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.

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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.

How being mindful in class has made me a more effective & reflective teacher.

What we do, think, say and feel as teacher is embedded in social structures that most often are invisible but no less real. The social structures of schools and classrooms are complex, layered with aspects of power, and usually taken for granted. Mindfulness is a fruitful way to unpack or come to see these structures more clearly, thereby coming to know your pupils, way of teaching, social interactions more fully.

Being in a school environment where mindfulness is encouraged can open opportunities for learning & reflecting. Focusing on critical incidents within your day in a state of mindfulness creates space for knowing through a process of stopping & reflecting.

The term ‘critical incident’ can be defined as:

  • An everyday event that stands out,
  • Vivid happenings that are considered significant or memorable,
  • A problematic situation that presents itself as a unique case and promotes reflection,
  • Highly charged moments and episodes that have enormous consequences for personal change and development.

There is a growing emphasis on integrating mindfulness into the field of teacher education. For me it has provided a rich tool for analysing critical incidents to improve my teaching practices and help me model the process of reflection on critical incidents with my pupils.

Critical incidents are not ‘things’ that exist independently of an observer and are awaiting discovery like gold nuggets or desert islands, but like all data, critical incidents are created. Incidents happen, but critical incidents are produced by the way we look at a situation.  – Tripp.

As a result, its our interpretations and feelings which make an event significant and critical. In order to turn an event into a critical incident, we do more than simply label it. We investigate some of the underlying structures that produce that kind of incident.

Not all critical incidents have to be dramatic or obvious either. It is only through mindful reflection that these rather typical incidents can be unearthed for examination. Mindful reflection involves discovering underlying meaning of what is usually taken for granted and entails observation of what events constitute turning points, change in group conversations, uncovering something that had already been going on without detection or acknowledgement.

Small events, sometimes even unnoticed situations within the classroom have been turned into critical incidents. Their ‘criticality’ is based on justification, significance, and then meaning given to them in a context of inquiry and provokes a will to reflect on that particular event, thereby rendering it visible and susceptible to further analysis and change.

Questions worth reflecting on when dealing with a critical incident are:

  1. Whose interests are either served or denied by the actions in my ‘critical incident’?
  2. What conditions are sustaining this action?
  3. What power relationships between the school, senior staff, teachers, support staff, parents or children are being expressed?
  4. What structural, organizational and cultural factors are likely to prevent the school, senior staff, teachers, support staff, parents or children from engaging in alternative ways?

This Is How You Integrate Mindfulness & Learning

mindful mind skills

‘It is about maximising children’s learning potential through good teaching and the proper application of evidence about how children develop and learn and how happy teachers teach more effectively.’

‘Any school which strives to educate the whole person should also ensure proper academic standards.’

– The Elephant’s footprint

Exploring, knowing, understanding and making sense

To enable children to encounter and be able to explore the wealth of human experience through introduction to and active engagement in, the different ways through which we make sense of our world and act upon it: intellectual, ethical, spiritual, creative, social, emotional and physical; through language, mathematics, science, the humanities, the arts, religion and other ways of knowing and understanding. Learning is grounded in a mixture of amazement and curiosity which constitutes childhood wonder. Further to this we would encourage children to know & celebrate how the learning strategies they employ are closely related to many mindful principles.

Learning Strategies* Mindful Principles
Managing Distractions, Noticing & Present Moment Right Mindfulness, Right Effort & Meditation
Responding (Not Reacting), Thinking Aloud, Thinking Time & Responsibility Right Mindfulness & Right Concentration
Meta-learning, Reflection, Revising & Planning Impermanence, Interdependence, Meditation, Wisdom
Making Links, Questioning & Trying Things Out. Right Effort, Patience, Meditation
Listening, Empathy & Collaboration Interdependence, Loving Kindness, Right Speech, Right Action,  The Middle Way, Patience

 *Based on Guy Claxton’s (Co-author of the Elephant’s Footprint) work on learnacy. [http://www.buildinglearningpower.co.uk/images/blpia_extract.pdf]

Fostering skilful behaviours

To foster in children skilful behaviours on which learning and a rewarding ethical life most depend: mindfulness practices,  mindful speaking & deep listening, inquiry & debate, literacy, mathematics, science, information technology, the creative and performing arts; but also in practical activities: communication, compassion, creativity, invention, mindfulness, problem-solving & reflection.

Exciting the imagination

To excite children’s imagination in order that they can advance beyond present understanding, extend the boundaries of their lives, contemplate a world possible as well as actual, understand cause and effect, develop the capacity for empathy, and reflect on and regulate their behaviour; to explore and test language, ideas and arguments in activity and form of thought. To experience the delights – and pains – of imagining, and of entering into the imaginative world of others, is to become a more rounded person.

Enacting right-speech & deep listening

Right speech & deep listening can help children grasp that learning and reflecting on mindfulness practices is communal and that understanding builds through joint activity & potentially promotes wisdom. To help children recognise that knowledge is not only transmitted but also negotiated and re-created. To continue to advance our pedagogy in which dialogue is central: between self and others, between present and past, between different ways of making sense.

By listening to our pupils we will become a better schools. If a school is an advocate of children’s voices. They will recognise the importance of listening to their learners and their opinions about their school and their education and indeed the children are invited to input into their ‘community curriculum’.

What children have to say:

Managing Distractions

Ignoring chats when you’re supposed to is one aspect of managing distractions. It’s when I try to put a stop to anything that might cause me to stop learning. It’s an important skill to practice because it helps you learn better. (For example if someone is doing funny faces try and ignore them. Try focusing your mind on your own work).

Noticing

Noticing is an important skill because many amazing things happen in the day and it’s sad to miss things.

Perseverance

This skill is important to practice. It is when we keep trying even when things look difficult.

Present Moment

Focusing on what is happening now. It is an important skill because if you don’t focus on the here and now you can be confused or you can miss out on what is happening in the now.

Reflecting

Is a very important skill because it allows us to look at something we have done and gives us a second chance for example; My dad was once shouting down the phone and I shouted “Stop shouting.” I reflected on this in the afternoon and realised that it wasn’t a very good idea to shout myself.

Meta-Learning.

Meta-learning is knowing how you learn best and what you find is the easiest way for you to learn. For example some people are tactile learners, they need to you use their hands. Some are visual and some like to listen best. It is also about knowing who is best to work with on certain topics and who is maybe better to avoid due to distractions.

Revising

Revising is an important skill that we practice. Sometimes our teacher sends us back to look over our work because it could be wrong or need changing (but not always) it gives us a second chance to think again (revise it).

Planning

This skill is important because if you don’t plan, you don’t know what you are doing! And the thing that you want to do is more likely to fail!

Trying Things Out

Not saying no. This skill is important because it’s when I take a risk with something You’ve never done before. You might miss out on something you really like or are good at.

Questioning

Sometimes it is good to question the things we read or hear. This can help us get a better understanding or change our opinion on something.

Reasoning

Having a reason for doing or saying something. Explaining why my answer is right is reasoning in maths.

Making Links

This skill is important because it helps us make a web of knowledge and helps us use our knowledge in different subjects. For example today we were learning about shapes and space, we learnt that half a sphere is called a hemisphere. We soon made a link between this maths knowledge our geography knowledge. Because the globe is made up of two hemispheres.

Interdependence

Doing something with others. This is important because when we are older we have to work well with all different types of people. Understanding that we all share the space and are connected.

Listening

Listening and not talking. This skill is important because it helps me learn from other people’s ideas. It also helps me understand other people’s opinions & points of view.

Collaboration

This is when we work hard as a class to achieve something. This is an important skill because if we work well together we can achieve more.

Empathy

Trying to know how someone else is feeling. This skill is important because how I react to someone can make that person feel happier.

Responding not reacting

Mind before mouth. This skill is important because you might hurt someone else and regret it afterwards.

Can The Testing Of Children Ever Be Compassionate?

They knew me. They encouraged me. They helped me through tough times. They cared for me & I learned. 

I can’t claim that every child looks forward to our mental maths test or spelling tests. Many will run up the stairs into class and it will be the first thing they ask about. When I tell them there will be one today and will give a little ‘yes!’ and clench their fist.

The UK education system and particularly the changes to the primary curriculum have given the ill-informed impression of order and uniformity in how children learn. There is an unhealthy assumption that children perform in neat, straight lines of progress, roughly in line with some bizarre ‘master child’ who is deemed to be the archetypal ‘average’ learner. – What a thought and what a poor child!

There seems to be no room for sickness, bereavements, neglect, abuse or parental involvement. Nor is there appreciation for difference, diversity of talent or aptitude.

For tests to be effective, they should focus on being ‘checkpoints’ for the understanding of key foundation concepts only. Used exclusively as low-stakes internal processes, not external end points. They certainly are not an adequate or reliable way of assessing depth, criticality or enjoyment of a subject.

Our school is clear that there should never be the assumption that everything that is worth learning can be tested in an examination. There is compelling evidence in the field of cognitive psychology that regular low stakes testing can help build secure knowledge of concepts in the memory, and certainly for those elements of knowledge schema to aid the more interesting and complex ideas involved in learning. It’s just a question of how this is done in a compassionate way.

I would suggest:

  • We only mention examinations in terms of an aside – something that will happen but isn’t central to the importance of what is being learned.
  • We always go beyond the syllabus if that’s where the children’s learning is heading.
  • We focus on what makes learning really memorable in the long term.

The first point is actually hugely important. If we can have this attitude towards testing, not only will it benefit the child and their understanding of what real learning is, but it also gives the teacher for the first time organic and reliable evidence of what the children really know. Not what they have learnt simply for a test & to soon be disregarded.

The third point is particularly profound. The principle should always be that learning is something to be loved for its own sake, and that when a child has a passion it is the duty of a school to allow it to thrive.

Luckily my school is very clear on this and our use of assessing children’s progress. First and foremost we ensure we know the children incredibly well as individuals. This is the most effective way of assessing what learning a child has undertaken in a school year. We also acknowledge that learning can be represented in many forms and that written work is not the only valid means of checking a child’s understanding. Other interactions with their learning are held in just high regard. Interactions such as verbal discussion or other creative means. There is also the understanding that it may take more than one attempt to get through a ‘checkpoint’ and the border remains open to further attempts throughout their time at school and is fine to carry on from one class into the next. To give children only one shot at success is an act of gross irresponsibility and is certainly not compassionate towards the child.

They knew me. They encouraged me. They helped me through tough times. They cared for me & I learned. 

Written in response to Dr Debra Kidd Teaching Notes From The Front Line.

Can Mathematical Problems Help Promote Mindfulness In Children?

Can Mathematical Problems Help Promote Mindfulness In Children?

I have recently found myself incredibly interested in whether it is possible to find ‘mathematical’ or ‘puzzle’ activity which is rich in the promotion of mindfulness skills.

The National Curriculum in the UK states that;

Pupils should be taught to make connections and approach problems in a variety of forms, in order to identify what they need to do. Develop flexible approaches to problem solving and look for ways to overcome difficulties. Present and interpret potential solutions in the context of the problem. To explain their methods and reasoning, develop logical thinking and search for patterns when solving problems.’

My initial thought is if you set mathematical challenges which relate to working systemically could this be relevant to the practices of meditative activity? Meditative activity can be defined simply as ‘being involved and absorbed in considered thought’. I wonder then, if children are engaged in regular ‘meditative’ mathematical problem solving activities would they find this benefits them when they engage in meditation or in their day-to-day lives?

Whilst you can and indeed I do look at this from a completely secular position, it is interesting to place some Buddhist context on the question. It is claimed that when Buddha sat under the Bodhi tree and gained enlightenment, he was initially troubled by Mara (a serpent) who tested Buddha’s commitment and perseverance (an emotional often felt with a difficult challenge) which he eventually overcame.

His last awareness under the Bodhi tree was said to be the realisation of dukkha or suffering. We do indeed ‘suffer’ in everyday life and things can be difficult. Could exposure by children to problems and puzzles which need (as Buddha laid out in the noble eight-fold-path; right effort, right action, right mindfulness, right concentration) skills to be solved, be of benefit beyond just the puzzle solving at the time and potentially give children tools to cope with other difficulties they will encounter?

Such activities I can think of are playing chess, sudoku puzzles, riddles and the challenges set out on the incredible nrich.maths.org site.

Do you know of activities which could promote managing distractions, noticing, perseverance, staying in the present moment, reflecting, revising, making connections, reasoning and questioning? If so please leave your examples in the comments box.

Links between children learning programming & mindfulness.

Mindfulness & Computing

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Computational thinking skills are at the heart of the new computing curriculum in UK. It’s a powerful way of solving problems. It will now be a tool in the problem solving toolset that pupils leave school with. It will equip them to not only understand the digital world, but will also compliment their understanding of mindfulness and the human world.

Computational thinking or ‘computer-like’ thinking is to use computational or computational like models where pupils act out computation in different situations. When computers ‘think’, it is similar to being in a state of mindfulness because

  1. They have to ensure they’re in the present moment or else the model breaks.
  2. They have to be aware of every step they take in the series or else the same problems arise.

Example:

A programming lesson where children are asked to write the complete instructions for making a jam sandwich for a robot to carry out. They will naturally carry out the task themselves trying to note down everything they do as part of the process. This is a mindful activity and is a metaphor for children to understand how computers think.

Computational thinking makes for a much more interesting subject than if computing were just about programming – it is much more than that! These skills are not in themselves unique and as explained above are transferable to mindfulness teaching.

Computational thinking skills can most definitively be brought into life problems just as mindful skills can – indeed both are incredibly comparable. Computation is something you could argue monks and nuns have been attempting to achieve for thousands of years.

‘Algorithmic thinking’ is at the heart of this. The core idea is that the solution to a problem isn’t just getting an answer; it is the algorithm – the process. Just because you have completed a Rubik’s cube, doesn’t mean you have solved it. Just because you have got angry at someone doesn’t mean you have solved your friendship issue and nor is the solution to life the number 42. – It’s about viewing, editing ‘debugging’ and improving the processes.

The teaching of algorithms has already been happening in primary schools for years. When we learn how to do addition or multiplication we are just learning an algorithm. Once you have an algorithm for doing multiplication you can multiply any numbers together as long as we carefully follow the steps. We aren’t always good at doing that which is why many of us find maths hard. Of course following instructions precisely is exactly what computers are good at, and that is why computational thinking is linked to computing, but it can transform the way we think about human work too.

Computational thinkers gain an understanding of the world about them that makes them able to model things from a variety of perspectives and this compliments mindful activity. Mindful activity should also help produce better computational thinkers. There are all sorts of activities that may be viewed as computational processes, eating a tangerine, cleaning your teeth, washing up, drinking a cup of tea and dare I say even meditation. Instructive in different ways, computational thinking will be usable for children throughout their lives.