The Need for Mindfulness in 21st Century Education

Linda Freeman, PhD, LMHC, CAP, Professor of Psychology

Institution: Valencia College, Orlando, Florida

Imagine this scenario: In the middle of a lecture, one of your students deliberately makes an offensive remark that causes the other students to laugh. Moreover, another student uses the opportunity to ask, “When is the next exam.” The next thing you know, your lecture is derailed and the next several minutes are spent re-orienting the class’s attention while your inner voice angrily clamors, “What is wrong with these students?” Sound familiar?

Now imagine a classroom in which critical time is spent honing a student’s attention. The practice is simple. The sound of a bell signals students to sit quietly and observe their breath while they non-judgmentally allow their thoughts to float by – like clouds passing across a clear blue sky. This is the practice of mindfulness. Although it may seem like such a practice is interruptive to a class curriculum and offers students more time to zone out, a host of research finds begs to differ. Decades of research on the practice of being “mindfully attentive” demonstrates the natural workings of the mind and how focusing the attention optimizes learning.

“The Wobbling Tooth Effect” – Why Mindfulness Matters

A recent Harvard study sought to determine what portion of the time do our minds wander? To answer this question, subjects choose from 22 general activities, such as walking, eating, shopping, and watching television. On average, respondents reported that their minds were wandering 46.9 percent of time. Why does the mind constantly drift? Thoughts create the “Wobbling Tooth Effect.” When you have a wobbling tooth you keep fidgeting with it; it grabs and holds onto your attention. Our typical reaction to thoughts is to push them away, however like a game of bobbing apples, if you push one down in pops right back up. Our attention is then dragged by thoughts and distractions. For example, when the text comes in, we have to respond. When the phone rings, we have to pick it up. Thoughts produce mental itching, and we are drawn to scratch. When our attention is distracted, learning is then obstructed.

Mindfulness creates mental movement. The mental force created by mindfulness trains us to move our attention – like a rudder moves a boat. Instead of our attention being hijacked by distractions we begin to exercise choice over what to attend to. Returning the attention to the breath works the attention like a muscle, so students are able to hold their attention in place for longer periods of time. When our attention is fully vested and immersed in an activity, comprehension and retention of the event improves significantly. Here is an example. Have you ever taken witness to a natural wonder, like the Grand Canyon, a newborn child or a puppy and clearly remember the experience? These experiences anchor and hold our attention. We take note of the details of the experience, which then become etched in our memory for a lifetime.

Adding a mindfulness practice into our curriculum creates the capacity to do more. Because the mind is so naturally cluttered, researchers are prompting the practice of mindfulness as a form of “brain hygiene.” You brush your teeth every day, right? Mindfulness is a way of brushing your brain every day and clearing out the clutter to create an optimal mental state conducive to learning.