Designing Effective Projects : Beliefs and Attitudes

Ellen Langer, a psychologist from Harvard University, developed the theory of “mindfulness” based on research on human behaviours. Mindful behaviour is alert behaviour, but it is much more than that. It is a way of experiencing life fully. Unlike Costa and Tishman and Perkins who attempt to identify a set of specific attitudes that contribute to effective thinking, Langer uses the term “mindfulness,” to describe several behaviours that lead people to intelligent decisions.

Mindful behaviour consists of five different ways of interacting with the world: 

  • Making new categories and remaking old ones 
  • Adjusting automatic behaviour 
  • Taking new perspectives 
  • Emphasizing process over outcome 
  • Tolerating uncertainty

Rethinking Categories
Mindless thinkers rely on familiar, untested categories. Creating new categories and relabeling old ones are indications of mindful behaviour. Rethinking the categories in which we put people and tools gives us more options for creating good work.

Analyzing Automatic Behaviour
It is often very difficult to remember the specifics of behaviours that have become automatic. In some cases, the mindless execution of tasks can inhibit growth and improvement. Taking a new look at automatic patterns of behaviour in order to modify and refine them can lead to more desired outcomes. Teachers who help learners notice automatic patterns that hold them back and keep them from adjusting to new situations can help them learn to be more mindful.

Welcoming New Information
People often form opinions based on first impressions and cling to those opinions even when contradictory evidence becomes available. Langer calls these “premature cognitive commitments” (p. 22). Mindful people use all the tools available to them to improve their understanding. New information can come from a variety of sources, and mindful thinkers do not limit themselves to just one perspective or one way of solving problems.

In school, mindless thinkers isolate subjecs / learning areas. It never occurs to them that mathematics can help them understand history or that art can play a role in science. Learners who are mindful, however, notice the similarities in apparently very different objects and ideas and create new categories with this information.

Emphasizing Process over Outcome
Society and school often force people to think of their lives in terms of their accomplishments. A process orientation, “‘How do I do it?’ instead of ‘Can I do it?, directs attention toward defining the steps that are necessary on the way” (p. 34). Taking each stage as it comes also allows for making changes and modifications that bring about better results.

This kind of focus helps learners attack big projects in small pieces by thinking of what step to do next rather than thinking of everything at once. Teachers can help learners concentrate on process by pointing out that all outcomes are preceded by processes and that some processes are more effective than others. Providing learners with tools to plan and implement processes can help convince them of the value of paying attention to how things are accomplished and spending less time thinking of what the project should look like in the end.

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