The Power of Mindful Learning


By Ellen J. Langer

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Radical in its implications, this original and important work may change forever the views we hold about the nature of learning. In The Power of Mindful Learning, Ellen Langer uses her innovative theory of mindulness, introduced in her influential earlier book, to dramatically enhance the way we learn. In business, sports, laboratories, or at home, our learning is hobbled by certain antiquated and pervasive misconceptions. In this pithy, liberating, and delightful book she gives us a fresh, new view of learning in the broadest sense. Such familiar notions as delayed gratification, ”the basics”, or even ”right answers”, are all incapacitating myths which Langer explodes one by one. She replaces them with her concept of mindful or conditional learning which she demonstrates, with fascinating examples from her research, to be extraordinarily effective. Mindful learning takes place with an awareness of context and of the ever-changing nature of information. Learning without this awareness, as Langer shows convincingly, has severely limited uses and often sets on up for failure.With stunning applications to skills as diverse as paying attention, CPR, investment analysis, psychotherapy, or playing a musical instrument, The Power of Mindful Learning is for all who are curious and intellectually adventurous.



When Practice Makes Imperfect

When he arrived on the planet he respectfully saluted the lamplighter.

“Good morning. Why have you just put out your lamp?”

“These are the instructions,” replied the lamplighter. “Good morning.”

“What are the instructions?”

“The instructions are that I put out my lamp. Good evening.”

And he lighted his lamp again.

“But why have you just lighted it again?”

“These are the instructions,” replied the lamplighter.

“I do not understand,” said the little prince.

“There is nothing to understand,” said the lamplighter. “Instructions are instructions. Good morning.”

And he put out his lamp.

Then he mopped his forehead with a handkerchief decorated with red squares.

“I follow a terrible profession. In the old days it was reasonable. I put the lamp out in the morning and in the evening I lighted it again. I had the rest of the day for relaxation and the rest of the night for sleep.”

“And the instructions have been changed since that time?”

“The instructions have not been changed,” said the lamplighter. “That is the tragedy! From year to year the planet has turned more rapidly and the orders have not been changed!”

The Little Prince


Day after day the celestial lamplighter performed his well-practiced task. For him by now it was second nature. The planet, however, like the rest of the world, kept on changing. The routine stayed fixed, while the context changed.

One of the most cherished myths in education or any kind of training is that in order to learn a skill one must practice it to the point of doing it without thinking. Whether I ask colleagues concerned with higher education, parents of young children, or students themselves, everyone seems to agree on this approach to what are called the basics. Whether it is learning how to play baseball, drive, or teach, the advice is the same: practice the basics until they become second nature. I think this is the wrong way to start.


Before explaining this last statement, let me give an example of just one context for each of the skills I mentioned that might lead one to question this faith in practicing the basics.

As a child in summer camp I was taught to practice holding a baseball bat a particular way. The idea was to do so without thinking so that I could attend to other aspects of the game, such as the particular pitch I was trying to hit. Now, after years of lifting weights imperfectly, my right arm is stronger than my left. Should I hold the bat the same way in spite of this difference? Should everyone hold a bat the same way?

Because my driving skills have been overlearned, I flip my turn signal on automatically before making a turn. Now, suppose that I’m on an icy road about to make a turn, but the car is somewhat out of control. Wouldn’t turning on the signal in the same old way misguide the car behind me by seeming to indicate that the situation is well in hand? Would use of the flashing light be more appropriate in this context? Recently I gave a talk in New Mexico. I was driven from the airport to the hotel across a desert, without a car in sight for miles and miles. At each turn, the driver dutifully signaled.

Imagine overlearning the basics of driving in the United States and then taking a vacation in London, where people drive on the left side of the road. The car in front of you swerves out of control and you must react quickly. Do you slip back to old habits or avoid an accident by responding to what the current situation demands? It is interesting to consider that emergencies may often be the result of actions taken in response to previous training rather than in response to present considerations.

One of the “basic skills” of teachers, and all lecturers, is the ability to take a large quantity of information and present it in bite-size pieces to students. For those of us who teach, reducing and organizing information becomes second nature. How often do we, so practiced in how to prepare information for a lecture, continue to present a prepared lesson without noticing that the class is no longer paying attention? Presenting all the prepared content too often overtakes the goal of teaching.

For students, note-taking skills can be overlearned, practiced as second nature. Many of us have had the experience of turning to our notes and finding that we don’t have the vaguest idea what they mean.

Traveling makes us particularly aware of rigidities. In several Asian countries drivers drive on the left side of the road, and pedestrians on the busy sidewalks follow the same pattern as cars, staying to the right or left accordingly. The frequency with which I came close to walking into people when traveling in Asia made clear to me that even a simple exercise, such as walking on the right, if originally learned mindlessly, may be hard to change. Each time I traveled to a different country, the rules changed, and my awkwardness increased.

In an art gallery in Hanoi, I encountered the results of basic training in Western customs of politeness. The gallery owner offered me a seat from which to view the paintings. I politely refused. She offered it to me three more times. It appeared that her lesson did not include what to do if the customer preferred to stand. She took her cues as to what to do from her lesson, and not from the situation.

In Singapore, on my way to Chinatown, I asked the taxi driver how large the Chinese population was. He answered, “Seventy-six percent of the country is Chinese.” I said, “Are you sure it’s not 77 percent?” He laughed, although I think many would not have been sure what I was getting at. The government had published a report saying that 76 percent of the population was Chinese, and for many that remained fact without any awareness that births, deaths, emigrations, or immigrations could change the number at any moment. This is the way most of us have been taught to take in information—as though it is true irrespective of new contexts.

When we drill ourselves in a certain skill so that it becomes second nature, does this lead to performing the skill mindlessly? Do we set limits on ourselves by practicing to the point of over-learning? When we approach a new skill, whether as adults or children, it is, by definition, a time when we know the least about it. Does it make sense to freeze our understanding of the skill before we try it out in different contexts and, at various stages, adjust it to our own strengths and experiences? Does it make sense to stick to what we first learned when that learning occurred when we were most naive? When we first learn a skill, we necessarily attend to each individual step. If we overlearn the drill, we essentially lose sight of the individual components and we find it hard to make small adjustments.

Learning the basics in a rote, unthinking manner almost ensures mediocrity. At the least, it deprives learners of maximizing their own potential for more effective performance and, as we will see in Chapter 3, for enjoyment of the activity. Consider tennis. At tennis camp I was taught exactly how to hold my racket and toss the ball when serving. We were all taught the same way. When I later watched the U.S. Open, I noticed that none of the top players served the way I was taught, and, more important, each of them served slightly differently. Most of us are not taught our skills, whether academic, athletic, or artistic, by the real experts. The rules we are given to practice are based on generally accepted truths about how to perform the task and not on our individual abilities. If we mindlessly practice these skills, we are not likely to surpass our teachers. Even if we are fortunate enough to be shown how to do something by a true expert, mindless practice keeps the activity from becoming our own. If I try to serve exactly as Martina Navratilova serves, will I be as good as she (apart from differences in innate gifts), given that my grip of the racket is determined by my hand size, not hers, and my toss of the ball is affected by my height, not hers, and given the differences in our muscles? Each difference between me and my instructor could be a problem if I take each instruction for granted. If we learn the basics but do not overlearn them, we can vary them as we change or as the situation changes.


Perhaps the very notion of basics needs to be questioned. So-called basic skills are normatively derived. They are usually at least partially applicable for most people some of the time. They are sometimes not useful at all for some people (e.g., how to hold the racket for someone who is missing a finger or how to read a text for someone with dyslexia). They are not useful, however, as first learned, for everyone across all situations. If they are mindlessly overlearned, they are not likely to be varied even when variation would be advantageous. Perhaps one could say that for everyone there are certain basics, but that there is no such thing as the basics.

In the classroom, teaching one set of basics for everyone may appear to be easier for the teacher because the teacher needs to know less, a single routine leaves little room for disagreement and hence may foster obedience to authority, and it seems impossible to give individualized training to several people at once.

There are ways, however, to foster mindful learning of basic skills in classrooms full of potential experts. The rationale for this change in approaches is based on the belief that experts at anything become expert in part by varying those same basics. The rest of us, taught not to question, take them for granted.


The key to this new way of teaching is based on an appreciation of both the conditional, or context-dependent, nature of the world and the value of uncertainty. Teaching skills and facts in a conditional way sets the stage for doubt and an awareness of how different situations may call for subtle differences in what we bring to them. This way of teaching imposes no special burden on teachers. Rather, it may increase their own mindfulness as it helps individual students come closer to realizing their potential.

Consider an example that may seem trivial at first, yet speaks to how difficult it is to change what we have mindlessly learned. At a friend’s house for dinner I noticed that the table was set with the fork on the right side of the plate. Of course, being polite, I said nothing, although I felt as though some natural order had been violated. I couldn’t seem to dismiss the thought that the fork goes on the left side of the plate, even though I was aware that the feeling was preposterous. I even felt that it made more sense in some ways for the fork to reside where my friend had placed it, given that most people in this country would retrieve it with the right hand. Where did my mindset come from? My mother taught me how to set the table when I was young. Her view was not discussed. It was not made into a big deal. It was simply stated, and I mindlessly learned it.

To linger in the kitchen a moment longer, consider how many people cook. Having once been taught when and how to use certain ingredients and spices it occurs to few of us to change recipes to accommodate changes in age, minor health problems, seasons, and the like. Yet unintentional changes sometimes bring about useful learning.

Once a year I attempt to bake. I have a wonderful recipe for marble cheesecake, which I appear to be unable to ruin. The first time I made it I put it in the oven for a few minutes and then realized I had forgotten to add the heavy cream. I took it out of the oven and added the cream. The next time I used light cream, followed by half-and-half on the next occasion, with perfectly acceptable results. When I add the chocolate, for some reason the cake ends up speckled instead of marbled. Never having learned how to bake, I didn’t see these deviations from the recipe as a disaster. I simply changed the name of the cake so it is not an inferior marble cheesecake. This no-fault cheesecake always tastes delicious to me because I use only ingredients I like, but more important, I enjoy varying it rather than mindlessly following an unconditional recipe.

Most of what we learn in school, at home, from television, and from nonfiction books we may mindlessly accept because it is given to us in an unconditional form. That is, the information is presented from a single perspective as though it is true, independent of context. It just is. Typically, no uncertainty is conveyed. Much of what we know about the world, about other people, and about ourselves is usually processed in this same way.

We can learn a skill by accepting at face value what we are told about how to practice it or we can come to an understanding over time of what the skill entails. Even in the latter case, we eventually try to get the skill down pat. In research Lois Imber and I conducted many years ago, we found that when people overlearn a task so that they can perform it by rote, the individual steps that make up the skill come together into larger and larger units.2 As a consequence, the smaller components of the activity are essentially lost, yet it is by adjusting and varying these pieces that we can improve our performance.

Recently, with students Dina Dudkin, Diana Brandt, and Todd Bodner, I set out to test more directly the idea that teaching material conditionally allows students to manipulate the information creatively in a different context. Some ways of teaching conditionally may be surprisingly simple.

In a pilot experiment, high school students with the same basic experience and education were taught a lesson in physics.3 The lesson was on videotape, and all the students saw the same videotape. Before viewing the tape, however, half the students received an instruction sheet informing them that their participation consisted of two parts: “Part I consists of a 30-minute video that will introduce a few basic concepts of physics. Part II involves 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 half of the group was told the same thing but with no mention of several outlooks or of additional methods. Our hypothesis was that the instruction to allow for alternatives would encourage mindful learning.

On direct tests of the material, the groups performed equally well. For questions that required students to extrapolate beyond the information given, to use it creatively, a different picture is emerging. Although nothing in either the video or the instructions forbade using previous knowledge and experience to help solve these problems, only the students given the mindful instructions tended to do so. Students who were not given these instructions were the only ones to complain about the material. Although it is too early in this investigation to be sure of the results (a situation of mindful uncertainty), a prior study done with Alison Piper, described fully in Mindfulness, suggests there is merit in this approach.4 In that study students were introduced to a set of objects either conditionally (“This could be a . . . ”) or in absolute form (“This is a . . . ”). As in the pilot study just described, we tested to see whether conditional information allowed for alternatives. We found that


On Sale
Apr 5, 2016
Page Count
208 pages

Ellen J. Langer

About the Author

Ellen J. Langer, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Harvard University, is the author of Personal Politics (with Carol Dweck), The Psychology of Control, and Mindfulness, which has been published in ten countries. She is also coeditor of Higher Stages of Development and Beliefs, Attitudes and Decision Making. She is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and numerous awards including the Award for Distinguished Contributions to Psychology in the Public Interest of the American Psychological Association.

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