Sunday, June 1, 2014

Mindfulness in Teaching: a Fad?

Recently, I read a thought-provoking post by Donald Clark claiming that mindfulness in education is a fad.  I tend to agree with him, but not for the reasons he gives.

A fad is some activity that becomes really popular for a while, then fades from view.  Have you ever looked back at your participation in a fad and thought, "How could I ever have thought that was cool? What was I thinking?"  I know I have!

1964: Cool glasses, Kathy!
Fads happen in business, too.  Over the decades I spent in corporate-land, I saw them come and go. Somebody at a high level sat next to somebody in business class and the next thing you know, "we're all going to do things differently now". Long ago, for example, we all received training in something called PQMI, a way to manage processes so as to improve quality.   Once we were trained, we were expected to do things the new way, documenting this in paperwork.  What really happened was that those that bought in tried to make it work while many others who didn't buy in just jiggled the paperwork and did things the way they always did.  It happened again a few years later with ISO certification.

The ideas themselves are sound and have been used successfully around the world. What is faddish is when something that requires a fundamental change in thinking is reduced to a training program and then imposed onto people who are already busy and who may or may not buy into it. Training alone does not cause new ways of thinking. In the business examples I mentioned, a tight implementation schedule sent the message that the most important thing was getting the certification. Many of my coworkers rushed around trying to make paperwork look good so we would not "fail" various audits. Little support had been given to the development of a culture that views audit findings (especially from internal audits) as valuable -- even desirable -- pointers to areas for improvement.  In the Wikipedia entry for ISO (see "criticisms"), Roger Frost of ISO is quoted as saying, "If you just want the certificate on the wall, chances are you will create a paper system that doesn't have much to do with the way you actually run your business." (Top-down leadership isn't very good at culture change, really. Another kind of leadership may be more effective.)

The origin of mindfulness is Buddhism, an umbrella term for a wide variety of religious denominations around the world.  It is only one aspect of Buddhist practice, and is more important in some denominations than others. In the 1970s, Jon Kabat-Zinn determined that mindfulness might be useful in helping his patients deal with pain and stress.  He developed an eight-week program (Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, or MBSR) to introduce it in secularized form to patients in pain.  A number of techniques, including a particular kind of meditation, are taught. While the program is quite structured, the people who attend are adults who are there by choice, often because a doctor has recommended it.

 Research has apparently shown MBSR to be effective (I have not reviewed the papers at the link). The program has become a standard offering at hospitals around the world.  A similar program (mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, MBCT) is also now used for helping with depression and other mental health issues.  Programs such as these use some of the techniques associated with developing mindfulness.  But they themselves are not mindfulness practice.  Some do offer their "graduates" continuing support from people with much experience and training in mindfulness practice and some graduates do go on to make mindfulness a part of their lives.

But now we see programs marketed to schools as tidy packages that can be  included as part of an educational curriculum for the purpose of delivering specific outcomes (example here).   Here's a quote from Mindful Teaching and Teaching Mindfulness by Deborah Schoeberlin (a book recommended at the example link):
Peer support is important -- for teachers and for students -- and teaching mindfulness is easier, and arguably more effective, in schools and school districts where everyone participates.  Getting everyone involved in a schoolwide program that incorporates research-based methodologies requires strong  administrative support -- but schools are also more likely to approve large-scale, demonstrated methodologies.  Once adopted, such programs have the greatest potential to impact the overall school culture as well as individual classroom climate.
Note the top-down perspective.  Adopt the program package first and culture change will follow.  In some cases where the environment is already amenable, maybe it will be just fine.  I suspect, though, that many other cases will go the way of the business examples above.  And "mindfulness" will be branded a passing fad ...

By the way, I think mindfulness practice DOES have a place in education.  If you happen to already have a personal practice, then it will be there in the classroom with you because it's a way of life.  I could see a school supporting a teacher's voluntary attendance in mindfulness training as a kind of professional development, and I could see the school supporting trained teachers by giving them time to meet with each other, allowing them to attend follow-up seminars, and listening to their ideas.  (See a book called The Mindful Teacher by Elizabeth MacDonald and Dennis Shirley for what looks like an example of complexity leadership related to mindfulness.  I haven't read it in a few years, need to read it again myself!)

But in the absence of such support, there is no need to teach mindfulness, just be it and support it in others as it may arise. Eight or nine years ago, I attended a talk by a Buddhist nun who said, "It's a poor lifeguard who can't swim."  That has stuck with me ever since. May I continue to practice my swimming skills for the benefit of the learners in my classes.

Note: edited to add a note that I accidentally deleted!

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