A quiet place to be in the busy life of school

4th July 2003 at 01:00
Mindfulness can bring compassion into the classroom - if only there was time for a minute's reflection, says Ewan Aitken

INVITED around 60 teachers and pupils to Edinburgh City Chambers last week to have a personal discussion on "Mindfulness" led by a Zen Vietnamese monk - Thich Nhat Hanh. Peace activist, author and founder of the Community of Interbeing - Plum Village - in France, some see Thich Nhat Hanh as a Buddha and others suggest that he changed the course of human history when he persuaded Martin Luther King to join the anti-war movement. Whatever the accolades, we were in the presence of a special person.

Education should be as much about experiences as anything else. Through experience, we understand what we cannot be taught. This experience will have brought significant understanding for those teenagers and adults.

Thich Nhat Hanh's philosophy centres on being present in the moment. He talks of "mindfulness" as his way of being. If we drink a cup of tea, mindful only of the tea, that is being in the present. If we drink the tea thinking of our projects then we drink our projects, not the tea, and that takes us away from the present. Another example was of a flower. We can know that a flower began as a seed and that it will grow in time but we can only become mindful of the flower's presence and significance in our lives now, in the present.

Powerful stuff and I cannot do justice to it in this short article, but his community's website - www. interbeing.org.ukrealindex.html - is well worth a visit.

This wee Vietnamese man, dressed in the simple brown attire of his order, kept us enraptured for every minute. He said classrooms should be places of compassion, a home for teacher and pupil where they could journey together in their understanding of their suffering and their ability to be in the world. It all sounded possible, though quite where that would all fit into the national agreement and the 35-hour week wasn't quite so clear.

Perhaps that was the point. He was arguing for time simply to be, so that pupil and teacher could be aware of the present and understand together the meaning of that moment. One of the teachers present said that when education authorities are, as she put it, "obsessed" with quantifying everything, there is no time simply to be.

Not surprisingly, Thich Nhat Hanh's response didn't touch on the national agreement. He talked instead again of the need for compassion for each other and ourselves, and to find ways to make space for living.

He spoke of a Canadian maths teacher who learnt the ways of "Mindfulness" in Plum Village. He tried to be mindful in Canada, beginning with a short time of silence every 15 minutes in his classroom. It was so revolutionary that it changed the school completely. The whole education experience became much more positive.

Interestingly, the teacher himself stopped writing almost rude comments on pupils' work and instead when a pupil got something wrong, wrote words like: "I am sorry that you don't understand, it's my fault for not teaching you properly."

I am not sure that I could advocate that approach, although certainly recent studies have shown the clear benefits of positive and constructive marking over the red pen and comments that do not guide the pupil positively. I do think, however, that the approach of regular moments of silence has some merit.

I have written before about the proposed quiet space I intend to include in every new secondary school. But perhaps we need to go further, beginning by giving a minute over for silent reflection at the beginning of every class and another at the end. In primary schools it could be a minute every hour.

Imagine the power of silence in the face of all our other busyness. Its effect wouldn't be quantifiable, but I am willing to bet it would make a positive difference to the classroom experience.

Some teachers will argue no doubt that this is simply summer madness.

Perhaps it is. Others might think it's just impossible given the pupils they face across the classroom. I would accept that in some contexts they might be right.

But listen to what I am asking for. I'm a politician and I'm asking for silence, not to listen to me, but to listen to ourselves. I am not asking for more answers, or more policies, or more statistics, or more explanations, just time for silence. Now that's something to reflect on in the quiet of the holidays.

Ewan Aitken is executive member for education on Edinburgh City Council.

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