My goal as a professor and mindfulness facilitator is to get my students to wonder, to check out what’s on their minds, to challenge their assumptions, and trust in their own wisdom. In this presentation, I was able to share some of the ideas I’ve been exploring in my classes for years. They guiding questions are: How can we ask students to learn if they don’t know what’s in their own minds first? How can we learn if our minds are filled with judgments we don’t even know we have?
Opening Our Minds: Mindful Teaching Tools
Description of the Workshop:
Training our minds to be more receptive, open, and curious is one of the hallmarks of mindfulness and one of the prerequisites of learning. We often ask our students and the children in our lives to explore new ideas, worlds, and cultures. But how can they fully embrace something new if they don’t know what is happening in their own minds? How can any of us learn if our minds are full of deeply ingrained judgments we may not even recognize?
To be able to fully learn (and teach) something new, we need to first see what is on our minds. In this workshop, we will explore techniques and ideas which offer our students, our children, and ourselves the opportunity to see what’s really going on in our minds and to discover how we are relating to what’s happening.
Through this mindful approach to teaching and learning, students are encouraged not only to see their judgments but also to trust their own wisdom. Mindfulness becomes an integral part of the pedagogy itself. This method encourages all of us to look thoughtfully, consider our biases and our perspectives, and to explore new ideas with open minds and open hearts.
Exploring Mindful Teaching
With mindfulness in education, a lot of the focus has been on adding exercises or meditations to the classroom, somewhat distinct from the content of the class. With this workshop, I wanted to focus on a somewhat different idea: incorporating mindfulness into the teaching and learning approaches themselves.
We all know that mindfulness challenges us to recognize our own patterns and to see when we are on automatic pilot and reacting and offers us tools to respond to whatever is happening with more choice. We get to see that our automatic judgments aren’t necessarily right. We learn to be present with what’s happening in a kind, curious, non-judgmental manner. That is vital in the classroom too. We want students to think, wonder, and consider; to contemplate and ponder rather than just taking in information mindlessly.
I often define mindfulness as showing us that in every moment there are two things happening: there’s what’s happening and my relationship to what’s happening. My view is that it isn’t enough in school to just learn the material (what’s happening). We need to see how we (both students and teachers) are relating to it as well: how it affects us and how we might affect it.
If we want students to learn, they first need to see what’s going on in their own heads that might influence or impact their learning. How can students learn if their minds are so full of judgments they don’t even know they have? This approach recognizes that who we are impacts what we know. How we know impacts what we know. We see that the knowledge itself is affected by the knower. This means that who we are matters (but first we need to see it).
There is a growing field, primarily in higher education, known as contemplative pedagogy where the focus is on first-person experience and insight. Harold Roth (2011) discusses the first-person critical approach.
- First-person: Engage directly with the material
- Critical: don’t believe anything but evaluate from your own perspective
With contemplative pedagogy, we are seeking insight and dispelling ignorance. We are exploring our assumptions and recognizing our subjectivities but also seeing and recognizing our own wisdom. We see that knowing our own minds is a necessary condition to critical, analytical thinking.
This approach challenges the “banking method” of education. In education, banking is a term coined by Paolo Freire to indicate the notion that students are empty vessels to be filled and that the teacher holds all the knowledge for the filling. It is critiqued as a largely passive method of learning. Freire asserts: 1) that teaching must involve learning from research, culture, and the students themselves; 2) that “to know how to teach is to create possibilities for the construction and production of knowledge rather than to be engaged simply in a game of transferring knowledge” (Freire 1998, 49).
When I did my degrees in Religious Studies, there was sort of an unwritten rule that no one ever talked about him or herself. The students certainly never used the first person and it was as if the teacher would win a prize if, at the end of the semester, the students didn’t know her beliefs. But that means the material is always about someone else. It doesn’t come alive. It doesn’t allow us to see how what we know influences what we can learn.
Back in 1913, John Dewey wrote that if we want children to be present in the classroom, we need to appeal to their interests. We aren’t saying kids don’t have to do math because they don’t like it but if we can connect it to them then they relate to it more, remember it better, and enjoy the process of learning. I tell my own students they don’t have to like or agree with any or the ideas I offer. But I do ask them to be open minded enough to try them on, see if they fit, and, if they do, explore why. If they don’t, explore why.
We can use mindfulness to encourage students to befriend both their own minds and external stimuli. Doing so not only trains the mind to be less judgmental, less reactive, and more compassionate; it also allows us to trust our minds because we are choosing our responses. This is what leads to wisdom, to engaged education, and to compassion and community.
I have incorporated examples from my own classes in Religious Studies and General Education to offer some tools and practices for helping students challenge their own subjectivities, recognize their own biases, and uncover and trust their own wisdom. We want students to welcome the exploration into their minds and their worlds and allow for curiosity and acceptance for whatever they might find. With awareness and kindness, students can explore any topic without fear of saying or thinking the wrong thing.
This workshop represents the fruits of an ongoing exploration. I consider myself a beginner in this approach and continue to practice and hone these ideas, to see what fits and what does not. I am eager to hear from you about your own work and to discuss these ideas. If you would like to connect, please do not hesitate to contact me. Both the mindfulness and the teaching communities benefit when we get to share our ideas and our work with each other.
Challenging Our Assumptions, Exploring Our Minds, Trusting Our Wisdom
What if common sense is only sense because we have it in common?
The Cat Demonstration
We can use basic symbols (letters, money, colours, and my truly terrible drawings) to allow students to explore their most basic assumptions. There is something very powerful in holding up a dollar bill and asking students what it means and exploring why. From where do we get our most basic ideas? We get to see that we have countless categories in our minds that allow us to filter information but also can trick us into believing that we are seeing the world accurately or that there is only one way of seeing it.
This can be a simple, yet powerful way to begin to explore our cultural conditioning and context. Why do we all see an apple if we think of the Garden of Eden story? Why does CAT mean cat? Why is it important to get a child to say please? What does ‘please’ mean? (Especially for younger students, we can play with the fact that words seem to lose meaning if we repeat them many times.)
Just like with mindfulness practice, we see that our thoughts aren’t necessarily true. We get to see that it’s okay, even desirable to explore and question our minds and the material with which we are presented.
We use this very gentle, playful demonstration to challenge our students and ourselves to see that everything in our minds is open to exploration and that everything in there comes from somewhere. We allow ourselves to inquire: “are these really my beliefs or are they automatic?”
We get to see how trained our brains have become and challenge those neural pathways if we want.
Our truths are affected by all sorts of things we don’t even realize. This too can be a very powerful lesson for students. In addition to other approaches, I like to use research to get students to challenge their notions of truth.
A 2008 study demonstrated that participants who briefly held a hot beverage were more likely to judge a target person as having a “warmer” personality than those holding a cold beverage (Williams, L. E., & Bargh, J. A. 2008).
Another study demonstrated that students were more likely to offer a favourable evaluation of their experiences at school when the subjects before them did the same. If the person before them said he or she was having a tough time, the next student would agree (Vorauer & Miller 1997).
A Mindful Approach to Biases
While doing these explorations, it’s important to allow students to see that their biases don’t necessarily reveal that they are truly sexist or racist. They demonstrate the influence of our conditioning: stereotypes, cultural influence, language, and background. As Phillip Atiba Goff, one of the psychologists who conducted the experiments in “Seeing Black” says “It’s not a comment on your character” (Bazelon 2016).
For this approach, we are not trying to figure out or analyze where these ideas come from. The purpose is to notice them, simply to see that they are there. We can explore their potential impact and see that we can choose how we want to be with them.
We are seeing what’s happening and how we are relating to what’s happening, not figuring out why or getting caught in the narrative of it all. Students can fall into a trap of over-identifying and taking things too personally.
Bringing This to the Classroom
A few examples of things I’ve done in my classes:
- Precepts example: when a student asked how can anyone follow 336 precepts, I used the opportunity to relate it to her by asking, how many rules do you think you follow regularly?
- Introduction to Confucianism: how many unwritten rules have you followed today?
- Teaching on emptiness/interconnectedness in Buddhism: have them pick an object and describe/explore how interconnected it is to everything else
- Prompts at the end of class (see below)
We are not saying that Buddhists or Confucians are the same as us or we can fully understand another culture by seeing ours but this approach allows students to see their own worldviews and assumptions and relate to those that are different.
Creating a Safe Space
- Asking students to be more open which can make them more vulnerable. It’s hard to look within and see these biases. We might not like them or think we are supposed to have them.
- As educators/adults/parents/caregivers, we need to create the space where they are comfortable to do so
- But also comfortable to know their limits
- Suggested ways to support this include discussion work in small groups, large group work in a circle, lots of free writing, opportunities for reflection.
- Include personal connection (see some suggestions below)
- It also means sharing our own perspectives and our own subjectivities and offering both our challenges and triumphs.
Why This Matters
- Our brains get good at what they practice
- If our brains are, consciously or not, practicing judgment, bias, inattention; then we get good at those
- We use mindfulness and related activities to train our brains to be open, curious, and reflective. We can use meditative or specific mindfulness practices as part of this but then we want to interweave them into the pedagogy itself.
- If we just use the banking method, then our brains or the kids’ brains get good at just passively accepting what we tell them.
- We unconsciously filter out information that doesn’t confirm or support our preconceived notions.
- It is vital that we aware that we are doing this so we can make sure we aren’t falling prey to automatic assumptions and that we are seeing the whole picture.
- This is especially important in this age when we can Google anything to confirm what we want to discover and so-called “fake news.”
Activities/Incorporating these Ideas in the Classroom
Mindfulness Practice in the Classroom
I begin each class with a mindfulness practice. The activities vary but may include mindfulness of breathing, mindful listening, awareness of emotions, and discussions/explorations on stress. These practices allow students to arrive, to actually be in their bodies, and find presence in the classroom. They also prime us to be open-minded, to see our thoughts and judgments, and to see how our moods might be affecting how we see the world and the material.
Part of the spirit of this approach is that students are responsible for creating the knowledge and wisdom of the group, not just the teacher. So with that in mind, rather than telling the students how mindfulness can be helpful to them, we can ask them:
- How could mindfulness be helpful for you in your class?
- What did you notice happening today that might influence your attention for the rest of the class?
With practice, we get to see the lens through which we are viewing the world and the material.
Know Thyself – Free Writing
I use free writing to get students to explore what’s on their minds without worrying about grammar or evaluation.
Approaching any topic, I ask my students to do two explorations.
First: what makes you a good scholar of this particular topic? What qualities do you have that will help them explore this topic? What background do you have that might help you in your exploration?
Second: what are some of your challenges in studying this topic? What are your biases? What might get in the way of your open-minded, non-judgmental exploration?
The key here is to encourage students to be specific. They should start to get comfortable exploring their own backgrounds, judgments, assumptions, wisdom, and experiences. Assure them that they can share as much or as little of the exploration as they feel comfortable doing.
For any process of debriefing, I ask students to consider sharing two things:
- What they wrote (content)
- What it was like to do the exploration (process/relationship)
Once students have explored what’s in their minds about the topic, then they can go deeper/get more specific with a particular subtopic or text.
Explore Automatic Judgments
Use a clip/article/text and have them explore and write out all that they think when they see/read this text. Have them focus on automatic thoughts, feelings, and opinions. Encourage them to notice who they agree with and disagree with here, to see which perspective they identify with, notice their reactions to the ideas, notice their bodies. Let them know they don’t need worry about trying to get it right. There is no need for censorship. They get to share only as much as they want. Just explore everything that comes up.
(Let them know they shouldn’t try to be mindful or meditative or non-judgmental or anything like that. Just check out what happens)
Flip the Perspectives
In order to check out our position and find our own insights and to really see the material in a mindful way, it can be very helpful to practice seeing from a different point of view.
We want students to be able to see other points of view. This does not mean students necessarily change their minds or that all viewpoints are equally valid. But it does encourage students to be open-minded and to challenge their automatic ways of seeing.
You can have students explore the same clip/text/excerpt and invite them to try to see if from a different perspective than their automatic one. If they initially agreed with what the speaker or author said, can they see it from a different point of view? If they disagreed, can they try to see it from his/her perspective? They can consider what their lives might be like if they had this other worldview.
We encourage them to do their best to see it from another point of view. They can notice what happens to their minds and their bodies. This allows the students to pay attention, to be more open minded, to check in with their biases, and to avoid taking in material mindlessly.
There are many ways to use this activity: debates, someone playing devil’s advocate, picking multiple perspectives and attempting to adopt them, and/or having them look at a picture from different angles. Even having them switch seats in the classroom can let them explore a new perspective.
Langer (1997) talks about the power of mindful learning. Concentration isn’t staring in one place for a long time. It’s continually changing the perspective and finding new ways to be interested.
This is another activity students can do that allows them to notice that their perspective is only part of the whole picture.
- Put students in groups of four
- Instruct them to use their phones to find (or take) a picture of a particular object you choose
- (For younger kids, use pictures from magazines or have them draw as well)
- Find one picture that represents this object to you or speaks to you
- Everyone takes his, her or their own picture
- Then share with the group
- Why did you choose what you chose?
- Notice what other people chose
Debrief: have them notice how everyone chose something different. They get to explore that even though they are all talking about the same thing but not one person can fully encapsulate what this thing is from one perspective.
For the water example: We get to see that the whole is often bigger than the sum of its parts. That water is H2O but it’s also life and leisure and death and refreshing and cleaning and so much more…
We can see that with every topic, we don’t always have the full picture.
Obviously mindful listening is not new and I certainly didn’t invent it, but I wanted to mention it because it fits so well with this paradigm.
As a classroom exercise, we can use mindful listening for our own experiences but also for material.
We can encourage students to listen mindfully. They can notice when they are moving off into their own experiences, judgments, and commentary.
- Ask students to find a mindful, comfortable posture
- Perhaps give them a few moments to sit, connect with their breathing or the feeling of their bodies sitting in the chair
- Then ask them to just listen
- Let them know that they don’t have to do anything, think or solve or figure anything out
- They are free to simply observe what comes up for them: images, feelings, thoughts, symbols, sounds
- They can notice the tendency to analyze or judge the text.
- Encourage them to listen without agenda or judgment
Have students share with a partner something that emerged for them—a feeling, image, question, thought. “Comparing helps one notice both one’s own subjectivity and others’ unique ways of perceiving” (Hart, 36). Encourage students to notice what’s common, what’s different. We can check out where those things come from, are they connected to our collective categories and maps of understanding?
Just Like Me
This approach to teaching and learning allows students to see more than one perspective, meaning that when they are with their peers, perhaps they can be more compassionate and put themselves in someone else’s position.
As teachers, we are fostering connection, to ourselves and to others. We are encouraging openness to ourselves, others, and whatever we are learning.
Have students take a mindful, dignified posture. Then encourage them to bring various people to mind (that you suggest) and silently repeat the phrases that you will share.
You might suggest students consider any or all of the following:
- someone they love
- someone they see regularly but don’t really know
- someone who looks different from them
- someone who likely has a different worldview (someone of a different religion, living in a different part of the world, different political views, different colour skin, or even a family member with whom they never seem to see eye-to-eye)
This person has thoughts and emotions just like me
This person has made mistakes in her life, just like me
This person has suffered physically
This person has suffered emotionally
Just like me, this person is doing his or her best
Just like me this person has doubts
We can use free writing or discussion at the end of a lesson to get students to reflect on both the content and the process of the class. Suggested prompts include:
- What stood out for me?
- How it this different than what I expected?
- What might my life be like if I had this worldview or this history?
- What was it like to learn about this material today?
- What was my focus like today?
Exploring Judgments and Making Connections
One way to explore our biases and judgments is to do a free writing activity where students are given an opportunity to notice the judgments of any moment and explore their influences. For this activity, you might ask students to write out all the judgments they have about a particular topic, event, or even just in this moment. Then we can ask them to consider, “where do these judgments come from?”
For example, if one of the judgments was about what someone was wearing or the size of their bodies, we can encourage the students to explore, not analyze but just explore…is that my own thought? Is that a function of being a human in this society? Did I know that I had that judgment? If they judge the room or the temperature, they can explore their expectations. This exercise is not about blaming or taking our judgments personally but rather seeing that often what is in our minds is a product of our culture, upbringing, mood, and a variety of other factors.
Body Rituals Among The Nacirema, by Horace Miner
This is an article that uses an ethnographic “outsider” approach on a particular North American tribe. The tribe’s “strange rituals” are discussed in detail. The trick is that the text is referring to Americans (Nacirema is American backwards). Students can use this as a way to see that we all look a bit strange when viewed from a different lens and to further explore their assumptions and cultural conditioning.
Here are some approaches adapted for high school/middle school classes:
Personal Connection/Something I Would Like My Teacher to Know
We want to create a safe space where students feel comfortable. Doing simple things like checking in with students at the beginning, middle, and end of class; asking them how they are doing; exploring how current events might be affecting them, and asking for questions in person and in writing are all helpful ways to create an environment where students feel comfortable exploring their biases. One other idea that I love is having students respond to “something I would like my teacher to know about me is…” Students can use this opportunity to share what’s going on in their lives that might affect their work or presence in the class. I recommend that teachers share something as well.
Giving students the opportunity to do their own exploratory writing can be a powerful way to help them see their own perspectives while feeling safe. You can play around with how often you collect the journals (or not) and whether students share the material (or not). You might suggest topics related to the material you are exploring or just have them write about their own worlds and experiences.
Works Cited and Suggestions for Further Reading
Bazelon, Emily. 2016. “How Bias When From a Psychological Observation to a Political Accusation.” https://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/23/magazine/how-bias-went-from-a-psychological-observation-to-a-political-accusation.html?_r=0
Berila, Beth. 2015. “Understanding Partial Perspectives” http://www.contemplativepracticesforantioppressionpedagogy.com/blog/2015/8/3/under standing-partial-perspectives-by-beth-berila-phd
______. 2016. Integrating Mindfulness into Anti-Oppression Pedagogy: Social Justice in Higher Education. Routledge.
Carson, S. L., et al. 2004. “Mindful Practice for Clinicians and Patients.” Handbook of primary care psychology: 173-186.
Coburn, T., Grace, F., Klein, A. C., Komjathy, L., Roth, H. and Simmer-Brown, J. (2011), Contemplative Pedagogy: Frequently Asked Questions. Teaching Theology & Religion, 14: 167–174. Retrived from https://mindfulcampus.files.wordpress.com/2012/03/contemplative-pedagogy-faqs.pdf.
De La Cruz, Donna. 20016. “What Kids Wish Their Teachers Knew.” https://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/31/well/family/what-kids-wish-their-teachers- knew.html
Dewey, J. 1913. Interest and Effort in Education. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co.
Fischer, Norman. 2003. Taking Our Places: The Buddhist Path to Truly Growing Up. San Francisco: HarperOne
Freire, Paulo. 1998. Pedagogy Of Freedom: Ethics, Democracy, And Civic Courage. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
Hart, Tobin. 2004. “Opening the Contemplative Mind in the Classroom” Journal of Transformative Education. 2(1): 28-46.
Krishnamurti. Jiddu. 2006. Inward Revolution: Bringing About Radical Change in the World. MA: Shambhala.
Langer, Ellen J. 1997. The Power of Mindful Learning. Reading, Mass: Addison-Wesley.
Magee. Rhonda. 2015. “How Mindfulness Can Defeat Racial Bias.” http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/how_mindfulness_can_defeat_racial_bias.
McCulley. Susan. 2015. “Just Like Me.” https://www.sharonsalzberg.com/just-like-me/.
Miner, Horace. 1956. “Body Ritual Among the Nacirema” in American Anthropologist. 58(3): 503-507.
Palmer, Parker J. 1998. The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life. San Francisco, CA:Jossey-Bass.
Simmer-Brown, Judith & Grace, Fran. 2011. Meditation and the Classroom: Contemplative Pedagogy for Religious Studies. Albany: SUNY Press.
Voraurer, Jacquie D. & Miller, Dale T. 1997. “Failure to Recognize the Effect of Implicit Social Influence on the Presentation of Self.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 73(2): 281-295.
Williams, L. E., & Bargh, J. A. (2008). Experiencing Physical Warmth Promotes Interpersonal Warmth. Science (New York, N.Y.), 322(5901), 606–607.
 Most of the ideas and activities here are things I’ve been exploring in my own classes for years. I have tried to give credit where possible. Any misrepresentation or mistakes are my own responsibility.
 The bulk of the literature on contemplative pedagogy appears to focus on higher education though I find it applicable and adaptable to K-12 classes.
 Roth speaks directly to first-person experience regarding the contemplative practices themselves. My usage of this approach is broader, seeking first-person critical insight for any topic of exploration in the classroom.
 This activity is a combination of something I have been doing in my classes for years and an exercise I learned about from Beth Berila’s website: http://www.contemplativepracticesforantioppressionpedagogy.com/blog/2015/8/3/understanding-partial-perspectives-by-beth-berila-phd.
 There are many versions of this activity. Most have students or participants looking a partner in the eyes while sharing the phrases. For many people, sustained eye contact can be intimidating therefore I have opted for this variation. For more on this exercise, please see http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/how_mindfulness_can_defeat_racial_bias or https://www.sharonsalzberg.com/just-like-me/.