Every Breath You Take: On Learning and Mindfulness

By Andy Shaw, Academic Dean

“‘Mindful approach to learning?’ So what does that mean? You meditate during class?” By now, I’m used to this question, which comes most often from prospective parents or visitors who have closely read our school’s mission. It’s a good question, and one I love to answer.

Yes, we meditate at school, not only in Morning Meeting but also in classes. We’re proud to have used mindfulness meditation since the founding of the school, after its benefits had begun to be documented in research but before mindfulness meditation had gained the popularity it currently enjoys in educational circles, Silicon Valley, Hollywood, and beyond. Our focus on mindfulness, though, goes deeper than simply meditation. We see mindfulness as the idea that the mind is something that must be noticed, attended to, and acknowledged in every aspect of the educational process. Mindfulness meditation is a powerful tool for helping students, and teachers, learn to notice and investigate their minds; this tool supports a wider variety of mindfulness practices we employ throughout our academic work.

A mindful approach to learning means acknowledging that the feelings, emotions, and unconscious biases students bring to the classroom are real and must be attended to. Research has shown that students’ emotional states, about which they are only somewhat aware, have significant impact on their learning. These states, like “I am afraid I am bad at math,” ”As a white person I feel guilty when we talk about slavery in class,” or “I’m distracted because my parents are in the midst of a divorce,” are real, even though students may not be aware of what they are feeling or how it impacts their learning. Mindful teaching means helping students, through reflection, inquiry, writing, and conversation, unearth and unpack these hidden conditions, not because we value the touchy-feely in and of itself, but because we know that these statements can handicap the learning process unless we choose to acknowledge them and work through them rather than ignoring them.  The same is true, of course, for teachers. We have our own emotional states and biases, which if ignored can impair our work with students; significant portions of Bay’s professional development programming revolve around helping teachers understand and manage what we are bringing to the classroom, be it our emotional conditions or our unexamined beliefs about education, teaching, and learning. The result is better teaching and more authentic relationships between students and teachers.

Push the traditional definition of mindfulness a bit further and one begins to consider the other myriad elements which are hidden from traditional educational process but which, when attended to, reveal important challenges and problems in education. When instead of harboring our biases about curriculum design we choose to notice them and hold them against emerging findings from neuroscience, we are able to consider new curriculum structures, ones which are better suited to the way the brain learns. When instead of clinging to unexamined beliefs about effective teaching  we choose, through careful assessment design, to look at differences between what teachers believe they are teaching and what students are demonstrably learning, we uncover a treasure trove of data about what works in the classroom, and what sometimes does not. Mindful education is about taking a deep breath and paying close attention to what is really going on for students, for teachers, and in the classroom. It is hard to do in the hectic, stressful world of high school education, but here at Bay we have found that it pays incredible dividends in our work to prepare students for the dynamic world of the 21st century.

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