An introduction to Mindful Teaching
As a way of introducing my idea of Mindful Teaching I am going to describe a scenario any teacher will recognise and then ask how the teacher should respond. It should be noted that my ideas on mindful teaching are based on the ideas in the book “The Power of Mindful Learning” by Ellen Langer[i]. A book that is well worth a read.
Mindful teaching by the way is not “mindfulness”, a phrase that is being used in education at the moment and is more to do with awareness of ourselves and the world around us. In my book, If you can’t reach them you can’t teach them. Building effective learning relationships I dedicate a chapter to mindful learning and teaching.
So you have planned, resourced, and delivered the lesson. All appears to have gone well. As you studied the faces around the room, you saw no confused looks or got the impression you had wasted your time. Behaviour ( I prefer the term “learning relationships”) had been good and all students appeared engaged. The questions you asked about the topic were answered succinctly and accurately. You begin to think it was a job well done.
The bell is about to go and the students start to collect their things. As they do so you go for one last confirmation by walking around the room asking the odd question and making enquiries about how the lesson went for them. That is when a student says, “I didn’t get it!”
With a couple of minutes of the lesson to go what do you do and say?
Let me suggest the typical response and it will possibly start with a question. For example, “What did you not get?” It will then probably lead to the teacher trying to explain the key points again and more questions. This often leads to further confusion on the part of the student. The result – they still don’t get it.
As teachers we have all almost certainly been here. The temptation is to repeat, question, repeat, question, re-phrase, question, on so on. There is a significant chance that the learner will leave the lesson feeling negative and carry this into the next lesson you have with them. They will have added to what I call their “Learning Map”, a belief about what they can and cannot learn.
By tackling the problem in this way the teacher may know that the student does not get it, what they do not understand, but they are no nearer getting the student to understand. This is not a mindful approach. The opposite of mindful is mindless so let’s consider this a mindless form of response on the part of the teacher. They are going over what they planned, rehearsed and delivered without establishing the student’s perspective.
The mindful teaching approach is slightly different and it does start with a question, but a question of a different kind. The mindful teaching question would be “Tell me what you do understand?” There can be some prompting from the teacher guiding the learner through the lesson topics/key stages to discover how far they got in their understanding. This after all is what the teacher wants to know.
This simple change of approach has significant consequences for the learner and teacher. Here are some to think about:
1) the focus is not on a failure to understand. It is instead on what has been understood. This is a much better place to start from for the teacher and the learner. An assessment can then be made as to how significant the claim is and how much time will be required to deal with it. This suggests a more focused response on behalf of the teacher and more targeted strategies.
2) the learner is not “lectured to” about something they appear not to understand, a strategy that does little to build confidence. Asking what they do know helps to build confidence and in my experience makes people more open and willing to listen.
3) because the response is personalised the learner is treated as an individual with their own needs and this does much to build a sense of belonging (a key learning need and part of developing learning relationships)
4) there is an opportunity for the teacher to actively take some responsibility for the learning too. A phrase such as “I see, I did not explain that too well did I? I will try to be better next time.” can go a long way in helping learners see learning as a journey you are both on (and that it is not a linear path either).
As a teacher it is easy to adopt a mindful approach to teaching. All you have to do is decide what you want to know before you ask a question. As a learner Ellen lists 3 characteristics of mindful learning, one of these is “an implicit awareness of more than one perspective.” Since teachers should also be learners these two things come together to form the approach I talk about here: As teachers we need to ask questions to discover what our student’s perspective is regarding their learning rather than just about what they have learnt.