Notes on The Power of Mindful Learning

The Power of Mindful Learning by Ellen Langer

What skill are you working on? How can you approach it more mindfully?

Ever have the experience of reading a book and thinking "this author gets me" as it resonates in a visceral way? After writing about Ellen Langer's book Mindfulness, I looked to see what else she had written and discovered this book. We had just started using the phrase "mindful learning and play" to describe what we do so I figured I should add it to my list. She had me from her first page of the preface in which she states, "Our schools are the problem. They unintentionally teach us to be mindless."

Langer describes mindlessness as passively responding to cues in the environment instead of actively make choices. She goes on to identify myths about learning that exist not just in our schools, but that also affect work and other aspects of our adult lives. She articulates an approach to teaching and learning more mindfully - one that encapsulates methods that I have intuitively developed over the years, but didn't have the research or vocabulary to describe as effectively as she does.

For example, in a chapter titled "The Myth of Delayed Gratification," Langer challenges the idea that we have to work hard now in order to play/retire/enjoy life later. The practice of mindful learning means approaching a task with a mindset that turns work into play. Doing so creates a more seamless integration instead of just balancing two opposing forces. As someone that uses juggling and other playful activities to deliver lessons about leadership, well-being, and team work, I clearly support this notion.

Below are a few of the main threads woven throughout the book that seem important to consider as we approach learning/work and particularly when in a leadership position that sets culture for a team.

Experts and Right Answers: When I worked for the school district, we had professional development days throughout the year. The speakers and activities ranged in effectiveness, but anytime someone came in claiming to have "the answer" or the one solution to solve all of our problems, I immediately became skeptical. Each teacher differed in personality and skill set with a unique set of students with their own range of needs. How could someone come in and be able to provide a solution that would work across the board? Langer doesn't do that. Instead she states, "What is the remedy for all of this mindless learning? A single solution would be mindless itself." In other words, we shouldn't just accept the "expert" without questioning it and recognizing that contexts change.

According to Langer, mindful learning requires comfort with uncertainty and changing contexts. Not always easy, but it's in that space that we discover meaning and define process. In college, I struggled most in my philosophy classes because quite often there was no one right answer. My biggest shift in mindset came a few years later when I signed up for a class called "Art for the Non-Artist" (I definitely had the prerequisite skills for that class). On many occasions, I would turn to the teacher as I worked on an assignment and ask "am I doing this right?" And her repeated response, "you're the artist - you decide" has stuck with me ever since. She didn't claim to be the expert, she shared her skills and knowledge while encouraging and coaching us to develop in our own unique way. Imagine if we created space for our colleagues to "be the artist" and develop a project or achieve an outcome in their own innovative way. What could we learn in the process?

Messy is Good: I struggled with messiness when I learned how to juggle. I wanted to be good at it right away. I knew what it was supposed to look like and got frustrated when I couldn't make it happen. I initially attempted juggling before I had learned the "you're the artist, you decide" lesson so I skipped right over the process of learning and focused only on the end result. When I couldn't do it and felt foolish in the process, I gave up.

I eventually learned the skill and now get to teach others. Encouraging learners to play with variables such as height, timing, types of throws, etc. helps them to shift focus toward process. We often tell people to overcompensate in the other direction. For example if you tend to walk forward, try throwing the balls over your shoulders so they land behind you. It feels messy and strange, but it allows your body to feel the full range of possible motions. You won't get locked into mindlessly practicing the same thing over and over again.

According to Langer, greater mastery comes through inventive changes of routine, staying open to novelty, and paying active attention to changes. Getting locked into rote learning or practicing just one way not only leads to mindlessness, but also decreases creativity, reinforces premature cognitive commitments, and affects how we view the performance of others. She also states that information tied up in a "nice neat package" can be harder for people to connect with and learn. We've found that being willing to drop ourselves when we teach, embracing the messy, and modeling vulnerability (hard things for me to get used to) leads to a more meaningful learning experience for the group.

Forgetting: In her chapter titled "A New Look at Forgetting" Langer points out that forgetting has a positive side. It allows us the opportunity to experience something again for the first time and from a fresh vantage point. We see the downside of not forgetting all of the time with juggling. People come in having already tried to juggle unsuccessfully and the real challenge comes from trying to unlearn those previous attempts. Even though it didn't lead to success, the method of practice they used had become habit and embedded into muscle memory. As Langer points out, it's easier to learn something for the first time than unlearn and relearn.

As someone who has a good memory for details, I have a hard time with this one. I often get frustrated when I'm working with a team that "forgets" the plan of action that has already been decided on or wants to revisit a decision to make sure we really want to stick with it. Definitely not the most efficient way to accomplish a goal, but I must admit that sometimes these conversations do lead to a more creative and effective way to have the desired impact. In these situations I have to remember to take a breath, slow down, and be open to changing the plan. The results are often much better.

Choice: As Dweck mentions in Mindset, Langer emphasizes that we have choice in how we view our reality and how we respond. I have a choice over whether I get frustrated by my team that wants to revisit a decision or I stay open to the possibility that we might be able to make the idea stronger. I have a choice over whether I get frustrated by my own messy attempts to learn something or if I go into the experience ready to play with the variables. I have a choice to engage mindfully in learning a new skill or just mimic the "experts" and assume it's the "right way."

That choice comes from paying attention to how we engage in the process of learning and whether we're even open to learning. As adults, it's easy to become mindless in our work and lives. Repeating the same tasks over and over because we have accepted them as something we're "supposed to" do. What if instead we approached them playfully - looking for newness or other perspectives about the experience? Maybe we approach a task "forgetting" how we've done it in the past and ask an intern how they would do it. What could that fresh perspective offer you as an individual or as a leader?

Where can you choose to engage in mindful learning this week?