Getting Thoughtful About Mindfulness Education

PUBLISHED: Nov 20, 2019

In This Episode.

Mindfulness education is gaining popularity in academia, but does helping students get their Zen on also help them to think critically? Take some deep breaths, find your center, and start listening!

Episode Archive

Getting Thoughtful About Mindfulness Education

November 20, 2019

Podcast Transcript

Voiceover: Welcome to the Critical Thinking Initiative podcast, we bring you research driven solutions to critical thinking education. Why? Because is Bertrand? Russell said most people would sooner die than think. In fact, they do so. And now your hosts Steve Perlman and Dave Carillo.

Dave Carillo: Welcome back to the Critical Thinking Initiative podcast.I’m Dave.

Steve Pearlman: This is Steve. And today we’re tackling the interesting topic of mindfulness and education. We received a number of inquiries from people who were asking about the relationship between mindfulness, education and critical thinking. Mindfulness has become a big buzzword recently in education circles, and let me give you a very brief understanding of what is being referred to by mindfulness because it has great bearing on the conversation that’s going to go forward so mindfulness evolves out of Buddhism. It is the idea of being present in the moment, and we’ll talk about a little bit more about what’s involved in that as we go forward. But it’s this ability to be present in the exact moment that you’re in without sort of judging and assessing it as much, and it’s associated a great deal with a movement towards enlightenment or greater happiness. If you’re into Eckhart Tolle and the power of now or read on its work, The Miracle of Mindfulness, which really is a wonderful book, then you are acquainted with some of the broader concepts of mindfulness, but not necessarily their implications on education. And most mindfulness is acquired or trained through some kind of meditative practice. It might be a Buddhist kind of meditation, but they also will use things like yoga and other kinds of eastern or quasi eastern practices to move towards this state of mindfulness. And about 10 years ago, actually, I think people started to get serious about asking questions as to whether or not if we train students in mindfulness practice, does it positively affect educational outcomes? And in the last year or two, maybe a little bit more than that, it started to become much hotter buzzword in education.

Steve Pearlman: What we’d like to do for you today is unpack the extent to which this buzz term actually has value. And we’re not going to talk about all of the aspects of mindfulness today, but we are going to talk about its specific relationship to critical thinking. We want to break down mindfulness into a couple of different concepts here because it’s a broad umbrella term, and that’s one of the problems that we’re going to find in it as we start to explore its impact on education. Mindfulness as emerging from things like meditation again can have a number of different layers or buckets in which it can be helpful to the human. And I should say at the outset that I’ve meditated a good deal at times in my life. Big fan of meditation there’s great research on meditation as having wonderful value for people in all kinds of ways. We’re not addressing a lot of the aspects and benefits of that kind of practice. We’re just getting into the relationship between mindfulness training and critical thinking. But here are the major buckets. And this is just how Dave and I broke it down and we might change these buckets in the future. It’s not an official breakdown of mindfulness in any way. It’s just sort of how we have observed the landscape of research around this. So first of all, there’s the neurological bucket, which looks at how the practice might actually affect things going on in the brain in terms of process or biology. So, for example, mindfulness meditation has been shown to oxygenate the brain. It has been shown to increase blood flow to the brain, much as exercise does as well.

Steve Pearlman: That can have lots of beneficial effects, doesn’t necessarily correlate to critical thinking is a different question, but it still could be very healthy for the brain to have more oxygen and blood flowing. Then there’s the psychological bucket. Let’s relate in a most simplistic terms to happiness and going through life positively and a good mindset. Then there’s what’s something called executive function, which is our ability to regulate ourselves and control our behavior, observe our behavior, responded more positive ways to stimuli. And in that respect, mindfulness training. There’s some good research on this has been shown to reduce behavioral problems in students, for example, who practice yoga every morning or meditation every day. They find students who are acting out or engaging in other negative behaviors often are able to change those behaviors positively through mindfulness training. So again, another value of it. But then finally, there’s this question of critical thinking and whether or not any practice in mindfulness actually improves critical thinking, per say. And that’s really where we’re going to focus today. But it gets messy because let’s say you had a student who was engaging in all kinds of behavioral problems. They engage in some mindfulness training. The behavioral problems reduce, and they’re able to focus more on their academics. It doesn’t really emerge from an increased capacity to think so much as a greater applied effort back into their academics. So that’s a nutshell on how we’re conceptualizing and breaking down the notion of mindfulness, at least from our perspective or to our use. Here today.

Dave Carillo: Right, and so we’re coming to you today about mindfulness, specifically because of how tricky it gets and how misleading this kind of concept can be in a classroom. Steve and I have spent a long time fleshing out the pedagogy and the frameworks around developing strong critical thinking outcomes for students. And rarely do we find one or two 15 minute exercises that alone are going to do anything positive in terms of critical thinking. So that’s why we want to at least open the conversation in terms of the connection between mindfulness and critical thinking, and that’s where we’re going to start today. This first article was published in 2016 by Chris Noone, Brendan Bunting and Michael J. Hogan, and it’s entitled Does Mindfulness Enhance Critical Thinking evidence for the mediating effects of executive functioning in the relationship between mindfulness and critical thinking? And you’ll recall that earlier one of the mindfulness buckets is executive function, and often executive function is a big part of critical thinking because what that essentially entails is your being able to put yourself into a specific frame of mind to accomplish something and oftentimes critical thinking demands a specific frame of mind as opposed to, say, just making snap judgments or falling back on biases and so on and so forth. In this research, they set out to look at whether they could isolate direct connections between critical thinking and mindfulness. They did this study with one hundred and seventy eight university undergraduate psychology students, and they used as a method multiple choice questionnaires about mindfulness and some executive function measures, and then the helper and critical thinking assessment, which is a test that essentially says is thinking in everyday sort of easy to relate scenarios.

Steve Pearlman: There are a couple of key ideas that they point to in the article that are really important for us to think about as they talk about mindfulness. They break it down into two or three major components and one of his executive function, which we’ve talked about a great deal. The other one is what they call present moment attention focus, which again, is sort of Eckhart Toll’s thing about the power of now. It’s being in the moment not thinking about the past or predicting for the future, but just existing in the moment for what it is. And then there’s something called non reactivity, which is the capacity of people who are in more mindful states to sort of observe the situation without reacting to the situation, which is hence the term non reactivity. It’s probably how they came up with that idea as they talk about its impact on critical thinking, these terms are going to be important. So again, we have executive function, present moment attention and especially non reactivity.

Voiceover: Steve and Dave will be right back. In the meantime, they want you to know about the critical thinking initiative, faculty and student handbooks. They provide the only unified critical thinking system that is a pedagogy for you, a thinking method for your students, a means of assessment that foregrounds critical thinking and a system that works for any discipline with the Critical Thinking Initiative handbooks. Your students will engage the subject matter of your course more meaningfully. You’ll receive more thoughtful writing and discussion, and you’ll help to cultivate the kind of thoughtful citizens essential for any strong democracy.

Steve Pearlman: So again, we have executive function, present moment attention and especially non reactivity.

Dave Carillo: I’m glad you brought that up because in terms of whether the results suggested there was any direct effect between mindfulness and critical thinking, what they found was there really wasn’t in this study. They expected that both the observing element and the non reactivity element would positively be related to critical thinking. But the results indicated that there was no direct effect of observing on critical thinking. They say there was a positive indirect effect in terms of observing, but they think that what bridge the gap? There were certain elements of executive function. What they found, though that’s actually surprising or that surprised them, was that non reactivity was found to be quote, significantly negatively related to critical thinking. Essentially, this ability to check all emotion or check most of the intense emotions around a situation where even just reaction or even just reaction, right? Or like initial reaction, right? They thought that was going to be a great help, right? Less emotional, more able to think and process analyze the data.

Steve Pearlman: The hypothesis in loose terms is that this would make people more objective, right? It’s more inclined to be able to effectively process what’s going on in that situation.

Dave Carillo: Yeah, what they say is quote, it is possible that in reducing repetitive thought and worry, non reactivity could indirectly impair critical thinking performance. And essentially what they’re saying there is if you’re not engaged or worrying or even feeling anxious in a specific situation, you’re less inclined to think critically about it. And that’s kind of one of the reasons why I’m always talking to my students about not falling back on this idea that it is what it is. While that seems really mindful and in the moment and. Very calm in terms of how we deal with situations, it is what it is also gives us this huge pass not to think about the housing, the whys or be able to make those kinds of connections or relationships. Critical thinking is much more of a complex task than to directly link it to one specific act like mindfulness.

Steve Pearlman: Now let’s take it back to education as a whole, though, because there’s this question of mindfulness and critical thinking. And then there’s the question of mindfulness and other educational outcomes. There is mixed research on this, but there is some good research that suggests mindfulness practice can improve educational outcomes more broadly, not speaking directly to critical thinking. So Baranski and was and can mindfulness meditation proved short term and long term academic achievement in Higher Education Course referred to a number of studies where if students did a short mindfulness or meditative exercise prior to class, they actually perform better on a short quiz after the class. But the hitch here is that those quizzes were just recall quizzes. They were just multiple choice. And as the authors of this particular study tried to replicate that, they actually found no difference between those practiced in the mindfulness and those not. And there could be a number of confounding variables for that. Another study also was very interesting and its entitled Effects of a Mindfulness Meditation Course on learning and cognitive performance among university students in Taiwan. And what’s cool about this is that these students are actually engaged in a semester long course on mindfulness and meditation, and they’re tracking these students performance against other students who aren’t in that course. That is interesting. And so this is interesting for us because it’s one of the longer term studies of students who are more consistently practicing mindfulness training.

Steve Pearlman: What they did is they measured them against three different standards. One was how they performed in their courses. One was college learning, effectiveness, inventory and the other finally was this sort of gauge of cognitive function. The students who practice the mindfulness actually did do a little better overall. They didn’t, however, do any better on any of the nine elements of the college learning effectiveness inventory. And these things would be things like attention to study things like stress level, things like achievement. So there was no significant difference. But in terms of the cognitive test, they did find some improvement from those students who were practicing mindfulness training. However, those are not really critical thinking elements, what they are sort of cognitive function elements. And they write. The mindfulness meditation course was able to significantly improve the accuracy of digital valence tests, choice reaction time and spatial working memory, as well as the reaction time in the digital valence test. So in other words, their brains are sort of functioning a little sharper through the practice of mindfulness, which could go back to those neurological things that we talked about earlier with respect to oxygenation and blood flow of brain. But the fact that students might be doing slightly better academically, which is good. Let’s affirm that even though it might just be on short recall test and the fact that perhaps we’re seeing some heightened cognitive activity, which is also good, does nothing to ultimately answer the question that we’re getting asked the most about this.

Steve Pearlman: And that has to do with whether or not mindfulness is actually affecting critical thinking. The ability to react more quickly to a stimuli, which is a positive thing for us to be able to do, isn’t the same thing as being able to deeply think through a complex problem and represent that thinking outward. And one more thing that’s important to note is that they note that twenty two percent of the students about a quarter dropped the study, meaning that they didn’t consistently engage in the mindfulness practice. And that’s, I think, something that’s also really important about all this mindfulness stuff, which is that it requires consistent practice for it to be able to have any effect at all. And even in the studies that looked at the short term benefits on the quizzes that happen immediately at the end of class when mindfulness was practiced at the beginning of the class didn’t show any long term effects for those short mindfulness interventions. So to get long term benefits requires quite a commitment to mindfulness practice, which is great if people want to take it up. But it’s going to be challenging for us to translate that into any kind of requirement for students as part of their education.

Dave Carillo: It’s interesting to note that this idea of mindfulness training or getting students to become more mindful in a 15 minute exercise works best for the kinds of short types of educational activities, like a short quiz or a multiple choice test where the brain has to recall a specific set of information really quickly and in the moment, and then dump it and then move on. Critical thinking, though, to get back to that is not the multiple choice test. And if you know us, you know that. So we want to get back to this idea of critical thinking because noone and Hogan did as well after they did this study. Does mindfulness enhance critical thinking? There were some individuals who criticize their work based on even the attempt to try to draw a direct connection between mindfulness and critical thinking. One of the critiques that some individuals made was that they left out a lot of what’s known as co requisite sources of contribution. Meaning that, like we said before, critical thinking is just too complex of an act to try to make a direct connection between one specific thing and critical thinking, Noonan and Hogan thought so as well. And so we want to come to you with a study that they did a couple of years after the one we just talked to you about. This one’s called improvements in critical thinking performance following mindfulness meditation depend on thinking dispositions, and this is an attempt to figure out, well, what is mediating this right? If there’s no direct connection between mindfulness and critical thinking, what’s acting is the go between what are the other factors. In this particular study, they looked at two specific thinking dispositions as those potential factors.

Dave Carillo: They were looking at open minded thinking and the need for cognition and what they found was also really interesting. And it speaks to this idea that critical thinking is complex and there needs to be a robust framework around it. So what they did was they divided their test subjects into two groups. They had one set of test subjects do mindfulness meditation that was legitimate, and then they had one group do what they called sham meditation. And their findings were really interesting. Mindfulness meditation helped most with the individuals who were most in need of cognition and most closed minded. So in other words, if you are already open minded or if you had a low need for cognition, mindfulness meditation didn’t help really at all. It didn’t make any significant difference in terms of fostering stronger critical thinking. If you were starting from such a low baseline, as in, you had a low need for cognition or you were very close minded, then they did find at least some positive effect. So even in this study, where they were attempting to nail down what those mediating factors were, again, they found that it’s not really helping to foster critical thinking across the board. Where we think that this is interesting, though, is that it seems like there’s at least an opening here to say that mindfulness can help at least start to move individuals thinking dispositions in terms of open mindedness need for cognition in the right direction toward being able to then start to think more critically. But it doesn’t seem to be presenting itself as a strong element towards critical thinking.

Steve Pearlman: That’s such an important point, and it brings us full circle back to what motivated some of this podcast to begin with. We were going to get to mindfulness eventually, but we got these inquiries about the relationship between mindfulness and critical thinking and education. And what we see again, as we’ve seen so many times, are these conversations between things like critical thinking or things in the realm of education that could be useful in certain respects or potentially positive, but don’t really connect back to critical thinking. Mindfulness is being used in certain popular discussions of this as an alternative term, almost for critical thinking, and it makes sense in a respect. Look, if we can get students to be more present, if we can get them to be more objective, just like these researchers anticipated, if we can get them to be more open minded through mindfulness practice, if it brings more blood flow to the brain and so on. And you can see a lot of this if you go out and look at some of the popular articles out there on the interwebs about mindfulness, practice and education, there’s this leap that’s made and it feels like a small leap.

Steve Pearlman: But maybe it’s actually a big one into thinking that this also makes critical thinking better. But what we actually find is that some of the mindfulness practice, the non reactivity can have a negative effect on it. At best, we’re seeing no direct effect on critical thinking. We certainly want to appreciate and applaud, especially for those who would be inclined against these practices to be moved in a positive direction with respect to open mindedness and other dispositions that would lend themselves ultimately to critical thinking. But critical thinking still seems like its own beast in a lot of ways and has to be addressed through some different means other than mindfulness. I’m not saying that mindfulness would be antithetical to it in the long run, maybe moving people along. Some of these dispositions is valuable, but we have to tackle critical thinking in a different way, and we can’t just make these presumptions that because we have some similarities in concept or some good things going on neurologically that were actually training people to solve problems better, to deal with the wicked problems of the world, to project ideas forward. In the same

Dave Carillo: Way, I don’t want anybody to think that we’re criticizing individuals who bring mindfulness into

Steve Pearlman: Their classroom. I practice mindfulness and meditation, right?

Dave Carillo: Because it strikes me as within the realm of the same kind of not desperation, but the strong desire to do right by our students. And we see a lot of that around critical thinking because of how highly valued it is, how much our students need it or will need it in this world.

Steve Pearlman: I’m glad you brought that up because that’s really what irks me about it a little bit, and it doesn’t irk me with respect to any one individual, because again, as you say, ultimately, I think this is certainly from a noble effort to do right by the students. In many ways, it’s actually doing right by the students. But what is? Frustrating about it is seeing, once again, the tendency to want to find the quick fix if we want students to think critically, we just got to get them to meditate for the first five to 10 minutes of our class and then everything will be solved. And man. Look, I wish that was true. You wish that was true because we want that book proof to the critical thinking problem. We want it to be as simple as that, and it would be great if it were. But unfortunately, there’s not going to be that quick fix, I don’t think. And certainly mindfulness, isn’t it at least that if you really want students to think critically just getting them to practice some mindfulness, especially on a short term or localized basis, not only won’t do it, it could have potentially counterproductive effects. Humans are just too complex, I think, and thinking is too complex and problems are too complex for us to be able to decentralise them to something so simple

Dave Carillo: Not to get all loose with our claims here, but just thinking about some of the elements of critical thinking pedagogy that we’ve started to see success with seems to run in some ways not counter to, but really muddy. The mindful waters like failing forward is not necessarily a situation that’s always going to be ripe for non reactivity. Right? It’s not always going to be a situation that demands us to be absolutely in the moment, right? And in fact, sometimes when you’re failing forward towards stronger critical thinking, as we’ve talked to you about in other podcasts, this idea of this mastery model of learning that’s going to be messy, it’s going to pull our brains in a lot of different directions, start to look at our biases in ways that just don’t really work with the mindful notion of observation or non reactivity.

Steve Pearlman: So look, go read the miracle of mindfulness by technology. It’s a wonderful book. Maybe you pick up the power of now by Eckhart Tolle. These are wonderful texts and do a lot to talk about how we can be present in our lives, and there’s a lot of benefit to that. A lot of health benefits to meditation as well. But if you’re an educator or you’re in business and you’re looking for mindfulness as the fix to critical thinking, we wish we had better news. But we don’t

Voiceover: Got questions about critical thinking, questions about pedagogy related to critical thinking, questions about writing, reading, grading or anything else in the critical thinking realm. Contact Stephen Dave at Info at the Critical Thinking Initiative. With your questions or your feedback about the podcast. Thanks for listening.


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