What is the purpose of education? Every teacher possibly reflects on this question every now and then, but given their tight schedules and even tighter budgets, teachers seldom have the time to examine the goals of education and the means to adopt to achieve them. One book that forces us to question the many assumptions that underlie conventional education is Ellen Langer’s The Power of Mindful Learning. Come June, as teachers plan to welcome students into school, hopefully for a year of uninterrupted learning, perhaps, some of Langer’s bold ideas may inspire you to change how you teach.
Langer makes the provocative assertion that our schools “unintentionally teach us to be mindless.” They do this by forcing an evaluative framework over us wherein we are compelled to judge each other and ourselves. Second, we tend to imbibe information as if it were “absolute and independent of human creativity.” These twin problems are what make education mindless and numbing.
Langer rightly claims that teachers are some of the most compassionate and considerate people. Yet, they are part of a system that impels them to be judgmental. Marks, grades, ranks and labels are so endemic to the system that we rarely pause to question the tenets and rationale behind these practices. For children who repeatedly fail to score high marks, this system can indeed be very harsh. Labelled and ridiculed, we set these children up for “bullying or major misdeeds.”
While people may agree that marks and ranks negatively impact low performers, by setting up a vicious cycle of low expectations and self-fulfilling prophecies, many believe that our grading system motivates top-performers to achieve and excel. But even in premier institutes, known only to admit star-students, mental health issues are on the rise. “Mental illness common on campus,” screams a headline in the Hindustan Times (October 2020), referring to IIT-Bombay.
According to Langer, “all evaluation is mindless and problematic” because the inherent subjectivity of grading systems are never explicitly spelled out. Evaluating people locks us into a fixed mindset wherein we believe that our skills and talents are immutable. However, human behaviour is highly variable and contextual, a fact that isn’t captured or even acknowledged by grading systems.
Though experts in all disciplines would agree that knowledge is always in a state of flux, we still “teach absolute facts.” Some people may aver that certain facts like “1+1=2” are absolute and certain. However, Langer counters that a creative child may insist that “One wad of chewing gum plus one wad of chewing gum equals one.” Langer, thus suggests that instead of teaching facts with an absolute certainty, we adopt more conditional language when we impart knowledge. Instead of insisting that 1+1 is 2, we may say that 1+1 “could be 2 or is often 2.”
By encouraging uncertainty, we are more likely to inspire students to seek further and dispel the “illusion of knowing” that stems from our mental storehouse of disjointed facts, many of which grow outdated with new knowledge or changes in the world that displace certainties. When students realize that knowledge is fluid and contextual and can change depending on your perspective, they are less likely to become dogmatic and rigid in their thinking. Mindful learning involves being “confident and uncertain.”
Further, we may eliminate evaluations, especially when they cause stress and anxiety, which we all know are not conducive to learning. Even if we do hold on to evaluations for specific purposes, we need to clearly indicate the criteria we are employing to judge people. Thus, evaluations will be in limited contexts, not impacting all aspects of a person’s life like our current system.
Additionally, if tests are supposed to assess competence, then we should allow students to exhibit what they know. Instead of finding lacunae in their knowledge, which is what our current style of testing does, we can ask students questions like “Write about what is most interesting or meaningful to you” about India’s freedom struggle.
According to Langer, when we approach any task mindfully, we are open to “new information,” ready to acknowledge alternative perspectives and are accepting of “creation of new categories”. Mindless learning, in contrast, predisposes us to be enmeshed in “old categories,” prevents us from “attending to new signals,” and fails to acknowledge perspectives other than our own.
In her characteristic iconoclastic style, Langer also critiques seven myths that pervade conventional education. While you may not agree with every radical claim that Langer makes, her book is likely to persuade you to examine your teaching practices. It may also spur you to adopt a more mindful approach to teaching, which may, in turn, kindle the spark of uncertainty in your students.
The writer is the author of Zero Limits: Things Every 20-Something Should Know. She blogs at www.arunasankaranarayanan.com.