Saturday, May 12, 2012

Mindlessness for Mindfulness

It’s nearly breakfast time, and I’m about to go down and make waffles. I do this every few days when the batter runs out, for waffles are a routine, particularly with J and me.

Our waffles are routine in more ways than one. I follow the several-generations-old family recipe, as I’ve done for the last hundred upon hundreds of times I’ve made waffles. And this morning I’ll follow exact same procedure I have for years now. I’ll walk mindlessly over to the radio and mindlessly push the preset button for NPR. Then I’ll proceed to mindlessly open up drawers and cabinets, mindlessly take out equipment and ingredients, and mindlessly mix things together while I listen to Morning Edition.

A key ingredient of happiness, I’ve decided, is minimizing boredom, and over the years I’ve striven to make as much as possible of the boring stuff mindless enough that my mind can wander somewhere more interesting. The best route to mindlessness, of course, is unchanging routine. So when I make waffles, or fold laundry, or pay bills, or enter grades on Blackboard, I first create a script and then stick to it over and over and over again. If something forces me to deviate from it--perhaps someone has put something in a different cabinet or otherwise changed the user interface--I get irritated, not because I can’t stand change, but because suddenly I’m trying to figure out where the baking powder is instead of listening to the latest from Syria.

Educators hate scripts and routines precisely because they’re mindless. One of the biggest criticisms I’ve heard of Direct Instruction, for example, is that it involves highly-scripted exchanges repeated ad nauseam. But mindlessness in one place means mindfulness elsewhere, and the more you can script the boring stuff, the more both students and teachers can focus on what’s meaningful and new.

The Constructivist activities that proponents tout as far superior to Direct Instruction, elevating critical thinking over mindless rote procedures, are often much more mind numbing. This is because they tend to involve large amounts of low-ratio-of-effort-to-learning busy work of the sort that, non-rote as it is, is impossible to automate and draws mental energy away from what’s new and interesting. Instead of focusing, say, on Magellan’s adventures, you’re searching for a tissue with which to gingerly dab up the glue spillage on your diorama of his fleet so you won’t get points taken off for sloppiness.

The key ingredients, then, are engaging material and routine. Make sure there is something interesting to listen to, or an interesting place for your mind to wander, or an interesting concept or narrative or set of interconnected facts in the lesson at hand. And make what’s interesting maximally accessible by making everything else as thoroughly mindless as possible.


Barry Garelick said...

"Civilization advances by extending the number of operations which we can perform without thinking about them." Alfred North Whitehead, 1911.

Auntie Ann said...
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