‘Listen when someone speaks’ has been one of the key expectations of my classroom since the day I started teaching some 18 years ago. Along with ‘Speak one at a time’ I hoped, as an English teacher, that these expectations would create an open, respectful environment in which students could share and have their views heard on literature, the world and their place within it. It is an approach that led to discussions in which students consistently impressed me with their perceptiveness, sensitivity and empathy. However, more recently, I have found myself repeating one plea over and over: ‘focus’– feeling listening skills, in particular, seem to be on the decline. In my more reflective moments, and with an increasing interest in and knowledge of Mindfulness, I have come to ask myself whether there is a reason for this shift and whether Mindfulness can address it – I believe it can.
Teachers are now sharing their classrooms with a generation of young people for whom technology has always been an integral part of life. According to a report last year from the UK body ‘OfCom’, young people are now spending an average of 27 hours a week on their electronic devices. It’s not just school children, of course; most of us are now in thrall with technology and our attention is quite often at least partly on our tech when we are ostensibly engaged in another task: email/SMS/social media alerts/that crucial fact that just needs to be verified or burning question to be answered while watching a TV programme/the multiple windows we ip between on our computer screens. For young people add in Snapchat, Instagram, WhatsApp and, undoubtedly, a whole range of other apps and platforms that I’m too past it to be aware of, and it becomes clear that our attention is rarely resting in the place we would like it to be. This bombardment of stimuli doesn’t only come from technology, it must be said, but also from the myriad of tasks, activities and pulls on attention that students and adults now face in their average, inevitably pressured, school or working days. They and we rush between one obligation and another, to the extent that, behind the scenes, it is starting to make our heads quietly spin.
Worryingly, this overwhelming amount of stimulation can lead to what is known as ‘attention deficit trait’. It is caused when the amygdala- the primal part of the brain associated with fear and emotion – is overly activated, triggering the ‘fight or flight’ stress response for which this part of the brain is also responsible. Put simply, as this kind of stress goes up, performance goes down. More hearteningly, MRI scans show that after an eight week course in Mindfulness, the amygdala appears to shrink, allowing the pre- frontal cortex – the part of the brain associated with higher order thinking and brain functions such as awareness, concentration and decision making – to strengthen. It is telling, I think, that more and more, when given a creative, open ended task to work on, students will ask me: “Can we use our phones?” How do I answer? “Well perhaps later, but I’d like you to approach the task with your own brain (preferably the pre-frontal cortex part – O.K., I don’t say that to them, but maybe I should) rather than Mr Google’s first.” It can be our job as teachers to explain these powerful forces that are at work in our brains and explain how, via simple Mindfulness techniques, students might become more aware of and alter them to the bene t of their studies and their personal wellbeing.
By Karen McGivern