Let the children boogie – What teachers can learn from Bowie & Jean-Jacques Rousseau

bowie

Having hit David Bowie pretty hard since his death this year and this corresponding to another reading of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Emile or On Education. These are the things Rousseau & Bowie have taught me about facilitating children’s education. I try to have them as my compass but sometimes it’s hard in the current climate.

1. Try not to interfere negatively with or suppress children’s natural tendencies & aptitudes.

2. Try only to teach something when the child is ready to learn it.

3. Try not to make rote-learning the dominant mode of education for a child.

4. Try to let children primarily learn in context and through experience and ‘projects’.

5. Do not treat a child’s attempted acquisition of moral knowledge differently from their acquisition of other types of knowledge. Hold both in high regard.

How Mindfulness Is So Good At Connecting Well-Being To Academic Achievement In Class.

There is a rhythm to all complex behaviour. When energy is expended it must be restored (stay with me here). The heart beats and rests, we breathe in and out, we work and rest (please stay with me). Learning is no exception – it is very fatiguing.

It requires tension and the right degree of anxiety to go out and meet the challenge, to adapt, and to accommodate. No muscle in the body can function for more than a few seconds without rest. The secret of any continuous endeavour, any task requiring effort and perseverance, like learning is the secret of rhythmic restoration of strength. It is here that mindfulness comes into play.

Learning in a mindful pedagogy classroom follows a rhythm of challenge and relaxation, tension and reward. See below.

The tension line. Proposal, Confirmation, Relaxation, Challenge, Error, Self-correction, Confirmation.

Stress line

On the other hand, in a mindlessness, competitive, non-compassionate classroom the tension line is quite different. It waits on outside relief and if this comes not as help but as rebuff, as is too often the case when you are an inept learner, it may look like this:

mindless line

It is our way as educators to value the cognitive and devalue the emotional. The emotional accompaniments – or should we say, the emotional heart – of any human activity refuses to be ignored. No matter how meticulous we are about getting things intellectually right, unless things are emotionally right, human activity is at a tragic disadvantage.

This is why the first aim of a mindfulness pedagogy is so important.

  1. Well-being of staff & children in the school. To nurture in children a sense of well-being, self-esteem & self-examination.
  2. Create a mindfulness environment school-wide. To help children build and then enjoy a community and to understand the concept of interdependence.
  3. Explore the relationships between learning & mindfulness. To help children become enthusiastic & life-long learners & achievers.

Through the promotion of the school as a community for children, we should aim to attend to children’s capabilities, needs, hopes and anxieties in the here and now and promote their mental, emotional and physical well-being and welfare. We should believe in a strong sense of self and a positive outlook on life are not only desirable in themselves; they are also conducive to learning and to engage wholeheartedly in all kinds of worthwhile activities and relationships. Well-being also means attending to future fulfilment and not just present needs and capabilities. This means “holding everyone to their highest possible potentials” (Stephen Batchelor).

Empowerment & Autonomy

We should also aim to empower children through the acquisition of knowledge, skills, personal qualities and an understanding of compassionate living to discover and lead rewarding lives and right livelihoods and find meaning for themselves in a continuously changing world. We should have confidence that children will be able to discriminate in their choice of activities and relationships and to see beyond the surface appeal of appearance, fashion & celebrity to what is of abiding value, and retain their own centre when faced with shifting values & relationships.

To read more about the three aims of a mindful pedagogy click here.

Nursery Rhymes, Oral Traditional & Mindfulness

decameron1Language, ritual and culture influence all oral traditions. Nursery rhymes and songs make up a large part of these traditions. I believe there is more to it though. Special forms of language have always been important in the promotion of interdependence. The concept of interdependence is a key facet of mindfulness. These often take the form of chant, song, dance and ritual. The language of culture is usually highly thought of, firstly because it is, in fact, memorable, and secondly because it is designed to have a powerful and lasting effect on our development of a collective self or ‘enculturation’.

stortell

Historically most oral tradition came as a result of lack of print or its use was centred around religious and social custom. This is, in the most part, no longer the case. Little is left of that great wealth of common cultural experience which used to be so important to early education. We can not and should not expect that the hymns of the Bible begin to ring out across schools or that children begin each day with Tibetan chants – but there are benefits to the interdependent nature such acts give and should not be lost. We should look to keep this alive.

00577-MEDAn important aspect of oral tradition is of course that it is largely learned in union situations – and gains in its social meaning from that ‘togetherness’ – that ‘interdependent spirit’. Chant, song, dance and linguistic rituals are mindful because they tend to be rhythmic and set to some form of chant or melody which often focuses the mind. Chant, song, dance and linguistic ritual are among the most powerful forms of human learning; primitively satisfying, deeply memorable and globally meaningful. Much of its power comes from the sense of security generated by repetition, familiarity and universality.

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So why not sing a nursery rhyme or take a dance in class more often – no matter what the age.

Children’s Writing And Mindfulness

Writing reflects our way of tying to observe our thoughts and mind.

This article has been a long time coming. To try and approach the complex issues of the relationship between mindfulness and writing has been interesting but difficult. Any attempt to understand writing and mindfulness must begin with the relationship between writing and thought.

Thinking is the business of the brain. Mindfulness is a way of potentially observing our own minds from the ‘inside’, to see how we know what we know or how we do what we do, and so it is with writing. Writing, therefore, is naturally a mindful experience. To practice writing is to practice mindfulness.

We have an enormously complex and efficient theory of the world in our head, so coherent and comprehensive that it enables us to write and understand sentences we have never heard or read before in our lives. Writing, like mindfulness, is  a way to directly gaze into our own mind to explore what this theory is; to examine how it works. Children, (as with most adults) traditionally, find it very hard to observe their own thinking ‘as it comes’ but they can observe the products of their thoughts through what they write very easily. This is what makes writing one of the most powerful tools a child can have.

It’s important to look at the relationship between mindfulness and writing.

The uses of writing for children (and indeed adults) is often;

  • To establish or reflect personal relationships with others. – Interactional ‘me and you’
  • To express our perception of ourselves. – Personal ‘awareness of self’
  • As a record of our present moment. Perpetuating ‘how it is’

The uses of mindfulness for children (and indeed adults) is often;

  • To establish or reflect personal relationships with others. (Compassion)
  • To examine our perception of ourselves. (Self-examination)
  • To be in the present moment.

Just as mindfulness is a way of separating our ideas from ourselves in a way that is easy for us to examine, so it is with writing.

Stimulus ->           //         -> Reaction

Stimulus -> Space/Time -> Response

As the above diagram shows mindfulness can provide space between stimulus and response. The same can be said of writing for children. Children can be rehearsed or otherwise performed in their mind. It not only provides opportunity to try out and even refine things they want to say on paper, but can also give rise to new ideas they did not think they were capable of – or know were there.

Writing, like mindfulness, is a tool that helps organise and develop the possibilities of our own minds. Writing can be an extension of a meditative practice. To make sense of and reflect on the world.

Writing is the slowest of all the uses of language. It is at times painfully slow! The average rate of writing being around 10-12 words a minute for children. The remarkable thing is that thought can slow down enough to produce itself in words. Not only is this is mindfulness in practice but also a way mindfulness can benefit children’s writing.

Observing the products of thought is in many respects the same way that meditators  attempt to observe thought itself. Writing for children is an extremely efficient way of gaining access to knowledge that they can’t observe directly.

I would argue that is is more efficient than speaking in many respects because of its relative permanence to the present moment and because its easy to stand back and observe it as an independent entity. Exactly what is required from meditation on our thoughts.

The beautiful and magical thing that writing can do for children is more than just reflect on underlying thought. Writing liberates it and develops it.

By observing the action of writing, children can learn things about themselves they may not have known for themselves and share this with themselves & others. This allows them to explore their brain’s potential. It may be better to regard this as potential, rather than a settled state or finished structure, a potential that may constantly expand…

Common Misconceptions Of Mindfulness With Children – Makes Them Calmer, Makes Them Happier.

The consistent misconception around mindfulness I hear from parents, teachers & children is that mindfulness practices make children calmer and happier.

This isn’t strictly true. Children who practice mindfulness are actually just as calm or ‘uncalm’ as they have ever been & they are often ‘running on’ the same amount of happiness or unhappiness as they have been before mindfulness was introduced into their lives.

What mindfulness practice does provide for children is support for difficult situations. Every child whether they practice mindfulness or not should and will regularly find the world tough. They will often not get what they want and get the things they don’t want. This causes them distress. Whether it is with friendships, in their learning outcomes or simply wanting something they can’t have.

If you offer no support or tools to children who find themselves in uncomfortable & upsetting positions they may abandon what they are doing or negative emotions will overwhelm them regularly and they can’t function.

But if it is you as the teacher or parent run over and try to rescue the child from this ill-ease too quickly and too comfortingly, the message you send is that it is was right to get upset because failure or frustration are terrible things that we should avoid as much as possible! This isn’t the reality we live in. Life is full of sufferings; like being attached to concepts of ourself or a desire to have things a certain way.

Its in these incidents mindfulness practices should be encouraged and will help children. Encourage children to persist but suggest a period of mindful breathing or a friendly but ultimately matter-of-fact kind of response to their upset. This gives a more mindful, positive and ultimately realistic message about how to deal with issues in a calmer and happier way.

Discussing & Encouraging The Usage Of Different Concepts Of ‘Thought’ With Children.

The meanings of ‘thought‘.

In writing this blog post I have already raised a wry smile. I doubt if I’ll be able to communicate a precise definition and therefore a meaning for the world ‘thought‘.

To discuss the meaning of the word would be a lengthy and a rather semantic exercise and would actually bring us no further towards understanding what actually goes on in the brain when we think.

Checking the dictionary brings us no further to the goal either. Dictionaries offer synonyms – similar meanings clothed in different words – or examples of the use of words – they do not tell us anything about their real or imagined referents.

In fact, the dictionary may seem to add to the confusion. For example, it tell us that the word thought can be used in a multiplicity of ways, some of them even quite oppositely to others!

A short selection from the dictionary notes: formulate in the mind, reason about; reflect, ponder, meditate; decide, judge, intend, plan; believe, suppose; expect, anticipate, hope, remember, call to mind, visualise, conceive, fancy, invent, speculate.

This brings me to the title of this blog post. I do not know why we as educators are so reluctant to acknowledge the ‘mystery’ of thought. Especially since our world seem so full of it in so many ways. Children are rarely exposed to this selection of thought. Although I’m sure children more than anyone could understand them and respect them!

Instead we tend to encourage them to believe that only knowledge exists – not thought. The educated person knows everything that it is necessary to know, or at least knows where to look it up. Why do we associate ignorance with stupidity, and value dogma over doubt? Is it our sense of authority as a place of knowledge (school) that means we can’t show uncertainties and encourage all the varieties of thought to flourish?

mindful mind skills

To encourage this array of ‘understanding the mind’ and the variety of thoughts – the use of these mindfulness skills could be extremely beneficial.

All of the above refer to something brain does that is not directly observable. Thought is exclusively the business of the brain. I also regard thought as an activity of mindfulness. I do not propose you can therefore distinguish mindfulness from reasoning, perception, comprehension or problem solving, or any of the other categories of brain activity.

Just Because I Practice Mindfulness, Doesn’t Mean I’m Perfect.

RoadSignPerfection

Well that wasn’t very mindful‘. – The dreaded accusation that can be thrown at anyone who ‘outs’ that they practice mindfulness.

When difficulties have arisen with parents in the past in relation to them or my interactions with their children I have had to deal with this statement.

It’s a difficult one because more often than I would like I do do things that are indeed ‘not mindful’ or compassionate!

My intention is to be as mindful as I can. This can fluctuate from day to day, hour to hour and unless you are a Buddha, a guru, Jesus – (or an estate agent 😉 ) you will sometimes do things that aren’t always compassionate. I’m a learner of mindfulness just like the children and my other co-workers.

What concerns me about the introduction of mindfulness into education is the unattainable expectations that could come with it; from parents and staff, to children and management/leadership.

What is required is a supportive atmosphere – where people are not demonised for what they haven’t done mindfully, but rather celebrate the everyday mindfulness they do conduct and the effort that is being put in.