Friday, April 30, 2010

Mindful learning

In her book The Power of Mindful Learning, Ellen Langer writes:

Clearly some experience is necessary to acquire complex skills. Yet imagine a coach or piano teacher prescribing a set amount of practice, every day. To claim that any particular amount of time on task is sufficient to learn that skill overlooks the state  in which practice is approached. How much piano, or golf, or tennis can one learn while daydreaming about some other activity? Pressed to its logical extreme, this teaching method would rely soley on moving the body, with the assumption that the mind would follow. If so, one could learn while asleep simply by having one's body moved in the proper patterns.
Although certain therapies have actually made use of some version of this mode (body therapies or neurolinguistic programming), full mastery is not their goal. Recognizing the difference between going through the motions and moving one's body in awareness brings us into the domain of mindfulness.

There is a big difference between going through the motions and focusing intensely. When it comes to homework, I think we can all agree that a student who completes their homework with accute mindfulness is likely to be the exception, rather than the rule. And this is no accident - think about how we speak to kids about their homework. Are parents more likely to ask "are you done your homework?" or "what did you learn from your homework?"

When we only ever ask about the completion of homework, we explicitely tell kids that getting the homework done, regarldesss of quality, is most important.

Just get it done.

And when we don't ask about whether the homework supported their learning or whether it was worth doing in the first place, we implicitely tell them that we don't really care about the learning.

Just get it done.

Automacity is a by-product of mindlessness. When we cease to place the kind of due care and attention into our efforts, we fail to further our progress. We go into a kind of auto-pilot that works to stunt our improvement.

Rather than falling into rote-memorization-through-repetition, it is far more advisable for learners to keep learning new things, to routinely change their approach and not lock into any single pattern.

How else will we ever learn something new and grow as life-long learners?


  1. As a musician, creative-type, high-IQ & high-performing student & teacher, I don't follow this logic.

    My music teachers DID prescribe a minimum amount of practice. While I did learn the math & construct behind what MAKES a scale, my fingers needed the muscle memory in order to be able to sight-read Mozart on the piano. I needed to be able to glide over vocal scales without thinking about it in order to do an aria. It honestly didn't matter what I was thinking about while I practiced those things, because what I needed was NOT to have to think about them to do them. And I (and my students) need to not have to think about what 9 x 8 is to effectively do multi-digit multiplication. I have kids who can write 9+9 eight times over on the sides of their tests because they do understand the math, but they can't effectively do the work because it is too frustrating to have to do that for every problem. I can't imagine what it would be like to have to sound out "the" or "it" every time I read.

    Automaticity has its place; there just needs to be understanding behind it.


  2. Cheryl- I have to disagree with you that the student who writes 9+9 knows how to do multiplication- I'd go so far as to say they don't but rather are stuck in additive reasoning and no manner of additional practice be it homework or in class work will get them to understand multiplication until they understand multiplicative reasoning (subitising (probably misspelled that), grouping, area model of multiplication, etc)

    I too used to believe the key was automaticity of math facts- now I question that- I believe instead that students need to have the understanding of how multiplying works not just the automaticity of doing it


  3. Eric--I'm not sure we actually disagree. Just a limited example as I tried to keep the comment short. My point is that they do need BOTH the understanding AND the automaticy.


  4. If I ever use the phrase, "get it done," I will admit, with no small amount of shame because I can feel your head shaking from across the continent, it has as much to do with the fact I just need to see where they are. If they don't produce something, I can't give them feedback. And it's funny, because when I do set hard and fast deadlines, they are so proud of getting it in, and shout it from the rooftops. Did you read it, Mrs. Love? Yes, because I had carved out time to take care and consideration. I never give busy work. I never give worksheets. I treat their thinking, effort and progress with respect. Sorry other teachers may not give instruction with this in mind. Is there a place in your dialogue/conversation for those of us who have the occasional deadline?

    (Just curious: have you read Why students don't like school by Daniel Willingham? Thoughts?)

  5. Cheryl- Fair enough. It is certainly something I'm struggling with as I try to figure out just how much automaticity students need to have. I'll keep plugging away at it!


  6. "... they do need BOTH the understanding AND the automaticy..." I find myself agreeing with Cheryl. We need to be mindful to learn at many levels. We do not need to understand to function. Too much depends on our moving past critical reflection to habit, compliance and automaticy. These behaviours are suspect because we value critical reflection so much yet they are fundamental and have efficacy. I think we could all agree that before or after 8x8=64 has become an automatic response we need to move the young person to an understanding of the multiplication concept. Before or after the body learns the intricate movements of a dance or keyboard the artist needs to be able to conceptualize what they are doing. I remain uncertain if all people learn the same way. Some learn the pattern, and then understand; others understand first. There may be no disagreement here. I think Joe would acknowledge that it is useful to retain math facts in order to facilitate higher order computations. Mental math is of value I think. I wonder if we devalue automaticy (I certainly don’t value the cumbersome term...), responses?

  7. Cheryl - great point. Just like in reading one needs fluency and comprehension. Otherwise, one is just word calling, and the other takes too long to enjoy the narrative/information. It's not an either/or, it's a developmental growth.

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  9. I agree that both have their place, in certain context and with the right intended purpose.

    When teaching the concept of multiplication, following the same example, rote practice for automaticity will not teach the concept. But higher level work which requires efficient, fluent use of facts requires automaticity in order to more mindfully process/learn the higher level concept, solve the problem with less frustration, etc.

    Both have relevance, but the trick is to find ways to make practicing/learning the autmaticity fun, engaging, and emotionally stimulating, then you will have mindful learning (integration into neurual network) of what traditionally has been rote practice.

    A question I am left with, considering this, is:
    A classic abuse of automaticity I see in high schools is memorization of historical facts, dates, etc. (Yes, this still happens.) I see teachers confuse this base level (knowledge-Bloom's) as learning, with limited understanding, application, analysis, evaluation, or creation. Is the automaticity of such knowledge required to efficiently reach those higher levels of learning, or does referencing what one is not sure of suffice. (Just like I quickly referenced the order of Bloom's taxonomy to be sure I ordered it correctly.)

    Mindful learning is important and crucial. Automaticity is, too, when not abused or confused as conceptual learning,as the end goal it itself.

    Another example: I hold a Wilderness First Responder certification. Much of the knowledge I learned came from rote memorization, but could potentially become crucial knowledge that I need to understand, apply, and even create from very quickly if faced with a wilderness medical emergency. It required(s) motivation and effort on my part to force the learning and retention of lots of facts with only the emotional relevance of thinking of what could happen and my need to be prepared for that.

    For students that don't have that truly intrinsic motivation and effort, we have to find/lead/guide/inspire them to their emotional connection to make it relevant, and then it's not work, but rather fun, exciting, inspiring, and before they know it, they learned, even created something.


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