Under Stress, Students in New York Schools Find Calm in Meditation

10/26/2015  The New York Times 

By ELIZABETH A. HARRIS

On the first day of the new school year, the schools chancellor, Carmen Fariña, stood in an elementary school classroom in Queens beaming at a hushed room full of fourth-grade children sitting cross-legged on the floor. “Please let your eyes close,” said a small boy named Davinder, from his spot on the linoleum. Davinder gently struck a shallow bronze bowl. Gong! “Take three mindful breaths,” he said, and the room fell silent. “Do you do personal visits?” Ms. Fariña asked after the exercise was over. “Like to offices?”

In schools in New York City and in pockets around the country, the use of inward-looking practices like mindfulness and meditation is starting to grow. Though evidence is thin on how well they might work in the classroom, proponents say they can help students focus and cope with stress.

At the Brooklyn Urban Garden Charter School in Windsor Terrace, 15 minutes are set aside at the beginning and end of every school day, when students must either meditate or sit quietly at their desks.

“It’s built into the schedule,” said Linda Rosenbury, founding principal at Brooklyn Urban Garden, a middle school. “Everyone clears off their desks. They shouldn’t be chewing gum, but if they are, they spit it out. Their hands are free. We ring a bell.” A building full of preteens and teenagers goes quiet, she said.

“It used to be that you wouldn’t say ‘meditation’ in polite company,” said Bob Roth, executive director of the David Lynch Foundation, a charitable foundation founded by the director of “Blue Velvet,” that promotes and teaches Transcendental Meditation to adults and children, including those at Brooklyn Urban Garden. “Now we’re working with all the large banks, we’re working with hedge funds, we’re working with media companies. People are having us come in as part of their wellness programs, and that wasn’t the case even two years ago.”

While Transcendental Meditation entails silent inward repetition of a mantra, a mindfulness exercise might ask children to focus on breathing in and out. In a classroom, both activities have similar goals; the idea, practitioners say, is to get students into the habit of calming themselves and clearing their minds so they can better focus on the day’s lesson.

“We’re putting it in a lot of our schools,” Ms. Fariña said about mindfulness, on the first day of school, “because kids are under a lot of stress.” The Department of Education does not keep track of how many schools have mindfulness programs, but a spokeswoman said that grants and professional development seminars have provided some training to school staff members.

The city’s Move to Improve program has also taught nearly 8,000 elementary school teachers how to use activities in the classroom that can include things like mindfulness, balance exercises and stretching.

In many cases, schools are finding their own way. To mindfulness, in particular. At Public School 212 in Jackson Heights, Queens, the school Ms. Fariña visited on the first day of classes, a literacy coach named Danielle Mahoney began doing regular mindfulness exercises with some classes the year before last, while taking a one-year certification course.

Last year, the school converted a large closet in a subbasement into a room devoted to mindfulness, complete with dim illumination and a string of rainbow Christmas-tree lights, allowing users to switch off the harsh fluorescent light overhead. This sort of homegrown effort has created a patchwork effect; “mindfulness” might look a little different in every school.

“It’s a bottom-up process,” said Mark T. Greenberg, a professor of human development and psychology at Penn State. “You have very early adopters who are very interested in the ideas, and they are trying out different ideas and venues.”

Some districts, however, are experimenting with a more holistic approach. In Mamaroneck, N.Y., in Westchester County, the district has funded mindfulness training for teachers and parents in each of its six schools, and is encouraging the use of mindfulness exercises as part of an effort to address the social and emotional needs of students.

In Louisville, Ky., more than half of the city’s public elementary schools are expected to participate in a randomized study next year that will teach mindfulness exercises to some students as part of a so-called health and wellness curriculum.

Donna Hargens, the superintendent of the Louisville district of Jefferson County’s public school system, said that in classrooms a teacher’s reflex is to say, “ ‘Focus! Why aren’t you focusing?’ But what does that really mean, and have we given them any tools to help them do that?”

Research in a classroom setting appears to be picking up steam. In Britain, researchers from Oxford and University College London are studying whether teaching mindfulness in schools can improve the mental health of students, and some studies have shown benefits for many adults. Still, little is truly known about how, or even whether, children benefit from the practice in an academic setting.

“It definitely doesn’t address poverty, and it may not work for everybody,” said Patricia Jennings, an associate professor at the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia and the author of a book called “Mindfulness for Teachers.”

Mr. Greenberg of Penn State cautioned that even if the practice does provide benefits for students, the research has yet to explain how. A version of this article appears in print on October 24, 2015, on page A20 of the New York edition with the headline: City Classrooms Give Pupils a Moment to Turn Inward . © 2015 The New York Times Company

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What are “tests that are worth taking”?

By Annie Murphy Paul

The Brilliant Blog

Over the weekend, President Obama declared that “our kids should only take tests that are worth taking.” But what would such tests look like? I have a few ideas. Here is my Affirmative Testing Manifesto:

1. Testing should exist, first and foremost, to serve students.

2. Testing should enhance student memory by incorporating the principles of retrieval practice, interleaved study, and distributed practice.

3. Testing should promote student learning by providing detailed and timely feedback on what students got right or wrong and why it was right or wrong.

4. Testing should support deep learning, not rote memorization, by helping students make connections between old and new knowledge, draw abstract principles from concrete examples, and transfer knowledge from one domain to another.

5. Testing should reduce student test anxiety by occurring frequently and with low or no stakes (i.e., points or grades) attached.

6. Testing should deepen student metacognition by providing opportunities for reflection on test preparation and performance.

7. Testing should help teach students how to understand and use data by giving them access to their own testing data and guidance on what to do with it.

8. Testing should prepare students to deal with performance pressure of all kinds by offering them a repertoire of strategies to manage their thoughts and emotions.

9. Testing should function as a form of controlled adversity that allows students to develop non-cognitive skills like resilience and persistence.

10. Testing should inculcate a growth mindset in students by demonstrating that ability grows through exerting effort and making mistakes.

11. Testing should nurture students’ skills of cooperation and collaboration through group learning activities before, after, and even during the testing experience.

12. Testing should increase student motivation by giving them challenging but achievable goals, and by offering them a purpose for learning beyond themselves.

Brilliant readers, are there any points here with which you would take issue? Any points you would add? Please share your thoughts here.

And send questions and comments to me at annie@anniemurphypaul.com—I look forward to hearing from you!

3 Simple Ideas to Build Mindfulness in Your Day

Next Avenue

Tips from a noted practitioner who says meditation can help everyone


How should a life be lived? I used to think life was about finding happiness through hard work and achievements. I thought if I became successful, I would have a deep feeling of satisfaction and completeness. I set about, with all of my energy, to make this happen.

I kept working and hoping that some day I would be happy.

I gained and achieved everything that society says will make us happy: six businesses, a big house, a car, lots of clothes and awards, but I had worked myself into a deep feeling of dissatisfaction. My unhappiness ultimately manifested as an eating disorder: bulimia.

I fully attribute my success, energy and ability to direct several nonprofits to my practice of sitting with myself every morning for three decades.

We all have moments of mindfulness that come to us unbidden. One morning during a moment of clarity, I woke up, said to myself, “I can’t go on this way,” admitted I had a food addiction and sought help. I became open to this moment — this moment of knowing that I would die if I didn’t seek help. I believe this is an incredible example of the inner power we all possess, which is always available to us when we become ready to listen — when we are being mindful.

“A Sacred Disease”

During my six-week stay at a treatment center, I was introduced to mindfulness and meditation (no TV, no phones, no contact with the outside world). It was me, my therapists, my fellow addicts, and then me again. I call my bulimia a sacred disease — I have been in recovery for more than 30 years, living the life of happiness, purpose and meaning I had always searched for in external things. I fully attribute my success, my energy and my ability to direct several nonprofits to my practice of sitting with myself every single morning for the past three decades.

My schedule is abundantly full. These days, I power up from within and the positive difference I am making in the world keeps my batteries fully charged for work, fun, writing, yoga, exercise, relaxation, business meetings and social engagements. Through the Peaceful Mind, Peaceful Life nonprofit I founded, I teach mindfulness techniques and host retreats that feature spiritual leaders such as the Dalai Lama and Jane Goodall as speakers.

Mindfulness practices including meditation are now being used in clinical interventions to help improve health and well-being. Higher levels of mindfulness are related to decreased stress, which leads to better health, and evidence suggests meditation can even improve your cognitive abilities such as sustained attention and working memory.

Having a daily mindfulness practice can help you cope with stress and lead a more positive, productive life. I know this first-hand.

When we see clearly — when our judgment is unclouded and our expectations are seen from a higher perspective — we can experience the beauty and uniqueness of each moment and recognize the incredible power of choice we have in all that we do.

3 Simple Mindfulness Habits

I recommend the following mindfulness habits:

1. Wake up and stop. First thing in the morning, spend time sitting with yourself in silence and focusing your attention on your breath. Meditate for five minutes to bring your body and mind into alignment. In other words, collect yourself before you head out the door. This will give you the energy to step into the person you truly want to be.

2. Be attentive throughout the day. To combat stress and keep your sights on the goal of tapping into your inner peace, make an effort to be present in each moment. Heart and mind racing? Body aching or numb? Simply focus your attention on your breath. Stop and take three deep breaths to ground yourself back in the moment, where the power of choice and action is available to you.

3. Reflect on your day and let it go. Taking baggage to bed with you is a surefire way to have a restless sleep. As your day concludes, spend a few mindful moments reviewing the day without judgment. Release whatever happened and file away the lessons learned. In this way, you will sleep more peacefully, knowing that the new day ahead is another opportunity for you to live your greatest good.

A concise guide to the science of learning

The Brilliant Report

Annie Murphy Paul, 10/12/15

Last week, I moderated a panel discussion in Washington, DC, sponsored by the organization Deans for Impact. This is a group of deans of colleges of education who are committed to “transforming educator preparation and elevating the teaching profession”—in part by ensuring that teachers-in-training are exposed to the science of how students learn.

To that end, Deans for Impact has produced a very concise and useful summary of the science of learning. You can read the full document here; below, I’ve pulled out some of the most useful cognitive principles from that document and added my own thoughts (in italics) about how these principles should guide the actions of parents, teachers, and managers.

Students learn new ideas by reference to ideas they already know . . . and so: we should help students connect new ideas to old ideas with well-developed analogies. (Read more about making good analogies here.)

To learn, students must transfer information from working memory (where it is consciously processed) to long-term memory (where it can be stored and later retrieved) . . . and so: we should show students how to employ the strategies of retrieval, spacing, and interleaving. (Read more about these techniques here.)

Students have limited working memory capacities that can be overwhelmed by tasks that are cognitively too demanding . . . and so: we should help students break tasks down into manageable steps. (Read more about when to make learning easier and when to make it harder here.)

We usually want students to remember what information means and why it is important, so they should think about meaning when they encounter to-be-remembered material . . . and so: we should teach students to self-explain—that is, ask and answer questions about the meaning of what they’re learning. (Read more about the value of self-explanation here.)

Each subject area has some set of facts that, if committed to long-term memory, aids problem-solving by freeing working memory resources and illuminating contexts in which existing knowledge and skills can be applied . . . and so: we should expect students to learn, understand, and remember this set of facts—not just be able to “Google it.” (Read more about the importance of committing facts to memory here.)

The transfer of knowledge or skills to a novel problem requires both knowledge of the problem’s context and a deep understanding of the problem’s underlying structure . . . and so: we should offer students a variety of examples that differ in their surface structure but share the same deep structure. (Read more about knowledge transfer and how it works here.)

Beliefs about intelligence are important predictors of student behavior in school . . . and so: we should encourage students to set learning goals, and should praise them for their effort and their use of effective strategies to reach those goals—rather than for being “smart.” (Read more about the importance of a growth mindset here.)

The ability to monitor their own thinking can help students identify what they do and do not know, but people are often unable to accurately judge their own learning and understanding . . . and so: we should show students how self-explaining and self-testing can give them a more accurate sense of their own knowledge. (Read more about developing metacognition here.)

Students will be more motivated and successful in academic environments when they believe that they belong and are accepted in those environments . . . and so: we should let students know that we have high standards, and that we believe they can meet those standards. (Read more about creating a sense of belonging here.)

Again, the full document from Deans for Impact can be found here; I recommend it.

Please send questions and comments to me at annie@anniemurphypaul.com—I look forward to hearing from you!

Instead of Opting Students Out of Tests, Teach Them to Take Tests Right

New York Times Motherlode Blog

By Annie Murphy Paul
Arguments in favor of standardized testing in schools usually cite the need to hold teachers and administrators accountable. But there is another reason to embrace tests, both standardized and in the classroom: They can help students to learn and grow.

Used correctly, tests can help students achieve three crucial aims: supporting student recall (tests force students to pull information from their own heads, enhancing retention); enhancing their awareness of their own mental processes (in the process of being tested and getting feedback, students fine-tune their sense of what they know and don’t know); and nurturing the noncognitive skills students develop from facing challenges (tests represent a kind of controlled adversity, an ideal arena for honing skills like resilience and perseverance).

In a perfect world, schools, parents and students would consciously treat tests as occasions for learning and growth, focusing less on the result and more on the powerful benefits of simply taking the test in the first place. But no matter how the school approaches testing, parents can help children at all ages use the experiences to learn about the material, about the process of being tested,and about themselves. Here are some strategies for getting the most out of the testing process.

Self-Testing: When students test themselves — using flashcards, a practice test or just putting down their notes and testing their memory — they employ the psychological principle of retrieval. Retrieval means producing information from one’s own memory, as opposed to passively taking it in. Retrieval fosters learning, bolsters retention and improves performance. Decades of research have shown that retrieval has myriad advantages over re-reading (students’ most common study strategy).

Spacing Study Time: Many students cram for hours the night before a test. They would do better if they spent a little time studying the subject every few days. Spacing self-tests every few days or once each week allows the student’s brain to partly forget, and then re-learn the tested information, with particularly powerful effects on memory.

Changing Things Up: Students often study in predictable ways, reading history or learning math problems in an orderly fashion that builds on the last item studied. But shuffling different types of practice problems into an unpredictable order — a technique called interleaving — means students don’t know in advance the sort of question they will encounter at each turn. Interleaving problems on self-tests gives students practice at a crucial skill: figuring out what kind of problem they are facing.

Study the Test: When graded exams are handed back, most students glance at their scores and stuff them away — missing an ideal moment of metacognition, which involves learning about oneself and one’s own thought process. To solve this, educators have come up with the exam wrapper — a set of brief instructions, printed on a piece of paper and folded around a corrected test. The instructions lead students through the process of reflecting on how well they prepared for the test, how well they performed and what they will do differently next time. (View a sample exam wrapperhere.)

Calming Test Anxiety: Before a high-stakes test, students often experience a quickened heartbeat, sweaty palms and butterflies in the stomach. They interpret these physical cues as meaning, “I’m nervous,” a message from their bodies that causes them to become even more anxious. A strategy called arousal reappraisal helps students take stock of their physical state and deliberately choose to think about it in a different way. Reinterpreting “I’m so nervous” as “I’m so excited” can allow students to turn their state of physiological arousal to their advantage. An expressive writing exercise can also help. Studies show that students who spend 10 minutes before a test writing about whatever is on their mind have less anxiety and perform better on tests.

The opt-out movement has encouraged many parents and teachers to aspire to a world without tests. But better than getting rid of tests would be turning tests into promising opportunities.

For instance, standardized tests could take the form of frequent, low-stakes exams instead of infrequent high-stakes ones. They could provide timely and detailed feedback on students’ answers to give them an opportunity to learn from the testing process. And results could be presented to students in a format that fosters a “growth mindset” using scores like Highly Proficient, Proficient and Not Yet, while offering opportunities to improve and try again.

After all, our children will face many tests over the course of their lives — as they proceed through school, as they apply to college or graduate school, as they enter a vocation or a profession. (Our budding doctors and lawyers likely won’t have the choice to opt out of the MCAT or the bar exam.)

Their lives will present them with other kinds of “tests” as well: tasks and projects that come with plenty of high expectations and pressure to perform. Testing them the right way now will give them a deep well of resources to draw on in the future.

The e-course I’ve developed, called Turn Testing Into Learning, offers step-by-step instructions that parents and teachers can use to implement affirmative testing. You can try out a sample lesson by clicking here; you can enroll in the course by clickinghere.

Why Real-World Science Is a Must For School

1st October 2015 
Space and science education
This is an edited version of a feature in the 2 October issue of TES. For the full feature, see details at the bottom of this article

The students of Simon Langton Grammar School for Boys are working for Nasa. And if their teacher Becky Parker has her way, your students soon will be, too.

This is because Parker is trying to transform science education in the UK. Writing in the 2 October issue of TES, she explains that one of the major issues stopping young people choosing to study science is the lack of real-world experiments they are trusted to carry out in schools.

“Science education in the UK is missing a crucial element: the excitement and relevance of working on real projects that could change the world,” she writes.

“Of course, students do experiments all the time in schools. However, these rarely replicate real-world projects or tackle ongoing real-world problems. Students don’t get a true taste of modern science.

“And for teachers who love science, it can be demoralising to have to do the same old experiments over and over again – we crave something original. To truly ­enthuse about our subject, our own interest needs to be piqued and our skills challenged.”

Parker has spent 10 years trying to find a solution and in the newly established Institute for Research In Schools she believes she has found it.

“Under its umbrella, dozens of university-based researchers are collaborating with students and teachers on school-based projects,” she explains. “For example, at the school where I work, space and atmospheric physicist Dr Jonathan Eastwood from Imperial College London is working with students to examine cosmic rays, as part of a project called the Langton Ultimate Cosmic ray Intensity Detector (Lucid).”

By expanding these projects – for which the research institutions often provide the kit needed to the schools involved – Parker believes we can enthuse more and more students to take up science subjects.

“Giving students the opportunity to experience the thrill of discovery, along with the excitement and challenge of not knowing what the answers are, brings their subject to life,” she says. “It also allows young people to contribute their many skills and insights to the scientific community. That instils a high level of confidence – one that’s difficult to achieve by other teaching means.”