is the wrong answer a lapse, an indication of stupidity? Or does the ‘wrong’ answer merit consideration? And if for these students, why not for all students?”(p. 6). Upon finding she and a friend have attention problems, Dr. Langer asks herself, “What does it mean to pay attention?” (p. 7). I’m interested in the last question as I was told to focus a lot when I was younger, and even today, my mind can wonder a bit. As for stupidity, I really don’t think anyone is stupid, it’s just we all have different strengths and abilities, but our society values some over the others.(These are structures that can use a good questioning.) In fact, this concept is in the Bible, “We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us” (Rom. 12:6a).

Thus, I invite you to join me on Dr. Langer’s examination examination of the hindering mindsets and discussion of better learning methods. As we take this journey together, I urge you to comment below, to share your insights and thoughts. As the pyramid above indicates, a discussion group facilitates learning, and as we discuss the material, we interact with the author and the material.


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Christian, freethinker, believer, skeptic, seeker.

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