1. the quality or state of being conscious or aware of something, “their mindfulness of the wider cinematic tradition.”
2. a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique.
(Kidding, kidding. Thanks, Google.)
I wanted to start with a definition of mindfulness (and I’m sure I’m not the only one) because I am repeatedly told I should be more mindful and that I should practice mindfulness for my own wellbeing. And boy oh boy, did (do) I find that irritating.
The first time I heard this, I felt that I paid plenty of mind to my body, thank you very much. I did yoga. (Don’t do a desk job if you hate that.) I did physical therapy. (Don’t break your pelvis if you’re not into that either.) I loved all the doggles and sought to keep them active. (Don’t think a fenced in yard is a substitute for the quality bonding time of walking your dog. It’s not; it’s just a bonus for your dog.)
And I think the issue for me here is that I associated this with the whole mind/body connection, and I (believed that I) accepted my bodily sensations. Many of these sensations involved pain, from working desk jobs and recovering from past injuries – not to mention… keeping up with the dogs dashing on. (I know, bad pun, I know, but I couldn’t help it. They run around the yard like maniacs. There’s a connection there, right?)
It’s the “calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts” part that I’m not so great at, I guess, but that’s a story for another post. For this post, I want to talk about mindfulness in teaching. Ellen Langer’s article “Mindful Learning” emphasizes just how much existing methods of teaching can render students mindless, immobile in their own boredom, locked away from the parts of their minds that would build creativity and critical thinking skills. (If we’re being honest, this was me for the better part of my K-12 educational experience. I was intelligent enough to do well, and without paying much attention to the subjects I didn’t particularly care for.)
Where boredom could have run rampant, I liked school enough to try and push toward the creativity on my own… as long as it was a subject that interested me. If not, I merely attempted to perform well enough for a good grade. So my experience with a mindful education was hit and miss, I’d say. I still enjoy reading and writing, but don’t hold your breath if you want me to draw anything better than a stick figure. Don’t even ask me to do any math. (What a snoooooozefest that was for me. Alas! We have much work to do if we want to engage our students.)
By the time I got to college, I realized I was disconnected from some opportunities in my higher education experience because I hadn’t embraced technology fast enough. (How was I to know that the Facebook posts and Tweets that I derided as time-wasters would end up being qualities desired for some positions?) This was, in part, because I completed my undergraduate education during a time in which professors were often getting on board with (often imperfect) technologies themselves. We didn’t get a computer until I was 12, which wasn’t bad given that it was 1998, but my parents lacked the skills necessary to really give me any ideas about how it would be useful. I wouldn’t really encounter this until graduate school. (Now, Canvas is my life. It’s my favorite LMS that I have so far encountered, whether as student or as a teacher.)
Sir Ken Robinson’s TED Talk also touched on this in some ways, and it particularly resonated with me when he said “Teaching properly conceived is not a delivery system.” This is true. I also thought he was spot on when he reminded us that “Education is a human system.” These are two things we as educators certainly claim to know, two ideas our pedagogies are supposed to embody. Despite that, however, we live in a world of mass testing and curriculum objectives identical for all students, no matter their individual interests or needs. (No wonder 60% of students drop out of high school in some parts of the US, as Robinson notes in his TED Talk.) Somehow we’re supposed to just “take it all in.”
Thinking about this “human system” that now often seems as obstructed by technology as it is advanced by it, I want to go back to the Langer piece to address a comment she makes near her conclusion:
“The simple process of mindful learning, of actively drawing distinctions and noticing new things, seeing the familiar in the novel and the novel in the familiar is a way to ensure that our minds are active, that we are involved, and that we are situated in the present. The result is that we are then able to avert the danger not yet arisen and take advantage of opportunities that may present themselves. Teaching mindfully not only sets students up for these advantages, but has advantages for teachers as well.”
Here, I know she’s speaking in the context of education, but as education affects one’s whole life, I would assert she’s making a much larger connection overall. Being mindful, being situated in the present, provides opportunities in all sorts of contexts. The key is representing this by demonstrating it to students through better pedagogical practices, in addition to showing them the ways that being engaged improves other aspects of their lives.