Apologies for any cross postings if you also receive my creating calmer classrooms blog many of you dont and I wanted to share what I just posted there with you as well.
I have been thinking about creating calmer classrooms again as I am about to give a few presentations to primary schools on mindfulness and creating calmer classrooms actually, since this what schools are wanting – I guess it connects in with the focus on positive psychology we see around at the moment.
I am not long back from the US and some people said to me after my presentation on mindfulness in higher education that there was just not enough time in the university setting to practice mindfulness, or to slow down as there was ‘so much to get through. Certainly this does seem to be the case in the US university system, with pressure for faculty and students to succeed. I am doing some research in a community college and my colleage there has had some real success in taking time to reflect, practice mindfulness and develop more awareness of self and other. It still seems to be justified in fairly instrumental terms eg we are doing it so we can become better: public speakers, communicators, more effective in stressful situations, deal with diversity and so on. I would rather see it as something we might do to connect with the truth that lies within ourselves, to pull back from the world and all its demands and reconnect with inner wisdom, which is always there but gets drowned out with all the noise around us, the technology, the feeling we should be doing something…
I have been ready a lovely book along these lines about the ‘Taihu School’ in China. It describes itself as ‘A New Model of Education that Brings Culture and Values Back into Schools’.
There are lots of aspects about it that remind me of Steiner/Waldorf education, but the reasons behind doing things seem more clearly articulated and more accessible and pragmatic somehow.. I guess the Confucian heritage is perhaps less esoteric and mysterious in a way. I have been thinking that some of the ideas and practices could help me to more clearly frame my ideas (mostly borne out of Steiner education and Rudolf Steiner’s teaching) about why we might want to create calmer classrooms and ways it might be done in mainstream and secular environments.
On the first page of the website there is a clip we can probably all relate to… I have put the link here, in case you are interested in one way we could perhaps help to bring more calm into our students lives.
The internet was made for people like me who love to search organically and have one idea lead to another- I remember having a staff training on the internet when I was teaching at Willunga High and the instructor said I was a ‘natural’, since my technological skills were not good I assumed he meant my searching skills- but I am an adult researcher and have had years when I didnt use technology and had chance to develop on a inner level first.
For children however its another matter and I can see that much mainstream schooling today, with its reliance on technology, whether its youtube clips or searching the net for answers does seem to interfere with more indepth thinking and reflection. Certainly I have noticed a real change in my university students’ writing. I now set assignments that encourage students to read a whole book! I would almost rather they read one whole book in a semester than lots of bits and pieces however valuable, because they seem to be approaching their assignments in a very piecemeal way, putting in some words into a search engine, ending up at a popular website where the temptation to cut and paste is almost irrestible for some it seems ( I don’t enjoy the resulting phone call at all and I know they are busy, but….) or they end up in google books and pluck a quote from a page of a book they have never looked at apart from that page and then put that book in the reference list! Lucky I am up to their tricks but it makes marking more stressful. When I receive a thoughtful, well-researched, nuanced and cogent paper I could leap from my computer (probably a good thing) and jump for joy! Those students are generally shocked and surprised by my positive feedback and often, request to publish their work on one of my blogs, anonymously of course.
It also connects with a lovely piece I read this morning (14/3/2015) in The Australian ( online of course!). It is written by a teacher who said that technology has meant that teaching has changed immeasurably (in many good ways) and will continue to evolve. But the human element remains as important as ever. The last word goes to one of my students who looked at me hopefully one afternoon and asked: “Can we please not use our computers today? Could you please just teach us?”
I have noticed this at the university too, when I go to the whiteboard with some markers and write something up and teach in the old fashioned way the majority of students look up from their devices with palpable relief and even enjoyment at the prospect of having someone explain something to them from the wisdom of practice and experience.
Back to the book about the Chinese school though. I bookmarked (on my IPad!) so many pages and I won’t get to it all here but some of it is certainly going to inform some of the work I will be doing in schools and in my mindfulness and creating calmer topics this year at the university.
A core aim of the Taihi school is to cultivate inner peace, contentment, harmony, balance and quiet, something taught bu Lao Tzu, the Buddha, Confucius and Socrates. I love the way they try to provide children with the means by which they can acknowledge their experience of internal peace – however rarely- as an experience in childhood, a natural experience that all children have had but that tends not to be acknowledged, gets clouded over with worries and stresses and so it becomes something lost that is forever sought in adulthood. That explains why when we do find it we feel like we are coming home.
I have personal experience of this..I can remember the deep stillness I felt playing in my sandpit in my backyard in Mt Evelyn, Victoria. It seemed like the biggest sandpit in the world- now I look at it is pretty big! ( I am so pleased with myself, I just went to my study, found the photo, photographed it with my IPad, edited and imported it and voila! Easy I know but I have not done it before…).
It would have been taken around 1961 or 2 I reckon… behind me is a wonderful forest and whenever I hear bellbirds I associate them with this still quiet place of great beauty where I could happily commune with the trees and the birds, build things, and just be at peace.. I do look pretty blissful don’t I?!
But then it changed, I taught myself to read not that long after that, in around late 1962 I think, in my first year in kindy. There was no pressure put on me, although my mother was certainly a book lover. I was determined to decipher those little black mars on the page in my Andy Pandy and Teddy book about wallpapering the bedroom. It wasn’t exactly the one in the picture below but in that series (this picture came off the internet, I dont know where the original book went).
I did manage through much perseverance I remember to be able to work out what the small amount of text was saying. It’s really interesting that when I finally got to the last page it was about Andy and Teddy having boxed themselves in by wallpapering the whole room including over the door!
I think by the time I got about a third of the way through a critical deconstructive feminist analysis of the work of Virginia Woolf in Honours Sociology in 1980 at Monash I did start to feel boxed in! This led to an interest in finding my way back to that inner peace and contentment, through a range of ways probably not wise to speak about here, some fruitful some not so fruitful.. I had to go through all of this clearly, and so has the society but how would it be if we pay more attention to giving children the opportunity to tap into this space, as I had in my sandpit. Children are rushed off to child care and all sorts of managed play, ‘play dates’ and after school classes and parents are juggling multiple responsibilities, mothers are no longer home inside baking and cleaning while their children are in the sandpit…
If all schools could find a balance of giving children more time in nature, freedom to move, time to create, learn implicitly and through what their teachers embody as well as explicit teaching of literacy and numeracy so children are where they need to be developmentally, cognitively, emotionally, physically, spiritually, socially… I think this is what parents are increasingly calling for. Of course this balance is not at all easy to achieve.
In the book- which is a boarding school so they have more time with the children, there is mention of a Buddhist approach to education called ‘smoking’ or ‘perfuming’ a kind of ‘invisible influencing’ which means setting up a ‘special surrounding environment’ of beneficial influences which, since children are sponges and mimics, slowly elicits virtuous behaviours rather that tackling them head on through the behaviourist use of consequences or the various psychological techniques employed to change children’s behaviour today.
The idea though of course is that over time the smoke slowly permeates the meat so it develops an entirely different flavour from that influence, similarly if you expose clothes to the aroma of a special perfume or oil, after a while the clothes will absorb that fragance and become beautifully scented. The point also it that it doesn’t happen straightaway, and takes time, commitment and a very positive environment. I think though I will have to come up with another term.. and even the concept of ‘invisible influencing’ today is problematic given our duty of care should unsuitable people be working in our institutions.
The main theme of the book seems to be about taking the time, going more deeply, not rushing from topic to topic in a disconnected manner so the children can learn to listen and concentratte for long, to teach the children not just how to do things properly but teach them how to live in the moment with awareness, teach them how to concentrate, to develop their own independent minds rather than accept the viewpoints of others, take risks and not focus on having to be right all the time. (About a third of the way through the book comes the line:
One of the special things we do at our school is to give the students a place of calm and quiet away from all sorts of negative outside influences.
How hard it is to do this in modern school! I have done some work in this area through bringing the concept of A Quiet Place
a project I visited in in 2002 in Liverpool in the UK. With the help of principals I created some quiet rooms and quiet spaces here and we certainly saw how much children appreciated these aesthetic, calming and centring envionments. I remember in one Hills School that all the children wanted to use the space not simply the child with emotional difficulties and so we rostered them in there in twos! In another school the quiet area became a race track area, something I didn’t quite plan for but turned out to be just as therapeutic. You can read about this in my teacher resource book Recreating the Circle of Wellbeing and my paper ‘I just want friends’ available along with other papers and resources on this site:https://flinders.academia.edu/LeighBurrows
The book goes on to say that they give the children a place of calm and quiet, in which nature, their nature can be appreciated in its wholeness, its essence before it is named, labelled, separated, judged, sorted, analysed etc. They do this to:
help them become aware of the internal peace that is already available in their minds. We try to keep them away from being overly influenced by TV, the internet, computer games, excessive cellphone use and so on. We try to give them a period of purity away from all of this- whichs filled with all sorts of real life activities- so that they can establish a quiet mental foundation.
They say they use technology in teaching but not in the early years as they don’t believe that:
Elementary age children should be stimulated all the time by computers and the internet, and have found that this has a negative impact on their attention spans, ability to concentrate and desire to explore the real world of grass, trees and nature. This we particularly try to give young children time outdoors where they can experience the awe of nature and discover the peacefuliness in their own minds.
Of course all this is so much easier and probably more appropriate in the early years but I can appreciate the reasoning that if it is done in the early years at least there is something that is strengthened enough perhaps so it is more accessible to adolescents when they begin searching for deeper meaning in the world around them and people as well.
I will finish for today very soon, and come back to this in relation to older students but I love the way they write:
At the Taihu Schoool we try to give the children a ‘smooth period’ in their lives, which is what the golden time of childhod should be like so they can always forever after remember what is it is like to experience mental calmness and clarity…. they will always be able to get back to this internal peace later in life if they want it.
I certainly experienced ‘a smooth period’ in my life in my sandpit on the edge of a forest with the sound of bellbirds all around me, breathing in the fresh air naturally without conscious awareness, without any organised activities. Aa an only child as well I guess I had less interruptions! I don’t remember any adults that I knew who embodied it though, it only seemed to come in nature experiences and luckily I did have many of those, particularly in the Dandenong Ranges. It wasn’t until after a period of searching and some risk taking in my late adolescence and early adult life I realised I could tap back into it with meditation, but there is a lot of unravelling of self and identity to do before we can experience those long periods of uninterrupted bliss some of us experienced in childhood!
I guess what is needed first and foremost is educators who have experienced calm, stillness, wellbeing even to a small degree and are willing to continue to develop their capacity to do so, otherwise how are we to know how to create such environments for children? At the Taihu School they have weekend workshops for parents as well, for the same reasons!
Of course comments are so welcome, either here so everyone can read them, or via email…