Many people rely on predictability. They like knowing that B follows A and that it always will. They like to be able to plan for things that will happen exactly the way they always have. Mindful people, however, know that the world is a confusing place, unpredictable and often chaotic.
Learners who are comfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity have a big advantage when it comes to clear thinking. They are less likely to jump to conclusions just so things will be settled, and they are not seduced by simple answers to complex problems.
A willingness to embrace uncertainty may stem partly from personality, but it can be nurtured in everyone. Many children are uncomfortable when they don’t receive specific directions, and it is often difficult for teachers to refrain from telling learners exactly what to do instead of letting them struggle while making their own decisions. The purpose of allowing learners to work through ambiguous problems is to help them become expert problem solvers. The best way to support them in their learning is to provide them general strategies, such as thinking strategies that they can then apply to the specific problem they are working on and to other similar problems in the future.
Teachers must keep in mind, however, that there is a difference between allowing learners to struggle to find their own answers to problems and asking them to guess at an answer without giving them the information they need. If you know exactly what you want learners to learn or experience, then asking them to struggle at figuring it out through a lack of directions has the opposite effect of genuine, authentic uncertainty. It makes them suspect that a teacher’s motive for not giving them specific instructions is to trick them into failing.
The concept of mindfulness can be useful in classrooms. While other frameworks such as Costa’s Habits of Mind and Tishman and Perkins’ Thinking Dispositions break attitudes about thinking down into specific topics that can be more easily taught and assessed, a general term like mindfulness can be an effective way to focus learners’ attention on paying attention to how they are responding to tasks. “Remember to be mindful while you’re planning your experiment” or “Don’t forget to be mindful while you’re discussing the project” can be a simple reminder to use those Habits of Mind that contribute to effective thinking.
Langer, E. J. (1989). Mindfulness. New York: Merloyd Lawrence.
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