The Crossover between The Personal and The Professional in Teaching English as a Foreign Language and the context

in which it happens. Tuesday, 25 September 2012

...on Mindfulness
I recently learned about the Buddhist-based belief of Mindfulness, on a one- week retreat. It was also an opportunity to detox and to clear my head. It was a necessary step away from the stress of finishing my Masters dissertation and before I start full-time work again. I also met some people who were signed up to the Alcoholics Anonymous 12-step programme, where they recite the serenity prayer as part of their daily ritual. Following my break, I returned home and went to my first proper Yoga class. Then on Thursday (27 September), I went to a talk, in my home town, by a visiting Buddhist monk, the Lama Karma Samten. Acceptance was a major theme as he talked about loss and grief. Mindfulness practice is employed in Western psychology to allevite a variety of mental and physical conditions, including Obserssive compulsive disorder (wikipedia). Mindfulness, which features focused awareness training, is increasing in popularity among mental health professionals. Mindfulness training emphasizes focused attention to internal and external experiences in the present moment of time, without judgment. While mindfulness interventions have been used in treatments for stress, chronic pain, anxiety, depression, borderline personality disorder, eating disorders, and addiction, researchers suggest that this type of training also can be beneficial in everyday life (Hooker, K and Fodor, I, 2008).

Despite its Buddhist origins, mindfulness does not conflict with existing beliefs or traditions. It is simply a practical way to notice thoughts, physical sensations and tapping into the things we might otherwise not notice unless it was pointed out to us. An adult might look at a garden and think the fallen leaves need clearing up. A child might look at the same garden and discover a ladybird and count the number of spots it has or try to count the number of birds that can be heard. It is therefore, choosing to focus attention on something. Mindfulness means paying attention on purpose to the things you are doing, in the present moment. It means not looking back on past experiences or forward to the next thing. It draws on qualities such as compassion, curiosity and acceptance (Alidina: 7). It can reduce stress, anxiety, pain and depression. It can also boost energy, creativity and improve the quality of relationships. I, for one, used to have great difficulty in concentrating on the action that I am doing and tend to drift off to recent past experiences or I rush, thinking of what's coming next. Mindfulness asks for concentration on the current action. It is sometimes described as Dialectical Behavioural Therapy. This is a 'thinking' process but can be introduced to someone as a talking therapy. This is also now, quite often, recommended to patients seeking help through the National Health Service in the UK. Most commonly this is done using Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), in which patient's thoughts are challenged, but Mindfulness is becoming more and more popular. It requires, practice, however, to master. 'But what is the relevance to English Language Teaching?' I hear you ask. As highlighted above in an article by Hooker, K and Fodor, I, mindfulness, is something that could easily be taught to adults or to children. A lot of literature focuses on the needs of adults to concentrate on the moment. It requires using the 'beginner's mind', which is a reference to how a child might naturally think. Their tendency is to function on autopilot and probably are much closer to experiences of mindfulness than adults. There are numerous examples of ways that mindfulness might be used with children in the language classroom in the article (pp82-89). In writing about Mindfulness, I must acknowledge Scott Thornbury's post from last year, on not interfering, where he signed off for the summer of 2011. In it, Scott wrote about receiving a book entitled 'The Mindful Teacher' (MacDonald and Shirley, 2009). In it, he said, the authors advocated an antidote to what they termed 'alienated teaching' and recommended strategies teachers can use to become more 'mindful'. 'One strategy (or synergy) is simply stopping ... and then stopping again. And then again'. We are socialized to believe that being busy is a virtue' (ibid in Thornbury, 2011). However, 'this constant busyness distracts us from responding, in a calm and reflective manner, to the complex nature of classroom events' (ibid).

Thornbury then goes on to mention other books and blogs in which teachers take a low profile, did minimal teaching or accepted things they can't change, as the serenity prayer reminds us. As I read this piece, this seemed to fit to what I know of the Dogme approach, that 'there is less teacher involvement in the management of the class' as one comment pointed out. Being in the present philosophy of mindfulness does work well with a Dogme approach, which advocates teaching with minimal resources, ideally teaching only with what is in the classroom. As someone who believes in facilitating learners/learning and not, by extension, the top-down teaching of students, I feel that mindfulness is something which I can bring to my next teaching situation.

Luke Meddings, 'meditating' by a lake

Mindfulness for the ELT classroom can be letting silence occur. Thornbury and Luke Meddings expressed this in one activity from their ELTons-winning book, 'Teaching Unplugged'. The sounds of silence uses the surroundings, the environment in which the lesson takes place. Luke demonstrated this on video, appropriately filmed for possible relaxation or serenity purposes, by the shores of an Austrian Lake, see here. Meditating by a lake is suggested in the book, 'Mindfulness for Dummies', as an excellent location (Alidina: 129).

Silence was also written about by Scott on his A-Z ELT, coincidentally (or possibly not) when he signed off for the summer 2012. The immersion of the students/learners into their surroundings or generating awareness of what is around is not drawn upon as much as it could be. I even thought myself about re-jigging the infamous Prayer of Saint Francis: 'Where there be coursebooks, let their be none. Where there be noise, quiet. Where there be stress, relaxation.'

The emergent vocabulary that comes out gives plenty to work with. For example, listening to sounds brings out a lot of vocabulary as learners try to use their existing knowledge and, working with other learners, try to find agreement about their choices. The teacher, of course, can facilitate this and elicit further meaning where possible. I've done the 'sounds of silence' idea myself many times in non-homogenous classes, as it taps into a full range of senses which the majority of learners have. I wish to state that Mindfulness taps into experimenting with senses. By using these, as mindfulness invites us to, then a whole world of descriptive vocabulary can come out, just by touching, smelling, hearing etc. It can also be a meditative process. In addition, it can lead to a more relaxed atmosphere and centre (position) the learners in the environment in which they are working. You shouldn't fight it, you should go with it. You shouldn't be dwelling on what has gone before or is going to happen. It is all about appreciating the here and now, the present. And maybe, whilst doing this, you will also discover something new. This leads me to some questions. Do English language teachers actually practice mindfulness in their classroom? What does mindfulness mean to them? How do they do it? What other benefits can teachers think of in this respect? I suggested this topic for an #ELTchat on Wednesday, 3 October 2012. It didn't get chosen, finishing third. However, there is already strong support for discussing this topic in respect of language teaching. If you, too, have something to offer then please vote for it between Monday 8 and Wednesday 10 October and hopefully we can get it discussed on the Wednesday, instead, at either 1200HRS BST or 2100HRS BST (depending on whether it finishes as first or second choice).

- TP

(adapted from blog entry and for #ELTchat discussion, 10 October 2012)

References: Alidina, S. (2010). Mindfulness for Dummies. Chichester: John Wiley & Sons. Hooker, K., and Fodor, I. (2008) Teaching mindfulness to children. Available at: http://www.mindfuleducation.org/mindfulnessforchildren.pdf MacDonald, E., and Shirley, D. (2009). The Mindful Teacher. New York, NY: Teachers College Press. Thornbury, S. (2011). N is for Not Interfering - available at: http://scottthornbury.wordpress.com/tag/not-interfering/. Thornbury, S. (2012) S is for Silence - available at: http://scottthornbury.wordpress.com/2012/06/10/s-is-for-silence/. Thornbury, S., and Meddings, L. (2009) Teaching Unplugged: Dogme in English Language Teaching. Peaslake: Delta Publishing. and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mindfulness.

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