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The Dark Side of Nostalgia Part 2

The Dark Side of Nostalgia Part 2

In my previous post, I discussed the temptations and faults of over-indulging in “Golden Age” thinking. In part two, I will discuss the task of subverting that mindset for the sake of progress.

A key step in defeating feelings of powerlessness is by engaging in ‘Mindful Thinking and recognizing our own ‘Mindless’ behaviors and thinking. In Ellen Langer’s book, “The Power of Mindful Learning,” she defines the concepts of mindfulness and mindlessness:

A mindful approach to any activity has three characteristics: the continuous creation of new categories; openness to new information; and the implicit awareness of more than one perspective. Mindlessness, in contrast, is characterized by an entrapment in old categories; by automatic behavior that precludes attending to new signals; and by action that operates from a single perspective. Being mindless, colloquially speaking, is like being on automatic pilot.”

The practice of mindful thinking fosters flexibility and innovation in the workplace. Mindful thinking allows for new information to change old categories that may be roadblocks to our everyday challenges. This practice allows us to gain the most productive lessons from our nostalgic reflections.

Part of being a mindful thinker is recognizing our mindlessness. Mindlessness is the act of engaging in routines without noticing distinct, novel and detailed information. The act of using mindlessness in a problem solving committee might look like holding on to rigid categories and refusing to explore alternative solutions. The routine of using mindless thinking can be reinforced by experiences of trying new things and failing.

Believe it or not, some of the most rigid team members you know may have been some of the most flexible thinkers at one point in their career. Mindlessness can occur when a staff members feel as though being mindful isn’t worthwhile. They may have been unsupported and made to feel silly when they came in with passion and flexibility. “You know how new people are in education,” they may have heard. “They think they can save the world.” This verbal submission can “go viral” and spread throughout the building with a wink and nod.  Despite what their mindlessness behavior communicates, these very staff members came into this profession to change lives. Underneath it all, they still care about children.


If you take anything away from this reflection, it is that your coworkers need you and your positive attitude. Your positivity, no matter what your position, can also be viral. People’s negative reactions to optimism have more to do with their beliefs than with you. Sometimes when someone is raging against you, they may actually be trying to re-frame their own beliefs with the new information that you present. When we challenge ‘Golden Age’ thinking, many people may feel it’s an attack at their belief system. Instead, we must encourage an honest reflection on the past to create a better present and future.

It is important to consider the dark side of nostalgia because of the strong impact that it can have. Giving in to Golden Age thinking can lead to loss of hope, dissatisfaction at work, lowering of expectations for students, and a negative school-wide culture. It can make you feel that no matter what you do,  you can’t make a significant change in a student’s life. Ellen Langer writes, “Once we generate possible ways of doing something, even if they are low-probability bets, the perception of a solution being possible increases enormously.” What we believe matters. What we believe directly impacts our ability to dream out solutions for our students.

Here is a four point plan to offset mindlessness in problem solving.

Phase 1: Never give up on positivity. Assess your resources/students/staff members in the best light possible. Share your hope for an effective plan.  Positivity doesn’t mean ignoring reality, it means being hopeful in the face adversity.

Phase 2: Be mindful in the team setting. The act of being mindful is a purposeful and intentional way of paying attention to the most novel details. An additional step in mindfulness is using a concept called “decontextualization” to strip any narrative bare of the preconceived notions about the situation. When we decontextualize, we  allow for multiple perspectives to emerge when engaging in problem solving.

Phase 3: Value uncertainty and doubt. It is our over-confidence in our methodology, philosophy and approach that often goes unnoticed as a barrier to problem solving. There is a healthy balance between hopefulness and uncertainty. Our first few attempts at problem solving might fail, and that’s okay! Perseverance testifies to our hopefulness, not our blind faith that any old plan is going to work.

Phase 4: Use the lessons of the past to inform the future. Old categories aren’t always wrong and we need to validate our team members when they are right. This is the practice of engaging nostalgic thinking and partnering that with hopefulness for the future.

There is nothing wrong with reflecting on the past; respect for our past is why we study history. Conversely, it’s problematic to use the past to give up on the future. Even the most positive person struggles to maintain a sense of hope.  Hope takes courage and sustained courage needs support, so find colleagues who will support you in your journey as an educator. The preservation of hope in education is essential for every single child who passes through our classrooms.

Our journey as educators requires us to seek new visions, change, make mistakes and occasionally come back to the drawing board to try all over again. Our flexibility doesn’t make our beliefs invalid but adaptable to new information to best serve our students. Much like doctors who are presented with new science, we also must change our beliefs with new evidence. Changing our beliefs is not a slight at the past but is the act of honoring those in the past who also made changes for the better. As Confucius reminds us, “Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall”.

About The Author

Charles Barr

School social worker by trade and writer by choice. Founder of Common Ground Education Podcast. My interests include social emotional curriculum, school building culture, mindfulness, poverty, school district polity and all things special education.

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