Mindful Learning: A Path Out of the Educational Death Valley

What does it mean to be a mindful learner? If you’d asked me this as a child, I’d have told you it meant listening very intently to what my teacher was saying then being able to recall what what said at a later date . My teachers would likely argue this wasn’t something I practiced, but that’s something I’ll touch on a little later on in this post. As I progressed on my academic journey, I came to believe mindful learning meant taking what was being taught and applying it contextually to solve problems in the world around me vs. just being able to  regurgitate the information when prompted. Now, as an aspiring educator taking this GEDI course, the definition of mindful learning is becoming increasingly more complex than what my younger self could even conceive.

A great visual of "mindfulness" Source: https://mindfullearningandliving.wordpress.com/tag/mindfulness-definition/

Source: https://mindfullearningandliving. wordpress.com/tag/mindfulness-definition/

First, I want to touch on what I learned about mindful learning this week. According to Ellen Langer in Mindful Learning,  mindfulness is defined as “as a flexible state of mind in which we are actively engaged in the present, noticing new things, and sensitive to context”. Similarly, in her book on mindful learning, Langer lists three characteristics to mindfulness: the continuous creation of new categories, openness to new information, and an implicit awareness of more than one perspective”. These three characteristics all seem to support the “new method” of teaching proposed by Langer, whom suggests teaching should be based on “…an appreciation of both the conditional, or context-dependent, nature of the world and the value of uncertainty”.

This new method of teaching really resonates with me. Whether it’s due to my INTJ personality, the sign I was born under (Pisces), or the fact I’m a scientist, I have always described my perceptions of the world as “fluid”. To me, pretty much everything is a shade of grey-there are very few things I consider black or white. As knowledge evolves, so do my opinions. To me, it seems only natural that learning should follow a similar pattern. With new knowledge should come new ideas, new context, and new approaches to how things were done previously. Personally, it seems that being a mindful learner means being actively aware of knowledge as it becomes available while critically evaluating its potential to be applied in a variety of present and future contexts.

Remember when I said I’d touch on my (perceived) lack of ability to mindfully learn? Well Ken Robinson’s How To Escape Education’s Death Valley is the perfect “segway” into that topic. In Robinson’s video, he briefly mentioned Attention Hyperactivity Deficit Disorder(ADHD), how a growing number of people are being diagnosed with it, and how he believes it is a symptom of our educational system. Now, I’m not going to delve into whether or not ADHD is a manifestation of the education system. However, I am going to discuss my experience with ADHD as it pertains to mindful learning.

Though bright, I was a considered an average student. I didn’t perform well on tests, homework, or anything that our current educational system uses as a measure of a students’ learning capacity. I will say I excelled in reading and English classes where I found myself incredibly engaged by the material, but I did poorly in mathematics-a class I found horribly boring. As it turns out, I was diagnosed with ADHD midway through my master’s program. In order to validate the diagnosis, I was required to go through a full battery of psychological, intelligence, and achievement testing. Going into the testing, I was under the impression these tests would be similar to those I took in school-they’d be used to see if I met a benchmark for my capacity to learn. In this context, however, the tests were used diagnostically to assess where I was at rather than tell me I didn’t meet a certain “bench mark”. Robinson discussed this subject and how our present educational system uses tests as a benchmark rather than as a diagnostic tool. He made a very valid point about education: it is not a mechanical system, it’s a human system. Testing appears to be one of the many paths leading to the “Educational Death Valley”. Unfortunately, our current educational system seems to be riddled with paths that lead students to this valley-a place where effective learning no longer occurs.

To this day, I firmly believe my educational experience would have been drastically improved had I 1) been diagnosed with ADHD earlier and 2) had a path out of the Educational Death Valley. I think that if we, as educators, can be more cognizant of the pitfalls within the educational system, then we will better recognize when students journey down the path into “Death Valley” and we can be ready to engage them in mindful learning to show them the path out.

Mission Statements: Just a Mantra?

As a doctoral student who has only ever attended public universities, I have always been curious what my experiences would have been like had I attended a private university. So, when deciding on mission statements to look up and reflect on, I decided to investigate statements from both a private and public university. I figured the two institutions would provide valuable insights into what public vs. private universities seek to provide their students and communities.

EPSON scanner image

The private university I chose was Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. Their mission statement is as follows:

“Cornell is a private, Ivy League university and the land-grant university for New York State. Cornell’s mission is to discover, preserve, and disseminate knowledge; produce creative work; and promote a culture of broad inquiry throughout and beyond the Cornell community. Cornell also aims, through public service, to enhance the lives and livelihoods of our students, the people of New York, and others around the world.”

The first thing I found interesting about this statement was the fact that Cornell is both a private as well as a land-grant university. From what I thought I understood about land-grant institutions, I was under the impression they were exclusively public universities since they received money from the state. However, a little internet research revealed that a land-grant institution is one that receives benefits from the Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890. The Morrill Acts funded educational institutions by granting federally controlled land to the states for them to sell, raise funds, establish and endow “land-grant” colleges. The mission of these land-grant colleges was to focus on the teaching of practical agriculture, science, military science, and engineering (without excluding “classical studies”). The remainder of their mission statement reflected that of any land-grant university by promising to provided education and disseminate knowledge. I liked the additional statement about Cornell providing pubic service aiming to enhance the lives of the people of New York and around the world.

mission3The public university I chose was my alma mater Kansas State University (KSU) located in Manhattan, Kansas. Their mission statement is as follows:

The mission of Kansas State University is to foster excellent teaching, research, and service that develop a highly skilled and educated citizenry necessary to advancing the well-being of Kansas, the nation, and the international community. The university embraces diversity, encourages engagement and is committed to the discovery of knowledge, the education of undergraduate and graduate students, and improvement in the quality of life and standard of living of those we serve.

Though it isn’t explicitly stated in their mission statement, KSU is also a land-grant university. Their promise to foster teaching, research, and service are all making good on their role as a land-grant college. Like Cornell, they promise to advance the well-being of their state as well as the world. A significant different between KSU’s mission statement and Cornell’s is that KSU mentions embracing diversity, where as Cornell mentioned it was a “private, Ivy League” institution. Just from their mission statements, I would gather that KSU is a more inclusive institution for students and staff.

Overall, the mission statements of these institutions share several similarities. I believe this may be due to their “land-grant” nature, and I would be interested to see if other non land-grant universities (both private and public) reflect the commonalities in KSU’s and Cornell’s missions. However, I find it incredibly interesting that one university includes diversity, and by default inclusivity, in its mission while the other does not. I guess my final thought on the subject would be: I wonder how the promises within these missions manifest in the learning environment of their respective universities?

Navigating Networked Learning

Prior to beginning this course last week, I had no idea what the word ‘pedagogy’ meant; I honestly had no notion that such a word existed in the English vocabulary. However, I did recognize it must have something to do with education, since I was required to take this pedagogy-focused course as a requirement for the Virginia Tech Graduate Schools’s “Future Professoriate Certificate”. A long-term goal of mine is to make a career as a college professor, which is why I am enrolled in the Future Professoriate Certificate. In my field [food science], the role of a professor is divided into three main functions: research, extension, and teaching. Since 2/3 (extension & teaching) of my aspired-to career involved education in some form,  I am intrigued to learn more about pedagogy and all it encompasses. So, as a first step in my quest to understand concept of pedagogy, I took to Wikipedia- despite the protests of my inner academician .

According to Wikipedia, pedagogy is “the discipline that deals with the theory and practice of education” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pedagogy). The term ‘pedagogy’ comes from the Greek word pedagogue – a slave who escorted Greek children to school.  In the present day, pedagogue refers to a practitioner of pedagogy (i.e. someone who imparts or teaches knowledge to another).  From what I gather, knowledge does not solely refer to technical or vocational skills but extends to encompass social skills as well as an understanding of concepts and theories. When thinking about the GEDIS17 course, I wonder what aspects of contemporary pedagogy we will touch upon. One thing is for certain- I’m going to come out of this course with far more pedagogy-related knowledge than I came in with!

According to our course schedule, the first topic we will discuss is Networked Learning. Again, I have no clue what networked learning is, so I turned to Wikipedia once again. Networked Learning is defined as “the process of developing and maintaining connections, with people and information, and communicating in such a way so as to support one another’s learning” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Networked_learning). A key phrase I honed in on within this definition was “…connections, with people and information…”. I can’t think of a better phrase to describe modern society. Today’s world is defined by readily-available technology and the dependency we have on it to live our everyday lives. Not only does this technology connect us to vast amounts of information with the click of a button, but it just as easily connects us with our fellow man. After thinking about it, networked learning seemed like a fitting subject to begin with in the context of contemporary pedagogy.

This thought process lead me to a few “AH HA!” moments:

-Blogging is a form of communication.

-Writing and responding to my classmates’ blogs is a form of networked learning.

-I am actually learning stuff while sitting here writing this post…..cool!


In pursuit of more knowledge (and possibly more “AH HA” moments), I began reading the class material pertaining to networked learning. I first watched Seth Goodwin and Tom Peters on Blogging (2009), and really liked what was being said. Tom’s statement “No single thing in the last fifteen years, professionally, has been more important to my life than blogging” especially resonated with me. My first blogging experience was for my professional organization The Institute of Food Technologists on their blog Science Meets Food (which I presently manage for the organization). It started as a way to build my resume, and quickly became one of the most professionally-influential experiences of my career to date. I not only developed my ability to communicate science with a broad, non-scientific audience but became connected with individuals who would come to make a monumental impact on my career. I would never have guesses that this networked learning-environment, inherent to the nature this and other blogs, would so greatly impact my life.

The second article Twitter and Blogs are Not Just Add-ons to Academic Research (2014), by Tim Hitchcock, was an equally interesting read that I could relate to. As I previously stated, I started blogging to enhance my resume. However, as I wrote more and more content for the blog, I discovered I had a true passion for communicating my passion for food science. The freedom to write about subjects that inspired me allowed me to investigate and gain knowledge about topics I never would have pursued for academic purposes. I also agree with the author’s statement that “They [social media] are where the conversation is happening”. Even in my food science courses, among peers who are knowledgeable about my field, I fail to have the stimulating, passionate-fueled conversations I have while blogging. There is just something about blogging that allows you to open up, be yourself, and communicate freely.

The third article Working Openly On The Web (2014), by Doug Belshaw, provided some interesting perspective and support for (what I believe) the reasoning behind why blogging allows one to engage more actively in networked learning. His first reason is probably one of blogging’s largest appeals: you control everything. Literally. The content, how often you post, what you say, who you say it to, etc. The is no one peering over your shoulder telling you what to do or how to do it. Personally, I know I learn better when I’m not being forced to do so. As an introvert, I also experience a certain level of social anxiety when asked to express my opinion in front of others. The ability to say what I want, when I want, while being veiled  in anonymity (provided by communicating from behind a computer screen) creates an environment where I can I comfortably express myself. This may not hold true for everyone, but I believe learning is best accomplished in an online environment.

Finally, I believe the last article Networked Learning as An Experiential Learning, by Gardner Campbell, was a fantastic piece that sums up how networked learning applies to contemporary pedagogy and supports my overall feelings towards the subject of blogging. In the words of Campbell, “Offering students the possibility of experiential learning in personal, interactive, networked computing—in all its gloriously messy varieties—provides the richest opportunity yet for integrative thinking within and beyond ‘schooling’ “. Allowing students to learn and connect in an online space creates opportunities for learning engagement that are not present within the class room. If one is to teach successfully in this contemporary age, then one must utilize blogs and other forms of online media to engage students in learning.