This week, the topic of mindfulness/mindless behavior in teaching provides an interesting, if somewhat obscured, understanding of how teaching can be developed. I say obscured, in this context, because in the critique of things like “basics” and knowledge transference, the text seems to be devoid of a mindful approach to understanding different disciplines. While I appreciate the critique that we shouldn’t be presenting everything as the right way or wrong way of looking a problem, most fields do recognize the openness for alternative ways of thinking. In my own subfield of international relations, professors often have a particular worldview or conception of how the world operates, but every class at the undergraduate and graduate level includes basics on the different approaches to IR scholarship and opens the path to alternative ways of viewing. In fact, in recent years large segments of professional conferences and journals have been given over to discussing how to further evolve beyond “-isms” and innovate.
However, this also obscures the fact that there is basic information that needs to be understood. Perhaps this could be called “the basics of IR” or in the case of one of Langer’s examples “the basics” of tennis or baseball. There exist key components of disciplines or activities that need to be understood in order to be able to excel. You can’t become a tennis champion, for instance, if you don’t know the basic rules of the game. In IR, you need to understand basics such as theories of statehood, concepts of power, even if you want to innovate beyond them – mostly because to be successful in any field you need to have a basic understanding of the common knowledge in the field if only to critique it. The same is true for other fields like History: even if you want to come up with competing theories of, for instance, the French Revolution you still need to know that it took place at a certain time, a certain place, and involved certain people and outcomes. Those are ultimately unavoidable.
This also leads me to a discussion of one of Langer’s potential solutions (side-ways learning) and its interaction with student multi-tasking and technology in the classroom. Just this week, in a class I was TAing for, the professor instructed the students to complete their own intelligence briefing on the subject of North Korean nuclear weapons. He set no guidelines, he set no standard method of delivery or information collection. Just that the students needed to address what they found most compelling and interesting. This would allow the students to engage in their own process and use their own methods, something that is supposed to help learning. Yet, even when put into groups and given leeway on the way to do things beyond simple lectures or being taught the basics, some students merely scrolled Facebook or texted friends all class.
My point is to say that a lot of this literature, on multi-tasking, on mindfulness, on technology, misses the point that students often have vastly different priorities than instructors can possibly perceive and for which they can compensate or adjust. IF students are fundamentally uninterested, they are going to struggle. It may not matter to them if they learn “basics” or have the opportunity to find things out for themselves. Ultimately, I feel like a lot of this discussion denies agency to students, or to instructors. Perhaps mindfulness does increase student’s ability to do well at tests, but this denies the potential idea that people already do this and still people are failing even if the average increases. Perhaps some students simply do not want to learn particular subjects (even when given a choice of what major or what classes to take). Ultimately, I don’t think pedagogy is going to present us with blanket improvements for university courses, because even in discussing potential “bottom-up” solutions to learning we are instituting a “top-down” approach to “fixing” teaching, with limited input from students, who have agency of their own and responsibilities of their own.
- Ellen Langer, Mindful Learning
- Leave Your Laptops at the Door of My Classroom (NYT Op-Ed)
- The Myth of Disconnected Life