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Mindfulness in education

In this video Prof Chris Goto-Jones discusses mindfulness in education.
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So far in this module we’ve looked at some ideas about the general impact of mindfulness on society. As well as some specific ideas about the relationship between mindfulness and military action. In this session we’re going to consider some of the ways in which mindfulness relates to one of the most important institutions in any society, and that’s education. One of the major roles of education is to cultivate and disseminate the society’s norms and values. Passing them along to the next generation of citizens. This makes any and all changes to the educational environment deeply contentious and controversial. Especially if those changes appear to challenge any of these norms and values. With respect to mindfulness training in schools, then.
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One of the early dilemmas has been about the nature of the relationship between mindfulness and Buddhism. In particular, if it’s the case that mindfulness is a kind of Buddhism, does that make it into a form of religious education? That should not be part of mainstream secular education in a liberal democracy? Taking this even further, if mindfulness is essentially Buddhist, is it even imaginable that it could have any place in a religious denominational school dedicated to another religion? As we’ve seen, however, it’s relatively clear that modern construct-mindfulness need not be related to Buddhism. And it’s certainly not necessarily related to Buddhism.
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That is, construct mindfulness can be taught and learned as a technology or skill without dealing with any of these wider associations and implications. And it’s in this spirit, that is, in the spirit of value neutral skills education, that mindfulness is being introduced to schools in various places. In the UK, for instance, the so called dot B program has been really successful for teenagers, as has the paws B program for children. Both of which emerge from the important and influential Mindfulness in Schools Project. These programs are clear and forceful, in particular about what they are not. Their literature explains that they are not soft, fluffy, hippy dippy. But instead they’re based on scientific evidence about the efficacy of particular techniques.
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They are not Buddhism by the back door. But instead, they’re thoroughly secular technologies that can be used by anyone without conflicting with any of their beliefs. They are not therapy, but instead they’re educational programs designed to teach specific, transferable skills. Now, of course, as we’ve seen, none of these claims about mindfulness are uncontestable. But it’s very clear that these do represent the purpose and force of interventions framed in the Mindfulness in Schools Project. The purpose there is to help school children to gain some of the psychological benefits that we’ve seen as associated with mindfulness training. As a means to improve their quality of experience at school as well as their performance at school.
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And evidence does indeed suggest that such programs are pretty successful in these terms. In general, students experience similar benefits from mindfulness training as everyone else. After all, believe it or not, students are also people. So evidence suggests that mindfulness can reduce student stress and anxiety. It can reduce tendencies towards depression. It can also help with improving concentration, enhancing creativity, and bolstering sociability. However, one of the great challenges for mindfulness training in schools, of course, is how to capture the interest and attention of young minds. Which are even more constantly and more intensely distracted by mobile phones, hunger, fashion, popularity, and so on, than older minds.
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Hence, dot B and other programs in schools have had to develop new techniques and exercises in order to reach the same ends. One very effective, simple exercise, for instance, which we can try out in our meditation lab, is to ring a bell in class. And to ask students to pay attention and then raise their hands when they can no longer hear it. Indeed, the ten week dot B program has been designed from the ground up for this particular population. The flip side of mindfulness in education is the way that it might support teachers. Like soldiers in our last session, teachers work in unusually stressful, and sometimes even dangerous environments. Which can have seriously detrimental effects on their health.
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As well as their wellbeing and their performance in the workplace. Again, teachers are people too, so mindfulness interventions like MBSR have been shown to be quite effective in supporting and enhancing the wellbeing of teachers. Anecdotally some teachers also report feeling that their teaching actually improves when they cultivate great retention to the present moment in class. So rather than clicking into autopilot when covering familiar material that they’ve taught dozens of times. It keeps them present and attentive to both the material and the responses of the students. I know of some teachers who attempt to promote this in themselves by, for instance, removing their shoes when they teach.
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So that they are literally and physically more in touch with the ground as they speak and as they listen. This apparently innocent, if potentially quite smelly, move by a teacher to remove their shoes in class actually hides a really important and potentially radical issue for schools. For one thing, it might be seen as representing a shift in the power dynamics of the classroom, from more to less formal. And it’s a small step, for instance, between the teacher removing her shoes and then all the students doing the same thing. And then you have a classroom in which nobody has to wear shoes. For some, this is a vision of chaos and horror. Course the shoes are not themselves the point.
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They’re just the proverbial finger pointing at the moon. In my classroom here in Leiden University, for instance, a rather conservative old European University, I’m quite happy for students to sit on the floor during class, if that helps them to concentrate. I often do it myself, or I sit on the desk, or they sit on their desks. I’m quite happy for people to take off their shoes, if this really works for them. So I’ve had the experience of colleagues walking into my class and finding all of us sitting on the floor without our shoes on, heatedly disputing about some issue in philosophy.
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And then my colleagues freak out, because to them, education involves standing at the front of a room full of neatly dressed students in well polished shoes. Sitting on neatly arranged chairs, and professing to them while they take notes. To them, in other words, education involves the performance of power over students. Of course, I’m not saying that there should be no rules in Universities. And I’m not even saying that professors should not have power over students. But I am observing that the more we pay attention in a particular way, that’s on purpose in the present moment and non-judgementally. The less likely it is that those power relations will feel so basic to the classroom experience.
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Indeed, they begin to feel cosmetic, artificial. Perhaps they even feel like obstacles to an atmosphere of productivity, trust, and communication. But again, these examples are just indications rather than arguments. They point us toward some of the potentially radical implications of mindfulness in education. This is not about concrete practices in the classroom. And not even about the materials taught in those classrooms. Rather, this is about the ethos of education in general. As we’ve already seen in this module, there’s considerable debate about whether mindfulness is implicated in the production of conformist, accepting students who learn not to challenge authority. Or whether mindfulness is a radicalizing technology that encourages students not to accept anything before they’ve experienced it for themselves.
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Does mindfulness in education produce slaves to capitalism, or rebels seeking to overthrow it? Or both, or neither? In the end, this issue speaks to much larger questions about the purpose of education in general. Schools and universities today are under increasing pressure to focus on training students for specific tasks in the workplace. Rather than on educating into fully rounded human beings. As a result, the humanities and the liberal arts are somewhat under siege. And it is in this way that I see mindfulness and the advent of contemplative studies in major centers like Brown University in the USA, as allied to a liberal arts agenda to reclaim the humanistic purpose of the University.
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To help students to learn how to discipline and control their attention and awareness. To bring it to bear on all those things that we might otherwise just take for granted, perhaps just because authority tells us that they are so. Now you may recall David Foster Wallace’s parable of the two fish from module two. Where we used it as a way to explain what mindfulness means. But it’s important to know that Wallace wrote that brilliant little story to express his views on the importance of the liberal arts in education. As part of a commencement speech at Kenyon College. It bears repeating. There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way.
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He nods at them and says, morning boys, how’s the water? And the two young fish swim on for a bit. And then one eventually turns to the other and says, what the hell’s water?
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We may also recall from module three that William James also advocated the value of a liberal education. By bringing our attention to the question of our ability to bring our attention to, and then back to, and then back to, and then back to those things that we choose to focus on. Indeed, he said, the faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention, over and over again, is the very root of judgment, character, and will. No one is compos sui, master of himself, if he have it not. An education that should improve this faculty would be the education par excellence. But it is easier to define this ideal than to give practical directions for bringing it about.
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And it is at least debatable that the practical directions that James struggled to provide might relate to the practice of mindfulness today. Is mindfulness the best way to answer the question of Wallace’s fish, what the hell is water? In our next session, we’ll move away from the possibilities of mindfulness as a radical ideological intervention. And towards its possibilities as a commodity in capitalist societies

In this video, I discuss mindfulness in educational settings.

What are your thoughts on mindfulness training for students? What benefits might mindfulness training have on children, youth, and young adults? What drawbacks might there be?

Leiden University

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Demystifying Mindfulness

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