Day 121 – Relevance in education

Actually, when I went back to the original text I found out that what Ellen Langer was writing about in her book Mindfulness was (prescribed) outcomes in learning. What she says in a nutshell (direct quote below) is that a single-minded pursuit of an outcome stands in the way of mindfulness. She makes a plea for more attention to be paid to the process through which a goal is reached. It seems, one could say, she’d like us to pay attention to how we achieve something rather than whether we achieve it. I would argue that her proposed approach requires curiosity—an openness to what is happening without a strong desire to control the outcome.

In connection with my last two posts–if we are very focused on the outcome (which, granted, sometimes we have to be), we are less likely to go down the “Wikipedia rabbit hole” and less likely to learn new things or even learn about new things to learn about. (“You can’t be curious about something if you don’t know it exists.”)


What Ellen Langer wrote in her own words: A very different, but not incompatible, explanation for why we become mindless had to do with our early education. From kindergarten on, the focus of schooling is usually on goals rather than on the process by which they are achieved. This single-minded pursuit of one outcome or another, from tying shoelaces to getting into Harvard, makes it difficult to have a mindful attitude about life.

When children start a new activity with an outcome orientation, questions of “Can I?” or “What if I can’t do it?” are likely to predominate, creating an anxious preoccupation with success or failure rather than drawing on the child’s natural, exuberant desire to explore. Instead of enjoying the color of the crayon, the designs on the paper, and a variety of possible shapes along the way, the child sets about writing a “correct” letter A …

In contrast, a process orientation, which we will explore when we look at creativity in Chapter 7, asks “How do I do it?” instead of “Can I do it?” and thus directs attention toward defining the steps that are necessary on the way. This orientation can be characterized in terms of the guiding principle that there are no failures, only ineffective solutions.

In computer programming classes for children, a major activity is “bug fixing”—figuring out new solutions, instead of getting hung up on a particular one that didn’t work. Provisional goals are subject to continual revision. The process-oriented person is less likely to be caught off-guard if circumstances change.

The style of education that concentrates on outcomes generally also presents facts unconditionally. This approach encourages mindlessness. If something is presented as an accepted truth, alternative ways of thinking do not even come up for consideration. Such a single-minded way of viewing the world can generalize to everything we do. By teaching absolutes we pass our culture from one generation to the next. It brings stability. But as we will see, the cost may be high.


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