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Mindfulness in education: “You will find only what you bring in.” Master Yoda

Dr James Dalziel, Former Head of East Campus
22 December 2016

Schools with a mindful approach result in a self-managing, self-directing, compassionate and empathetic environment

Mindfulness in a variety of forms has been gaining in popularity over the past years. Broadly based on ancient Buddhist meditation techniques, mindfulness has only recently gained serious study from science. Possibly the best way to generalise the concept of mindfulness is as a purposeful method of gaining increased focus on self. As editorialist Maria Konnikova stated in her December 2012 New York Times article, “… when it comes to experimental psychology, mindfulness is less about spirituality and more about concentration: the ability to quiet your mind, focus your attention on the present, and dismiss any distractions that come your way.” But it’s not just about concentration: mindfulness reportedly helps practitioners live in the present and accept their current circumstances and related feelings for what they are. That is not to say that our current state cannot be changed; in fact, advocates for a mindful approach would argue that an honest recognition of our current state is just the first step toward meaningful change.

Harvard Psychology Professor Ellen Langer’s first studies of mindful practices in the early 1970s arose from her research with an aging population and the effects of age on our ability to focus and maintain concentration. Most recently, mindfulness has found favour in educational settings as a potential antidote for the various afflictions attributed to our hectic, multi-tasked and technology-laden lives.

Mindfulness and mindfulness programmes seem to have become the flavour of the month in educational circles; it’s the latest ornament that simply must be added to our already overloaded school improvement plans. This blind adoption of popular trends in education is cavalier at best; at worst it is dangerous and unprofessional. The single metric by which any educational programme should be measured must be the extent to which it leads to gains in student learning. With this in mind, the benefits of mindfulness are clear, but not always obvious.

It can be argued that we are better off when we have a strong sense of our actions and feelings and the effect they are having on ourselves and others. If we can recognise, for example, that we are feeling mad, and we believe that making decisions when mad does not typically lead to ‘good’ decisions, then we may choose to delay the decision at hand until we are in a different, more productive, state of mind. Similarly, recognising when we are happy and seeking out those conditions that may have contributed to our feelings can be useful in helping us to experience joy in the future. As author Daniel Goleman writes, “Mindful meditation has been discovered to foster the ability to inhibit those very quick emotional impulses.” In this way, our decision-making becomes more intentional and balanced and less impulsive and irrational.

School programmes are taking advantage of this mindful approach to provide a model of structured decision making for students. Simply pausing, checking your emotions and feelings, and deciding if you are in the most appropriate state of mind to make the decision at hand, can provide a powerful filter to impulsive adolescent behaviour. That is, of course, if we remember to employ the mindful steps at all. While practice can help, the reality is that powerful emotions are difficult to put aside while we pause, breathe and monitor our current states. In the early stages of mindfulness students are far more likely to use mindful practice in a reflective manner, and not necessarily in the heat of the moment.

However, it is the ‘in the moment’ application where mindfulness finds its greatest benefits in the form of an increased level of consciousness. People who enjoy a heightened state of awareness are typically people who have the ability to monitor their own values, thoughts, behaviours and, ultimately, their goals. They tend to have well-developed value systems that they are able to articulate clearly and within a variety of different contexts, transferring their moral compass into many unique and novel situations. They can generate, hold and apply internal criteria for the decisions they make, and typically practise internal rehearsal and the editing of mental pictures in the process of seeking improved strategies. Those with increased levels of consciousness tend to read situations early and avoid foreseeable relational pitfalls, much to the admiration of those less sensitive souls who seem to blindly bumble into one awkward situation after another.

Individuals with heightened states of consciousness are aware of themselves, aware of others, and aware of the setting they are in. They are conscious of their thinking and feelings in the moment, taking the time to stop and ‘step out’ of their current connections in order to take a meta-level view of themselves and others. This ‘view from the balcony’ as it has become known, allows the viewer to literally see themselves within the scene, recognising the influence of their thinking and subsequent actions on themselves and those around them. This reflective view can avoid ‘assumiside,’ or the danger of trusting wholeheartedly in our assumptions without ever testing reality, or measuring their truth relative to how others may see the same situation.

This is where mindfulness finds two natural applications within education: firstly, the ability for all members of the community to develop strategies to ‘switch on’ to themselves and others; and secondly the professional benefits that come from working and learning in an environment that is self-monitoring and ultimately self-transforming. Organisational researcher and corporate coach Jane Ellison highlights this when she cites how educational thinkers Bob Garmston and Bruce Wellman “envisioned schools that could provide a meditative environment, in which all the players contribute to the organisation’s practice of being self-managing, self-monitoring, and self-modifying. The ultimate goal of such schools is continuous self-directed improvements in student learning (Ellison & Hayes, p. 109).”

Authentic and lasting improvements to teaching practice, and the attendant improvements in student learning, come about only when individuals are self-directed in their development, that is to say: self-aware, self-monitoring, self-managing and self-modifying. This is true for all learners.

If consciousness is the ultimate goal where, we may ask, is there room for the notion of ‘flow’? From researchers Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi and Martin Seligman and from the various schools of Positive Psychology we have been offered another essential educational ornament, that of ‘being in the zone’ or creating the educational environment that supports a ‘flow’ experience. Flow, in contrast to mindfulness and metacognition, is the state of being fully and unconsciously in the moment. There is naturally room for both as educational benefits are associated with being in the present, regardless of our state of consciousness.

Ultimately, mindfulness leads to an increased compassion for others. By starting with a connectedness to ourselves, through whatever mindful strategy we choose to employ, we gain a level of control over our minds and our bodies. The physiological and psychological benefits to this increased state of awareness and self-mastery are well documented. Compassion must begin with a sensitivity and attention to ourselves, which can then evolve into empathy and an understanding of others.

A school in which all members of the community are taking a mindful approach to their daily interactions should result in a self-managing, self-directing, compassionate and empathetic environment for our students: gains in student learning must surely follow.

References and resources

Ellison, J. & Hayes, C. (2003) Cognitive Coaching: Weaving threads of learning and change into the culture of an organization. Christopher-Gordon Publishers, Inc. Norwood, Massachusetts.
Kuyken et al (2012). “Effectiveness of the Mindfulness in Schools Programme: non-randomised controlled feasibility study” The British Journal of Psychiatry.
Mindfulness in schools project
Sanford, C. (1995) Myths of organizational effectiveness at work. Battle Ground, WA: Springhill.
Weare K. (2012). Evidence for the Impact of Mindfulness on Children and Young People. .b The Mindfulness in Schools Project in association with the University of Exeter Mood Disorder Centre.