A number of things that have happened recently that are helping me understand the value of mindfulness. While I have successfully used mindfulness activities in teacher cohort meetings I facilitate, I have yet to fully adapt it into my life or work. In our faculty cohorts, we have used the book, How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci, written by Michael Gelb The book can be used as a guide to explore how to get in touch with one’s own creativity, a journey in mindfulness. There is writing, listening to music, drawing, tasting and smelling exercises and much more. It is quite easy to adapt many of them into experiences that build a sense of mindfulness. Faculty have responded quite positively to using this book as a practical guide to learn how to connect with the world in new ways. After it is all said and done, I still find it hard to integrate this work into my daily routines.
The most recent edition of Harvard Business Review contains an interview with Ellen Langer, considered by many to be the foremost expert on mindfulness. The interview, Mindfulness in the Age of Complexity, is conducted by Alison Beard. It is an excellent piece that shows the brilliance of Langer, someone who models what it means to live mindfully. In the interview, she illustrates how practicing mindfulness can enrich one’s life by focusing on the here and now. Langer describes mindfulness as:
the process of actively noticing new things. (page 68)
When asked, “what are some of the specific benefits of being more mindful?” She replies:
- better performance, learning to play mindfully
- easier to pay attention, listening more deeply to others
- remembering more of what you have done
- being more creative
- being more receptive to opportunities in the moment
- liking and being liked by people more
In her studies over 40 years, she sees that practicing mindfulness can lead to positive results in a variety of ways.
I thought this quote from the interview was quite powerful. When asked what she thought was the connection between mindfulness and innovation, she replies:
I’m an artist as well as a researcher, writer, and consultant–each activity informs the others for me–and I got the idea to study mindfulness and mistakes when I was painting. (p. 70)
She goes on to say:
When you’re mindful, mistakes become friends. (p. 70)
I have been reading extensively about the importance of failure in the innovative process. Many writers discuss that the idea that mistakes can be an engine for innovation. However, I have never read anyone describe mistakes as “friends.” Langer is so eloquent and simple in her description of how mindfulness can enhance the creative mind if we understand that the “path we are following was just a decision.” We can alter our decision at any fork in the road, and just maybe find a more productive path.
If we sometimes take the road “less traveled” we might be surprised what we find and maybe it will make the difference in our life or someone else’s.
When it comes other things we can do to create a mindful way of life, Langer replies with the following reflection:
I also tell people to think about work/life integration not balance. Balance suggests that the two are opposite and have nothing in common. But that’s not true. They’re both mostly about people. There are stresses in both There are schedules to be met. If you keep them separate, you don’t learn to transfer what you do successfully in one domain to the other. When you’re mindful, we realize that categories are person-connected and don’t limit us.
Mindfulness can play an important role in helping an organization adapt to changing times. Langer points out that there are two conditions that lead to a “mindless organization”: (1) the organization has found the “best way to do it”; and (2) nothing changes. To avoid these conditions, she suggests that we show up to work and notice what’s going on around us. Keep our eyes and ears open, take notice, and collect data.
Another event that occurred recently at the National Association of Independent School (NAIS) conference in Orlando, FL this past week. I attended a workshop sponsored by Jaclyn Douglass and Suzanne Jeffrey entitled, Implementation of Ethics and Mindfulness in the Classroom. Douglass and Jeffrey discussed that in order to have a more ethical world, we need to practice mindfulness. Mindfulness training helps us bring more awareness to the present so that as individuals so we can identify what is or is not ethical. We can more successfully develop a code of ethics to live by. They encourage teachers to use mindfulness exercises with students as means to focus their attention and energy, helping them listen to what’s occurring in the present moment. These were some exercises they use to help bring internal awareness to students:
- exercises to slow down
- internal focus exercises
- deep vs shallow breathing exercises
- quiet listening
- physical stillness
One of the mindfulness activities I used in my faculty cohort comes from Everyday Mindfulness Exercises For Stress Relief, exercise #3 listening to music. Recently, we used the exercise, listening to Eric Whitacre’s, Virtual Choir 3: Water Night. It was a wonderful experience that I believe placed all cohort members into a receptive and engaging mood. Mindfulness practices do center a group and help connect them to each other through a shared experience.
It was a treat at #NAISAC14 this week to witness the humor, creativity, and genuine brilliance of Eric Whitacre. He gave the ending talk entitled, Creativity and Connection. For nearly an hour, he dazzled the audience with his personal story, the journey he embarks on when creating a piece, and conducting thousands of teachers in Row, Row, Row Your Boat. He shared how “failing up” is a critical part of the creative process for him. Failing often leads him to the creation of pieces like Virtual Choir 3: Water Night. Whitacre demonstrated to teachers the value of believing in our students, valuing each student’s unique talents, and recognizing that any student’s gifts could blossom into something innovative. Create the conditions and everyone can sing!
So in my own work, I am beginning to see with greater clarity that incorporating mindfulness into my practice will help me get in touch with my creative potential. The interview with Ellen Langer has inspired me to be more intentional about living a mindful life. The experience with Douglass and Jeffrey at NAIS 2014 has propelled me to encourage teachers to work on their awareness of mindfulness and use it in their teaching practice to help students focus their attention on the present. Finally, witnessing the creativity of Eric Whitacre helped me see what’s possible when you believe in yourself.
Resources on Mindfulness
Andy Puddicombe: All it takes is 10 mindful minutes, TED Talk on Mindfulness
Mindfulness Bell Volume 1, The Guided Meditation Site
The Mindfulness of Breathing, Windmind Buddhist Meditation
Ellen Langer, her personal website
What is Mindfulness, Psychology Today website
Today Thomas Friedman wrote at article in the New York Times, How to Get a Job at Google? In my professional network it was the “article of the day.” There must have been at least 10-15 references to it by 5:00 pm. Why is that? Is it because so many people love to read Thomas Friedman’s column? Is it because his title was catchy and relevant to today’s anxiety? I imagine many people love reading Thomas Friedman. I do. In reference to my second question, I Googled, what does it take to get a job at Google, and came up with 20+ articles in the first two pages that were relevant to this question. Many were reputable entries and even an infographic (click here for the infographic). I don’t mean to criticize Friedman, but his article does not appear to focus on a very original question; however, it is a fascinating one.
I love the articles you send, Thomas (not the real name)! Quite thought-provoking. I think Sally (another substitute) is on to something here too. One of the challenges with education at ____ schools is that true innovation and creative thinking is often not encouraged because of the high penalty (bad grades) for making mistakes. The creative process, however, is one of making many missteps and adapting – the kind of skills Google is looking for as well. Many of our best students, though, are afraid to take intellectual risks in the majority of their classes because the cost-benefit analysis doesn’t pay off.
If we assume this person’s perspective is right on, and many of us would, then my question is who contributes to this mindset? I think schools do, I think teachers do, I think parents do and I think students do. Certainly, our culture does as well. Now on the same day I happen to read the following article, Drummond parents en masse opting out. This article appeared on the website, Substance News, which is devoted to defending public school education. Thirty-four parents submitted an open letter to the school community saying that they were going to “opt out” of their children taking the ISAT tests at Drummond Elementary School.
The ISAT, which Substance is now referring to as the “Zombie Test” because it is dead but still walking around, is scheduled to begin on March 2 in all elementary schools, and many teachers have been using obsolete “ISAT Prep” materials with children as young as seven and eight for weeks instead of real instruction.
Parents write in their letter to the community:
We would rather have our kids engaged in Montessori schoolwork, artwork, independent projects or quiet reading, instead of ‘bubbling’ on a test that that doesn’t count for anything.
Here are parents who are not going to just stand by while their children’s creativity and education is at risk from poorly designed tests that do not effectively measure what a child has learned. This is what Friedman writes in his NY Times piece:
G.P.A.’s are worthless as a criteria for hiring, and test scores are worthless. … We found that they don’t predict anything.
Those quoted and Friedman point out that these indicators are not worthless, but that they just don’t have the power we subscribe to them. (read this for a different perspective).
I want to know when will schools follow suit and also have the courage to stand up and take some risks like these Drummond parents. Too often schools just foster the status quo, buying in to every test, high-stakes and low-stakes. Teachers test, quiz, test some more and quiz a lot more. Are these types of assessment policies really helping our students learn and understand important content, skills and abilities that will serve them well into the future? I think we know the answer to that question.
Now if you have time, check out Grant Wiggins post on what assessments really measure.
A question he discusses: Given that results on tests of cognition predict achievement, might it work in the other direction? In other words, do results on achievement tests predict cognitive abilities?
An answer he finds in research: And so: what did the researchers find? Oops. Better achievement on state standardized tests yields little or no gain on these cognitive skills:
My takeaway: If we want students to be innovators we have to set up two conditions: (1) we have to challenge the status quo (Drummond Parents); and (2) we have to take some risks. It means that traditional grading and ways of assessing student learning are not effective practices to give students the confidence, feedback, and pathways to deeper understanding and lifelong learning. It certainly won’t be their ticket to getting a job at Google or maybe any job worth having. They will need to think critically and creatively, solve complex problems, arrive at decisions collectively, work effectively on teams, be discerning in using information, and communicate their knowledge, skills, and abilities in interesting ways.
When we help students learn to ask thoughtful, curious, and authentic questions we get a glimpse into what they are learning. The $10,000 question is how to help them learn to ask good questions. The first thing I have learned is that as educators we need to model for students how to ask good questions.
Here are some resources that I have uncovered in my research about asking good questions. I would recommend any of them as a place to start if this topic resonates with you.
- Effective Questioning Strategies in the Classroom: A Step-by-Step Approach to Engaged Thinking and Learning, K-8, by Esther Fusco, Teachers College Press, 2012
- Asking Questions: Cultivating the Habit of Inquiry, by Evelyn Wortsman Deluty, The NEA Higher Education Journal, 2010, p. 135
- Asking Good Questions, by Kenneth E. Vogler, Educational Leadership, volume 65, Summer 2008
- Making Thinking Visible, by Ron Ritchhart, Mark Church, and Karin Morrison, Josey Bass, 2011
- Making Thinking Visible, by Ron Ritchhart and David Perkins, Educational Leadership, February 2008
- Make Just One Change: Teaching Students to Ask Their Own Questions, by Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana, Harvard Education Press, 2011
- Teaching Students to Ask Their Own Questions, by Dan Rothstein and Luz Santana, Harvard Education Letter, volume 27, no 5, 2011
- Learn to Ask the Right Question, by Steve Denning, Forbes online, 9/11/2011
- The Right Way to Ask Questions in the Classroom, Ben Johnson Blog, Edutopia, March 2009
- Asking Good Questions is a Skill Worth Learning, by Sandra Folk, Financial Post online, June 2013
- Engaging Students Through Effective Questions, by Mary Anne Neal, Education Canada Magazine online, 2014
- Asking Good Questions and Prompting Discourse (Part I), National Council of Teachers of Mathematics
- Asking Good Questions and Prompting Discourse (Part II), National Council of Teachers of Mathematics
- Why? A Very Important Question, by Bob Ryshke, at Center for Teaching Blog, December 2013
One important step that all teachers can take if they want to become better at modeling how to ask good questions is to adopt the questioning cycle illustrated below.
In her book, Effective Questioning Strategies, Esther Fusco discusses the value of adopting the questioning cycle in our work with students. While the sequence built into the cycle may seems cumbersome to use on a regular basis, the premise behind it is that a teacher uncovers a student’s level of understanding if a systematic approach to asking questions and listening carefully to responses is used. In addition, students learn the value of asking good questions when they see the teacher modeling, especially using active listening skills and wait time.
Sometimes teachers struggle how to begin a lesson that helps students learn to ask effective questions. Project Zero offers interesting ideas for teachers to use in the classroom. One resource is question starts, an activity for creating interesting questions. They also share a routine for helping students to shape questions into more creative or interesting questions (click here for the resource). On their website, they also give ideas for how and when this routine might be used with students. See Project Zero’s website, Visible Thinking, for other resources that you can use to engage students in creative ways.
In their book, Making Thinking Visible, the authors suggest that teachers consider the following goals when designing and planning their questions.
(1) model our interest in the ideas being explored, (2) help students to construct understanding, and (3) facilitate the illumination of students’ own thinking to themselves.
Fusco writes about the three types of questions that teachers need to design in planning a lesson: (1) literal; (2) inferential; and (3) metacognitive (p.16). The inferential questions demand more critical thinking while the metacognitive questions help students become aware of their own thinking or making their thinking visible. For example, how do the author’s ideas influence your thinking about gender?
Every teacher should work on carefully planning a lesson with the types of questions in mind and the balance of the different types of questions being asked. Paying attention to the types of questions, the level of thinking required to respond to questions, and their own listening to students’ responses to their questions is as important as the content they teach. However, that alone will not help students improve their ability to design and ask good questions. Rothstein and Santana, in their book (and HEL article referenced above), Make Just One Change, write about the strategies teachers can use to help students become better questioners. One strategy is the question formulation technique (QFT) developed at the Right Question Institute. This technique:
helps students learn how to produce their own questions, improve them, and strategize on how to use them. (p.1 of HEL article)
QFT has been extensively researched and successfully applied in other fields besides education. When QFT is used it helps the user build confidence and increase his or her ability to communicate an idea or a thought process. The main takeaway is that strategies exist for teachers to learn and use that will help students become better at designing and asking good questions. An outcome will be more reflective learners in the classroom.
Finally, asking good questions is only one part of a complete learning cycle. The recipient of the question has to learn good listening skills so they hear and understand the question clearly. Fusco devotes a whole chapter to the idea of effective listening. She points out that
active listening is important in order to gain further knowledge. (p.73)
When teachers have learned and internalized techniques for asking good questions, they will also model listening carefully to students’ responses and use what they hear to assess what students know and are able to do. In addition, the active listening to responses is data for further and deeper questions that elucidate a student’s understanding of the concept.
As teachers we can go a long ways toward helping students understand the content, ideas, and skills we value if improve our ability to ask good questions, listen carefully to their responses, and document what happens in our work with them. As Ritchhart, Church and Morrison point out in their book, Making Thinking Visible, a student’s thinking will be made visible if they learn the skill of asking good questions from teachers who effectively use the strategies.
The Splendid Table is “the show for people who love to eat.”
What if our schools had this tagline, “the place for people who love to learn.”
One viewer offered her a prompt related to her experimentation with making sauerkraut, but not knowing what to do with it if after making a batch. The viewer had listened to an earlier Splendid Table program with Sandor Katz, the author of the book The Art of Fermentation, and got this idea to make sauerkraut. Lynne Rossetto Kasper went into this rich and very engaging description of a series of recipes that her guest could use with her batch of sauerkraut. She referenced Northern France, a region famous for its sauerkraut recipe, Choucroute garnie. As Rossetto Kasper described this recipe, as well as some variants that came to her, I couldn’t help but think of my mother’s recipe for pork shanks and sauerkraut, a family favorite. With origins from Eastern Europe, sauerkraut was a staple in our family. She hooked me into her story and helped me retrieve memories. I love food, but the hook was the way Rossetto Kasper connected with the viewer and her audience. It was simple and authentic.
Relevant to my work as an educator I started to think about what if a classroom was like an hour with Lynne Rossetto Kasper. She is a font of knowledge about the art of cooking, matching ingredients, preparing a fine dinner or retooling leftovers. But what I find most interesting is that all the knowledge comes to life from a simple prompt from a guest. Rossetto Kasper is a good storyteller. “What can I do with sauerkraut?” That prompt sets her off on a journey in which she interacts with her guest, crafting a wonderfully engaging response. From my perspective, the key to her success is that she communicates: (1) caring; (2) enthusiasm; (3) connection to her guest; (4) adaptive knowledge; and (5) a sense of playfulness. All of these traits appear naturally and spontaneously in her episodes.
Instead of a course being overly scripted to cover chapters 1 through 25, what if our students came to class with interesting prompts that started them on a journey with us. Of course, they need some background knowledge, as well as guidance on asking interesting and provocative questions. But we have to give them the space to experiment and wonder. In chemistry, I do have to set the stage for the behavior of gases, just like Rossetto Kasper has to set the stage for the basic structure of a good recipe. The difference between her and me is that she plays around with the ideas presented to her by guests. There is no right answer. She comes up with all kinds of interesting variations. A learning experience with her is driven by open-ended questions that lead to interesting conversations. The same could be true in my chemistry classroom if I asked students to “think” about chemistry and come with interesting questions or prompts. Instead, I tend to be worried about whether they have the “right answers” and can produce the responses that fit with my script. When I think about my work, it is not very playful. So for most students, it’s not very interesting.
Could this be what is wrong with our typical classrooms in most schools? It’s not playful! By playful, I don’t mean a frolicking free-for-all that’s not serious. I mean like an hour with Lynne Rossetto Kasper. I mean a place that feels happy and full of energy and has a seriousness of purpose at its core.
I came across this infographic on Teach, Create, Innovate, an education blog site (click here for the site). The author, A.J. Juliani, reflects on education and learning. I thought this post was quite interesting. While his ideas are not necessary brand new, he uses the infographic (click on infographic below or go to his blog site) in interesting ways to present the ideas. I also liked the way he groups his ideas into four categories: (1) allow for; (2) make time for; (3) support; and (4) praise and assess. What do you think of the basic premise or framework for innovation in the classroom? Think of instructional strategies, asking effective questions, and becoming a more reflective teacher. Does his framework represent a way of thinking about innovation in the classroom? Thoughts?
I’m looking into online learning, particularly the MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) format. A portion of my responsibilities at school involves guiding instructional technology practice in the Middle School. So it made sense to join a MOOC to see what the pros and cons are. So, before Christmas I signed up to Coursera, a MOOC environment and I selected a six-week course called “The History and Future of (Mostly) Higher Ed” with Cathy Davidson of Duke University. Davidson has perhaps come to popular interest because of her book “Now You See It: How Technology and Brain Science Will Transform Schools and Business for the 21st Century.” It was a good book, she’s a well-regarded author and teacher, so I figured she’d be a good person to test drive this thing with.
Just several readings, quizzes, and video lectures into the course I came across an author by the name of Eric Raymond who wrote a great essay called, “The Cathedral and the Bazaar.” In the essay he writes about the construction of the open source operating system Linux, which as come to be regarded by techies as vastly superior to the more popular Microsoft and Macintosh ecosystems. Raymond’s thesis is that “old tech” was built and cultured much like a cathedral. In Raymond’s words, “crafted by individual wizards or small bands of mages working in splendid isolation, with no beta to be released before its time.” Linux, on the other hand, “seemed to resemble a great babbling bazaar of differing agendas and approaches [...] out of which a coherent and stable system could seemingly emerge only by a succession of miracles.”
Microsoft and Macintosh OS’s were built-in secret by a few “ordained” professionals and are perpetually hidden behind high walls of patent protection. Linux was built in the open air market, with people of varying languages, cultures, experiences came together to, according to many, create a vastly superior product. And Linux users love their operating system like car owners love their Subaru’s. I drive a Toyota. I like it, but I imagine it’s like being a Window 8 user.
In the summer of 2005 and 2007 I chaperoned a European History summer trip that took 25 students through most of the major cathedrals in Christendom. In 2010 I took nine students to Argentina where, among many other things, the kids got to experience the energy of an open-air bazaar. I don’t have to tell you which experience left the kids with a greater sense of wonder.
Carefully crafted and executed lesson plans are beginning to look to me like elegant cathedrals, interesting to those that love building and appreciating cathedrals (read: not many 10-17 year-olds). A bazaar is not a completed and perfected product, it’s an experience. How can we turn our lesson plans into experiences that draw in our students, get them to begin asking themselves the next question, rather than waiting for the next question to arrive? Silver has given us a great many strategies for doing this.
I imagine that good pedagogy is combining the craftsmanship required to build a great cathedral with the lack of ownership required in experiencing a bazaar. Classrooms shouldn’t be anarchy, but they shouldn’t be baroque architecture, either.
Guest Blogger: Ted Sadtler, The Westminster Schools, email@example.com
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the author of the book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, has conducted extensive research on what makes people happy in their work and life. He and his colleagues interviewed thousands of people. From the work one of his conclusions is that people who are engaged in their work or life are more likely to express a higher degree of happiness. People who are happy are generally people who are engaged. He writes:
The mark of a person who is in control of consciousness is the ability to focus attention at will, to be oblivious to distractions, to concentrate for as long as it takes to achieve a goal, and not longer. And the person who can do this usually enjoys the normal course of everyday life. (see page 31 in Flow)
In my conversations with teachers, many of them want to talk about how to more effectively engage their students in classroom work. It seems to me it’s a critical question to explore.
Let’s think about a typical day in many schools across America. While I don’t claim to have visited them all, I have visited many schools in my teaching and administrative career, and worked in eight different schools. A typical day might find most students in grades 6-12 moving from class to class, day after day, and year after year. Many of their classes are the same length of time, requiring them to learn content and practice skills that they don’t find particularly relevant. They take quizzes, tests, write papers, and participate in discussions. All of these tasks are repeated day-in and day-out with little break in routine. They also have to rapidly adjust from using one type of learning style in math class to a different learning style in history class. This requires students to adapt to the varied teaching styles of their teachers. Most classes are not connected or integrated in any way. This predictable routine is duplicated year-after-year with the same type of classes.
Is it any wonder that students have a hard time engaging in school or that their teachers worry about how to engage them in the learning?
In his book, Engaging Students: The Next Level of Working on the Work, Philip Schlechty writes about the strategies teachers can use to engage students in their studies.
he outlines a motivational framework for improving student performance by improving the quality of the work teachers design for students. (Schlechty’s website)
On his website he shares a design template teachers can use to plan out a lesson that will maximize the possibility for engaging students in the work. Not unlike planning a lesson with Understanding by Design, I think Schlechty offers an interesting template for teachers to use. I like his emphasis on affiliation, affirmation, choice, novelty and variety, and authenticity. His motivational framework asks the teacher to reflect on the meaning and relevance of the lesson being designed.
In his book, he defines engagement as students…
- attending to the tasks they are asked to engage with
- committing to the tasks regardless of the rewards
- persisting in completing the tasks regardless of their difficulty
- finding meaning and value in the tasks they are asked to engage with
In his Educational Leadership article, The Architecture of Ownership, Adam Fletcher writes about taking the idea of student engagement in learning to another level which he refers to as student ownership of learning. In his model for student ownership of learning he sees students fulfilling a series of roles as designed by the teacher. They are:
- students as planners
- students as teachers
- students as professional development partners
- students as decision makers
Fletcher believes that if school leaders and teachers design learning with these four student roles in mind, they are more likely to promote an environment in which students are owners of the learning. The assumption, which I believe the research supports, is that when students own their learning they are more likely to be engaged in it in ways that Schlechty describes in his book.
Can we be satisfied with anything less that full ownership and engagement of all our students? I think not. So our task is to design meaningful, relevant, authentic, and varied and novel curricula. If we want our students to leave school having developed a passion for learning and interests worth exploring, then we better think seriously about how engaged they are in the work we give them.