The Power of Mindful Learning

Ellen J. Langer

The modern educational system is broken and because of this most people don’t know how to learn and even fewer know how to teach. The brokenness comes down to a single concept: mindful vs mindless learning/teaching. When something is is taught (or learned) mindlessly, there is no room for creativity, doubt or context. Mindful teaching on the other hand gets students to personalize what they’ve learned and apply their knowledge in creative ways. As an example, we’re taught that the internal angles of a triangle always sum to 180 degrees. Is this true when the triangle is drawn on a globe? The answer is no. Dr. Langer says that there are seven pervasive myths which undermine the process of learning:

  1. The basics must be learned until they’re second nature
  2. Paying attention means staying focused on one thing at a time
  3. Delaying gratification is important
  4. Rote memorization is necessary
  5. Forgetting is a problem
  6. Intelligence is knowing “what’s out there”
  7. There are right and wrong answers

The Basics

The highest performers don’t mindlessly apply the basic skills they’ve learned. Instead, they’ve found a way to make those skills their own and apply subtle variations where necessary. Mindless memorization of basic concepts in any skill leaves no room for creativity and personalization. Should recipes be followed exactly? There is a real danger is overlearning a basic skill mindlessly. Both students and teachers should aim to learn and teach basic skills mindfully and conditionally.

There are two standard ways to learn. Top-down where a student is lectured and bottom-up where students rely on experience and repeated practice. Dr. Langer proposes a new type of learning she calls sideways learning which lies somewhere in the middle. A guideline is provided by some teacher but students mindfully apply their twists as they practice. Sideways learning is more exploratory than top-down or bottom-up.


It’s hard to keep focus and many times when someone loses focus they’re labelled as distracted. What if instead they were labelled as otherwise attracted. If what they were originally focused on continued to be engaging there would be no need or desire to find entertainment elsewhere. Instead of berating the distracted for not paying attention maybe we should be asking why the object of their otherwise-attraction is so stimulating. People learn best through novelty and many times novelty is lost during long sessions of “just stay focused”. Novelty doesn’t have to come from external experience. For example, when reading a book try to think about the perspective of different characters. Dr. Langer did experiments on learning through novelty and found that those who learned through memorization and focus performed worse than those who learned by varying the target of their attention (mindfulness). The hyperactivity part of ADHD may be students trying to increase the novelty of their experience. Experiments have shown that students with ADHD learn more effectively when content is taught as a game.

Delayed Gratification

I didn’t learn anything here.

Rote Memorization

Memorization rarely leads to understanding. Memorization leaves little room for creative application. Learning through memorization is hard work and tends to lead to boredom, otherwise-attraction and procrastination. Personalization of information is an easy way to get around the hurdle of memorization. Some who is mindful of their weight will immediately internalize that a burger from Store X is 2000 calories, their daily budget. The less personally relevant information is, the harder it is to remember. Another way to improve information retention is to draw distinctions. As an example, you might notice that tall people playing some sport have blonde hair. Then you might notice that not many Asian people play that sport. Then you might wonder which sports Black people tend to play. Distinctions you draw are necessarily personally relevant and help increase your understanding.


It’s ok to forget. Forgetting lets your re-experience pleasurable things. Forgetting lets you learn new facts and ideas. Forgetting lets you derive new meaning from past experiences not remembered perfectly. Dr. Langer did experiments which showed (suggested?) that losing memory as you age is a self fulfilling prophecy. She found that old people in cultures which don’t associate memory loss with age have better memory their counterparts in cultures with that association.


Intelligence can be defined by how well a person’s perception matches their environment. For example, emotional intelligence is how well someone understands the thoughts and feelings of others – a perception of their environment. Another definition of intelligence is domain-specific intelligence where the cognitive map of one area of expertise is different from the maps of other areas of expertise.

I’ve always considered intelligence as more of a meta skill. Those who are more intelligent learn faster. Intelligence, to me, is your capacity to learn.

Right and Wrong Answers

There is rarely ever a single right answer. Context is always important and what is right in one context may be entirely wrong in another context.


When learning or teaching, don’t behave mindlessly. Personalize information and experiences. Consider other perspectives. Don’t try to memorize. Mindful > mindless.

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