A couple of days ago, The Guardian asked for input from readers about what they think needs to change in Education, given that it’s likely to be a key battleground for the 2015 election. The first response from Camila Batmanghelidjh, a psychotherapist and founder of Kids Company, struck me. She noted that some children are so disadvantaged that it affects their brain functioning to such a degree that they struggle to sit still and stay calm in school, never mind pass exams.
This really got me thinking. There are many aspects of education that are clearly in need of serious reform, and as such the discourse surrounding schools tends to focus on these issues; the nature of assessment, teaching methods, the curriculum, and so on. But as a result, we often neglect a more fundamental issue and one that is surely of equal importance. That’s the emotional wellbeing of the children who the system is there to serve.
This jogged my memory back to an article I read earlier in the year about rough schools in San Francisco implementing a project called ‘Quiet Time’, in which the kids would meditate twice a day. The impact that this had had was quite astounding.Now before you make an assumption about those Frisco hipsters and what might appear to be some sort of nostalgic throwback to the halcyon days of flower power and the counterculture, just hear me out.
Visitacion Valley Middle School was one of the first to adopt the practice back in 2007. It is located in a poor neighbourhood suffering from a host of socio-economic problems. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, “gunfire is as common as birdsong” in the area. Unsurprisingly the school suffered greatly from disciplinary problems; fighting, shouting, vandalism, low attendance and so on, all of which contributed to its poor academic performance while creating an environment counterproductive to learning.
The school tried a number of remedies without success, until meditation came along. In Quiet Time’s first year, suspension rates dropped by 45%, and within four years it was one of the lowest in the city. Perhaps most significantly, in the annual California Healthy Kids Survey, these middle school youngsters were the happiest in all of San Francisco. It wasn’t just this particular school that showed encouraging results either. On the California Achievement Test, twice as many pupils in Quiet Time schools became proficient in English, compared with similar schools without the program, and the gap in maths abilities was even greater. A few years back David Lynch made an excellent documentary about his project to introduce transcendental meditation into an elementary school in Iowa, the results of which were also pretty transformative.
The benefits that regular meditation practice can bring are well documented. Thankfully, as knowledge of this is spreading, we’re gradually coming around to the idea that meditation can be a worthwhile exercise that doesn’t have to have anything to do with hippies, drugs, or even the broader ideas of religion and spirituality.
No, it can be and often is a completely secular practice, and one that can improve confidence and self-esteem, as well as reduce anxiety and stress. Moreover, it can lead to increased focus and concentration, doing wonders for kids’ ability to learn as well as the teacher’s ability to teach. A theme throughout Guardian responses was the need to attract and keep hold of the best teachers and head teachers. De-stressing the school environment would make it a lot easier for teachers to do their jobs, and develop professionally. Studies in the states have also demonstrated that training teachers in mindfulness meditation can reduce their levels of stress and increase organisation and compassion.
It’s not just in California that these ideas are beginning to gain some momentum; 13 states across the country are implementing similar projects. Moreover, The Guardian featured ‘Mindfulness and the Art of Chocolate Eating’, a popular technique introduced to schools by an organization called ‘Mind Space’, on their top teaching resources list for 2013. Mind Space’s ‘Meditation in Schools Program’ has been introducing meditation for teachers and students across the UK.
Obviously this is no panacea. There are wider systemic problems that need to be addressed irrespective of how many kids or teachers are meditating. This is not a call to side step these very important issues however, rather it’s a reminder that by getting caught up in arguments that are so often tied up with ideology and political one-upmanship, we can forget the more fundamental stuff. Kids and teachers are human beings – their ability to learn, share and engage is dependent on their emotional wellbeing, and so it’s something that should form a more serious part of the debate.
Originally published on Institute of Opinion.