Wednesday, April 30, 2014

‘Mindfulness’ yet another mindless fad in education

There’s a new fad on the block being forced on our kids – mindfulness (or wellbeing). In truth, it’s not new at all. It goes back to Buddhism, Freud, then Rogers and the relentless effort to get therapeutic theory into education. But there’s plenty of reasons for rejecting this particular manifestation of mindful madness.
1. Adult fixations foisted on kids
Mindfulness is just another example of adults taking their new-age, adult fixations and forcing them on the young. It’s not as if kids take naturally to such unnatural behaviours as they are naturally exuberant. Education should be about opening up young minds not forcing them to do things that faddish adults think is right for them.
2. Ill-defined
I’ve been asking people in the counseling and therapy business what ‘mindfulness’ is and the replies, even from theose who have been on the training courses, are more than a little confusing. Some relate it directly to Buddhist meditation, others to reflection on your physiological processes, others to internal cognitive reflection. In fact it seemed somewhat contradictory, a stilling of the mind yet a strong sense of presence or attention to self using a selfless, meditation-based practice. There’s no consistency as mindfulness is many things to many people. This is always a worry and often a sign that all is not well with a practice. It reminds me of the theoretical mess that is NLP.
3. Enforced silence
Education is about both mind and body but that means being alive and kicking, socialising with others through play, games and sport. Kids are lively and locking them up for most of the day in classrooms, often accompanied by enforced silence, is bad enough, without forcing them to sit in even more complete, communal silence. They are gloriously alive at that age and should play and learn, be lively and curious, not mimic artificial, adult fads.
4. Surfeit of over-reflection
Is internalizing at this age such a great thing? One of the problems with children and especially teenagers is over-reflection. They already have a surfeit. Peer pressure often forces them to reflect too much on the wrong things, leading to a spiral of negative reflection, even depression. It is often a destructive, not creative, force at this age. Keep their minds on what matters, not obsessive internalized reflection.
5. Mindless sheep
Mindfulness plays a neat trick. It’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing as it is actually mindless meditation under the guise of mindful attention. What we need is more mindful, external attention on learning, teachers and other people in learning. This means getting involved, not idle internalizing. It means being alert and attentive, as we know with certainty that outward-looking, psychological attention is a necessary condition for learning. The sort of internal attention that is needed for learning is to do with the coding, elaboration, scene setting, deep processing and practice, especially spaced practice, that leads to cognitive improvement.
6. Bandwagon
Mindfulness has all the hallmarks of a fad; not evidence-based (in terms of learning), promoted by celebrities and suddenly erupts as the ‘next big thing’. Believe me, mindfulness will have been long forgotten in a couple of years time, so let’s cut that short and dump it now, before we waste even more time on yet another fad.
7. Dangerous damage
Learning styles, L/R brain theory, whole word literacy, Brain Gym, playing Mozart while kids learn – I saw this stuff served up in real schools, driven by nothing more than the need for ‘fillers’ in ill-organised INSET days. Education does itself no favours by snatching at these crazes. It opens teachers and the educational system up to the sort of unnecessary mocking that their enemies adore.


Norman Lamont said...

Hi Donald. When I'm used to cheering you on when you're on the attack, it felt strange to be leaping to defend one of your targets! I felt I had to, although I agree with some of what you've written. It's longer than I'd want to write here so I've made it a post of my own at

To summarise:
- the threat is exaggerated - it's one headmaster we're talking about
- what he's talking about isn't mindfulness training as it's commonly known
- yes, mindfulness could do with some more robust definitions and exaggerated statements of the benefits damage the reputation of the practice, but there is something of value there
- but this ain't it.

Norman Lamont said...

PS your article seemed to be prompted by an article in Spiked; I hadn't read Spiked before but I recalled a friend posting the following as a timesaving summary of every Spiked article in order to save you the time of reading it. I can't comment on its validity but it goes:
1. [Subject] reveals a contempt for the working classes.
2. [Subject] is thinly disguised misanthropy.
3. [Subject] is merely an exercise in liberal self-congratulation.
4. [Subject] encourages a culture of victimhood.
5. [Subject] shows we’re governed by alarmist scaremongers.
6. [Subject] is an attempt to censor dissent.

Donald Clark said...

Only one of my arguments bears any resemblence to the Spiked article. In fact, I've written about 'Mindfuless' as a cranky initiative before. Don;t really recognise any of the things on that list in my arguments. No working class attacks (I'd say Midfulness was a very much a Middle class pursuit). Is it misanthropic to criticise something you don;t agree with? Me - a liberal? Mindfulness, I think, veers towards victimhood. Mindfulness advocates often quite the fear of feral, lively children as an excuse for their fad - keep 'em silent, keep 'em quiet. Publishing something on a public blog is surely not an attempt at censorship! Realise that your list was about the Spiked article, but my arguments are not theirs. ;)

Norman Lamont said...

Are you going to approve my first comment, with the link to my article about yours on it? Otherwise the PS doesn't make much sense. I'd be interested to see where else you wrote about mindfulness, too.

Donald Clark said...

Sorry Norman. Was abroad when your first post came through - missed it - now published. Read your piece and it was measured but I do think it's more than just a Seldon obsession . 700 attendees attended last year’s Mindfulness in Schools Conference on March 27th in London. There's well attended roadshows by Mindfulness in schools training courses. There's Burnett's Mindfullness in Schools TED talk (UK). I've been told by someone that I need to go on a Mindfulness training course!

Unknown said...

Spiked rose from the ashes of Living Marxism.Frank Furedi is one of its regular contributers and I think (but am not certain) there is a link with The institute of Ideas. An independently-minded bunch that seem to plough their own furrow.

As for mindfulness in schools, oh please not another fad offering 'solutions'. 30 years in the classroom and I am more than weary of this type of thing. You can be pretty sure that the people who peddle it will either not be teachers or are former teachers who have got out to the classroom.