Saturday, January 23, 2016

Mindful Learning


Is there a connection between mindfulness and learning? If yes, how can I become a more mindful learner? How am I helping others become more mindful learners? As an instructional designer, am I adding to the mindless mindsets that prevent me from producing real learning and consequently prevent my learners from being more mindful? These are some of the questions that I have been thinking about this month. 

It all started with a conversation on 01 Jan 2016 and a 'Happy New Year' greeting exchanged with my father. As we wished for good health and happiness, we also wished for more mindful living in each moment. Dad spoke about the power of our breath and how by focusing on our breath, we can be more present in that moment. At the end of our conversation, I was left with a peaked interest in how I can interpret and apply mindfulness in my life; both personally and professionally. The personal journey is for a different space and time but I am keen to share my thoughts, ideas and reflections about the how I studied mindfulness as applied to learning. 

The technique of meditation and mindfulness existed in the eastern philosophies long ago. It may have started as a new-age corporate mantra and many corporates are practicing some form of it, but it seems to be becoming a part of the L&D performance mix.  Closer home, here's what some elementary schools in Vancouver, BC have tried. The curriculum is called MindUp and the initial research seems promising and kids seem to be doing better at math. Bottom line is that there is enough evidence out there to realize that mindfulness is not just another fad.

In this blog, my focus is not on meditative mindfulness. Though it doesn't hurt to appreciate and embody that concept. There are many definitions of mindfulness and many websites dedicated to mindfulness; like this one here. But there's one particular definition that appeals to me from a learning perspective.

"Mindfulness is a flexible state of mind in which we are actively engaged in the present, noticing new things and sensitive to context.

This is from an article by Ellen J. Langer that you can read here. This is the article that really got me thinking about mindfulness and its application to learning and life. After reading the article, I picked up Ellen's book, 'The Power of Mindful Learning', where she goes on to say: “When we are mindful, we implicitly or explicitly (1) view a situation from several perspectives, (2) see information presented in the situation as novel, (3) attend to the context in which we perceive the information, and eventually (4) create new categories through which this information may be understood.” (Langer,1997, p.111). The book describes seven myths that detract from our ability to learn. The seven myths are: 
  1. The basics must be learnt so well that they become second nature. 
  2. Paying attention means staying focused on one thing at one time. 
  3. Delaying gratification is important. 
  4. Rote memorization is necessary in education. 
  5. Forgetting is a problem. 
  6. Intelligence is knowing "what's out there." 
  7. There are right and wrong answers.
The idea is to break these myths, be open, believe that there are other perspectives and then seek those different ideas and perspectives to create new ideas. It is important to learn more about the context of information, knowledge or learning by asking the 'why' question. 

Here's a great interview by HBR that reveals how Ellen describes many applications of mindfulness. When asked in the interview, What's the one thing about mindfulness you'd like every executive to remember? Ellen said, "Life consists only of moments, nothing more than that. So, if you make the moment matter, it all matters. You can be mindful, you can be mindless. You can win, you can lose. The worst case is to be mindless and lose. So when you're doing anything, be mindful, notice new things, make it meaningful to you, and you'll prosper."

To me, all of these ideas and thoughts related to mindfulness, apply very well to how I like to think about experiential learning - where the learner is an active creator of learning instead of being a passive unit in the learning process. As a catalyst of learning, I would really like to be more mindful in my design approach and create learning experiences that channel and enable mindfulness. One way to do that is to reduce and eliminate distractions and superfluous content by simply focusing on learning designs that help learners do better at their jobs instead of  spending time clicking through pages of content to 'understand' or to 'know'. In 2016, I am hoping to be more mindful; to slow down and be more present and alive in the moment and focus on asking more 'whys'. 

On a lighter note, here's a beautiful and heartwarming advertisement that was launched by Cineplex theatres in Canada in Dec 2015. It will definitely make you think about the big picture and will gently remind you to be more mindful and focus on what really matters :)