Kevin Hawkins is the cofounder of MindWell, which supports educational communities in developing wellbeing through mindfulness and social-emotional learning. His book, Mindful Teacher, Mindful School: Improving Wellbeing in Teaching and Learning was published by SAGE in summer 2017.
For those who are new to it, can you summarize what is mindfulness?
It’s very simple: Mindfulness is remembering to be aware of the present moment. We spend so much time thinking about the past and worrying about the future that sometimes we just need to be reminded of ways to let go of things and come back to the present moment. In mindfulness training, we learn to do that through the senses. Anything that is rooted in the body helps you pull back from thinking, as opposed to being lost in thoughts. When you listen carefully to a piece of music or you feel your feet when you’re walking, going for a run or riding your bike, and you’re not engrossed in thinking at the same time, then you become more aware. So we use our senses to bring us more in the present moment.
How can mindfulness be used in education?
Attention is such a big topic these days, isn’t it? Some research studies* have shown that on average our focused attention span has gone down from twelve seconds to eight seconds. That is apparently less that the attention span of a goldfish! We’re finding it harder to pay attention for a longer period of time, and we can move our attention more quickly than in the past from one thing to another, but actually focusing on one thing, listening to somebody carefully or reading without getting lost may be getting harder for many of us. We can retrain the brain – it’s already been retrained by technology use – but we can also train it back to be able to sustain our attention. Where you put your attention is key for studying, so it’s very important for education.
Successfully speaking a second language has a lot to do with self-consciousness. Can mindfulness help being a better foreign language speaker?
I do think that there are many ways of approaching the study of a foreign language. Probably immersion is the simplest, because your body and your brain do it for you, but you can’t always be in that situation. The traditional roots of exposing the children to the language, teaching them the grammar, or have them translate the language, is very important, but my feeling, from my own experience, is that we can also learn to open ourselves up to hearing language in a more relaxed way. I’m really combining three things: my experience of mindfulness, my training in second language acquisition and my experience of being in Mexico, not being able to speak Spanish and then quite rapidly being able to ‘hear’ the language. When I put all that together, I think that you can use mindfulness in certain situations to train a deeper kind of listening. We can do some deep listening training that may open up some aspects of the brain to help absorb language in a more natural way which can really supplement foreign language learning approach.
Listening skill is central to language acquisition. Can you share an example of deep listening activity in the context of a language class?
What I do with adults and kids is to first talk about the importance of listening. Then I do a role play where someone speaks to two listeners, first one not paying attention, and the other paying attention. Then I try to summarize what they said. Then I ask: “How does it feel when you’re talking and the person is not actually listening, or how does it feel when a person is really listening to you?” All kids can relate to that. And then comes the deep listening activity. I say to the kids: “OK, I’m going to ring this chimes bar and let’s see how many different sounds we can listen to. What can we hear when we listen?” And I ring the chime bar, let the sound fade away, and let the kids tune in to whatever comes in: sounds from outside the room, sounds from inside the room. You just let them notice the sounds, let them go, and see what comes next. You train them in a deeper kind of listening. So, if I hear somebody in the playground shouting, it might lead me to thing “Oh, when is playtime? Do we get to go out?” That’s natural. Then you just redirect your attention, as you do in mindfulness awareness training, back to the actual physical sounds. How do they sound? What’s the texture of them? What’s the pitch or the volume? Are they sounds that are continuous, like a projector fan or an air conditioning? Are they sounds that come and go? Can you hear spaces between sounds? Does the sound gives you an idea of the distance between you and the origin of that sound? Kids love to tell you the full list of all that they heard – and they hear a lot more than I do – so you can really congratulate them on how good they are at listening! Then you can go straight to a language listening activity, but you could also build that up. Ask the kids: “Notice how you feel? Notice how the room feels?” Sometimes it feels a lot calmer, or brighter, or fresher. A little bit of silence can make you more aware of what’s around you. That’s kind of a good state for language learning. You’re awake, but you’re relaxed. For second language learning, your affective filters need to be open. If you’re worried, you won’t absorb the language. You also need comprehensible inputs, a language that makes sense to you, that builds on something that you already have. In a foreign language class, you could follow up a deep listening training with an activity where you are directly using your listening skills.
That could be something that could be done systematically at the beginning of a lesson.
Yes, it’s good way for kids being allowed to check in, coming from a busy hallway or from another lesson, worrying about others things. It’s a good way to prepare the kids to be present. With younger students, you can also offer to let them be in charge of it, telling them: “If you feel we all need to settle and be quiet for a moment, just come and see me to ring the chime bar.” It has to come from a good perspective, not ringing a bell to tell them to shut up, but to invite them to this listening space where they have already been and know how it feels. Do it for thirty seconds and then start the class off working again.
You described the importance of immersion when you learned French and Spanish as a young adult. Do you think it is possible to recreate immersion in a classroom?
Teachers expose kids to videos and tapes, they speak the language of instruction, and they try not to use any English, which can be a challenge in middle school, but I guess it is a form of immersion. It depends on the teacher or the resources that you bring in. But there is a difference between being in a class where you’re told to pay attention and speak Spanish to being told that for a few moments you can just relax and enjoy the wonders of hearing the sounds, to appreciate what Spanish really sounds like and not to worry too much about what people are saying. I feel that when you do that, you’re helping the brain to engage in a slightly different way, which may be similar to learning through immersion, because when you learn through immersion you don’t really try too hard, do you? My problem was that I was never really good at learning languages at school, but the experience that I had in Mexico has lead me to see language learning in a slightly different way now.
At 13 years old, your French report in High School read “Kevin will never be a linguist”. What was the impact of that statement on your language acquisition in the following years?
It stayed with me like it was engraved in my brain. To be honest, it wasn’t like it was a big disappointment, because the language learning in school was so horrible! It was the age of the language labs, where they were trying to give us some experience in listening, but the way they taught it was so dry – it was never to have fun or play with the language. In fact, it was never really about using the language, it just felt like another academic subject. We studied Latin, and we studied French, and we studied Chemistry, there wasn’t much difference between them. Actually Chemistry was probably more fun because we made experiments. It never felt very alive for me. And I had a problem accessing it, and I think it shut me down in a sense. It was only when I was twenty-two, living in France for three months, that I realized I actually could learn languages. I was only there for three months, but that was enough – I was soon speaking my own version of street French!
In the context of language acquisition, how can teachers create a safe emotional space for their students?
It’s so important. I think it comes very much from your own personality and your own presence. That’s why we train teachers in being present. When they do that listening practice at the beginning of a lesson, we encourage teachers to take a few minutes before their class starts to make arrangements to be present. I know from being a principal that I always try to get things done at the last minute, but we train teachers to take a few moments if they have a gap between classes, to be ready for the kids, to greet them at the door, to take a breath, or do whatever grounds them in the present moment. Look the kids in the eye as they come in, let them know that you’re there. Already by that non-verbal communication, that’s already a signal: “I’m here, I’m ready for you.” Also let them find a way into the class, and let them acclimatize for a moment – it can all help start off a lesson more productively. When you’re passionate and enthusiastic about your subject, and the kids feel it, and when you’re present for them, and they know that you’re concerned for their welfare, it makes a huge difference. That’s what you need to aim for, that the kids feel secure that you will guide them through the subject, they will make it..
Stress greatly affects foreign language IB students in periods of exams. Can you share a few strategies to alleviate that stress?
For the oral assessments, a little bit of deep listening, a little bit of relaxation practice does two things. First, when I’m in that situation, maybe I have a little technique, maybe I can take a breath, maybe I can attune my listening more, and second, when I’m speaking, I’m using the same thing, I’m in my body, not worrying about it so much, but actually just trying to speak in that moment. In general, stress management is a thing in itself, and we do recommend that kids and teachers get some specific training in stress management, and mindful awareness can help them with that. In some schools, they will do a settling practice before the IB mocks and exams. Just with a two minute breathing space, it can all feel a little different.
In your book Mindful Teacher, Mindful School, you talk about “language landscape”. Could you explain this concept for us?
It’s about a state of mind. The closest thing I could compare it to is when you look at those 3D images that went around at one time where you look at a picture for a while, you don’t see it, and then suddenly the brain makes it happen for you. When it happens it’s quite extraordinary, there’s a click in the brain, and it just sees things in a different way. So in that episode I described in the book, when I was in Mexico, just relaxing and listening to these guys talk, I was so fed up after 3 weeks of always trying and trying so hard to understand everything, that I just let go. Then it was almost as if I had a visual picture of the Mexican Spanish they were speaking. I didn’t care about the words, I knew about the context of this play they were doing, so there was no pressure, I didn’t need to learn anything, I just enjoyed bathing in the sounds. It felt like I could see a picture. It’s like when you travel to a new country, your first thought is “Oh, this place looks like Sheffield, or going down the Thames” or whatever you know. We’re always trying to translate new experiences in the light of old ones, but when you can just allow yourself to see or hear something for what it is – this truly is a new landscape, full of mountains, and rivers, and lakes – it’s quite different. Just allowing yourself to ‘see’ that landscape, then all the little details – words, phrases etc. – can fit into a context more easily. And then that part of the brain, which is also the part of the brain that helps you learn through immersion, is doing some of the work on its own. It takes some sense of safety and letting go to allow yourself not to translate. It’s not an easy thing to do. But the training we do in mindful awareness is actually a training in relaxed alertness.
Amy Burke is the cofounder of MindWell whose aim is to support school communities in integrating mind, body and heart through mindfulness training and social and emotional learning. Watch her Tedx Talk here.