Sunday, February 18, 2018

Using Mindful Questioning to Enhance Academic Learning (interview)

Ira Rabois has many years of experience as a secondary school teacher, instructor in the traditional Japanese martial arts, and meditation practitioner. While teaching for 27 years at the Lehman Alternative School in Ithaca, N. Y., he developed an innovative curriculum in English, Philosophy, History, Drama, Martial Arts, and Psychology, and refined a method of mindful questioning. He writes a blog on education and mindfulness. Mr. Rabois is the author of Compassionate Critical Thinking: How Mindfulness, Creativity, Empathy, and Socratic Questioning Can Transform Teaching. www.irarabois.com



What does ‘mindful teaching’ mean to you?

First, what does mindfulness mean? Mindfulness is a study of mind and heart from “the inside.” It is a moment-by-moment awareness of thoughts, feelings, and sensations illuminating how interdependent you are with other people and your world. 

Without being judgmental, it notices whatever arises as a potential learning event. It is both a practice, as in meditation, and is also a quality of awareness or of being in the world.

When I first started teaching, like most educators, I made a number of mistakes. When you make a mistake, it is easy to get down on yourself, and then you don’t learn all that you could. 

The more mindful I became, the more I could take in, the less judgmental I was, and the more I thought of my students as my teachers.

Mindfulness can be practiced either at a set time every day, or whenever you can do it. You might practice mindfulness because it reduces stress and strengthens your ability to focus and learn. 

But if you practice mindfulness just for what you can get from it, you concentrate on your idea of who you will become in some future time and miss the whole moment you are doing it. 

And if you do mindfulness practices in order to reduce stress, what happens if a stressful memory comes to mind? You stop. 

Instead, value each moment you’re mindful. This turns each moment of life into a learning exercise. And then, you get gifts. You are more likely to enjoy learning. You think more clearly and critically. Even when life is difficult, you expand your abilities.

So mindful teaching focuses on teaching itself as an opportunity for growth, as well as an opportunity to help others. 

In crazy times like we’re going through today, when teachers are told to focus on test scores or “adding value” to students instead of on their deeper needs, it can be difficult to feel how valuable an opportunity teaching is. 

When I take the time to view students not as numbers, but as people, the students are more willing to see me as a person, and are more able and willing to hear what I have to say—or what other students have to say. 

I create a model of how to learn, by being open in each moment to learning.



Some parents and teachers are concerned that mindfulness instruction can take away time from academic content. Could you briefly describe how you integrated lessons on mindfulness into different types of academic classes? 

I can understand the concern for time in a classroom. Every moment is precious. It must be kept in mind, however, that anything that helps students to learn more fluidly and easily is not a waste but an expansion of time.

There are many books that talk about how to use mindfulness practices to ready students to learn, but my book is one of only a few that show how to use mindfulness with visualization, inquiry, imagination, and other practices to directly and effectively teach required material.

English: After leading students in a practice to focus attention on their breath, and calm the mind and body, I might then ask them to visualize a character in a novel we are reading. 

I would then ask: 
How does he or she walk or smile? 
What are his favorite gestures? 
I could ask how the character feels about a specified event in the novel or about another character or why she acted as she did. After that, we would process the exercise. Students would record what came to them and share what they imagined.


Philosophy: I might do an inquiry practice on a concept such as freedom, democracy, or ethical action. After students are calm and focused, I could ask:
What does freedom mean to you?  
What words come up with the word 'freedom'?  
How would a free person act? An unfree person? 
I would ask students to list people in their mind who they thought personified or fought for freedom.


Drama: To study a play or prepare for a performance, you could use a similar exercise as the one used in the English class. 


Have students imagine what another person, or a character in the play, might be might be feeling when they say or hear a specific line, and then imaginatively send something like insight, strength, and happiness to that person. (This is based on exercises that develop compassion and empathy.) Then ask how the student‘s own response to the situation might be like or not like that of the character.

You could also use mindful movement. Have students move around the room at the pace and manner they imagine the character might move. 

After getting the feel of walking as this other person, instruct them to freeze in place, holding a gesture that distinguishes the character. 

Then ask: 
What is going on inside you that might motivate this gesture?  
What does it feel like to move in this fashion?

History: History is another natural place for a visualization or inquiry practice. You could lead students in a visual journey down a classical Roman street or to attend an ancient Greek Assembly or into a prehistoric art cave.


Psychology: A psychology class provides wonderful opportunities for students to study brain, mind, perception, personality, motivation, and emotion from the “inside.” 
  • In studying human emotions, for example, you could show them how to break down an emotion into its components: 
  • feelings, 
  • sensations, 
  • memories, 
  • thoughts, and 
  • possible actions. 
Or you could inquire into the implications of a particular psychological metaphor or theory. 

In my book, I contrast the metaphor of the brain as a computer with that of the brain as a hologram. 
After students get calm and focused, ask them to imagine their brains as a computer. 
What images, thoughts, or feelings arise with that metaphor? 
Then, imagine a jewel, clear on the inside, yet each surface is able to reflect whatever is around it. Then slowly add more jewels, each reflecting those around it, each sparkling and colorful. Each one is both itself, and yet reflects all else. Everything is both individual and infinite. 
Ask students: How do you feel about your brain when viewed through this metaphor? (This image is based on the Jewel of Indra.) What strengths are inherent in each image, the computer and the jewel?

In a previous interview, Pete Reilly discussed ‘Applying the Lessons of Aikido in the Classroom’. Have you found any aspects of the study of karate or the martial arts relevant to classroom teaching?

I found several aspects of the study of the traditional Japanese martial arts to be applicable to the classroom. 

1. It made my teaching stronger by improving my focus, confidence, discipline and awareness. It gave me the strength and motivation to be empathic, to be tough or comforting, depending on the situation and the student.

Educators learn how to teach not only through studying educational psychology and pedagogy, but also through the example of our own teachers. One of the most inspiring educators is my martial arts teacher, Hidy Ochiai. He is renowned by martial artists not only in this country, but internationally, as a practitioner, competitor, and educator. His understanding of his art, and teaching, is astounding. I have been taking classes with him for 42 years; and even after so much time, I still learn something new in each class. 

Although the martial arts study fighting techniques, for Ochiai, the emphasis is on developing inner peace. The word Karate, for example, can be broken down to the Japanese words for empty and hand, not only empty of a weapon but empty of harmful intent.

2. The martial arts taught me the value of mindfulness and presence. When you enter the classroom, before working with a partner, or practicing in a group, you let go of any other time or place and pull your attention to the moment. 

You stand straight but not rigid, and show respect to yourself. Then you bow, to respect others. “Respect self, respect others.” This practice helps students feel good, focused, and energized.

 After warm-up exercises, you do a short mindfulness practice. My first class in the martial arts was in 1975, and it was the first class I was ever in, outside of a spiritual class, where you began with a practice to calm and focus mind and body.

3. In public schools today, educators discuss whether each class or each school day should incorporate movement or exercise. 
In the traditional Japanese martial arts, it is clear that there is no real dividing line between mind and body. You can’t talk of developing reason, intellect, and discipline without talking about the body. Every movement you make is a lesson in the mind-body connection.

Essential to talking about the body is talking about the breath. Breathing can seem so simple, even banal to students, until you talk about the connection between breath, emotion, and thinking capacity. 

When you prepare to punch in karate, you inhale— and then exhale with kiai, or an energetic shout, to unite mind-body-technique into one. Or if you’re practicing moving meditation, this utilizes a very different type of breathing. How you breathe can assist or interfere with movement and mental clarity.

If you are going to lead discussions in a class, it’s helpful to teach students to be mindful of their breathing, which helps them be more aware of emotion and thoughts. Thus, they can slow down their thoughts and breathing when they’re getting angry or defensive, or speed up their breathing when getting tired.

4. The traditional Japanese martial arts help develop self-confidence. Much violence in society happens due to people feeling insecure or lacking in confidence. Much failure in schools is due to students feeling they can’t learn or that others do not value them. To be peaceful, you need confidence and self-respect. 

Several stances used in the martial arts put you in a confident mental frame. When you practice self-defense techniques in class, you feel more capable and valuable at a very primal level. You learn, to quote Hidy Ochiai,
“to hate violence but not fear it.” 
If you can learn to defend yourself in a class, you feel confident you can defend yourself out of class. You feel no compulsion to prove anything to anybody. You only use the martial arts physically if it is the only way to stop violence directed at yourself or others.

5. You learn the value of authenticity. My teacher said, “You can’t give what you don’t have.” You can’t teach what you don’t know. Students easily spot a lie.

You learn to recognize who each student is and to proceed at the individual pace of the student. When you face someone in a sparring or self-defense situation, the more you discern who the person standing in front of you is, the more likely you will be able to defend yourself against attack—or recognize a potential friend. You have to learn to see people without preconceptions, or to see your own preconceptions so you can go beyond them. 

This is important not only in discerning who a student is so you can teach him or her. It is important so you can harmonize with others when working with them.

Every evening and weekend, I spent many hours preparing lessons for the different classes I taught, whether it was history, philosophy, English or whatever. 

But thanks to the confidence, energy, empathy and focus I developed in studying martial arts, I learned I could walk into the classroom, look into the eyes of students, lead them in a mindfulness practice, ask a few open-ended questions on the topic for the day, and then—I knew what and how to teach those particular students on that particular day. 

The preparation was not just to ready material but ready my mind so I could meet the educational needs of my students.



What do you do in your own personal mindfulness practice, and how does it help you with your work?

My mindfulness practice starts with some stretching or yoga, and martial arts exercises and techniques, to feel awake and energized. I often read a poem or a chapter of an insightful book. And then I meditate. 

  • If I can’t focus my own mind or allow myself to be aware of what I’m going through, how can I ask it of my students? 
  • If I can’t feel present, and have a deep perspective not only on what I’m doing but why, I can’t ask it of my students. 
  • If I can’t recognize the classroom as a specialized situation in a much bigger world, then I can’t expect my students to do so. 

Mindfulness helps turn my teaching, or whatever I’m doing, into an opportunity to learn, help others, and grow.


Thank you so much for this valuable opportunity to learn from, and reflect on, my teaching experiences.





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related posts:

Compassionate Critical Thinking (recommended book)

Mindful Listening: Only If You Listen Can You Hear (guest post)

Mindful or Mindless? Analyzing Characters in Books and Movies



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