How We Learn: On Noticing and Being Mindful

Here’s a re-blog of a post about learning from our classroom blog.

I’ve been thinking about learning this year. The first post I wrote about learning and the jungle of our classroom, and the second was another re-blog from our classroom website.

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At the end of the day we came back to our exploration of how we think. We reminded ourselves about how important it is to build our bank of experiences through perseverance, curiosity, reading, trying new things, building stuff, and travel.

Experience is really important! How do we get more of it??

Experience is really important! How do we get more of it??

But experience is not enough to learn well and deeply.

The second crucial step to deep learning is to notice, to pay attention, or to be “mindful” of what we experience. By noticing, or being “mindful” of what we experience, we can bring those experiences into our working memory (which I likened to a work bench.) On the work bench we pile all of the things we might need to make something new. Our experiences are some of the pieces we’ll need to complete the building project. Only the experiences we notice can be placed on the table. The others go directly to the trash.

We learn by noticing, by being mindful.

We learn by noticing, by being mindful.

To illustrate this, we first talked about how there are many things we experience but that we don’t notice; for example, the push of the chair against our bodies, the brush of air against our faces from the ventilation system, the sounds of the lights and the exhaust fans, the beating of our own hearts.

There are also many things that once they are brought to our attention, we find difficult to put out of our minds. For example, try to tell someone they can’t scratch their nose and then scratch yours.

Finally, we realized that there were times that we might have experienced something, even heard it, but it didn’t sink in far enough to help us learn it. This happens often when we are tired, or our mind has begun to wander to other things, or when we are concentrating on something else, like reading or thinking! Minds are hard to control! It takes a lot of effort!

To help illustrate how paying attention (noticing) is both difficult and important for learning, I had the students watch the famous selective attention video about the players passing the basketball. Our job was to count the number of times the team in white shirts passed the ball. If you haven’t seen it, take a minute and a half to watch it.

We played the video again to notice the gorilla and count the ball, which we could do better because we were more familiar with the project, and our attention had been directed toward both the gorilla and the ball passing.

Finally, we talked about how noticing things helps us notice other things. I mentioned that if you would ask a kindergartener to describe a rock, they might not have much to say. All rocks look alike to most kindergarteners. They would probably only know that it was hard, or maybe that some rocks have fossils.

But to a fourth grader who has studied rocks, all rocks do not look the same. Fourth graders know that rocks have a story they can tell if we look closely at them. Some rocks have large crystals, some small. Some are hard, some are soft. Some have different colored minerals in them. Some have evidence of gas bubbles (igneous origin), others have sand and sediment (sedimentary), and still others have smaller crystals or ribbon like bands in them (metamorphic). I told them that from now on, perhaps even for the rest of their lives, they will look at rocks a different way than they had before because they have spent the time to notice, to be mindful, to look like a scientist.

And this reminded us of how Austin, a first grader who drew a butterfly, was able to notice, with the help of his classmates, how a butterfly actually looks in real life, not just in his head. He was able to “look like a scientist.” This video is well-worth the six and a half minutes to watch.

Noticing, being mindful, being alert to the world around us can change our lives!



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