So, Farewell Mindfulness In Schools

So: farewell, mindfulness. You have gone the way of all pedagogies. You have joined the great accelerated learning in the sky. In fairness it was probably always hard to do mindfulness and kinesthetic learning at the same time, at least until you became a Jedi.

Now that mindfulness in schools has been declared a non-starter, students may have to fill their days with learning the conjugations, or even: how to read. Otherwise, they will have nothing to do but text one another under the desk, or air-drop and Bluetooth images.

The Guardian reports that students were bored by mindfulness, and that might have been the Buddha’s first reaction too: perhaps the difference was that the Buddha had set out in pursuit of self-transformation and truth, whereas schools are irredeemably this-worldly, instrumentalist and transactional now. The Buddha did not expect ‘job done’. In the short term ‘mindfulness’ did help reduce teacher burn-out but, with the fundamentals of schools c.2020 still those of Ford Motors c.1975, that relief proved short-lived. If you really were in a monastery, not a school, you’d be told to see out the dark night of the soul.

What is really at work here is the syndrome identified after the first Blair government (when such nonsense started). Then, a ‘Delivery Unit’ in No 10 introduced performance targets. These worked — in the short term. In the medium and longer term, however, all that constant targeting and monitoring achieved was to produce conflict management worthy of Seventies Detroit, calculated insincerity on a par with the Vicar of Bray, and a continuing teacher drop-out trend. What this ‘mindfulness’ study in 2022 discovers, is that relief lasted one year. What we knew by 2001, was that targets worked for one year.

Only three years ago, before Boris Johnson was briefly prime minister, The Times Educational Supplement was reporting that ‘mindfulness isn’t just kids sitting cross-legged’. It was ‘often misunderstood’, but it was ‘a way to navigate through life’. Mindfulness was the ultimate transferable skill. ‘[Y]ou might be thinking,’ said the 2019 article, ‘isn’t mindfulness just another fad? After all, education is full of initiatives that were once the flavour of the month only to disappear once the hype ran out …’ The good news in 2019 was not just that mindfulness had ‘its roots in Buddhism’, but that there was a ‘Mindfulness All-Parliamentary Group’.

Mindfulness will have its afterlife, however. Wellbeing was the brother of mindfulness, and it has covered the curriculum with its cloak. Wellbeing will go on. Spirituality across the curriculum (in 1994) may have been nothing more than a trick — a pretext for saying that ‘spirituality’ was being ‘delivered’ everywhere when there was actually not one specific place, anywhere, that it was addressed — but wellbeing has soaked the very fabric of schools. Nothing, let alone correcting a student’s errors, can happen without orisons to wellbeing.

(Please do not feel that you should look ‘orisons’ up on Google. My very use of the term is a threat to your self-esteem. It is my fault, really; a sign of my want of professionalism. I really shouldn’t have mentioned it. I’m sorry; I apologise. Please forgive me. It’s a word in Hamlet, which is not a very good film. Mel Gibson was better in Braveheart, and he was pretty bad that time. Forget I was here.)

Pedagogies and ‘initiatives’ like ‘mindfulness in schools’ must be invented because teachers who teach teaching need something that they can teach. If there is a difference between subject knowledge and being able to teach (and there is), teachers who teach teaching don’t deal in subject knowledge. But if teacher-teachers are going to earn a full-time living (and we have decided that they must), they need an entire architecture of intriguing ways to conceive what can be learned much better on the job — without the flannel.

Now that there is a College of Teaching (at some part of an arm’s length within the Department of Education, which has also shapeshifted its way through different nomenclature in the past thirty years), whole new exciting ways of imagining the job are needed on top of those first fantasies of the job. Middle management also has to become a science; as does senior management, assistant headship, deputy headship, headship and leadership. The whole apparatus is not unlike Scientology, except that it does not rest upon an established canon of science fiction.

Meanwhile the notion that management was an art or a science, apart from the actual job of managing concrete situations and one’s colleagues, was always a chimera. It was a spurious claim that created jobs and which made a guild system possible — keeping out those capable individuals who had not paid for the certificates. The idea that classroom teachers (on what had become the bottom rung of ‘a profession’) would end by spending more time on learning and negotiating the jargon and the process of ‘teaching’, than teaching, seems not to have occurred to the modernisers.

Back in the day, we used to do mindfulness. In Catholic schools, there might be the prayer to St Thomas Aquinas before lessons, or the start of the day. The Angelus might be said at noon. Collective worship might punctuate the week. Even with nominal Catholics silently opting out (what Catholics once called ‘mental reservation’), these motions of prayer still punctuated the week with moments of recollection and the chance for ‘presence’.

Teachers who still dared to teach students how to teach themselves might tell them how to finish the day half an hour before bed by thinking through the day ahead. They might encourage them to start each new day with that plan. They would advise regular revision through the year. They were not yet in thrall to a system which drills kids in pre-digested material and pre-prepared solutions. The crammer had not become the model for the school.

However, given things as they truly are, in The Times Educational Supplement this year, the whole story gets a different angle. The Guardian had ‘mindfulness in schools does not improve mental health’; the TES has ‘teachers may not be best-placed to deliver mental health strategies without “considerable training and support”’. Very obviously what the teacher-teachers need is a new set of teacher-teaching qualifications geared to make them specialists in therapy. By such instrumentalist means the unconscious virtues of educated people can be technically engineered in the teachers of today. Who might even pass it on to the children.

Guardian report

TES article (2019)

TES article (2022)

Proofreader, editor, writer — in Edinburgh, Scotland.

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