Expanding Mindfulness Benefits from Classrooms to Entire Education Systems
With twenty years of experience studying how mindfulness can transform classrooms, UVA education professor Tish Jennings is expanding her focus in the next phase of her research.
Photo: Jennings (left) sits next to UVA EHD colleague, Research Assistant Professor Alexis Harris (right), as they present at the Mind and Life Summer Research Institute. Photo by Pam Nicholas-Stokes.
When Patricia Jennings first attended the Mind and Life Summer Research Institute twenty years ago, she was honored with an early career award to support her work studying the positive impacts mindfulness and compassion can have on teachers and students. This summer, she returned as a featured speaker to share two decades of experience. The Mind and Life Institute is an international organization that works at the intersection of science and mindfulness.
“The Mind and Life Institute has been instrumental in building the field of contemplative sciences, and returning this summer has been a sort of homecoming for me,” said Jennings, who is a professor of education at the University of Virginia School of Education and Human Development.
For twenty years Jennings has been working to apply mindfulness and compassion and help teachers create more emotionally supportive learning environments. Her focus began in the classroom, a sometimes high-stress space that is both cognitively and emotionally demanding. More recently, she has been considering how mindfulness can extend beyond classrooms and play a role in transforming and modernizing entire education systems.
Mindfulness in Classrooms
“Stress responses can distort our perceptions,” Jennings said. “That means a teacher experiencing stress—while monitoring a large group of students as they engage in learning and interact with one another—is at risk of misinterpreting a student’s behavior or vice versa. And we also know that teacher stress is contagious and high levels of stress impair learning."
A teacher experiencing high stress might misinterpret a student rummaging through their backpack as disrespectful or irresponsible when, in fact, the student may be having difficulty locating something they need for class. Similarly, a student’s stress response to the teacher might reinforce the teacher’s misinterpretation.
“When students feel unfairly attacked, they can either become defensive or freeze up with fear,” Jennings said. “In either case, learning is derailed for the student, and the other students in the classroom may now be distracted and possibly afraid.”
Jennings’ research has shown that mindfulness practices employed in classrooms can improve teaching and learning by helping individuals see situational contexts more clearly, as well as see the perspective of the other person.
“When people practice mindfulness, they become more aware of their own body and mind,” Jennings said. “With mindfulness practices, teachers can recognize when they are stressed and projecting that stress onto their students. That awareness can provide teachers the space they need to recognize what a student is experiencing and respond thoughtfully rather than automatically reacting in ways they may later regret.”
Students also benefit from these practices. Educators often tell students to calm down and pay attention, but rarely teach them how. According to Jennings, developmentally appropriate mindful awareness practices can help. Children can learn to use deep breathing to calm down, for example. Or teachers can engage students in activities that build focused attention, such as listening to the sound of a chime or noticing their balance as they engage in yoga practices.
Mindfulness Beyond Classrooms
Recently, however, Jennings has been considering the stressors put on teachers from outside of the classroom and if mindfulness can play a role in reducing the impact of those as well. One significant stressor across much of education, according to Jennings, is the continued use of outdated education models originally developed during the Industrial Revolution.
“The public school systems operate in ways that do not align with 21st century needs,” Jennings said. “The rigid time frames enforced by harsh bells, siloed content, segregated age groupings, and uniform expectations regarding learning processes and outcomes are remnants of the last century. The model is based on one that assumes children’s needs and developmental processes are uniform and that knowledge should be disseminated through teacher-directed methods.”
The frustration students and teachers experience is, in part, rooted in an education system that doesn’t align with modern learning and teaching needs.
“The world is much more interconnected and interdependent, and we now know learning is a very complex and non-linear process,” Jennings said. “Today adults work in highly cooperative teams to solve problems and create.”
In the next phase of her research, Jennings is joining several scholars who are applying mindfulness and systems thinking to envision new education systems.
“Mindfulness helps us broaden our view of situations beyond the personal,” she said. “It also allows us to see beyond our habitual behaviors that reinforce these systems.”
This fall, Jennings will be spending a sabbatical exploring the work of scholars like Otto Scharmer and Peter Senge, both based at MIT. Scharmer has developed a framework for transformative change in education systems called Theory U. By engaging stakeholders, co-creating a shared vision, experimenting with new practices, and scaling up successful prototypes, Theory U supports the creation of responsive, inclusive, and learner-centered education systems.
“The U-shaped process involves deep listening, suspending judgment, and exploring alternative perspectives,” Jennings said. “This is happening in pockets around the world. This fall, I’ll be exploring where this is occurring and how we might scale these new models to support school transformation.”