Christopher T. McCaw

Would you like ethics with that? The possibilities and risks of (Mc)Mindfulness in schools

It’s easy to get excited about the prospects of mindfulness in education. However, as I see it, in the rush to implement mindfulness in schools we may be neglecting some important, complex issues to do with its conceptualisation (how we define and think about mindfulness) and its implementation (how mindfulness is actually taught and practiced).

Most readers would be generally aware of the reported cognitive, social and emotional benefits of mindfulness but I believe we need to look more closely at its spiritual, ethical and political dimensions if we are to properly understand its implications for education.

My fear is that we risk implementing a kind of ‘McMindfulness’ in our schools, what I describe in my research as ‘thin’ mindfulness. And this brings the potential for unintentional harms to occur, and for the greater potential of mindfulness to be missed.

Cognitive, social and emotional benefits of mindfulness practices in schools

An increasing body of research studies support the claim that mindfulness meditation (which commonly refers to the practice of paying attention to the present moment with an attitude of non-judgement) may help students focus their attention, increase academic achievement, and regulate their emotions, with observable implications for classroom behaviour.

Similarly, mindfulness programs for teachers support them to respond to the stresses of school life, improve their wellbeing, become more emotionally self-aware and resilient, and thus to help build more inclusive, caring and positive relationships in the classroom. These cognitive, social and emotional benefits appear to fit well with the needs and challenges of contemporary school life. Indeed, local organisations such as Smiling Mind are advocating for mindfulness to become a formal part of the school curriculum.

The disappearing history of mindfulness

In thinking of mindfulness merely as a psychological training technique, it’s easy to miss that there are also spiritual, ethical and political dimensions to mindfulness. I argue that if these other dimensions are not appreciated and discussed more widely, we face two important risks: one is that we do not reap the full potential of mindfulness to transform education in significant ways; the other is that actual harm is done, even if unintentionally. I will explain these possible harms later in my post.

Interest in mindfulness in places like Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States arises historically out of Asian Buddhist traditions. In these traditions, mindfulness has a much longer history, and a more complex range of ethical and spiritual meanings: mindfulness plays an important ethical role as the foundation for wise judgement, for recognising good conduct from bad conduct; it is also a fundamental element of the Buddhist spiritual path of liberation, developing the capacity to keep ‘in mind’ key facts about existence, such as the impermanence and interdependence of all things.

My research shows that these Buddhist ‘roots’ of mindfulness are commonly downplayed or ignored in much discussion of mindfulness in education policy, mindfulness apps for adults and kids, mindfulness books and guides for teachers, as well as academic research about mindfulness in education.

Why the silence?

On one level, this finding seems peculiar. Surely the people promoting, researching and teaching about mindfulness in schools are aware of (and would generally value) its rich philosophical and spiritual heritage. Why, then, the silence? My interpretation is that many of those thinking and writing about mindfulness in education are stuck in ambivalence – that is, feeling conflicted. While they understand that the spiritual and ethical dimensions of mindfulness are valuable and have great potential in education, they also appreciate that speaking and writing openly about these aspects could potentially lead to issues in its implementation in schools or education policy.

‘Thick’ and ‘thin’ forms of mindfulness

Mindfulness has multiple meanings, and a complex history. Therefore, we cannot take for granted that we always agree about what is involved in discussions of mindfulness in schools. To help us think more clearly about specific uses of mindfulness I have developed a distinction between ‘thin’ and ‘thick’ mindfulness.

Mindfulness is ‘thin’ when it is spoken about as a technique designed to improve individuals’ psychological capacities. Thin accounts of mindfulness allow for an easy appeal to the authority of scientific research, appear value-free, and are neatly consistent with an individualistic account of personhood, and related notions of self-improvement. Speaking about mindfulness in this familiar ‘thin’ manner helps it more easily gain traction in schools (as training programs), in government departments (as policy and curriculum) and in universities (to attract research funding).

‘Thick’ versions of mindfulness, on the other hand, emphasise the spiritual and ethical roles of mindfulness. They are, consequently, value-laden and emphasise personal transformation rather than just ‘improvement’. They may prompt deeper questions about what it means to be human, and how what look like separate human ‘individuals’ are actually highly inter-dependent, and thus ethically responsible to one another. The language around ‘thick’ mindfulness is more closely associated with the ideas of religion and may plausibly cause friction when inserted into a secular education system.

In my research I found that the vast majority of research studies looking at mindfulness for teachers or students presented ‘thin’ definitions of mindfulness (around 80% of those reviewed). And this was the case even though, in some studies, the actual mindfulness techniques being taught within the training programs clearly involved some ‘thicker’ ethical and spiritual content. This fact, alone, raises questions about the ethics of marketing mindfulness programs to schools: Is it acceptably honest to promote mindfulness to schools as a fully secular, scientifically-backed, psychological technique, when the actual training practices might be something more?

It should be clear that a school classroom embracing a ‘thin’ version of mindfulness might look, sound and feel quite different to one embracing a more ‘thick’ version. The former might be more concerned with maximising student attention, focus and emotional stability in order to support behavioural compliance and enhanced academic performance. The latter might be more concerned with developing students’ personal awareness and responsibility, building a classroom culture of compassion, respect and deep listening, and calling into question competitive individualism as the basis for student motivation.

Potential for harm

Many are beginning to argue that a ‘thin’ type of mindfulness, or ‘McMindfulness’, could potentially lead to harm when introduced into education and other spheres of life. It is known that mindfulness meditation can increase emotional awareness. But this, of course, includes awareness of negative, as well as positive emotion. If teachers are only trained superficially, and retain a superficial, ‘thin’ understanding of mindfulness, are they really equipped to respond to the sometimes intense and difficult experiences which may arise?

Students from marginal or disadvantaged positions (EAL, Indigenous students, refugee students with a background of trauma) may be more at risk of this occurring, and there needs to be adequate support available. Furthermore, thinking more broadly, it is arguable that many aspects of the current political and economic system are producing fundamentally unjust outcomes for young people, and that schools continue to be a place of exclusion and disenchantment for many students. In this case is it ethical to focus on providing students and teachers with psychological tools to cope emotionally with existing system, rather than raising deeper, more critical questions about the system itself?

The politics of mindfulness

Mindfulness is clearly much more than just sitting quietly and watching the breath. It can have a variety of different meanings, and a variety of different effects and consequences depending upon how it is enacted. Mindfulness in schools is thus a political proposition, because it involves questions of who decides how mindfulness is understood and practiced in any given context, and whether this is seen as challenging, or merely reinforcing the way things are currently done. Policy makers looking at a future Australian curriculum with a greater emphasis on personal and social capability, school principals considering introducing mindfulness programs, and teachers conducting mindfulness activities with their students, all need to be invited into this important conversation.

There should be more informed, critical discussion regarding what we want mindfulness to mean and be, and greater acknowledgment that there are risks in framing mindfulness as a mere psychological training technique, without any spiritual or ethical ‘wrapping’.

Dr Christopher T. McCaw is a lecturer at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education, Australia. His recent doctoral research focused on the role of contemplative practices in the lives of beginning teachers. Christopher taught in secondary schools for eight years, focusing on experiential and inquiry learning, and is a practitioner of yoga and Buddhist meditation. Funding details: This work was supported by an Australian Government Research Training Program Scholarship. Chris can be contacted at mccawc@unimelb.edu.au  and can be found on Twitter @ctmccaw

This blog post includes some key findings from Christopher T. McCaw’s recent journal article Mindfulness ‘thick’ and ‘thin’— a critical review of the uses of mindfulness in education, published in the Oxford Review of Education

Chris is interested in the views of teachers, students and education policy-makers about mindfulness in schools. He has some questions our teacher/student/educator readers:

  • What is your experience of mindfulness in schools and classrooms? To what uses and ends is mindfulness being put in your own workplace, school or department?
  • In what terms, ‘thick’ or ‘thin’, is mindfulness discussed in your school staffroom, classroom or department?
  • Are people with whom you work having critical discussions about what mindfulness actually is? Or is there an assumed, agreed understanding which remains unquestioned?