Most spiders have four pairs of eyes, which enable them to see what is happening all around them. And most teachers can only wish they had the same ability.
Good teachers do appear to have ‘eyes in the back of their heads’ though. They seem able to sense not just when a student is confused or off task, but even the moment before they are about to go off-task. This ability is sometimes referred to as ‘with-it-ness’, a term coined by the educationalist, Jacob Kounin (1977). Through observing many different classes, Kounin came to the conclusion that the most effective teachers were able to pick up on quite subtle changes in their students’ emotions and behaviour and respond quickly and effectively.
More recently, Robert Marzano (2003) wrote a summary of more than 100 experiments designed to find out which classroom management techniques caused the biggest decrease in disruptions. He looked at explaining and negotiating rules, relationships between teachers and students, rewards and punishments and what he called ‘mental set’. This last was a combination of awareness, or with-it-ness, and a conscious control over how the teacher responded to a disruption.
He found that, by quite some margin, mental set had the biggest positive effect, reducing the number of disruptions by 40%.
What Marzano refers to as mental set could equally well be called mindful awareness, meaning that a more mindful teacher can expect a considerably less disruptive classroom, and by extension, his or her students can expect to do better overall.
Kounin, Jacob S. (1977) Discipline and Group Management in Classrooms. Huntington, N. Y
Marzano, R (2003) What works in schools: translating research into action, ASCD
My recent post about Mindfulness and Classroom Management perhaps made too many assumptions about the concept of Mindfulness. So, while it isn’t precisely ELT related, I wanted to clarify a little what I think Mindfulness is (and what it isn’t).
The video that sparked my last post, has also inspired others to blog about it. One post I read, Mindfulness?, suggests that mindfulness is being used to quieten students rather than deal with the causes of their disruptive behaviour, and that it is being used to control workers and make them less likely to complain about poor conditions. I think it is a common misperception that mindfulness is about drifting away from life in some way but, in fact, being mindful is about being super aware and awake. This is both being aware of what is happening around you, and aware of what is happening inside you. So it’s the very opposite of shutting down and shutting up.
There is part of all of us that actively almost ‘enjoys’ getting stressed, upset, angry, fearful etc. It’s that inner voice that tells us that we aren’t good enough, or that other people will reject us and so on. The psychologist, Ronald Fairbairn called it the ‘internal saboteur’, and it’s also sometimes referred to as the ‘lizard brain’- that ancient part of the brain that is still reacting in very primitive ways to any sense of threat. It’s the lizard brain that takes over when we experience road rage, for example.
Many people do not realise that while we can’t control our negative feelings (and shouldn’t try) we do have a choice about how we respond to them. We can’t help feeling angry, but we can choose not to identify with that feeling, and instead just be fully aware of it. We don’t have to let the lizard brain take over.
This doesn’t mean that we put up with injustice, but that we don’t act from the place of fear, anger etc. On a practical level, we are likely to be much more effective if we can step back from the emotions before we decide how to act or respond. So the kids who meditate rather than have detention (mentioned in my post Mindfulness and Classroom Management) are less likely to let their anger or frustration spiral out of control. And, in the workplace, more mindful employees are probably less likely to put up with poor conditions because instead of simply feeling like angry victims, they will become more aware of their feelings and realise that they need to make changes to feel at peace. (Though it is entirely possible that the big companies encouraging mindfulness don’t anticipate this outcome!)
As well as having a choice about how we respond, we also have a choice about whether we set ourselves up in situations that we know will trigger negative feelings. For example, I have a bad habit of not leaving myself enough time to go places. If I am not mindful, I end up rushing around stressed out of my head, gathering up my stuff and running for the train. And my internal saboteur LOVES that because it provides all sorts of opportunities to confirm deeply held beliefs about how useless and disorganised I am. If I am mindful, I can choose not to put myself in this situation. And the same thing goes for planning ahead for classes.
Mindfulness is a cline. Some people are completely sleepwalking through life. They have no idea that there is any other choice than to be buffeted about by their emotions. Their lizard brain controls them completely and they don’t even realise that there is another way of being.
At the other end of the cline are those who are completely awake at all times. They are conscious of their reactions and any negative emotions that arise, but they identify themselves with the part of the mind that is observing the reaction. Often this is a result of years of meditation and mindfulness practice, though sometimes people just spontaneously ‘wake up’, often as a result of great trauma.
And the rest of us are somewhere in the middle. And that’s fine. Every single time that we manage to be mindful, rather than being led by the nose by our lizard brain, we move along the cline. The more we do it, the easier it becomes.
So, in fact, something as simple as reading a book or article, or going on a day’s workshop can make a massive difference to our lives (and by extension our teaching). It can wake us up to the possibility that we don’t have to be a slave to our negative emotions, if we’ve never even considered that, and it can help us to remember to be mindful more often if we are aware but frequently forget.
And so, while the corporate world may well be trying to take advantage of the mindfulness movement, encouraging more mindfulness can, I think, only ever be a good thing overall.
Meditation is a form of mindfulness, and being mindful makes it pretty much impossible for situations to escalate and get out of hand. This video does a very good job, I think, of explaining exactly what mindfulness is.(Also see my post here https://wordpress.com/post/elt-resourceful.com/1361)
Mindfulness is not about not feeling emotions, but about being aware of what we’re feeling, and noticing it, rather than being dragged along by our emotions. I’d suggest that the students described in the article above became more aware of their emotions and thus less likely to get into situations which would ultimately lead to suspensions. And it’s just as important for teachers to develop mindfulness if they want to avoid problems and confrontations in the classroom.
Don’t sleepwalk into trouble.
The opposite of mindfulness is a kind of sleepwalking. We’re not really awake to what is happening, pre-occupied with other concerns. Sometimes we set ourselves up for classroom management problems by sleepwalking our way through the planning process. (This is understandable when many of us are planning at 9pm the night before!). But it is important to be mindful about certain key aspects of planning:
1 How are you going to group the students? Are there students that you think would work better (not) in particular groups? Think about how to re-arrange them quickly and easily.
2 What are you going to do to grab the students’ attention right from the start?
3 What will you do about early finishers? Will you stop everyone once the first few have finished, or do you have some extra activities up your sleeve? (These can usually be simple variations on the task, rather than having to plan lots of extra things to do)
4 If you have any complicated, multi-step activities, think about how you are going to set them up in advance.
Once you are teaching the lesson, you also need to stay ‘awake’. Good teachers (or at least teachers that don’t have chaotic stressful classes) are fully conscious and aware of what is going on in all corners of the classroom. As soon as you sense that some students are starting to lose concentration (perhaps the noise level is starting to rise), you need to change something. You might, for example, move onto the next activity if appropriate, or change partners, or get students to compare their answers.
Mindfulness traditions sometimes talk about the ‘monkey mind’. This is the part of our mind which chatters away non-stop. Try to notice and catch yourself when you start thinking about what to cook for dinner, or what the head teacher said to you before the lesson, or how worried you are that the students aren’t learning anything/are finding it boring etc. You don’t need to try and get the monkey to shut up (it won’t), but just notice it and detach from it so that you can focus on what is happening in your class right now.
This is particularly important when a student does or says something that upsets you, and you start to feel angry or panicked. Just as in the video above, our first instinct is probably to go with the emotion, and start shouting, or throw the student out of class. But if a student makes us angry, it has to be because what they are saying or doing is hooking into something deep down inside ourselves. For example, that we aren’t good enough.
Some incidents of misbehaviour will just make us roll our eyes, or even laugh (inwardly), while others will really upset us. And even quite serious misbehaviour won’t necessarily make us angry, though we might well respond with a punishment. But when our emotions are triggered, that’s a clear sign that this is setting off something negative that we believe about ourselves. Once you’ve recognised that, it’s easier to let the emotion go, and deal with the situation rationally and mindfully. You don’t have a choice about what emotions you feel, they just happen, like sneezing or blushing, but you do have a choice about what you do or say when you feel an emotion.
Reams have been written about classroom management, and good tips are always useful, but the very best overall advice we can all take, I think, is to ‘wake up’ and be more mindful.
In my previous post I gave a brief overview of what I think mindfulness is, and how it can be beneficial for teachers. As I think it can be beneficial for everyone, obviously, there are applications for students as well.
While I do believe that our remit as teachers can be wider than simply teaching language, I don’t think it is the teacher’s role to therapise the students, nor are most teachers in any way trained or prepared for this. That said, most teachers don’t have a problem with encouraging students to develop self-evaluation skills, and mindfulness can be seen as simply an extension of this.
Perhaps the central focus of mindfulness is the focus on the present moment. This doesn’t mean that you somehow aren’t allowed to think about what’s just happened or about to happen, but that you shouldn’t be so caught up in the past or future that you aren’t really ‘here’. So an activity where you describe a memory is absolutely fine; thinking about what you’re going to have for tea tonight while your partner talks to you about their memory, not so much.
Clearly, it is in the interests of learning for students to be fully present in the classroom, so how could this be facilitated?
Start the class right
In my last post, I mentioned the importance of starting the day right. The same principles can be applied to a class. It’s really important to start the class with everyone fully focused. Some ideas for facilitating this, from Mindful Teaching and Teaching Mindfulness
– For young learners, start with a song or jazz chant or clapping game.
– Take out something really interesting to look at and gradually pull in everyone’s attention
– Read something really interesting aloud
– Start with a riddle or puzzle
– If learners are engaged in discussing something as they come into class, start there.
[And there was another idea involving using a Tibetan bell….but I promised EBEFL that I wouldn’t mention anything like that ;)]
In this excellent post, Kevin Stein writes about keeping a real time journal- a reflective tool where he jots down notes about what is actually happening in the class as it happens. This helps him to make decisions about what to do next- in essence it’s a tool for focusing on the present.
The same kind of activity can work very well for students, and is a good short activity for early finishers. Rather than drifting off, ask them to write a few sentences about what they notice happening in the classroom and/or about what they are feeling. This might give you an insight into the class or the student from a different angle- unless the student wants to keep what they have written private.
Or you could occasionally carry out more extended noticing tasks. For example, the dogme activity, the Sounds of Silence, from Teaching Unplugged, where the class simply listens in silence for one minute to whatever is happening around them (open the windows or door) and then discusses what they heard.
A classic mindfulness activity (originating, I think, with Jon Kabat-Zinn) is to eat a raisin, with complete attention. For example:
Pick up a raisin and hold it in the palm of your hand. Look at it. Examine it. Describe the raisin. What does it look like? What color is it? How would you describe the texture? Now, feel the raisin in the palm of your hand. What does it feel like against your skin? Pick it up with your other hand. What does it feel like in your fingers? Is it slimy? Rough? Smooth? Soft? Hard? Squeeze it softly. What do you feel? Smell the raisin. Describe how it smells. Put the raisin in your mouth, but do not eat it. What does it feel like on your tongue? What does the texture feel like now? How does it taste? How does the taste compare to the way it smelled? Move it around in your mouth and notice every aspect of the raisin. Bite the raisin and think about what you taste. Now how does the raisin feel in your mouth? Finish chewing and eat the raisin. How did it taste? Describe the experience of the raisin.
This can work really well in class-students listen, carry out the activity and then write about the experience. Of course, you could do it with any activity- not just eating a raisin!
Any approach, such as Dogme, where the emphasis is on real-time communication between the people in the class, will naturally promote being in the present (even if you’re talking about past experiences). If students are fully involved and engaged, they are present.
In this way, most teachers will, of course, already be promoting mindfulness with their students, and will be in a mindful state themselves whenever they are completely engaged and ‘in the flow’.
However, even in this kind of dialogue, we are not always in the present. Tim Lott puts this very well in a recent Guardian article:
In our western relationship with time, in which we compulsively pick over the past in order to learn lessons from it, and then project into a hypothetical future in which those lessons can be applied, the present moment has been compressed to a tiny sliver on the clock face between a vast past and an infinite future. Zen, more than anything else, is about reclaiming and expanding the present moment.
We talk about ‘teachable moments’, and it is my experience that the more fully engaged people are, the more teachable moments appear. So, conversation with students can, I believe, be taken deeper, and made more memorable, by asking questions which bring students back to now.
How do you know that is true?
Can you think of any situations in which that might not be true?
Is there another way to see that?
This doesn’t mean that you are saying that what they believe isn’t true, by the way, just that you are getting them to think about it again, from a fresh viewpoint.
A central part of awareness is being aware of emotions and feelings. Fiona Mauchline recently wrote a wonderful blog post about getting in touch with emotions as a way of making language more memorable.
Similarly, you could have a lesson about what things make people feel angry (bearing in mind the questions under dialogic teaching above).
In mindfulness, however, there is an important distinction between being aware of emotions, and believing that the emotion IS you. Mindfulness works on recognising the emotion, accepting that you’re experiencing it (rather than suppressing it), but seeing it as a passing event, like feeling hot or cold. They’re just sensations in the moment, and will pass.
The element of surprise
You can’t learn if you’re not awake , said Kevn Stein in another blog post you should check out. He was talking about introducing elements of surprise or challenge to wake students up. Mindfulness, far from being a passive kind of drifting off, is all about being awake, really awake.
So, ultimately, anything which (gently) pulls students (and teacher) awake and in touch with what is actually happening right now, is mindfulness. With this in mind, I’d argue that it’s easy to see how mindfulness applies to the classroom, as much as any other part of life.
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