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Teaching Mindfulness

Today as part of the Window on Teaching series I attended a session entitled Teaching Mindfulness. It was led by Asaf Federman who is a Careers Consultant for Student Careers and Skills at the University of Warwick.

The session began with a discussion about attention in which Asaf raised the question of whether or not we prepare students mentally for learning. We ask them to attend lectures and seminars, read around their subject, write assignments and sit exams. We might run sessions or provide documentation on note-taking, academic writing or other concrete skills, but do we offer anything to help them become more effective learners? Do we teach them how to listen, or how to focus?

It seems to be generally accepted that people can’t pay attention for longer than 20 minutes, especially when we’re listening to someone speak. One reason Asaf gave for this is because we speak slower than we comprehend so when we’re listening to someone our attention jumps onto other things. We have competing processes in the brain and because we’re often bombarded with information from our surroundings we are constantly balancing these processes. At 20 minutes is seems we loose our ability to control that balance and our minds start to wander.

So what is mindfulness and how can it help?

Focus by dkalo, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License by  dkalo


There are many definitions and variations of mindfulness. To me it seems essentially to be about focusing on one thing at a time through meditation.

Asaf gave us three definitions:

  1. focusing on objects; specifically breathing, the body and feelings (both physical and emotional)
  2. acknowledging what comes in to your consciousness
  3. an awareness of what you are doing at present

There has been a lot of research into the application of mindfulness for stress relief, pain relief and improved cognition. A more bizarre study showed that it could be used to enhance the effect of immunisation.

Asaf is currently running his own pilot study into the effects of mindfulness meditation on cognition among students at Warwick. He has two groups, one who attend daily 20 minute mindfulness sessions over a period of four days, the other who over the same period attend relaxation sessions. Each group goes through a series of psychometric tests before the start of the programme and again at the end. What is expected, or hoped to be seen is that the group who have attended the mindfulness sessions show a greater change on average between their first and last test scores.

Aside from the results of the study what is also interesting is the student’s perception of how mindfulness has helped them. So far the feedback has been positive and Asaf has been asked by students in other groups to deliver mindfulness sessions to them.

I’m personally on a mission to simplify my life at the moment. I went along to the session today not only to hear about the application of mindfulness to help people become more effective learners, but also as a way of opening and clearing the mind.

Further reading (requires subscription)

The GROW Model

At the start of the year (yes, it’s only taken me 3 months to get round to blogging about this) I attended a session at the library staff open day on coaching skills. More specifically the workshop focused on the GROW model which uses a series of questions to provide structure to a conversation.

The questions are divided into four sections, or themes, making up the GROW acronym:

  • Goal – what are you trying to achieve?
  • Reality – what is the current situation?
  • Options – what are the possible solutions?
  • Will – what will you do to achieve your goal?

How we learnt about this model was to actually apply it to an issue we were stuggling with. We sat around in the group and as the facilitator read out the questions we as individuals applied them to our own problems. I think this was a really effective way of helping us to understand how this model can help in a coaching situation and how we might use it in a situation where the tables were turned.

There were about 20 questions, here are a few of them (the letter in brackets shows which sections they are from):

  • Imagine that you have successfully addressed your issue. What does success feel like? (G)
  • What do you really, really want? (G)
  • What are the key features of the situation? (R)
  • What assumptions are you making? (R)
  • What have you already done to try to address the situtation? (R)
  • What options do you have? (O)
  • If you had absolutely no constraints, what would you do? (O)
  • Looking back at the options you have generated rate them on a scale of 1 to 10 on how practical they seem. (W)
  • What help or support do you need to procede? (W)
  • What is the first step you will take? (W)

I used an issue from hockey that I was struggling with at the time – how to motivate my team after a series of bad results. I found the experience really useful as a way of looking at the problem as a whole and then break it down into manageable chunks. It gave me an overview of what the real issue was, what I really wanted to achieve, where I was currently finding obstacles to change, what a realistic solution might be and how I could go about achieving that one step at a time.

You’ll be pleased to hear that after some hard work I think I’ve finally achieved my goal – we’re playing better, are more focused as a team, and on Saturday won our first match since early January.

Connecting the dots

Today’s post is about an experiment I am currently undertaking to collate all of my shared items in one place. I share things I find interesting online in a number of ways, through Twitter, Google Reader, Delicious, this blog… and there may well be more that I can’t remember off the top of my head. So how do I keep track of all of these links I’m sharing?

Up until now I have tried to do this through Twitter. I used TwitterFeed to post updates from my Google Reader Shared Items, Delicious and this blog. But that system wasn’t quite working for me. TwitterFeed was too often unreliable, especially with updates from my blog and what was happening to all of those links I was sharing directly on Twitter? Well, they were getting caught by Tweet Backup which I use to archive my tweets but that’s not a really useful tool for finding things quickly and easily. So something had to change.

The first thing I changed was the way I send updates of new blog posts to Twitter. I’ve recently started using the WordPress plugin Twitoaster. It is exceptionally good. Not only does it post to Twitter instantaneously, it also records as comments on the post any discussion on Twitter that includes the link it has posted.

The second change I made was to stop posting updates from Delicious and Google Reader to Twitter. Instead, I am sending things the other way using a service called Packrati. This identifies any tweet I post that contains a link and bookmarks it in my Delicious account. At the moment I have it set up to bookmark every link I share on Twitter, but it is possible to restrict it to bookmark only those tweets that contain a specified hashtag.

And finally, I have set up a blog with Tumblr to aggregate all of these sharing sites, this I am calling ekcragg’s notepad. At the moment it is pulling in the feeds from my Delicious account and Google Reader Shared Items. As a result of the second stage of this process I am also therefore collecting all the links I am sharing on Twitter. I have set this up primarily for my own devices, to make it easy for me to see everything I have shared online.

As I said at the beginning of this post it is an experiment, I’m going to give it a try for a few months and see how useful I find it. I’m not at all sure how it will work but I do know that at the moment I feel a great peace of mind knowing that I’m capturing everything in one place. This makes me happy.

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