Meditation, Mindfulness, & Education: Is it a flow that works?
I’ve been working for a while now on a new post about mindfulness practices in educational settings… and to be honest, it’s not been going well. While some (actually many) of my posts fly from my fingers, this one just won’t flow. For quite some time (a year? maybe longer?), in my mind I’ve been mulling over what should be the makings of an interesting piece:
- Theoretically, published works discussing alignments between mechanisms of meditative practice and mechanisms of cognition are intriguing and promising. Explanation for how meditation / mindful practices likely influences cognition is in the works.
Yay! I want to write more about this.
- Empirically, the research wheels are turning and a body of work is growing, pointing to the promise of infusing elements of meditative mindfulness into school settings.
Yay! I want to write more about this.
- AND, since many folks are asking not “what is…” but “how-to…” when it comes to infusing meditative mindfulness into their classrooms, I want to write about that too! Not only do I have “new” ideas, but I also have old ones I want to write about – and by old I mean Montessori old. One hundred years ago Maria Montessori was busy creating an entire educational program infused with what today would be called “mindfulness practices.” Intriguing connections there worthy of empirical scrutiny, and that work has begun too.
Yay! I want to write more about this, too.
Indeed, following the last point above, I’ve long noticed the connection between mindfulness practices and elements of Montessori’s approach to nurturing self regulation and autonomy in classrooms and have been recently delighted to see that other, better known scholars (e.g., Dr. Lillard, author of acclaimed book Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius) not only share in the same insight, but have taken it a step further than me by actually getting the insight out of their heads and into the journals with formal publications.
And yet, back my problem-post, with all that positivity and promise rolling about in my mind, each time I sit down to type what I’ve been mulling over for what seems like eons, my fingers hover over the keyboard, and I hit “delete” more than any other key. The “feeling of knowing” about how great this post could be just isn’t translating into smooth and flowing prose.
Now that I look at those bullet points above all together though, I guess I can see why – that’s a lot of information for a single blog post. While I do tend towards “wordy” – all that in one post is probably too much even for me. So I think I’ll let those bullet points hang in the air for a while, and instead, discuss something slightly different.
What constitutes sufficient evidence to act on?
I came across an article in my social media feed yesterday, shared by CASEL – an organization dedicated to promoting empirically based social-emotional-learning techniques.
The report, published by Vox media, raised my hackles a bit. The article is strange. The authors claim to be using scientific reasoning to carefully critique the empirically based effectiveness of infusing mindfulness into school settings, but instead the post is an odd presentation of illogically drawn conclusions.
Here’s how I reacted on my companion facebook page earlier today. After posting , I decided to change course and write a different post by discussing the Vox article a little more. The authors claim that empirical evidence for the effectiveness of mindfulness practice in enhancing educational outcomes “is thin,” and thus all suggestions therein should be taken with a grain of salt, because, well, the research raises more questions than answers.
This kind of critique flows right from the pages of a standard research methods text book: I can see the bold-faced print in my minds eye: “Interpret a single study with caution – it could be a false positive.”
But IS the evidence they present of a single study? How many converging studies does it take, for us to be able to confidently translate the results into practice? Following the rule of thumb that it takes about 25 citations to build a reasoned, publishable argument for a scholarly publication (in psychology, anyway), then that same number should stand, for judging how many studies it takes to build a reasonable argument in favor of translating research findings into practice. And the article the authors critique and find wanting is a meta-analysis that includes about 47 useable studies.
When evidence converges across 47 studies (note a numerical typo in my FB post), that’s not thin, that’s thick. That IS enough evidence to justify spending time thinking translationally about. And yet, the Vox authors find that set of studies wanting? They even go on to state that while the effectives of mindfulness-based practices were generally positive, they weren’t always better than other types of stress reduction programs like exercise, progressive relaxation (PR), or cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).
And they state that follow-up point like it’s a bad thing, too. But is it? Sure, it would be bad if schools were doing “those other things.” But they aren’t.
- Schools aren’t considering the infusion of CBT into classrooms – teachers are not therapists and shouldn’t be expected to be.
- Exercise, if anything, is cut from the school day with reductions in recess and PE.
- PR is not, to my mind, widespread in schools either. As well, to make matters more confounding, PR could, by many, be considered part of the array of mindfulness-based-stress-reductive practices. So it’s no better because it’s no different.
The critique then, that mindfulness evidence is thin, and isn’t the only means to the end of decreased anxiety or increased cognitive function, itself is just not logical nor sound when the intended discussion is about improving educational outcomes. CBT, Exercise, and PR are not standard practice at all, and really, those practices aren’t practical for classrooms. But aspects of “mindfulness practice” IS (or could be) practical for classrooms.
In short, if mindfulness practices work like other, more established practices, then – Yay! How nice to have more options.
So if mindfulness based stress reduction is a potentially effective option, then that’s a good thing. But the authors continue with another strange remark:
“… On one hand, it could mean mindfulness training is as effective as these other treatments. On the other hand, ‘it doesn’t show that it’s magical,’” .
Magical? Really? We require magic from our science, before deciding to apply it? That point reminds me of a tee-shirt I recently gave my nephew that reads: “Science: Like magic, only real.” But the tee-shirt is meant to be funny. I think this journalist meant to be serious. But it’s wrong, of course. Research results don’t need to appear magical in order to be useful.
All that is to say, the article is full of oddly and inappropriately pessimistic interpretations of really compelling information. And I find that so disappointing. Reports like this one do much to undermine the hard, valuable work dedicated scientists and progressive educators are engaged in and stymie the possibility of making progressive changes in educational climates.
Because the fact is, “schools” are stressed. Teachers, students, staff – all are experiencing stress that undermines the effectiveness of learning and growth. Evocative reporting should instead center on stress first, and then follow with a reasoned consideration of how to mitigate against that stress in effective, safe ways.
Evidence is growing that the infusion of mindfulness practices in schools can mitigate against that stress. And interestingly, it’s not a new view. Modern mindfulness packaging is new, but the premise of helping youth manage themselves has been a part of the educational realm for a very long time. Maria Montessori wasn’t the only one to consider how to help youth develop their self-regulatory abilities, but she did devise some very clever means of doing so.
Two examples come to mind:
- Walking the line: many a youth in Montessori classrooms start each day in walking mediation. Montessori descriptively called it “Walking the line” but the practice, and likely the effect, is the same as what you might see with meditatively walking a labyrinth.
- Interleaving abstract work with a repetitive physical task. In Montessori’s writing about how “classroom guides” (“teachers”) could best support their students’ work cycles, she suggested that youth would benefit from following intense abstract work with something practical, like “table washing” to rest their minds. It’s not the washing that she felt was important, but rather the simple repetitive motion that was of benefit. The practice helps a learner calm their mind and prepare for the next transition. In thinking about how to relate this practice to modern mindfulness, I can’t help but think about the kind of examples Thich Nhat Hanh recommends in his sweet book Peace is Every Step.
Suffice it to say that if one casts a broader net, the yield, and hence the story that comes from it, will change in kind. Here are some points I’d like to see others take up in the ongoing narrative of education reforms and enhancements:
- Research outcomes are consistent with the position that mindfulness practice enhances cognitive functions by way of enhancing the “executive system” that entails inhibition, task switching, and self-regulation.
- Research outcomes are consistent with the position that programs that follow Montessori methods with notable fidelity do the same.
- We understand quite clearly how healthy executive functioning enhances educational outcomes for youth.
- With all that in mind, we can look to existing programs, existing research, and come up with some recommendations that are safe and likely effective for teachers to start implementing.
All this and then some is captured in this little info-graphic I drafted up:
Does the graphic help you think about how the story might go if you were to trust the research enough to start transforming your classroom, step by step? I can imagine that the daily routine of Walking the line could be easily implemented in a typical classroom. I can also imagine that it wouldn’t take much training (just some thought and practice) to translate some of Thich Nhat Hanh’s simple routine meditations into the work cycle of a classroom as well, to help students make transitions, to smooth out their engagement during a task, and the like. And I can easily imagine helping students establish a habit of taking “3 deep breaths” in times of peak stress.
Are these ideas “risky?” I don’t think so. Do you?
Now that I’ve written this post, I am not sure whether I will try again with that post I’ve been meaning to write. Instead, maybe I’ll build on where I started and ended here. If you, my dear readers, have an interest about this topic then please let me know. What line would you like to see me walk, as I carry on with getting my thoughts out of my head and into yours?