Mind Your Own Basics

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.



  • Aislinn


    I think you’re absolutely right in your comments about student agency. I also don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with students not wanting to be in a classroom when we live in a society that says they need to have a degree in order to get a ‘good’ job. This, to me, is a systemic issue. If undergraduate college education was seen as a calling, or something more than a basic requirement, then maybe students would care more. I think we see this once you get to the masters level of college education. Masters students are there, usually, because they want to be, not because they feel like they have to be. But I’m not sure that undergrad education will be the same any time in the near future. So, in the meantime, should we be focusing on those that are passionate, or those that are not?

    • Ray Thomas

      I definitely agree that there is a significant societal pressure that pushes people to put themselves in a position where, as students, they are not actually all that engaged with the material and could potentially be uninterested in their chosen field because they are only there to get a piece of paper and that definitely changes when you get into grad school and interact with people who are all there by choice rather than social stigma/pressure.

  • Ben Kirkland

    My eyes rolled at Langer’s tennis analogy. I don’t remember who said it, but the rules that apply to professionals are not the same rules that apply to beginners. We all develop our own techniques as we become more proficient, and depending on whether we’re good or interested or neither of those things, we may continue or discontinue as we see fit. Serena & Venus Williams are both pros who learned similar basics within a similar time frame by similar instructors until such time their unique values and capabilities shone through. That’s natural progression. I learned the basics of cooking from both my mom and from a Home-Ec teacher, but my techniques have radically changed according to my own tastes and textures. You and I and the rest of the world each add flavor because we took “basics” and applied them to our own recipes of life.
    On the subject of agency, we give students the opportunity to critique their instructors and their instruction at the end of each semester. This doesn’t help them during the semester, which is when any corrective measures would be most needed. What if we gave students the opportunity to give progress updates monthly? We definitely give them feedback often enough (hopefully, as long teachers keep on top of grading). It might be too much, but even getting to vent every now and again could be enough to blow off steam and focus again… It also means more notifications from Canvas… hrmmm
    Great post!!

    • Ray Thomas

      I think your critique of the tennis analogy is spot on. We all have to learn the basics in some things but then make them our own over time. On the issue of critique, I actually ask the students (at the beginning of the second or third week) what things are working for them and what things aren’t in an attempt to adjust my style of teaching. I think the idea of monthly updates is a good idea.

  • Sara

    Hi Ray,

    Interesting take on the mindfulness readings. I think you’re right: there are many different kinds of students out there and some just don’t want to learn/ have no interest (presently) in working towards a degree. I think it is our job to try and reach those students and inspire them, but one can only do so much. They’re adults, if they choose to spend their time in class distracted by personal devices, then that is their choice. And you’re right, each and every student has their own agency and responsibilities. My teaching bandwidth is for those students who want to be there; I don’t have time to fight the ones that simply don’t– (aka police the behavior of distracted students)–it’s unproductive and wastes the time of the students who are engaged. Instead, I strive to create a learning community that is inclusive of everyone and I work hard to facilitate learning opportunities that allow students to come into their own as scholars and thinkers. I am confounded by students who persist with distracted behaviors in the classroom. I know that is a symptom of something larger and I try to be mindful about the things I can do to improve my pedagogy and make it a better and more interesting space for everyone.

    • Ray Thomas

      I definitely agree that classrooms/teaching should be inclusive and work hard to allow students their own space to explore the topic. I just think that the student agency issue is one that should be a little more in the forefront of these different approaches to teaching and the arguments between them.

  • setareh

    Thank you for sharing your great thoughts on this topic. I agree with your point about different perspectives of students and teachers to tasks and that would be the reason that students tend to multitask or mindlessly finish their assignment or study. About the basics of each discipline; however, I think mindful learning is comprehending the reason behind rules and basics. Also, I believe even the basics of each major can be questions if you first learn them profoundly and then look at them from a different point of view. In sports, it may cause to establish a new subcategory in that sport or even create a new sport with innovated rules! That is what happened in quantum physics and classical physics.

    • Ray Thomas

      Thanks for your comment, I definitely agree that it can lead to innovative thinking and developing a much deeper understanding of the issue at hand when it is approached in different ways!

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