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Tish Jennings

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The Missing Dimension of the Education Debate

Posted: 10/19/11 02:09 PM ET

The national debate on how to improve our education system is very vibrant and visible these days. It focuses on salient issues like testing, teacher pay and job security in a difficult economy, and other mounting stresses on teachers and students. Half of new teachers to leave the profession in their first five years. 30% of high school students don't graduate. 5,000 schools serving about 3 million students are considered failing by federal standards.


These are objective facts of life in American education, and we know them all too well. But there is another equally important dimension of education largely missing from the national debate: the inner one.


A growing body of research and field practice indicates that working on a more inward level -- using secular, accessible techniques ranging from mindfulness to yoga to reflective writing -- may hold the key to coping with these stresses more successfully, lowering attrition rates and ultimately improving education outcomes. Educators and researchers are exploring the use of contemplative or mindfulness-based approaches to teaching and learning to reduce stress, enhance classroom climate, and help students calm their bodies and minds, open their hearts and focus their attention.


This emerging field of contemplative education is a secular, evidence-based one, drawing on new research in neuroscience, cognitive science and developmental science, and adapting practices from contemplative traditions in secular ways that can work for teachers and classrooms. It is complementary with, but distinct from, social and emotional learning (SEL). It can support SEL by reinforcing social and emotional competencies both teachers and students need to succeed.


Today many children come to school with nervous systems unprepared to learn. Our modern lifestyle contains huge doses of real and/or imaginary violence, constant media exposure, general busyness, and high pressure that constantly triggers the fight-flight-freeze response, stimulating our limbic systems, washing our minds and bodies with stress hormones. This can have long-term effects. Thanks to contemporary neuroscience, we now know that exposure to situations that trigger emotional reactivity during development changes the way our brain and body respond to future stressors. It's like a thermostat that's been turned up too high.


This makes it very tough for kids to learn. When our limbic system is hyperreactive, it's difficult to engage the prefrontal cortex and therefore difficult to absorb and process new information.


But contemporary neuroscience has also discovered "neuroplasticity," the principle that our brains can change and grow at almost any stage of life depending on how we use them. We have the potential to profoundly change the way bodies and minds function at any age, but especially during development.


Lots of "contemplative" modalities, broadly defined, can help accomplish this. One example is "mindful awareness practices (MAPs)," a kind of secular, accessible adaption of certain meditation practices that anyone can learn to do. Studies show that done regularly, MAPs change how our body and brain respond to stress, possibly strengthening connections in the prefrontal cortex and reducing reactivity in our limbic system, supporting self-reflection and self-regulation.


These functions play a critical role in education. As any teacher knows, to learn well, a student must focus and monitor her attention, control impulses and avoid distraction. That means she must learn to engage her pre-frontal cortex. Helping students learn to calm their bodies and minds through the use of developmentally appropriate contemplative modalities integrated into the curriculum could play a key role in how they learn. That's why it should also play a key role in educational reform.


Contemplative education deserves a prominent place in the national debate on improving teaching and learning. We know teachers are stressed, we know too many students and schools are failing, and we know it's unacceptable. But beyond testing and interdiction, we need to approach these complex, human problems on a human level too, and start by asking the right questions. How can we relieve and better cope with the stresses? How can we better prepare and open students' and teachers' minds and hearts for presence, resilience, receptivity, communication and learning?

There are promising, practicable answers being researched and field-tested right now. A cross section of them will be presented at an upcoming symposium on "Advancing the Science and Practice of Contemplative Teaching and Learning" open to educators and the public. To get a sense of what's out there already, see this list of contemplative education projects already in use in diverse settings across the US from preK to grad school.