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Pervasive learning myths

Mindfulness expert, Ellen Langer, believes that there are several pervasive myths about learning, the first of which is that the basics must be learned so well that they become second nature. Traditional ways of learning can result in mindless behaviour because people are taught to ‘overlearn’ tasks and facts, resulting in an unquestioned assumption that there is only one way, the way that one has been taught.

Mindful learning as an alternative

Langer invites us to try an alternative learning style, where skills and facts are taught conditionally, enabling us to remain aware of the fact that different situations may require different approaches or simply put, mindful learning.

If we are to learn mindfully, we first must question the assumption that when we learn something we should learn it so well that it becomes second nature. For Langer, this assumption is fraught with mindless implications as it locks us into rigid patterns of learning, discourages flexibility and results in new tasks being performed mindlessly. An example, might be a group of beginners being taught to paddle by a more experienced canoe instructor. Every member of the group is taught in the same way but differences in height, strength, type of paddle will need to be taken into consideration for each beginner to develop their technique. Learning the basics are important but we should guard against over learning them so that they can be varied to each situation.


Often we are not taught the basics by an expert but even when we do have expert instruction, applying exactly the same techniques used by the expert may not bring about our own optimal performance. For example, if Lewis Hamilton demonstrates how he drives his Formula 1 car to victory and I try to emulate him will I drive like a champion? Or do I need to learn conditionally from him and adjust his technique to take into account the difference in our height, our strength and our different relflexes and reaction times to road conditions.

Sideways learning

In a pilot study Langer gave a physics lesson, on video, to high school students who had the same basic education and experience. All the students were shown the same video but before they viewed the video, half the students were given an instruction sheet informing them that there would be two parts to the exercise. Part one would be a 30 minute video introducing some basic concepts of physics. Part two would be “a short questionnaire in which you will apply the concepts shown in the video”. The video presents only one of several outlooks on physics, which may or may not be helpful to you. Please feel free to use any additional methods you want to assist you in solving the problems.” The other group were given the same information except for the detail on several outlooks and additional methods. Langer wanted to know whether the condition allowing for alternatives would result in mindful learning.

Both groups performed equally well when tested on the material but when they were asked to use the information creatively, only the students given the mindful instructions did so. Although the other group were not instructed to avoid drawing on previous experiences or knowledge, they didn’t do so.

Langer proposes that we move away from the standard top-down (lecturing style of instruction) and bottom-up (relying on direct experience , and practice of a new activity) and instead adopt a third approach, which she calls ‘sideways learning’. Sideways learning is when we adopt a mindful approach to learning.

How can we develop mindful learning?

When we are able to learn a new subject with a sideways learning approach we are always aware of changes as they occur, enabling us to adjust the basics that we have learned to fit the situation.

We can adopt a mindful state when learning by following five steps:
1. Remain open to novelty
2. Be alert to distinction
3. Adopt a sensitivity to different contexts
4. Have an implicit awareness of multiple perspectives
5. Be orientated in the present

Where can you start to use these mindful learning techniques? Find out more here: Ellen Langer.

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