Mindful learning: Important but critically and radically insufficient

Perhaps Ken Robinson best captures a common problem that also concerns Wesch and Langer; a dominant culture of education in the U.S. that is targeted toward conformity and compliance. He states that we hold a mechanistic model of education, treating it as an industrial process that can be improved with more data; more data from standardized tests that can accurately measure improvements in student learning. Langer’s version of this is that we’ve bought into the myths of learning that involve memorization, deference to authority, and breaking down a task into discrete elements, each of which can then be practiced and mastered. So things become second nature and automatic; mindless. This leads to a performer of some sort that is technically proficient, but who’s actions have a mechanistic quality to them. The problem Wesch sees is that the structures of higher education classrooms and courses are oblivious to the individuality of students, seeing them as soulless containers that will be filled with facts and information. No wonder, then, that students become bored and unmotivated when we educate them not to genuinely think, but rather for “low grade clerical work.”

Instead, they argue that real learning involves seeing human beings as radically diverse, each with their own questions about “who am I,” and “what am I going to do”? Robinson argues education must involve a culture of creativity, based on the concept of education as an organic system, not mechanistic. Langer argues for teaching that fosters mindfulness; “teaching in a conditional way [that] sets the stage for doubt and an awareness of how different situations call for subtle differences in what we bring to them” (16). Wesch gets to this more humanistic model of education by creating learning environments in which a student’s unique “gifts” and talents can be engaged as a source of motivation and learning. He speaks to environments that can recognize the heroic dimensions of each student that also fosters compassion and “to build a life worth living,” resources to get us through the dark night of the soul.

So I think these arguments are all quite important. My primary concern is that they are silent on the broader social and political forces that are institutionalizing industrial forms of education. To be fair, Robinson comes close to this broader problem when he invokes the mechanistic model of education, as an industrial process. He also speaks to the need for a broader curriculum, including the arts and humanities. But beyond this, the solutions they offer seem to be premised on the problem that teachers need better teaching methods. This may be true, but it leaves unchallenged the structures that have perpetuated Langer’s mindless myths, Wesch’s abysmal classrooms, and Robinson’s “culture of compliance.” What about the notion of politicizing their audience? To urge them toward at least some collective action to challenge the corporatization of higher education? Don’t we need to speak at much more loudly to the broader structures and ideologies that are creating a generation of students that are left with small answers to small questions?


4 thoughts on “Mindful learning: Important but critically and radically insufficient”

  1. Tim, I agree completely. I thought Robinson set out several interesting ideas – human diversity, curiosity, and creativity – but he stops short of a deeper critique of “modern” social, political, and economic organization. While I think his point is correct that part of the problem is a stripping of curiosity and creativity from education, both for teachers and students, it’s not a problem specific to education. All workplaces that are confined to Taylorist/Fordist paradigms of sharply separating “brain-work” from manual work, repetitive deskilled labor, and strict adherence to “productivity” suffer from this problem as well. I think we need a radical rethinking of how the broader economy is structured as a result.


  2. Yes, I agree with Jake. Not only in education, but also in many systems that peopele suffer from mindless. I wonder if this is a problem of modern society or it existed for a long time in our history? Were our ancestors more creative than us? Or we just want to be more mindful and creative?


  3. Yes indeed! I think everyone we’ve read / watched so far seeks reform from within, which daunting as it may be, seems in many ways more possible and definitely less political than the more fundamental challenge of overhauling the system. I’m pretty sure Wesch and Robinson would both say that the kinds of local, personal changes they are implementing might have a cumulative, transformative effect, but when we get to Freire in a couple weeks we’ll encounter someone who definitely understood the challenge of de-schooling as a political imperative. Thanks for this, Tim!


  4. Tim nails it on the head here! The problems in education are deep and systemic; new and improved teaching methods that cultivate and put a premium on mindfulness are important but they do not and cannot address the underlying causes of the problem.


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