Mindfulness + Reflection → Engaged Learning
For the past 15 years I have had the privilege to be both an expert learner and educator in different capacities, from working with elementary, secondary, college and graduate level, as well as adult learners. Fortunately, my brother and I were raised to understand ourselves as individuals, which was highlighted as an integral part of our journey toward seeking a purpose-driven life of service to others. We were encouraged to stop and think about the environment around us, appreciate each experience and interaction, and tune into what was going on internally within us. Though I have been trained by and worked with experts in the field, I credit my ability to understand expert learning to my upbringing. Mindfulness and reflection are not concepts I was introduced to as strategies to try; rather, they were embedded into the way I was raised and how I strive to live.
While working in different learning environments I don’t adhere to the traditional definition of ‘teacher’. Coach, facilitator, confidant, or guide better fits my style and approach to working with learners. While working with learners, be they young, practiced, or veteran, I know that how I learn best does not always match up with or even traverse the same path others take in their learning.
I recognize variability wherever it is found, be it in the cultures and homes from which each learner comes, previous experiences with learning, or the range of neurocognitive profiles that define and influence both skills and performance. I cannot assume that my experience, or that of those who trained me, is the same as those with whom I work. Being reflective in my practice in order to be flexible in my thinking and approach allows me to be open to providing alternate options to support learners and help them to fully experience their own, best path.
Encouraging reflection and the role of mindfulness
Through my years in education, one of the ways in which I elucidate the complex web of proximal and distal influences around each learner in order to foster expert learning is to encourage and prompt guided or spontaneous reflection about what they are learning, and subsequently make connections within their learning. Integrating opportunities to reflect allows for each individual to think about their learning preferences, and making connections supports learners’ understanding of the process of learning across contexts and content. Finding opportunities to cultivate reflection and genuine connections is something that I treasure. I feel it is an honor to influence others’ lives to help along their learning journey and I likewise I have committed to this work as my own life’s purpose.
Know yourself to improve yourself (Auguste Comte)
In graduate school my early studies of Positive Youth Development (PYD) by authors and researchers like William Damon, Richard Learner, and Reed Larson (to name a few) solidified an understanding and approach to cultivating a culture of learning through connection, understanding, and positive developmental ‘nutrients’. The power of reflection, connection, and being present while fully engaged in each moment, otherwise known as being mindful, are not only experiences that allow me to find success in my own life, but are empirically based and supported to best guide the field of education to think differently about how we teach and learn. Combined with my studies in PYD, Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is a framework for learning that closely maps onto working with youth to grow character and competence across domains. UDL also emphasizes the importance of engagement in learning as a dynamic interaction across the connectome of learning networks in the brain.
The power of UDL
Working with colleagues and mentors at CAST I realized the power of the UDL framework as a guide for educators, administrators, and learners to consider variability, access, and engagement as proactive approaches to designing learning experiences. Explicit and nuanced reminders from best practices by way of empirical studies on learning, cognitive neuroscience, and developmental psychology interwoven and embedded into the UDL guidelines serve as a roadmap for how to best teach and learn. The focus through the guidelines is not solely on creating access, as some may believe, but to broaden the definition of ‘access’ to include full engagement in learning. Additionally, the goal of UDL is for individual learners to understand themselves as learners, thinkers, and a part of learning communities.
Through UDL and countless international efforts to promote more inclusive environments, learners have had greater opportunities to be challenged and engaged in different ways. Neuroscientific research on learning has allowed for educators to better understand the value and importance of full engagement in a task, lesson, or activity. With such knowledge, it is the field’s responsibility to not only promote full engagement for learners, but also the adults who work with them. Often we forget about the importance of activating passion, motivation, and full engagement for the adult learners who work in the field of education.
In order to be the best guides, mentors, facilitators, coaches, employers, or educators, we must also allow ourselves to reflect on how we learn and grow best. Not only does mindfulness, reflection, and connection lead to full engagement in learning, the combination is also true for educators. In order to activate and inspire such skills in others, we must embody and model them ourselves.
You cannot transmit wisdom and insight to another person. The seed is already there. A good teacher touches the seed, allowing it to wake up, to sprout and to grow. (Thich Nhat Hanh)
The frenetic world that we live in has us inundated with media, responsibilities, and the ever changing technological landscape which provide a deluge of information and competing influences on our attention. The educational landscape is not much different as educators are responsible for maintaining numerous roles as teacher, social worker, lead learner, technology and content specialist, statistician, content developer, character and grit promoter, interventionist, family mediator, and time manager, to name a few. Similarly, learners are also juggling multiple responsibilities as they are asked to manage increasingly complex demands. In such a world laced with stress and oftentimes unrealistic moment to moment expectations, it is important to utilize the power of reflection, mindfulness, and connection to maintain focus on priorities, while guiding the process of understanding expert learning. Expert learning has been defined in many ways, but through the UDL lens, it intends for learners to be strategic, goal-directed, resourceful and knowledgeable, while also being purposeful and motivated. This combination of skills is foundation for understanding how to best learn, take on tasks, and navigate through different environments and experiences.
Bronfenbrenner, U., & Morris, P. A. (1998). The ecology of developmental processes. In W. Damon (Series Ed.) & R. M. Lerner (Vol. Ed.), Handbook of child psychology: Vol. 1: Theoretical models of human development (pp. 993-1028). New York: Wiley.
Csikszentmihalyi, M., & Larson, R. (1984). Being adolescent. New York: Basic Books.
Damon, W. (2008). The path to purpose: Helping our children find their calling in life. NY, NY: Free Press.
Hanh, Thich Nhat (2007). Planting Seeds: Practicing Mindfulness with Children. Parallex Press, Berkeley, CA.
Larson, R., & Asmussen, L. (1991). Anger, worry, and hurt in early adolescence: An enlarging world of negative emotions. In M. E. Colten & S. Gore (Eds.), Adolescent stress: causes and consequences (pp. 21–41). New York: Aldine de Gruyter.
Larson, Reed (2000). Toward Positive Youth Development. American Psychologist, vol. 55, no. 1, Jan. 2000, pp. 170–183., doi:DOI: 10.1037//0003-066X,55.1.170.
Lerner, R. M. (2008). Report of the findings from the first four years of the 4-H study of positive youth development. Tufts University, Institute for applied research in youth development. Medford, MA: Tufts University office of publications.
Meyer, A., Rose, D. H., & Gordon, D. (2014). Universal design for learning: Theory and Practice. Wakefield, MA: CAST Professional Publishing.
Pianta, R., C., & Allen, J. P. (2008). Building capacity for Positive Youth Development in secondary school classrooms: Changing teachers’ interactions with students. In M. Shinn, & H. Yoshikawa (Eds.) Toward Positive Youth Development: transforming Schools and Community Programs. (pp. 21-39). New York: Oxford University Press.
Rechtschaffen, Daniel (2014). The way of mindful education: Cultivating well-being in teachers and students. NY, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.
Scales, P. C., & Leffert, N. (2004). Developmental assets: A synthesis of the scientific research (2nd ed.). Minneapolis: Search Institute.