Book Review: “The Power of Mindful Learning”, by Dr. Ellen J. Langer, chapter 1

After a year after writing the introduction to this book, I am ready to proceed (especially after having just taken English 101 and 102). So, here it is:

“Whether it is learning 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” (Langer, p. 10).

This is the thesis of this chapter. Langer then cites examples that question the effectiveness of the basics, even questioning the very concept of the basics. She acknowledges why teachers teach the basics, but suggests mindful learning based on awareness of context and appreciation of uncertainty as better teaching methods. She cites two examples to contrast mindless and mindful approaches to learning. She then cites personal examples and research to support her claim that mindful approaches are better. After mentioning the role gender plays, she introduces the concept  “sideways learning” in contrast to both top-down (lecture) and bottom-up (experimenting) approaches to learning (pp. 22-23). She describes sidewaya learning as “learning a subject or skill with an openness to novelty and actively noticing differences, contexts, and perspectives” (p. 23). She uses piano playing as an illustration of the concept, mentions an experiment showing how a text can teach mindfully, and concludes with a hypothetical example of performimg CPR (involving the differences between infants, 50 lb children, and adults) to illustrate the importance of mindful techniques. She concludes the chapter with the question, “Which way would you want to learn the [CPR] lesson? How should we teach it?” (p. 31). 

I am not going to go over the content in detail (even summarizing it will make this post very long), so I am going to address a few concepts, and discuss their application. I will discuss obedience to authority, the value of doubt, sideways learning, and how they relate to feminism, religion, and language learning. 

When Langer questions the existence of the concept of the basics, writing, “Perhaps one could say that for everyone there are certain basics, but there is no such thing as the basics” (p. 15, emphasis Langer’s). Langer suggests that it may appear easier to teach one set of basics because “the teacher needs to know less, a single routine little room for disagreement and hence may foster obedience to authority” (p. 15).  In my Fundamentalist upbringing, obedience to authority was highly valued, and rebellion was viewed heinously, being seen as witchcraft (based on 1 Sam. 15:23). In my view, obedience to authority is a questionable value: after all, obedient participants in the Milgram experiments were willing to apply an electric shock at a dangerously high voltage level when told to do so. In addition, obedience to authority may make it easier for abusers to get access to victims, and to gaslight, shame, silence, and control them. Also, it may make it harder for people to speak out against said abuse. Furthermore, Nazi war criminals defended themselves with, “I was just following orders”, a defense rejected by the courts. To expand on that, social progress has often come about through disobedience to authority, and we are the beneficiaries of that today.

Now, to the value of doubt and sideways learning. Concerning the former, Langer writes, “The rationale for this change in approaches [to mindful learning] is based on the belief that experts at anything become expert in part by varying those same basics. The rest of us, taught not to question, take them for granted…. The key to this new way of teaching is based on an appreciation of both the conditional, or context-dependent, nature of the world and the value of uncertainty. Teaching skills and facts in a conditional way sets the stage for doubt and an awareness of how different situations may call for subtle differences in what we bring to them” (pp. 15-16). I gave the definition of sideways learning above. The bottom line is to think in different ways and to say, “There’s a box? What box?” Langer mentions experiments involving a pilot study (pp. 18-19), a game called smack-it ball (similar to squasj but with a small racket that fits like a baseball mit is worn on both hands, p. 21), and a piano study (pp. 26-27). In each study, the group given mindful instructions to vary their technique, use previously learned material and/or experiences, and to think in creative ways outperformed the control group, enjoyed the activity more, and had a better grasp on the material.

The smack-it ball experiment was done to study gender differences. Langer writes, “In general, young girls are taught to be ‘good little girls’ which translates into ‘do what you’re told’. To be a ‘real boy’, on the other hand, implicitly means to be independent of authority and ‘don’t listen to all you are told’…. Our hypothesis was that motivation to be a good girl would lead to taking in information in a mindless way. Similarly, being a bit rebellious was expected to result in conditional or mindful learning” (p. 21). They told some players, “One way to hold the ball is…”, and other players, “This is how you hold the ball.” After practice, the researchers replaced the ball with a heavier one that required different body movements. The boys performed the same regardless of instructions or the ball. The girls who received instructions in an absolute way performed worse with the heavier ball, but those who had received conditional instructions performed as well as the boys regardless of the ball used (p. 22). Langer also suggests that is why girls have a harder time in math in high school. They excel in grade school, but the do-as-you’re-told doesn’t help at higher math levels, since numbers need to be seen in new ways. 

I was skeptical of the claim that boys are urged to be rebellious, as that’s not my experience, but that is another topic. Anyway, this betrays an aspect of sexism and one more reason why we still need feminism. Being a guy, I will not harp on this (I would rather hand the mic to women), but I will say the following: guys, we need to stand up for women’s right to dissent and to speak up, and not call her names. We need to consider her viewpoints and examine her conclusions and their implications. Also, we need to train people of all gender identities to question dogma, to look at alternate ways of doing things, and to consider multiple perspectives. 

Now, to talk about religion: first, in Fundamentalism, obedience to authority is highly valued, and rebellion is seen as witchcraft (based on 1 Sam. 15:23). For me, that meant that rebellion was punishable by a whipping (not with the hand), threats of hellfire and brimstone, and allusions to Korah (Num. 16). People at church thought that if you didn’t choose one of the options those in authority presented, you were in rebellion. 

However, I do think religion should be approached with a sideways learning approach. (Since I am a Christian, I am telling this from a Christian perspective, and am open to perspectives from other religions.) Evangelicals tend to see themselves as following the Bible, but often approach the Bible mindlessly. I discovered this when I read texts from outside my sect (JW literature, Jewish writings, Catholic materials, etc.) and saw Bible passages presented in ways that I had never seen before, and never would have seen otherwise. This shows that there are multiple perspectives to the Bible. A midrash says that there are seventy facets to the Torah. So, when reading the Bible, we should read it from multiple perspectives and consider out of the box interpretations. We should also consider critiques from critics of the Bible, in order to enhance our understanding. I think that a mindful approach will make religion more just. 

Now, for foreign languages. Learning a language involves vocabulary and grammar. I think it is an idea to learn words related to topics of interest,, and to learn grammar so that these topics can be discussed with someone in the language. Vocabulary related to topics that one is not interested in will also have to be learned. A mindful approach may be to learn the vocabulary to express how one is not interested in this topic. Thus, learners should vary the material that they are learning. 

To conclude, Langer shows the insufficiency of the “learn the basics” approach and introduces us to sideways learning. I showed how these are relevant to feminism, religion, and language learning.


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.