Mindfulness in teaching (Brendel & Cornett-Murtada, 2019)

Recently I was very provoked by a colleague’s comment about how mindfulness practices lead to people’s focus being so inward that they will only strive to optimize their own lives and forget about the world outside that needs attention, and how it is “cruel optimism” to suggest to people that all can be well if only they do their mindfulness practices. Toxic positivity like that is never good, and neither is detaching from the world and stopping working against systemic injustices. However, mindfulness (and breathing practices, like we do for freediving training) can also be used to draw energy and inspiration from within in order to use it to change the world, and one application of just that in teaching is explored in the study that I am summarizing below.

In their study “Professors practicing mindfulness: An action research study on transformed teaching, research, and service”, Brendel & Cornett-Murtada (2019) follow a cohort of professors over 2 years after those teachers participated in a mindfulness workshop. The idea is that mindfulness practices can support transformative learning, where fundamental shifts occur in how someone experiences, interprets, and acts in the world. To prepare the ground for this, participants are put into a “collective disorienting dilemma”: they take the Mindfulness Attention Awareness Scale (which, after taking it myself, I can confirm really IS a disorienting dilemma; try it!) and realize that they are scoring much lower on the scale than feels ok given the kind of job they have and life they want to lead.

During the workshop, participants came up with applications of mindfulness practice in research, teaching, and service, and those were categorized. Participants choose a category that they wanted to work on, and in that category developed a vision statement, and a plan for how to implement it, overcome obstacles, measure impact. Participants then committed to tasks as concrete as using eye contact and names, or putting on music at the beginning of classes to mark the transition into class, for how to use mindfulness practice in their work. They reflect on the process and find that they moved closer to goals like remaining mindful when grading student papers, becoming aware of their own defensive behavior in difficult classroom situations, listening to the full question before coming up with an answer, or making peace with tasks they don’t enjoy. From the survey, the authors report trends, for example that teachers feel a greater sense of authenticity, more connected, engaged, appreciative and empathetic, less frustrated and feeling a sense of solidarity with colleagues.

If I had to guess, I would say that most of these effects probably stem not only from the mindfulness practice, but also from being part of a community in which this is a shared practice and where there is therefore also support and regular reminders and new motivation happening in the form of conversations with others, but the authors don’t try to distinguish the effects (which would probably be impossible anyway). And in any case, this is a very interesting case study and it’s definitely worth considering how (aspects of) it can be implemented in our own development work!

Featured image: A lake next to the swimming pool in Örebro where I judged this year’s Swedish Championship in freediving, and a walk around the lake before dinner was my much-needed dose of mindfulness refill that day

Brendel, W., & Cornett-Murtada, V. (2019). Professors practicing mindfulness: An action research study on transformed teaching, research, and service. Journal of Transformative Education, 17(1), 4-23.

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