This article was first published as part of a global conversation about the future of teaching.
Current education is set around academic achievements, competition and educating for exams, which has caused an attitude of selective learning (is this relevant for my exam?). This has caused a lack of development of the whole person and the student’s character. Despite the recent popularity of mindfulness and wellbeing in schools, teachers are still reluctant to use anything in their lessons that is not related to academic content. This is partly because most still don’t understand what wellbeing and mindfulness might entail, and especially because most feel under pressure to complete their content and feel that time is of the essence (GCSE and A-level especially). Many are not aware of the relationship between wellbeing and the inner processes of reflection and self-development, which provide the missing link between learning, deeper processing and long-term retention for the majority of students.
With the added pressure of COVID-19, and student anxieties suffering an unprecedented increase (Widnall et al., 2020), it has become apparent that we can no longer sustain education that is a purely academic fact-factory devoid of the human texture of the learning process. Many schools have found themselves unable to provide for the mental health crisis that has plagued teenagers who are locked indoors and learning alone; isolated and deprived of the company of their peers and teachers.
At present, education is less spontaneous and more predictive and data-balancing, both of which are not applicable to a living, growing, fast developing human being, and neither is to their fluid mind.
Grounding for Mindfulness Technique (GfMT) as a link between student learning, deep processing and self-development
I have been using my own Grounding for Mindfulness Technique (GfMT) in my lessons, testing it in different subjects (psychology, religious education, philosophy and ethics, art, PSHE and drama) for over 15 years, and I have developed usage of meditation for both academic and student self-development purposes. My book Using Mindfulness to Improve Learning: 40 Meditation Exercises for School and Home about this topic came out in December 2019 and contains observations and some of the data that I have collected. As the title suggests, it contains 40 versions of the GfMT and numerous activities for after the technique has been used for a large variety of school subjects. In this short space it is impossible to discuss and report all the covered topics.
This article focuses on some interpretations I have drawn from anecdotal evidence collected from both students and teachers I have taught, regarding the impact of GfMT on their wellbeing, students’ ability to learn, relate and engage with topics, and the depth of learning outcomes. The observations that I have made paint a wide picture – but one still in need of further research – of specific areas affected by the mental health and wellbeing of both learners and educators. I have used the GfMT both in lessons and in regular after-school wellbeing sessions, held for teachers and students separately.
In the after-school sessions prior to meditation, students regularly reported stress, anxiety and overload, and so did teachers. Most of the time students referred to their exams and lack of time to complete work, while teachers persistently reported an inability to ‘switch off’. Some reported a sense of helplessness and some of anger and frustration at not seeing signs of an end to their working day even after students had left the building. After meditation, this was then rapidly transformed into a letting go of their previous mood and perceptions and entering a much calmer state. Anger commonly disappeared and worry about overload of work was considerably lessened. Most teachers reported finally ‘switching off’ even when they thought there was no way and that ‘it was not going to happen’.
After the sessions, students persistently reported a return of focus, a sense of being grounded and ‘chilled’, and not wanting to rush into over-activity again. They exhibited a calmer demeanour and took time to process their experiences. They also liked to discuss them with others. The atmosphere afterwards was frequently one of quiet but productive and engaged calm. Often the sense of simple relief was evident. Students often expressed gratitude for being able to take part in this process and for the change that they were experiencing. Many left slowly and calmly, taking some time to depart from the room. Many reported taking a much-needed breather between school and homework time at home after the sessions, and most reported that this is something they usually find difficult to do due to overload and anxiety.
Usage of GfMT in lessons
Meanwhile, use of the technique during lessons – especially as a starter but also as a plenary – commonly resulted in deeper processing of subject material by students, and more personal engagement with studied themes. Outcomes were deeper and longer lasting. Weeks and sometimes months later, students recollected related insights and evaluations relating to the linked content even if they could not remember all the factual details (dates and names of relevant researchers in Psychology for example). These details were often recovered by revision. The length of memory and depth of engagement seem to have been impacted by the depth of the individual’s emotional engagement and the increased use of their imagination; if a student was able to visualise a particular scene or image, they understood better and were able to recollect the topic for longer and their ability to reproduce it was greater.
The research suggests that using personal experience, experiential strategies and linking ‘personal’ with ‘academic’ is effective and can have a real impact on the quality and depth of learning. It develops not just academic skills and knowledge but also qualities such as empathy, self-acceptance and intuition. It also puts a student in charge of their mental and emotional state to a large extent. Students learn that they can reflect not only on what they are doing but also on how they are feeling about it. Students realised that almost everything they learn can be linked to their personal realities and worldviews. Practising GfMT seems to have impacted their resistance to learning facts that they previously thought were irrelevant and, as such, has improved students’ ability to evaluate learned content.
Questions of linking the content to wellbeing
I have found that it is possible to link meditation and reflection with subject content on a regular basis. Reflection here is not just in aid of Known as AfL for short, and also known as formative assessme... but is also linked to what a student can ‘take away’ long-term from anything that school is teaching and use long after their formal education is over.
What is the impact on learning and pedagogy?
From my experience, GfMT creates truly person-centred education, where students engage with topics independently and process information deeply through the lenses of their own perception, whilst all learning the same content taught by the same teacher. This is a very different type of differentiation; one that organically occurs in a room populated by individuals exploring the same ideas. Students self-differentiate and progress at their own pace. Effective learning still takes place while retention is often longer-term.
Impact of GfMT on motivation
The reasons why a student might feel unmotivated to learn can vary, but all of them most likely have one thing in common: students see no relevance in learning the presented facts. Once students find links between topics taught to them in school and their personal lives, their levels of motivation and engagement change. As a rule, they are no longer ‘trying to learn’; they are ‘experiencing’ the content and therefore they are already engaged and motivated.
During lockdown, students became depressed and unmotivated in technology-led education, isolated as they were from their peers and teachers. This suggests that technological development has strongly contributed to and is currently deepening the mental health crisis in young people. It is notable that upon return to school, students are happier, glad to be with their peers and motivated to learn.
How this links to character education
Lately, there has been a lot of talk about character education. Continuing in the spirit of traditional education, character education appears narrow and only interested in developing ‘useful’ traits. It is almost political and exploitative in its aims. It sees positive traits as performance enhancers rather than building block of happiness.
Students need techniques and real-life strategies and not theoretical moral dilemmas. They need strategies to deal with the real-life stresses of trying to pass their exams and navigate the increasingly demanding world of social media.
What is the way forward?
Considering the limitations to learning caused by COVID-19, it is apparent that only holistic education truly prepares students for life. To provide this, we need to be able to deal with surprises and support development, which we might find disagrees with our own ideas of what is of most worth. We need to nurture and be unashamed of the word. We should trust that, given the right strategies, our students know best where their self-actualisation will take them (Maslow, 1943). Ideally, we need to put our students at the very centre of their education, which should be a deeply personal process that we as educators should be working with. COVID-19 has shown us clearly that our students are more than mere learning machines. The learning process itself is far from a mechanical, pre-programmed well-oiled machine. It is deeply personal and subjective, it is prone to glitches and often parts don’t fit. This is the very job of a teacher: to know and be comfortable with the whole process, no matter how unpredictable and fluid.