Everybody Present: Mindfulness in the Classroom

Student takes deep breath while at computer and meditates

*This article first appeared in the Teaching Professor on January 4, 2017. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved. 

Did you know that the average attention span in the year 2000 was 12 seconds? And 12 years later, in the year 2012, the average attention span had gone down to eight seconds. So by my calculations, in the year 2036, the attention span will be down to zero, and we will all finally be living in the moment. Well, maybe not. And in fact, probably quite the opposite. And by the way, just for your information, the average attention span of a goldfish is nine seconds.

The goldfish are winning.

What is mindfulness?

I am so pleased to share how mindfulness can be easily incorporated into the college classroom. So what exactly is this mindfulness that you’ve been hearing about and what does Buddhist meditation have to do with teaching students?

Mindfulness meditation and just the simple intention to be mindful during the day are no longer under the sole purview of the Buddhist tradition. Mindfulness is finding its way to the average person, who simply wants to live a more conscious life.

Of course, mindful students are better able to focus attention, which improves their self-awareness, their concentration, and finally, their memory. I’ve told my students many times that your memory is only as good as your encoding and your encoding is only as good as your attention. There’s a lot of research that confirms numerous academic benefits for a mindful classroom.

Interestingly—and I love this—it is also associated with increased patience, kindness, compassion, and overall improved classroom climate. Many teachers that were interested in this topic already appreciate the value of meditation, and they’re curious to know how to apply it to the classroom. Mindfulness in schools has actually been around for several years in K-12 settings, and that’s where most of the academic research has taken place. Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer deserves most of the credit for introducing the topic with her book, Mindfulness, published in 1990.

About eight years later, John Kabat-Zinn started conducting his eight-week mindfulness-based stress reduction programs. It’s gained momentum for the last 17 years. Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as paying attention in a particular way on purpose in the present moment non-judgmentally.

What is meant by “the present?” The present is not your thought about the present. It is the experience of the moment, perhaps before you have the thought. Here’s an example: Imagine you open the door and walk into a new restaurant. You look around and take it all in. That’s the present, the moment of experiencing before you have the thought. It is located in the space between stimulus and response.

Mindfulness versus meditation

What is the difference between mindfulness and meditation? A lot of people are asking that question. I would say that meditation is a formal practice of protecting some period of time each day to focus attention in order to train the mind. A common technique is to focus on the breath and then gently return wandering thoughts back to the breath when you wander. One result of that practice is becoming a more mindful person.

Practicing mindfulness each day is the intention to just be conscious of the present moment throughout your whole day with an attitude of nonjudgmental acceptance, curiosity, and compassion. I suggested before a formal practice of meditation absolutely supports that intention.

Now, you might be wondering, “What if I’m more mindful of the present moment throughout the day? What does that get me?” It gets you more peace, more calm, and better judgment. It gets you more responses and fewer reactions. It gives you more space in between the stimulus of a difficult life event and your typical thoughtless emotional reaction. You have more space in between, “I’m sorry, we don’t seem to have a reservation on file for you” and your typical explosive reaction of angry indignation.

A mindfulness practice buys you some time to enjoy more impulse control, to access the wise person inside you, and the ability to be more measured and thoughtful. Just 10 minutes of mindfulness each day has resulted in decreases in depression and anxiety, improved sleep, better concentration, greater compassion, increased creativity, and more work productivity. Here’s just one excerpt reported by the faculty at Penn State. They found improvements in their relationships with students, classroom management, and overall classroom climate. At the same time, they reported that burnout and stress decreased, and these results are very representative of other research findings.

Applying mindfulness to the college classroom

How do we apply this to college teaching? Well, if you’ve received some training about mindfulness and have the time to teach an actual module on it, that’s great. If not, that’s OK. You can do a short presentation about it in your classes, and then explain that you will occasionally incorporate and model some ideas throughout the semester. That will help students learn some mindfulness practices.

You might explain to your students that mindfulness includes learning how to simply notice—notice what they see, notice what they hear, both in the foreground, and in the background. Notice tastes, touch, and smells. An important piece to this is to not judge anything as good or bad. See what it is like to refrain from evaluating everything as liked or not liked. Refrain from comparisons like better than, smaller than, etc. It just is.

So let’s get into some specific suggestions for bringing awareness to awareness.

  • To draw attention to a particular word or phrase, change the cadence of your speech. When you’re speaking, make use of the pregnant pause to focus attention. This is a technique to dramatize a particular point. You can use it to change up your speaking pattern, and it will draw more attention to what you’re saying.
  • Another opportunity to teach students how to be aware of what they’re feeling is when they break into small group discussion. Have you ever seen how four students are all lined up on one side of the table trying to engage in a group discussion?  You might stop their discussion and say, “I’d like all of you to freeze. Stop what you’re doing and saying, and now just check in with yourself and notice the energy flow of the conversation while you were all sitting in this straight line. How awkward does it feel sitting on the two ends? And how awkward does it feel sitting in the middle? Now stand up and arrange yourselves in an equidistant circle. And then ask them how does that feel? Do you feel more included? Do you feel more balanced? Is the energy now able to move in a circle in a balanced way?”
  • Another way to increase awareness: Try sending around an attendance sheet and asking students to sign it using their non-dominant hand. This is a creative way to draw attention to the difference between effortful consciousness versus effortless consciousness, and the fact that we are operating in unconsciousness about 95 percent of the time. Contrasting the two brings awareness to both. Again, no judgment, just awareness.

Mindfulness is paying attention to what is happening now, in the present moment. A mindfulness practice can widen that space to allow more conscious choices rather than thoughtless reactions. This awareness can improve mental focus and academic performance. Mindfulness mysteriously seems to cultivate emotional balance, kindness, and compassion. These qualities enhance the learning process.

Adapted from the Magna Online Seminar presentation, “Everybody Present: Mindfulness in the Classroom,” 2015.

Kris Roush teaches psychology at New Mexico Community College and blogs at http://www.movedandshaken.com/