Thursday 11 October 2012

A note on Mindfulness

When I saw that the most recent ELTchat topic was 'mindfulness' I was a bit worried because I'd never heard of it before. Being someone who likes to keep abreast of EFL developments, I thought I should check it out and so to Google went I.

My heart sank a little when I came across the world 'therapy' in  relation to this (the bizarre neuro-linguistic programming also comes from therapy/psychology) and sank further when I spied the word 'Buddhism'. I recalled Scott thornbury's article The Unbearable Lightness of EFL in which he notes:
An alternative to TEFL's lack of respectability is to construe it as a form of therapy.  Professional self-esteem is achieved by co-opting both the discourse and the procedures of certain new age practices, and by investing the teacher with an almost shamanistic function.(393:2001)

But what is "mindfulness"? Well if you drive to work then you probably have days where you get in your car and then you just seem to arrive at work, almost like you were on auto-pilot. This is known as 'automaticity', a feature of your amazing brain, and seemingly the opposite of 'mindfulness'.  Processing information is hard work for your brain.  Think about how you feel after marking a lot of badly written essays (as oppose to well collocated ones) or if you've recently met a lot of new people (social interactions are very tough on the brain). Switching your brain to auto-pilot for task you do regularly is a great way to save processing power. In fact most of what you do is done automatically by your brain.  
Take picking up a glass for example.  You brain has to work out the distance of the glass from you, the weight, the position of your thumb and fingers. It has to move the muscles in your arm, exert the exact amount of pressure so the glass doesn't drop from your fingers or get smashed to pieces in your grip.  This might seem pretty straight forward, but it's something you learn and something that becomes automatic.  If you had to focus and think about things like speaking, walking and moving then you wouldn't be able to do them. 

 Another good example is reading.  You are so good at reading that if you see a text in your native language you won't be able to stop yourself from starting to process it. The famous Stroop test is a good indicator of this. Try saying the colours of these two sets of words.  The second set will be harder than the first.
set 1
RedGreen, BlueYellow, Pink, Black, Gold

set 2
Red, Green, Blue, Yellow, Pink, Black, Gold

Two different parts of your brain are competing here, the one automatically reading the word "red" and the one seeing the colour blue. 
For those promoting 'mindfulness', automaticity is painted as something of a bad thing.  This is a bit ironic as fluent speech, like fluent reading, requires automaticity, but let's put that to one side. Mindfulness teaches that we should pay attention "in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non judgmentally" and pay attention to the here and now on a "moment-to-moment basis" (Ruth Baer)
The idea of paying attention to the presents needs unpicking. With what we know about the brain, what does it actually mean to pay attention to the present? Is it to focus more on what you're seeing and hearing? If so, isn't that just concentrating?  And which here and now does it refer to? The here and now just a second ago when you started this sentence or this one, now....or now....or now?  Also aren't students supposed to remember new language?  Probably unlikely if they are constantly trying to focus on everything that's happening in the here and now.  Leon Wieseltier  writes "'Pay[ing] attention moment-to-moment' is a renunciation of the critical temper. The pure present is for infants and mystics"

Some people in ELTchat linked mindfulness to 'reflection', but reflection is a process of reviewing past events whereas mindfulness is a focus on the  now. I was also not clear as to whether mindfulness was for the teacher or the student, or both?  And what would you actually have the students do in class?  From this video it seems a lot like meditation.

In the video the teachers were saying that "it works". I'd like to deal with this idea in a separate post but briefly, students and teachers saying something "works" is not the same as something working. As with BrainGym, exercises may help student, with or without the posh name. Likewise, stopping, focusing and having students concentrate may be good things, but does that require a special term complete with an ancient philosophy?

In its defence, mindful teaching, as far as I'm aware doesn't have any expensive courses or materials nor can you become a 'master mind-filler' for only $2,000, (not yet anyway). In this sense, mindful teaching is not doing anyone any harm and the activities it promotes may even be helping some teachers and students. I don't really know enough about mindfulness to criticise it here and there is very little on the web about mindfulness & EFL so for the time being I'll have to suspend my judgement. 


Thornbury, S. 2001. ‘The unbearable lightnessof EFL.’ ELT Journal 55/4: 391-402


  1. Just seen this post- and as I'm just writing a post on mindfulness and teaching, I thought I'd comment (better late than never).
    The first thing to say is that mindfulness isn't a teaching technique; it's a way of being. It's about being sufficiently conscious of what's happening now that we don't just judge situations or people, or ourselves using our pre-conceived ideas, judgements, fears and so on.
    For teachers, it's very helpful, however, as it can help us to interact more effectively with students (and everyone else), as well as enjoy teaching more as we are more likely to get into a pleasurable state of 'flow'.
    Most of us spend very little time actually in the present, we're usually distracted by plans, worries, all the chatter in our heads. Mindfulness isn't about being in this precise second necessarily (so it's fine to remember what happened 5 minutes ago!), but it is about not sitting in the classroom planning what you're going to have for tea, or berating yourself because you're really bad at X,Y,Z (based on past experience) etc..
    To get better at this kind of concentrating takes quite a lot of practice- and that's what mindfulness activities are all about.
    I don't think mindfulness rules out automaticity by the way, because being in the flow is often about a certain amount of automaticity- as you say, fluency requires it. But it does rule out being elsewhere.

  2. Thanks for commeting I'm gld you did and I think I noticed you retweeting a few things from "daily mindfulness" (was that you?)

    I decided in this post to reserve judgement on mindfulness. TBH I'm still not entirely sure what it is. I read the descriptions like " a way of being. It's about being sufficiently conscious of what's happening now that we don't just judge situations or people, or ourselves using our pre-conceived ideas" and I have trouble understanding what that means.

    do you think you could enlighten me as to the actual nut and bolts of mindfulness?

    another thing, which I took out of this article, was a comment about the religious nature of mindfulness. I know it's not overtly religious but in the video you can see a guy using some kind of Tibetan drum thing. I couldn't help wondering how this kind of thing would go down in an english class in say saudi Arabia?

    also, as you say, as it is not a teaching technique, -do we have any right to bring it into the classroom? Our students pay us to teach them English, not make them better, calmer people or relieve their stress, do they?

    Looking forward to your reply.

  3. The first thing to say is that I do think that there is actually quite a lot of crossover between therapy and teaching. Models of education, such as person-centred/student-centredness, behaviourism etc, have often crossed the divide. That said, I certainly DON'T think that we should be trying to therapize students. That isn't what they come for, and it certainly isn't something that most teachers are in any way equipped to deal with. So, as you know, I'm not a fan of NLP techniques in the classroom, and, although I enjoy them myself, I very rarely use techniques such as visualisation because as soon as you start to tap into the unconscious, you don't know what stuff might come up.
    However, mindfulness is not a form of therapy. It's a tool or technique which can be used therapeutically. And there are other techniques, like listening carefully to each other, or talking about our own lives, or giving praise, which can be used therapeutically, but also have a place in the classroom.
    It also is not remotely religious- again, it is a tool which is used in some religions, but so are memorisation, silence, speaking chorally.....
    So, you ask what is it? It's a bit hard to sum up in a few lines, really, but some basic ideas:
    1. Most of the time most of us are not really present in our lives. We aren't fully aware of it, but we usually have a voice yapping away in our heads, worrying about the future, or what we said to someone yesterday, or how stupid we are to have done/not done something, or what we need to do next.
    2. We all tend to be very critical and judgemental (of ourselves as much as anyone else), and most of these criticisms and judgements are based on past experience, and are often completely wrong.
    3. Because we have all this chatter and judging going on, we tend to actually miss most of what is happening as it happens. Like the couple who spend most of their wedding day having their photos taken rather than actually enjoying the moment, we aren't really present.
    Mindfulness is simply about:
    1 Becoming aware of all the chatter and judgements and realising that it's just noise; that we don't have to be guided by it.
    2 Being able, as a a result, to judge each situation in a fresher way, and to be more aware of what is actually happening.
    As teachers, I think it can be really helpful and I know that as a result of practising mindfulness (in a rather on-off sort of way) I have become less anxious, better able to communicate, less defensive, more self-trusting- and this has made me a better teacher. So, I'd recommend it, and like to tell people about it. However, it's obviously up to everyone whether it's something they're interested in.
    For students, I think it's trickier, as I agree that it isn't our place to try to make them 'better people'. That said, in the same way that I would encourage students to get better at listening to each other, or at self-evaluation, I think there can be a place for activities which could encourage mindfulness (while still having a clear language aim).
    So, having written about mindfulness for teachers this week , I am going to try and tackle ideas for students next week. But rest assured, there will NOT be any drumming, bells, meditation, lotus position etc involved!

  4. thanks for your reply! I appreciate it.

    you've inspired me to look into it more deeply and I think I'll probably write another post about it soon!