Mind training – part two


Since writing my last blog on meditation in the classroom I’m feeling reticent. You see, you mention the fact you meditate to people in a conversation and I find that people often change the subject or quickly brush it aside as a quirky little thing you do in private, and which should be kept that way. People seem uncomfortable with the concept of being still and looking inside themselves. The silence we might find in our own heads makes a lot of people very uncomfortable indeed. Perhaps it does me too;  it’s not a tradition we have, is it? It’s not part of our lives in the western world at all. If you see someone somewhere just sat down alone without a phone, a book, tablet or earphones in people start to feel a bit uneasy about them. I mean, what are they ‘doing’? No really, what are they doing? Look at that bloke, he looks a bit weird. No, being quiet and doing nothing is odd. Contemplation and stillness is odd.

With this in mind then, I realise that bringing meditation into the classroom is bound to feel strange at first, but the effects will be immediate and positive.  The first few times there’s a lot of nervous giggling and fidgeting, but once they really try it children love it.  My assistant and I have observed this quite clearly after each session. Here are a few ground rules that I think should be kept to:

  • Keep the meditations to secular, general topics – keep religion out of it.
  • Keep the sessions no longer than 15 mins. Little and often is best.
  • Start with a focus and concentration period to allow the children to calm down. Then introduce the analytical (thoughtful) part afterwards. (I’ll explain).

My first point, restricting the meditation to secular topics, is because meditation is associated with the Eastern religions and people saying ‘OM’ a lot. You think meditation, you think of Buddhas floating around don’t you? But meditation is simply turning your attention introspectively towards your own mind which anyone can do, with or without a religion. It’s best to keep religion out of secular education (and that’s a whole other blog too).

Now what are secular topics? Well, anything that is about lived, earthy experience I suppose, rather than anything spiritual. These would include topics that are pertinent to children in school like friendship, respecting others, learning from others, being patient, finding resilience, understanding change, being part of a team, these kinds of things. These are factors that affect children every day at school, and little tweaks in these areas would make a huge difference to their day at school…and ours.

This is how a 15 minutes meditation session would look like:

  • 5 minutes focus and concentration
  • 10 minutes analysing one of the above topics, teacher taking it through with pauses.
  • 2 minutes concluding, holding new feelings about the topic.

Here’s the focus and concentration meditation that every session should start with (the italics is what I’d say, fairly slowly and with pauses):

“Sit comfortably, but with your back straight and close your eyes. Rest your hands in your lap comfortably in any way you choose.

Now start to bring your attention away from outside, away from the noises of the school and bring your attention towards yourself. Breathe deeply for a few breaths, but not loudly enough for the person next to your hear your breathing (you have to say that otherwise they all start panting and you get a loud breathing competition).

Now start to really become aware of your own breath. Feel the rise and fall of your chest as you breathe. Notice the air passing in and out of your nose over your mouth. Now try to make your mind follow your breath and not wander off into other thoughts. Focus on a breath in, and then a breath out. Don’t let any other thoughts come into your head. Hold your concentration on your breath.

If you find your mind has wandered, bring it back to the breath and hold it there. Try to focus 100% on your breath for ten slow breaths. In and out is one count. If your mind wanders, go back and start on one again. If you can focus on your breath alone of ten breaths without a single other thought, you’ve achieved a high level of concentration (they love a bit of competition so will be keen to try this).  Now leave them for a count of ten breathes to try it, about 20 or 30 seconds). After that time just nudge them again a few more times:

If your mind wanders bring it back to your breath.

After a minute or two more – Now start to become aware of your body again, start to become aware of the classroom around you and then the noises outside. Roll your shoulders, move your toes, have a little stretch and open your eyes. Rest your eyes in the space in front of you. Take a very deep breath and blow out. Try this again.

Have a little shake. Well done!

Now for lots of people this might sound all very wishy -washy, but all I care about is effective methods to help children thrive in school, and evidence based methods too. This works. Do this properly and you’ll see an immediate effect. The children will be calmer and noticeably settled. The fidgety ones won’t be fidgeting for a long while too. They will walk to their desks calmly and the hub bub of the classroom will feel tangibly more focused and sharper. You will have given those children perhaps their first chance to focus themselves mentally and they will feel the immediate benefits of a relaxed, but focused mind. Your maths lesson will feel the benefits too!  The first few sessions are about training. Some children will giggle and feel self-conscious at first, but once they feel safe and see that everyone is doing the same thing this will stop. Persevere with the ‘bravado boys’ who might take longer to get used to it.

Try it and see.

In my next blog I’ll go through some of the analytical meditations. These are effectively like PSHE sessions, but with kids working through it in their heads with you guiding them.

In the meantime, just doing the five minute focus and concentration meditation will have an immediately positive impact on the classroom environment.

Mind over matter – training the mind.


Following my blogs about rationality and introspection, I find myself being brought back to the duality we have under our noses all the time: mind and matter (in our heads or stuff out there).

It seems to me life is largely about negotiating between these two phenomena. Some people are very successful, the world washes over them much of the time, while others are not and life gets them down. Of course I’m not suggesting that we can easily ‘think away’ life’s troubles, but I do think that ‘view’ is a significant constituent of human happiness. Recent research on happiness also found that so long as certain needs are met, levels of happiness do not correlate with levels of wealth or prosperity.

With this is mind, I feel that teaching children to take a little more control of their minds could be as much part of education as understanding maths, science or history. In fact, understanding one’s mental ups and downs a little more scientifically, rather than just falling victim to them is just what I mean. Isn’t it time we helped children understand the causes behind things like everyday stress, conflict and insecurity and provided them with some inner solutions? Just imagine certain children being better equipped to deal with those biggies, a win:win for everyone.

Now, I’m not suggesting we put children through a course in psychology, and teachers need to understand general secular meditation techniques beforehand, certainly care needs to be taken to ensure sessions are a positive experience and never focus on issues that are too close to home for certain children. However, with the right training teachers could make great strides with behaviour, self-esteem and the general mental wellbeing of their pupils. Teachers could give children the opportunity to learn methods of mental concentration and resilience that they could be take with them and use throughout

their lives.

In my next blog (whenever I come up for air from the day job) I’m going to blog about how I learnt about meditation and how it can be brought into the classroom with noticeable effects.

Ding dong where’s your dignity?

As a declared anti-Thatcherite, I’d like to appeal to those intent on publicly celebrating Thatcher’s death. Think about the damage you’re doing to serious political debate. Find your dignity and support honest, effective political change rather than promoting the myth of the ugly, anarchic, militant left which only serves to cement entrenched uninformed ideologies that hinder making real improvements to people’s lives.  You can oppose everything Thatcher did, the selfishness she gave life to in this country, but this kind of action is demeaning.  Save the grease paint for when it’s really needed.  If you act like a clown, people will treat you like a clown. 


Not by authority…please.

Thatcher's fingers

“Do not feel absolutely certain of anything.” Bertrand Russell

When Thatcher became education secretary in 1970, things would never be the same for teachers in England. She left the post in 1974, will the epithet ‘Margaret Thatcher, Milk Snatcher’ following her. As she was later to comment in her memoirs, “I learned a valuable lesson. I had incurred the maximum of political odium for the minimum of political benefit.”   In other words: if people are going to hate me, then it better be worth it.

Many would agree that this sentiment has defined Thatcher’s political career, and in particular has influenced attitudes to education ever since. People who cause the most turmoil in education are always motivated by that same steely conviction in their own ideas which leaves those will less conviction, but more knowledge, speechless.

Everyone has a view about education, and a view about teachers too. I hear it all the time. At a party I was once asked what I did for a living and when I told them, I was greeted with the words ‘Aach, I hate teachers,’ from a forthright man in the corner (who also thought he was very funny indeed). Nevertheless, my point is this: everyone has an opinion about teachers and schooling because everyone has their own stories to tell. I can only assume the man in the corner got what he deserved at school for being an irritating little loud mouth and he’s still grappling with the injustice of it all. The fact is, he was only highlighting the biggest problem for education: opinions.

As a primary science leader, I think a lot about the scientific approach to learning. Within the process of scientific enquiry, belief or principal is insignificant, while experimental evidence is supreme. You see, you can believe something all you like in science, but belief and knowledge are not the same thing at all. Belief is derived from trust and acceptance, yet knowledge comes from enquiry and then substantiation. It doesn’t matter who says it either, authentication is king. The authority of an individual is secondary to this. So long as decisions about education are made through the emotional feelings of ideological conviction, so long education will continue to be kicked around between each new sets of beliefs that are based on little more than faith.

If the right wing ‘believe’ teachers left to their own devices will only teach pottery and poetry, therefore need to be continually chased with a thorny stick yet the left ‘believe’ teachers are their cosy friends who are there to prevent the reproduction of embedded social strata and positions of power, where does that leave teachers? It leaves us trying to work in an ideological and dysfunctional battleground. The fact that Gove openly declared that we’re all Marxists who want to ruin everything is testimony to this.

Like this, politicians, and some so called educationalists I might add, frequently rely on purely mythical notions about the state of affairs. These figures of authority are the greatest enemies of education because they possess authority based largely upon position and conviction alone. Is the silence of the Labour party regarding Gove’s scorn a sign then that they are  handing over the gauntlet to the educational community who might possess actual knowledge regarding the situation? I hope so.

In truth, there are no big ideas in education. There are no conspiracies in the staff room.  The ‘attitude of teachers’ is a myth in itself.  I look to Russell again when he said, ‘do not use power to suppress opinions you think pernicious, for if you do the opinions will suppress you.’  We must do away with opinions and political convictions in education once and for all and act as real educationalists interested in truth and enquiry. Those running education should be  consummate scientists, not idealists.

Thatcher might have said there was no alternative, but for education an alternative is there staring at us in the face. Working teachers must claim back the territory of education and use the evidence obtained through enquiry in the classroom to inform policy. Success for our children depends on success in the classroom. For as Russell said, ‘a victory dependent upon authority is unreal and illusory.’  Political conviction and that corrosive ‘political benefit’ are the death of progress.

Beware: Intelligent People

thinking choices

I just can’t stop thinking about this new rationality quotient test, the RQ, developed by Professor Keith Stanovich. While the beloved IQ test measures levels of abstract reasoning (but is questionably culturally biased in many ways) the RQ test measures a different aspect of the thinking altogether.  The RQ test seeks to measure our capacity for deep, reflective, critical thinking, a mode of thought that I believe is more important than ever to teach young children. The future will need these types of thinkers in order to deal with the  multitude of complex decisions new generations will face.

According to Stanovich, we have two distinct modes of thinking. Firstly, there is the abstract ‘algorithmic’ way, which can be measured in an IQ test, then there a second type of thinking which is intuitive, the mode we fall back on most of the time, our default mode if you like. In essence, there is ‘working it out’ thinking and then ‘just do it’ thinking.

While we clever, big headed mammals have evolved to think ‘outside the box’ and use our mass of connecting synapses for abstract reasoning, we have also held on to some of the old hard wiring that bypasses all that and moves quickly to action. Here we have various mental functions that are in effect cognitive short cuts, designed to deal very quickly with large amounts of information without much conceptual thinking at all. These are what psychologists call ‘cognitive biases’ or what I think of as ‘easy thoughts.’ These cognitive biases include such things as stereotyping, confirmation bias (agreeing with people who agree with us), in-group bias (agreeing with everyone in the group), gambler’s fallacy (just because it’s going well we think it’ll continue) and neglecting probably (for example, thinking driving a car is somehow safer than getting in an aeroplane). We have these easy thoughts automatically much of the time, and go with them most of the time too rather than questioning their validity.

However, Stanovich sites another mode of thinking apart from the intellectual and the intuitive types. According to him, there is a third mode which is the ‘reflective’ mind which ultimately, when faced with a mental problem or decision, chooses whether to go for thinking modes one or two. Put simply, a situation arises and your reflective mind can decide whether that situation requires abstract thinking or a quick cognitive short cut without all that processing. For Stanovich then, it’s possible to have very intelligent people with very high IQs who are weak in this third mode, the reflective mind, and who choose the wrong type of thinking for a situation. Hence very clever people can make very stupid decisions. Now and in the future, the world needs less of these poor thought choices from its leaders, and indeed the people who choose its leaders.

The point here is, so long as people lack the inner reflection to question their own thinking, poor (sometimes even catastrophic) decisions are likely to be made by what appear to be reliably intelligent people.  Our spontaneous, intuitive thoughts are not always correct or useful to us, while at times our intellectual thoughts might not always be either. The wisest people of all will be able to understand this and make the correct introspective thought choices.  What the rationality quotient test (RQ) seeks to measure is our ability to question our own thinking.

For me, the actual RQ test is irrelevant, but the teaching of introspective, critical thinking is principal. In order to encourage pupils to question their thought choices teachers need to enable young children to developed meta-cognition: the ability to think about thinking. This has never been more important for educators to understand. With its fluctuating curriculum, education is faced with an ever changing body of knowledge, and not always (perhaps never even) in line with the shifting knowledge required out there in the real world, and certainly never able to supply the knowledge needed for a future not yet known.  With knowledge being so volatile then, educators must themselves hone the ability to evaluate the validity of their own knowledge and in turn develop this ability in their pupils.

As a teacher,  I find this very exciting indeed. For so long in education it seems, introspection and self-awareness have not featured that much at all. While Blooms taxonomy of thinking is all the rage now, and certainly develops a higher order of thinking, this element of much deeper, reflective, ‘meta thinking’, is not often taught as a universal skill for decision making outside the core subjects.

Importantly, we want young people to recognise what kind of thinking they are using and indeed whether it is the right type of thinking. Stanovich suggests that one way to develop this introspective ability is to encourage children to think of the opposite decision once they reach a decision. After exploring contrary ideas, then they should return to and question the original decision to assess its validity. If teachers encourage this type of reflectivity, it will become a habit in young people. They will learn to question their own thinking and this will benefit them in all aspects of their lives,  in work, in school and importantly in their personal lives too. Life is not all about work and education, let’s never forget that. How much human suffering occurs because of the wrong decisions humans make for themselves and others?

Some excellent work on learning to learn as come out of places like the IOE; certainly Chris Watkins’ excellent work in this area has focused on how learners think. However, reflective thinking as a life skill is not a common focus for learners, teachers or perhaps anyone. ‘I think this, but why do I think this? What’s really influencing me? What if I think that instead? What effect might that decision have?’ Imagine how history might have changed if a few of its big personalities had been as introspective as that?

For Stanovich, humans are all too often over confident in what they know, especially the ‘clever’ ones. This is why having a high intellect, or high IQ, can be dangerous without this kind of advanced level of reflectivity running alongside it. Having a superior intellect is all very well, but it seems another thing entirely to be able to question one’s own thought processes in order to arrive at the right decision. The wisest people of all it seems, will never assume they are right.

Kurt  Kleiner’s piece on Stanovich offers further explanation: