Book Reviews Done by Chandana

On “The Neuroscience of Learning and Development: Enhancing Creativity, Compassion, Critical Thinking, and Peace in Higher Education” edited by Marilee J. Bresciani Ludvik

“the commodity of higher education is not the course-by-course, credit-hour-accumulated degree; rather the commodity of higher education is the human process of learning and development that can be measured through direct evidence gathered in reflective learning portfolios.”

“The Neuroscience of Learning and Development” edited by Marilee J. Bresciani Ludvik highlights the critical perspective of holistic learner development through education, as concisely and impactfully portrayed by the above postulation. These viewpoints were duly affirmed and validated by presenting a wealth of recent neuroscience-based research findings. The phenomenon of “whole-person development” necessarily include enhancement of a number generic learner characteristics or skills such as critical thinking, creativity, attention regulation (AR), emotion regulation (ER), cognitive regulation (CR), self-awareness, metacognitive abilities, flexible-thinking, compassionate attitude, resilience and the like. As implied, developing such generic characteristics in a boundary-spanning manner is of more importance and useful than merely mastering a narrow domain-specific set of skills or knowledge. In short, it is about the overall well-being of the learner at the time as well as into the future that is the most important. In effect, appropriate and well-proven measures or practices are encouraged, both from educational professionals as well as learners, to reduce the anxiety and chronic stress levels of learners that impact negatively on learning, development and overall well-being. There is much overlap in meaning in the phenomena of learning, human development and well-being. Well-being relates to better cognitive functions, flexible thinking, enhanced memory, good sleep and weight balance, good physiological response to immune function, inflammatory processes, heart disease and the like. In other words, the significance of the integrative operation of essentially the cognitive and emotional domains is emphasised. The process of learning/human development is represented as a process of Integrative Inquiry (INIQ) in a deeper sense:

“combine (a) the knowledge gained from research, course learning, and book learning with (b) the wisdom gained from intuition, sensing, and the mindful experiencing of emotions with (c) the ability to embrace the unknown, be curious, and inquire into that we cannot yet see.”

As an insightful comparison, in a contemporary education system, parts (b) and (c) are likely to be the missing or less focused links while some selected parts of (a) are given prime attention. More specifically, evaluating implicit learning undergone while engaging in (a) and (b) would be difficult unless resorting to assessing learning portfolios, journal entries or answers to open-ended questions. After all, the brain is a structurally boundary spanning and highly interconnected organ. It has the dynamic feature of neuroplasticity that enables us to adapt to what we are interested, found useful and paying attention. Such an educational focus contrasts from widely practiced, contemporary systems in which learners are “trained” for a narrow skill set pertaining to a particular domain area, in a segmented manner, as opposed to an integrated manner, as if programming or configuring robots or machines to perform specific, routine tasks, stifling structurally inherent human creativity. If we pay attention only to the problems of our department or the organisation, then we will not be able to see beyond this constrained view in order to understand the real problems in the real world, let alone attempting to find solutions in a creative and compassionate manner. With enhanced AR, ER and CR abilities, we should be able to divert our focus to where it is needed the most.  In “The Neuroscience of Learning and Development”, the authors do justice to the needs of the current world by emphasising on the multidisciplinary perspectives of education. The essential role played by mindfulness and compassionate training practices in the important human development processes involving AR, ER and CR are quite correctly highlighted, irrespective of the area or discipline of study. Compassionate practices decrease the bias and inhuman treatments, resulting in happier and more productive citizens and workforce and better interpersonal relationships. Further, how such human developmental processes play a vital role in leadership training are presented to possibly direct our prospective leaders on the right path to guide our world. What the world needs is that leaders who are comfortable with uncertainty, complexity and unknown nature of problems we are facing as well as we are to face on an ongoing basis into the future. This is the reason why the authors have pinpointed the regulation of attention, emotions and cognition as of prime importance on an individual or grassroots level. Finally, the authors have provided guidance on how to effect a major transformation in the educational forefront as described by effectively and appropriately managing the process of this dramatic change. Yes, it is a complete paradigm change with a focus on the “whole person” development, with the emphasis on inherent human nature, human characteristics and human development. An invaluable feature of the transformed system is that, despite all the positive features, the new system is highly affordable to masses due to the fact that the new measures or practices used, for example, for developing AR, ER and CR, are not complicated to understand or carry out; an urge for a change from top-down is what is needed, and probably what is hard to assimilate.  

Hopefully, we would be able to see many in educational leadership/administration/policy-making positions around the world keen and courageous to embrace the described evidence-based, much-needed transformation to direct our individual societies to sustainability. We, along with the authors, need those responsible to suspend judgement of what we know to be true and prolong a state of inquiry with an open mind, even on matters we refused to pay attention before, to identify what is best for us, as a whole, and for our future generations.      

 On “Search Inside Yourself: The Unexpected Path to Achieving Success, Happiness (and World Peace)” Authored by Chade-Meng Tan

      It is wonderful to see an engineer working for a tech giant, Chade-Meng Tan, leading the way for world peace through an initiative of the development of emotional intelligence/personal growth/human development. He rightly emphasises on the simple truth of individual development at grassroots is the key to world peace. It is uncustomary for someone working in the technology space to raise awareness on the need to develop emotional intelligence/human development of fellow workers as the path to higher productivity of individuals as well any organisation. Meng succeeds on this endeavours in no uncertain terms, relying on a wealth of research in the areas of neuroscience, mindfulness practices, empathy and compassion. His aim, or more accurately life purpose, is to spread the message he has developed and proven at GOOGLE to rest of the world – what a compassionate attitude!

As an educator/education professional, I see great value in Meng’s approach to learners of all levels on their paths to lifelong learning. The presented self-regulation/self-awareness approaches (attention regulation (AR), emotion regulation (ER) and cognition regulation (CR)), revolving mainly on mindfulness practices, are the essential generic skills, irrespective of the domain or discipline of study, for any learner to be in possession for achieving enhanced learning/wisdom/consciousness. Also, with such practices, learners become resilient to adverse situations, which are unavoidable in many social environments, building empathic and compassionate attitudes. Investing time to develop resiliency through well-proven mind-training practices, despite our busy schedules, is analogously paying an insurance premium to cover for the unexpected or to safeguard us when the reality bites, destroying stereotyped expectations in an uncertain, ever-changing world. Further, developed skills in AR, ER and CR lead to enhanced creativity, critical thinking, interpersonal relationships, intrapersonal intelligence, and as a result, enhanced productivity at the workplace and community engagements.

Meng has successfully communicated an empowering message – “what we think, we become” based on the all-important concept of neuroplasticity; our abilities to learn or the capacities to regulate or cognitive and emotional activities are not fixed by genetics, but can be changed by the environmental factors. We no longer should argue about the “Nature vs. Nurture” debate as deterministically validating research has emerged. As Meng highlighted, the skill of mindfulness can be practised and enhanced to a level that one becomes conscious or aware of every time unit lived in a non-judgemental (relaxed and calm) way. It is the time when individuals learn implicitly/incidentally, the most common form of human learning (make no mistake or doubt – it is not the classroom learning), to create lasting memories that are widely used in a generic sense and situations. Further, mindfulness practices enable learners to develop in a “whole person” manner, integrating many operations of the brain including cognitive and emotional ones along with other neural networks of knowledge. Mindful integration of knowledge networks (in a non-judgemental (open-minded), relaxed and calm manner) is likely to make individuals receptive to all types of information/knowledge received without getting psychologically constrained by domain boundaries (or learn in an interdisciplinary manner), enabling them to see the reality as it is in an integrated and deeper manner. Having such a higher level of consciousness is referred to as possessing a healthy mind or, in Abraham Maslow’s words, a self-actualised mind; Kazimierz Dabrowski referred to it as reaching the highest human development levels – level five.

Meng has shown us the path to inner peace in individuals at grassroots in an evidence-based manner, which in turn should radiate as world peace in due course. The starting point of this journey is developing a self-awareness by “Search Inside Yourself”, to understand one’s strengths/weaknesses, likes/dislikes, the purpose of life and the like. This commendable work gives much-needed guidance to education policy-makers and other professionals in the same industry to take right decisions in educational reforms for the benefit and sustainability of our future generations. Highly recommended and a must read for every adult!  

On “Mindsight: Transform Your Brain with the New Science of Kindness” by Daniel Siegel

In “Mindsight: Transform Your Brain with the New Science of Kindness”, the author Daniel Siegel, a Harvard educated clinical Professor of Psychiatry, emphasises the need to integrate cognitive and emotional functions across various part of the brain along with memory types such as implicit and explicit in order to develop healthy minds with a MINDSIGHT or with higher levels of consciousness/wisdom/human development. Without such processes of integration that are well supported by the latest neuroscientific research, individuals tend to develop negative psychological conditions, become sick or would not develop to their full potential. The key neuroscientific concepts behind the above integrative processes are neuroplasticity and epigenetics that allow us to train our minds based on appropriate environmental stimuli. Professor Siegel has given some classic examples (using real counselling cases) of how mindfulness practices can be used to develop healthier minds through the processes of integration mentioned above. He has always used these therapeutic mindfulness practices as more lasting remedies ahead of alternative approaches such as prescribed drugs that usually suppress symptoms while on medication (along with any negative side-effects). The therapeutic practices he used were essentially based on developing critical characteristics of self-awareness and self-regulation. When these skills are practised and developed, individuals become more empathic and compassionate by extending integrative processes from individual to collective lives leading to harmonious and sustainable societies, following the concepts of interpersonal neurobiology.

As an educator, I am fascinated to realise the ways we can apply the integrative human development concepts highlighted by Professor Siegel to generic teaching-learning environments/classrooms to enable individuals to achieve enhanced learning, creativity and wisdom. By emphasising on these mind integration practices, we as educators can focus on the much needed “whole person” or “holistic” development of learners. Linking any new concepts or contents introduced to as many autobiographical memories of the learners and transforming their implicit memories to explicit ones using an appropriate pace following mindfulness concepts would be some critical pedagogical practices we have to engage. Similarly, we should use open-ended questions as well as reflective journaling practices for mindfully retrieving learners’ idiosyncratic and creative ideas for assessing them for their learning as well as in holistic human development. Such assessment would yield more accurate and lasting evaluations of the level “whole person development”, which can be used as a metric for further developments along the same lines, leading to individual productivity, resilience and happiness in general. Interestingly and encouragingly, Professor Siegel has put forth how narrowly focused education systems (focusing on a disintegrated narrower set of skills) existed at the time he was a student have started to improve with a realisation to value broader “whole person” development approaches. The book on “Mindsight”, by Professor Siegel gives some highly useful insights and guidance to educational professionals including policy-makers to direct our pedagogical practices and education systems towards more evidence-based and much-needed learner transformation practices and systems. Such changes will help us to develop more harmonious and sustainable societies.

On “Wherever You Go There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life” by Jon Kabat-Zinn

In “Wherever You Go There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life”, the author Jon Kabat-Zinn highlights the message that the practices of mindfulness are not restricted to particular times at some locations, but it can be followed in anything one does anywhere. Further, he emphasises the fact that the mindfulness practices are not rigidly associated with a particular group or religion, rather it is a way of being that any individual can benefit immensely. The essence of mindfulness practices is the notion of getting one’s attention voluntarily on what he/she does in the present moment, non-judgementally. In other words, simply it is about not performing a task with the autopilot on, following the notion of automaticity – instead, it is about getting all the brain resources focused on it in a non-judgemental way. When we pay non-judgemental attention to a task or matter, we tend to see it more openly, in an unbiased manner or we become more receptive to the information per se that reaches us.  Such an open reception of information will help us to see the reality as is, instead of through coloured glass, as is the usual case in many situations. Just imagine the strength of the idea of possessing a mind trained with appropriate mindfulness practices with the acquired skills to see or sense everything one does anywhere, anytime clearly and vividly as is, as highlighted by the author, Jon Kabat-Zinn. In fact, Jon was an emeritus Professor of Medicine who himself had been practising mindfulness meditation since the age of twenty-two before introducing mindfulness practices to the mainstream medicine in the USA through programs such as Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR).

As an educator, I see a great value for any learner in following mindfulness practices that enable achieving enhanced learning constantly. Neuroscience research has revealed that most of our learning is implicit and it does not necessarily take place in a formal learning environment or classroom. In regard to this revelation, imagine the extent to which a learner can benefit, or can engage in learning per se if he/she can maintain a state of mindfulness constantly by paying voluntary attention non-judgementally in everything encountered and anywhere. In a universe of information that we cannot avoid as the transmission is enabled by various technologies and media cost-effectively, the best way to respond is to be receptive non-judgementally by keeping all our sense open rather than getting overwhelmed by it and closing our receptive sensors. We should also not disregard our internal body signals that help us develop a self-awareness by identifying and reflecting on our feelings, emotions and thoughts and the like in making our all-important decisions and in enhancing our well-being. Researchers have identified that such an awareness that can be developed through mindfulness practices is of prime importance in developing individuals with healthy minds or in achieving higher levels of human development. When we progress to higher levels in human development, we necessarily involve in an integration process of both external information as well as internal body signals that enable a “whole person” development learning path leading to wisdom. Further, we as learners/individuals become better-skilled in essential human functions such as attention regulation (AC), emotional regulation (ER) and cognitive regulation (CR) so that we develop the capacities required to be more effective, empathic, compassionate, resilient and productive social members. These members are better equipped and more capable of identifying and proper addressing of so called wicked problems. 

Finally, the author Jon Kabat-Zinn, who himself has been a practitioner of mindfulness for over forty years, put the readers on a path to developing wisdom. The benefits of mindfulness practices have a radiant effect on many facets of life – in enhancing learning, healthcare, self-awareness, emotional and social intelligence, interpersonal relationships, parenting, decision-making and in short overall well-being and productive human operations.

On “Your Brain at Work: Strategies for Overcoming Distractions, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long – Know Your Brain, Transform Your Performance” by David Rock

 In “Your Brain at Work: Strategies for Overcoming Distractions, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long – Know Your Brain, Transform Your Performance”, the author David Rock highlights the important fact that when we develop an understanding of how our brain works, we can significantly improve our daily functioning as human beings in general. Irrespective of the roles we play as employees, managers, leaders, learners or parents, by developing a self-awareness or mindfulness into how our brain functions, we can enhance our performance or productivity by being able to pay better attention, regulate emotions and control cognitive activities optimally. The phenomenon of mindfulness/self-awareness/metacognition is aptly emphasised by representing it as the “director” in the human life of stage drama. A skilful director (one who has developed mindfulness to a higher degree) is able to utilise the limited capacity stage (working memory) with greater efficiency by appropriately getting actors (information such as emotions/feelings, thoughts etc.) onto the stage optimally as and when required.

The significant findings of the human conditions required for insights/creativity/wisdom are illustrated comprehensively with the analogy of stage drama of life. Essentially, a relaxed and happy mind with an appropriate level of arousal is required to get the attention focussed. Under these conditions, we make many parts of our brain (including the right cerebral hemisphere that play a leading role in creativity) to operate in synchrony at higher frequency levels (gamma range), integrating many forms of information and signals such as thoughts, memories, emotions/feelings senses and the like. These pieces of information and signals are represented in the brain, in fact, as neuronal networks that self-organise based on the learning and experience the individual undergo, following the important notions of neuroplasticity and epigenetics. To minimise higher levels of arousal such as anger, fear and sadness so that an optimal brain operation is accommodated, the author, Rock, has demonstrated the use of mental techniques that include emotion labelling, situation reappraisal and managing expectations realistically (a principle that closely relates to the notion of equanimity).

Another key area that is emphasised in the book is the notion that the human brain is a social animal. In fact, researchers have understood that the social world or having healthy social connections is a primary human need like food and shelter. The presence of physical brain structures such as mirror neurones that help human beings to empathise or understand the minds of other human beings validate the premise of human beings essentially as social animals. Further, the author, Rock, has highlighted the SCARF (Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness) model as a guide (ideally for leaders/managers/counsellors/parents etc.) for making human operations or performance optimal or positive in a social world. They are primary features that human brains are implicitly yearning towards for and any threats causing a movement away from them (within an organisation or group) would result in significantly reduced human performance.

“Your Brain at Work” has also provided some useful guidance for successfully implementing a social/individual change/transformation, however small it is, based on the fundamentals of brain science. The brain is an organ that naturally attempts to minimise threats (fear anxiety, anger etc.) while maximising rewards (relaxation, happiness etc.). It has the inherent capacity to change (physically as well), as highlighted in the notion of neuroplasticity, under conducive conditions and environments. Consequently, following the SCARF model, any social/individual change/transformation should not move members away from (or at least minimise such a move to the lowest level) the features of Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness. Any action that makes a move away from them would result in ineffectiveness in the change/transformation process. As highlighted by Rock very aptly, the status and relatedness features in the SCARF model can compete with each other in an organisation/team environment (as status is usually a measure that compares individuals and it does not help healthy relationships). Consequently, in an ideal or healthier situation, comparison of an individual should be made to a previous status of him/her instead of against another individual. Further, the motivation for a change should be more appropriately enhanced through intrinsic (or more lasting) rewards than that of a “carrot and stick” or extrinsic type.

Finally, as an educator, I believe that “Your Brain at Work” offers many insights that educators can make use of in teaching-learning environments. They can be used to enhance learning and motivation in individuals to progress towards higher levels of human developments with capacities of mindfulness and wisdom.

On “Mindfulness: a Practical Guide to FINDING PEACE IN A FRANTIC WORLD by Mark Williams and Danny Penman ” 

  In “Mindfulness: a practical guide to FINDING PEACE IN A FRANTIC WORLD” by Mark Williams(an Emeritus Professor of Clinical Psychology at Oxford University and a co-founder of Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy – MBCT) and Danny Penman put forth the important message of the role played by inward-looking capacities developed through mindfulness practices towards finding peace within a world of unavoidable chaos. In other words, it is better that we actively look for developing appropriate conditions internally or attempt to develop a self-awareness, instead of waiting (sometimes forever) for solutions to appear magically and externally from a frantic world. Consequently, mindfulness is a practice that empowers individuals to take control of their lives and be content and happy with an enhanced perception of reality so long as the basic needs such as food and shelter are satisfied.

One interesting notion the authors highlight in the book is the “habit release” mindfulness practice. In the words (given in the foreword) of Jon Kabat-Zinn (a pioneer in the area of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction – MBSR), it is:

“I particularly like the simple yet radical habit-breaking suggestions, what they call ‘habit releasers,’ that they offer, which are meant to reveal and break open some of our most unaware life patterns of thought and behaviour, patterns that unbeknownst to us, tend to imprison us in a smallness that is definitely not the full story of who we are.”

By engaging in the mindful practice of “habit release”, we switch-off the “auto-pilot” whenever it is appropriate and shift from a “Doing” mode to “Being” mode. In a frantic world, we get entangled in a “Doing” mode, trying to squeeze in as many “robotic” procedures as possible into our daily routines. We simply work like machines performing routine tasks repetitively with no time spent on reflections to see, or more correctly, to perceive what we are doing in a more detailed and creative way with wisdom/insights while being in a “Being” mode. Most importantly, the key to our health and well-being, reducing symptoms such as stress, anxiety, depression and similar negative psychological conditions is the increase of time in a “Being” mode while minimising the time in a  “Doing” mode.

Another significant mindfulness practice that is highlighted in the book is the development of an approach/acceptance-oriented mental state as opposed to an avoidance-oriented one even in the presence of unavoidable realities of life yielding negative emotions. That is we befriend with such emotions like sadness and frustration with a loving kind/compassionate attitude towards us as well as towards the rest of the world. Clearly, this is not passive acceptance of or resignation to the adverse conditions in a spineless manner. Instead, it is the practice of equanimity through which we get to see and understand the realities of life better, possibly through the secretion of mood-control body chemicals such serotonin at appropriate levels. Through this clear vision and perceptions, we, in fact, get to the point that we can seek real solutions to the problems/conditions that caused the adverse situation. Further, we may get to see that these real solutions may not be present immediately; we may have to persevere for weeks, months or even years at times to find and apply them in a lasting manner. 

Authors also aptly highlight that mindfulness practices help us to avoid the rigid and inaccurate decision-making following a process of over-generalisation. When we are not appropriately mindful, possibly due to being entangled in a “Doing” mode, we tend to jump to inaccurate decisions or conclusions without having access to an adequate amount of information related to the matter. Consequently, it stops us from perceiving the realities better resulting in negative conditions such as stress, anxiety, sadness and frustration.  Worsening the situation further, we may continue to rigidly believe in what we understood as real without adequate information and without being reflective or open-minded.

As educators, we have many lessons to learn from the practices of mindfulness to enhance student learning. First and foremost, we must make sure to avoid the teaching-learning process get into a “Doing” mode. Instead, we should allow learners enough time to reflect and be mindful during the learning process. Further, during the process of learner assessment, we necessarily need to get them to a “Being” mode, disallowing them from getting into a “Doing” mode in which they produce premeditated, habitual answers devoid of reflection and open-mindedness. Such conceptual changes at fundamental levels would lead to enhanced learning and more valid and lasting learner evaluations.

On “Change Your Thinking: Positive and Practical Ways to Overcome Stress, Negative Emotions and Self-Defeating Behaviour using CBT” by Sarah Edelman  

In “Change Your Thinking: Positive and Practical Ways to Overcome Stress, Negative Emotions and Self-Defeating Behaviour using CBT”, the author Dr. Sarah  Edelman highlights the message that the practices of cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) can be used to enhance our psychological health and well-being. Further, interestingly, she identifies the link (both similarities and differences) between the practices of CBT and mindfulness, which is becoming increasingly popular among Western medical practitioners in the recent past. Both practices essentially use reflective or metacognitive approaches to understanding and perceiving our thoughts. One major difference is that in CBT, we mainly use a problem-solving approach to effect a change in our thinking while in mindfulness practices, we pay voluntary attention to objects/thoughts/emotions etc. in an open, non-judgemental and curious way. In everyday life, we face problems that need and have reasonable solutions within a limited timeframe as well as problems or issues that we do not have immediate resolutions. We may infer that CBT is more suited to the problems of the former type while mindfulness practices with its accepting feature or using equanimity in facing unavoidable realties  are  more appropriate in the problems/issues of the latter types. In effect, both practices can be very useful in different situations or applications of life.

Dr. Edelman highlights some of the faulty thinking we may hold and that we can challenge using CBT practices.  Some examples are black and white thinking (rigid thinking), overgeneralising (making conclusions/decisions without adequate information), just world fallacy (related to perfectionism and strongly believe that everything in this world is just/fair), hindsight vision (repenting on past decisions/actions), tyranny of should (things are expected to happen in a certain way without necessarily having valid reasons), awfulising (expecting worst to happen), mindreading (making assumptions on what other would be thinking) and comparing (oneself to others in an unnecessary way). These faulty thinking patterns can contribute towards developing some common negative psychological conditions such as anxiety, depression, anger, ineffective (non-assertive) communication and low frustration tolerance (lack of resilience) etc.  Some common practices of CBT we use to challenge the above types of faulty thinking instances are Socratic questioning (logical disputing or constantly questioning attitude), behavioural disputing (introducing forceful behaviour to challenge our thinking) and goal-focussed thinking (set a goal and focus on that despite challenges). The important lesson we have to learn is that if we develop reflective/metacognitive skills (or a self-awareness) appropriately, we will be in a position to self-identify the above faulty-thinking patterns within us so that we can take appropriate measures keep away from them. It implies that we can and have to play an important role on our own in managing (or appraising/reappraising) our thoughts cognitively as well as behaviourally so as to enhance our happiness, psychological health and overall well-being instead of always awaiting for some external sources or conditions to provide them.

In contrast to CBT, in mindfulness practices, we pay voluntary attention to objects/emotions/thoughts or the reality as is in a non-judgemental, open and curious way. Our focus is not to solve any problem or change our thinking. However, by paying full attention, we get to see and understand the matter at hand more clearly and fully. As a result, we are able to understand any problems/issues with enhanced clarity as well as possible solutions to them, even though this is not our initial intention. Further, sometimes we may have to continue mindfulness practices for longer periods such as years before our perceptions of problems and solutions become clearer to an appropriate level. Consequently, we may not find solutions to problems in an urgent sense using whatever the information available as the main focus and benefit of mindfulness practices is to perceive the reality as is, possibly over time, enhancing clarity alongside.

As an educator, I find that CBT practices would help learners immensely to set up an appropriate psychological environment within (with a proper arousal level/emotional state) to engage in lifelong learning effectively. Use of CBT practices can be thought of as doing the groundwork to develop healthy minds that are capable of getting associated with learning and development more efficiently in everyday life situations (don’t forget that most of our learning is implicit, through life experiences).  

On “The Power of Mindful Learning” by Ellen Langer

In “The Power of Mindful Learning”, the author Ellen Langer (a Professor of Psychology at Harvard University), duly highlights the fact that meaningful learning results only when it takes place in a mindful manner. She put forth many examples of how mindless learning is directed and takes place inadvertently in many education systems that existed and currently prevailing. For example, guiding and testing learners for rote memorisation in which isolated pieces of information/data are and/or unconditional knowledge is emphasised instead of presenting contextual information that relates to other similar concepts/information in a conditional manner. In other words, in mindful learning, we need to direct learners to view and relate information from multiple perspectives rather than guiding them to get one possible outcome as quickly as possible, most likely to be the one preferred by the facilitator or the expert. In many cases, it is done with a firm belief that only one precise and correct outcome is present, without having an awareness that multiple possibilities/perspectives are present.

 Professor Langer quite insightfully argues that directing learners to get to only one possible outcome in an unconditional manner in the quickest possible time is a meaningless effort as the resulting learning has a very limited applicability in other similar but different scenarios, even though these types of outcomes can be tested and assessed in an accurate and precise manner as part of learner evaluation. As a result, recognition tests in which we evaluate whether learners have developed an awareness (conditionally and contextually) rather than whether a piece of information is memorised in an exact format would be a better and more valid assessment. Such assessment would assess individuals’ real transformation (with a lasting impact) that takes place through learning. She further argues that many intelligence tests use a similar assessment concept in which attempts are made to match the individual being tested to one perspective of reality out of many possible perspectives of reality. Further, an interesting distinction is made between approaches to learning based on (single domain) intelligence (or linear problem-solving approach) and mindfulness. In the mindful learning approach, learners are guided to be open-minded, alert and flexible in their learning with an understanding that most of our learning is conditional and subject to change based on our new and/or future learning.

 Professor Langer insightfully and highly reflectively describes how learning/assessment can become mindless:

“Schools generally pay little attention to how, when, and by whom the criteria for grading were chosen. If the criteria were questioned and varied, students’ position on the continuum might change. But they are rarely varied. To make matters worse, once we are placed on the tail end of the distribution, social forces work to keep on us there, setting us up for a lifetime of success or failure. Our fate as winners, losers or just average is sealed.”

Further, after forty years of research, she has become courageous and was persuaded to summarise:

“Our schools are the problem. They unintentionally teach us to be mindless. Schools do this in at least two ways. They teach us to evaluate each other and ourselves, and they teach us to see or accept information as if it were absolute and independent of human creation”

Some of the other interesting insights the author put forth are the need to deemphasising overlearning to the extent of reaching mindlessness and losing creativity, minimising the attitudinal differences shown to play and work (and also to play and learning) and rethinking ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) by introducing/highlighting much needed novelty to the process of learning in order to get and maintain attention from the learners. When something is overlearned, it tends to lose cognitive/executive control on the part of the learner and the neuroscience-based phenomenon known as automaticity creeps in making the learner act in an uncreative manner with less attention to detail. It is also not uncommon that individuals view work and learning in a negative/mindless way with some unjustified preconceptions. This contrasts with the mindful attention they pay when playing. Simply by being more mindful while working and/or learning, like the way we pay attention while playing, and thereby being more open to novelty and attention to detail, we have a better chance of overcoming boredom and stress and enjoy the tasks of learning and working. In relation to ADHD, Professor Langer insightfully sees the possibility of lack of novelty in the item of focus and/or being attentive to a different object or matter as the reasons for inattention/distraction. This alternative view of ADHD in itself is a demonstration of how one can be mindful of a concept/phenomenon by viewing from multiple perspectives/dimensions.

“Mindfulness” by Ellen Langer (also the author of “The Power of Mindful Learning”)

“Mindlessness is the application of yesterday’s business solutions to today’s problems”

“Mindfulness is attunement to today’s demands to avoid tomorrow’s difficulties”

In the book “Mindfulness”, the author Ellen Langer (a Professor of Psychology at Harvard University and also the author of “The Power of Mindful Learning”) brilliantly highlights the notion of mindfulness as a day-to-day life practice in a very compelling manner. The book recently celebrated the 25th year anniversary, and it is interesting to see the author’s initial wisdom and research outcomes are being reaffirmed by many similar works in more recent times. She starts the book by giving examples of how widespread mindless behaviours and operations present in our societies bring about distorted/narrow self-images, unintended cruelty, stunned potential, loss of control and negative health and wellbeing issues to name a few of the negativities. With mindlessness, stereotyping or sticking to rigid/inflexible/unconditional categorisation/generalisation is clearly visible. Even in many learning environments, knowledge is presented as unconditional hard facts, and all that is expected from learners is to memorise them and use them identically in any future situations. Such learning environments inadvertently produce or promote producing mindless experts or persons with single dimension/perspective views.

It is indeed enlightening to come to know what decades of Professor Langer’s research has revealed in an evidence-based manner (though unsurprising in a way):

“Mindlessness is pervasive. In fact I believe virtually all of our problems – personal, interpersonal, professional, and societal – either directly or indirectly stem from mindlessness.”

In contrast, when mindfulness is used and practiced, individuals develop the abilities to see many perspectives of the same problem/matter, receive and approach knowledge in a conditional and/or contextual manner that is subject to change over time or seen from a different context as opposed to receiving them as hard facts irrespective of the underlying contexts. In a learning environment, learners will be benefited in their human development process to be more creative, productive and resilient beings when additional time is used to introduce learners to many contexts and perspectives of a single concept or piece of knowledge (possibly without restricting to a single domain/disciplinary area) in a conditional manner. In other words, learners are presented with high-level/generalised concepts/knowledge (contextually and conditionally) that can be readily re-categorised and re-contextualised in future situations/problem-solving efforts. Further, in learning and development, what matters is the mindful process that the learner undergoes rather than any outcome, a notion that is at odds with many contemporary educational systems that purely focus on the outcomes (in many instances outcomes do not necessarily reflect the process undertaken) irrespective of how (positive or negative ways) they are achieved.

In mindless learning, individuals attempt to use past learning done in a rigid/hard-facts/unconditional manner inappropriately to current situations/problem-solving exercises while in mindful learning, they become open, alert in an ongoing manner and are flexible when receiving/grasping knowledge in a conditional/contextual manner as well as re-contextualise/modify them in a manner that is appropriate to current, future or new situations. Consequently, a mindful person becomes open to new information/knowledge and ideas and can see a problem/matter from multiple perspectives. This is essentially a creative approach to life and day-to-day matters. In other words, the abilities/skills in mindfulness lead to the development of better psychological health and resilience (as defined relation to the notion of emotional intelligence) in facing challenging situations in life. For instance, in the psychological/counselling practice of cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT), individual get exposed to multiple perspectives of depressing/negative life circumstances or presented with a reinterpretation of the same. Such notions are implicitly embedded as part of practices of mindfulness. In essence, mindfulness promotes the overall well-being of individuals especially in the areas of ageing where, in general, there is a negative perception of the notion. Many research assignments conducted by Professor Langer have produced positive results on healthy ageing and enhanced immunity systems enhancements for those who are engaging in activities mindfully. Further, as Professor Langer points out, due to the highly receptive to information/knowledge nature of mindful individuals, they tend to be highly intuitive (possessing gut feelings on mattes) as well (possibly as a result of implicit learning that takes place in an unconscious manner through openness/non-judgemental to information received).

As pinpointed by Professor Langer, many have questioned her about real practical possibilities/difficulties of becoming mindful in a constant/ongoing manner. They even raised the issue of developing a situation of indecision or tarnishing the skill/ability to make quick and firm decisions when one becomes highly mindful. In fact, the strength of mindfulness lies in the ability to make optimal decisions by considering as many perspectives/dimensions as possible. It contrasts with producing less optimal/substandard decisions/results rapidly by neglecting some important perspectives/contexts. Consequently, we see that if the leaders of our societies possess the skills/abilities of mindfulness, our world will thrive towards sustainability. Further, mindfulness is not a tool in possession by everyone all the time so that an individual can make use of it when he/she desires. Instead, it is skill/ability that needs to be learned and practised over time (possibly from very young age) to get to a level that makes it part of an individual’s everyday life.

  On ”  Culture Infusion: 9 Principles for Creating and Maintaining a Thriving Organizational Culture” by Kerry Alison Wekelo

In “Culture Infusion: 9 Principles for Creating and Maintaining a Thriving Organisational Culture”, the author Kerry Alison Wekelo uses her personal and work experience (as a managing director of human resources) to present an organisational culture that thrives insightfully. Essentially, it is a culture that is based on the well-being of employees and their healthy social engagements internally as well as externally. Considering that many contemporary organisations, both private as well as the public, pay scant attention to the well-being of their employees let alone their external partners/customers, Kerry set an example on how organisations should manage their human resources in an evidence-based manner by making use of some of the latest research revelations.

The author, Kerry Alison Wekelo, should be commended for boldly making use of some the emerging and widely discussed human development concepts/phenomena that are verified through numerous research for her role as a leader of human resources management. These concepts/phenomena include developing self-awareness, emotional intelligence, empathy/compassion, effective/empathic communication, openness in conflict management, continuous personal improvement/learning and work/life balance (I personally prefer to use the idea of work/life integration by being mindful to a higher degree and enjoying both equally) etc. Research in the last two decades or so has revealed that these are some of the essential ingredients of improving individual (and organisational as well in return) well-being leading to much-needed higher productivity. Also, many scholars have identified them as essential qualities of effective leaders. Consequently, as Kerry highlighted, intentional infusion of the above features/concepts into the organisational culture necessarily begins with the right leadership.

Another important notion Kerry highlights is the need for organisations to focus on corporate social responsibility (CSR). Though CSR is a notion that has been there for some time, its significance appears to remerge with a vengeance (availability of a number of social media platforms that reach out to masses effectively generating positive/negative images of organisations could be the main reason) in the recent past demanding organisations to focus beyond their profit margins as social organisations. In fact, as Kerry put forth, CSR could begin with organisations paying due attention to the well-being of their employees who themselves are members of the broader society. Further, when goals of a socially responsible organisation align well with internal voices of its employees, they become motivated to engage in their work better enhancing overall productivity. If this aspect of focusing on people is not given the due attention and emphasis, we cannot expect the notion of CSR to go beyond the organisation boundaries genuinely. Further, impacts of well-looked-after employees who are happy will have a flow-on effect on their family members, relatives and friends causing a rippling positive effect on the communities.

As an educator, I was able to generate some useful ideas for improving our teaching-learning practices using the real-world insights given in the book. We need to incorporate appropriate practices and raise awareness of our learners on the important concepts/notions such as self-awareness (through reflective questioning/journaling), emotional intelligence (through practices of raising self-awareness, emphasising on multiple perspectives), empathy/compassion, empathic/effective communication, conflict management (through creative approaches of emphasising multiple perspectives from different individual’s points of view) and encouraging mindful learning and an associated mindset (non-judgemental openness/flexibility in receiving/processing information by emphasising on conditional/contextual/multiple perspective of information and recognition tests as opposed to associative recall tests)  as means of yielding enhanced/deep learning outcomes and minimising study-related stress at the same time.

Finally, Kerry’s employees’ well-being-based approach to human resources management in a corporate environment gives readers much-needed hope in overcoming some of the negativity associated with traditional corporate cultures plagued with disharmony and lack of synergy

On “Beautiful Failures” by Lucy Clark

The author of “Beautiful Failures”, Lucy Clark has done a commendable job of insightfully presenting the problems associated with contemporary education systems in general. Sadly, many leaders of education, who are in decision- making positions, are not able to see the prevailing systems with this level of breadth and penetration. Hopefully, this book with many references to research revelations will become an eye opener to many educational policy- makers around the world to direct our planet in the right direction with some conscientious efforts. Education, in this book, is viewed broadly through which every human being can become a positive contributor to sustainable social developments, as opposed to narrowly focussing on merely getting employed at the end of a hectic and tiring race. That is, holistic human development into self-actualised individuals should be the goal of education as numerous researchers and philosophers referred to in the book have pointed out, rather than pushing them on a narrow path of one-sided development, devoid of empathy, compassion, wisdom and such multidimensional perspectives. Lucy rightly highlights the negative impacts of highly competitive “one size fits all” environments in which the theory of the survival of the fittest prevails, sacrificing the well-being of all students, including the ones who emerge triumphant through the prevailing system. The key performance indicators, as highlighted, of the existing systems are the rising number of cases of mental illness, suicides, dropouts or disengagements and reliance on drugs and alcohol etc. Thank you, Lucy for raising a voice as a mother, on many concerns shared undoubtedly by numerous other parents around the world. I recommend this book for every educator, at all levels, and parent in order to be insightfully informed of the status quo.