The challenge of re-imagining schooling is not about changing structures but mindsets. This was the theme of my keynote address at the ACE National Conference in Adelaide recently. It is time for a new professional maturity. Let me be clear that professional maturity is the courage to think differently, respond creatively and to act boldly against a dominant and outdated educational narrative.
There have been two books this year that have influenced my thinking on how we think more mindfully about learning and teaching. The first is Carol Dweck’s Mindset. The other is Ellen Langer’s ‘The Power of Mindful Learning‘. Langer is Professor of Psychology at Harvard University and has devoted much of her career to the theory of mindfulness.
Like Dweck, Langer stresses that myths and mindsets about education undermine the process of learning. The desire by educators to personalise learning isn’t a new concept but Langer suggests a new approach – teaching students how to make meaning of content themselves.
Langer talks about enabling students to draw their own distinctions and to frame learning in such a way as to see more than one answer or angle. When students are able to contextualise material it allows them to ‘create working definitions that are continually revised.’ In her experiments over the years, Langer has found that when information is presented as ‘could be’ rather than ‘is’, it immediately opens up the possibility of seeing things from different perspectives or more mindfully.
Reflecting on her own teaching practice, Langer says we should see that every inadequate answer a student gives is often an adequate answer when viewed in another context. Langer writes:
If we respect students’ abilities to define their own experiences, to generate their own hypotheses, and to discover new ways of categorizing the world, we might not be so quick to evaluate the adequacy of their answers. We might, instead, begin listening to their questions. Out of the questions of students come some of the most creative ideas and discoveries. All answers come out of the question. If we pay attention to our questions, we increase the power of mindful learning.
Often when I hear educators talk about the challenges of learning and teaching, they begin with ‘The reality is…….’. As Langer shows, the reality is one perspective or one way of looking at the issue. This notion is wonderfully illustrated by Salvador Dali in his painting The Persistence of Memory which challenges our concept of time. There are as Dali depicts, multiple realities and many ways of seeing what ‘could be’ if we begin to view things differently – more mindfully.
The imperative we have to deliver a more relevant and personalised learning experience for all students demands that we think and respond differently. John Hattie encourages teachers and leaders to adopt new mind frames. He says these must ‘pervade our thinking about teaching and learning, because it is these ways of viewing our world that then lead to the optimal decisions for the particular contexts in which we work.’
Mindful learning must begin with mindful teaching. And the challenge of re-imagining schooling begins not with what is but what could be.