by Suzanne Lloyd
Influences on my perspectives
I left the IB community as a member of the MYP curriculum staff nearly seven years ago when the department relocated to The Hague. Around this time, I qualified to teach English to adults, which I have since been doing in my local community. The groups of people that I work with have moved to the UK mainly due to conflict or economic reasons.
I am constantly in awe of these individuals, some of whom have come to the UK with little or no previous knowledge of English and who are determining to learn through their own efforts and perseverance. All of the individuals who come to the classes are seeking to develop themselves and improve their situations, whilst managing complex home lives and often work.
Previously a modern languages teacher in a comprehensive school, I have also recently returned to a school setting, teaching Spanish in a local primary school.
In both these situations, a curiosity and engagement with learning appear to be key in terms of the progress that learners make. In both these situations, I ask myself regularly how I can encourage and foster these attitudes.
Personally, 13 years ago during a secondment at the then IB regional office in Buenos Aires I woke up to the fact that I had been rote learning and learning to pass exams since I could remember. It came as a surprise as I thought I had been functioning quite nicely up until then.
The importance of explicitly addressing skills
For a year, I was living in a different country, working in a different environment and coming across different texts relating to learning and education. For whatever reason a number of conditions came together that resulted in this awakening of sorts. One of the key conditions, I think, was the possibility to pause and reflect, as well as to consider varied views. There was undoubtedly an element of personal readiness. It may come as a surprise that I didn’t wake up to this sooner; maybe I had on certain levels, but on this occasion, it was a definite sense of perceiving something in a new light. It left me with a sense of sadness, that I had not been more inquisitive previously and also that I had been part of a system that enabled it. Perhaps more importantly, it left me with a new sense of ownership for my learning.
May I not be misunderstood. I am not saying that there is no place for rote learning and learning in order to pass exams; these may be the very things necessary for a specific situation. However, overall, what lifelong gifts do we give our children as they leave the “formal” setting of learning? If we focus so much on any one aspect of learning, does that impact on teacher and student wellbeing? Is it all ‘too much’?
The value of mindfulness
As I read through the skills listed in the ATL skills framework (Appendix 1, MYP: From principles into practice 2014-15) I am equally in awe of the expectations placed on the young people and the challenge of teachers to integrate these skills into their planning and teaching. Something that particularly interests me is to see how mindfulness is now part of these skill clusters.
I began seriously exploring mindfulness about seven years ago, coincidentally as I left the IB, although a couple of colleagues and I who worked in the same office area had begun meeting and meditating at lunch times. Early on I felt a strong sense that I wished these ideas had been talked about when I was at school.
“Be more productive on the go” greets me as I open My Office on my lap top. Anyone who has worked in a school for 5 minutes will testify to the pace and level of activity involved on a daily basis. I am amazed at the number of activities organised by my daughter’s primary school; which is fantastic on the one hand and makes me wonder about the wellbeing of the staff on the other.
Can a school community build in conscious pauses during the school day, where activity ceases and people are allowed to be? I’m not talking about anything major, simply small moments of calm, where the children or young people don’t feel any pressure or obligation to achieve anything. Some mindful breathing at the start of a class. Some mindful movement to calm and ground the group. There is such a pressure to be constantly doing, that without the opportunity to pause and integrate experiences, the mind and body can become overloaded or we are simply repeating the same old patterns without awareness.
This applies equally to the staff of the school; are those who care being cared for? What systems are in place to seriously consider the existence of overwork and chronic stress on the individuals who make up the school community and how to manage these factors realistically?
This is a great opportunity for the adults in the school community to model ways of working that are realistic and healthy. A deeper exploration of mindfulness is not necessarily for all, though associated techniques can contribute to a developing sense of what mindfulness is and its benefits. Using the sensations of the breath as a focus for attention, pausing between activities and connecting more with sensations in the body. Simply slowing down.
There is equally the challenge to those who develop programmes for the IB to reflect on their own, collective expectations of schools.
What have I learned as I reflect on my career?
Returning to my own reflection on how do I foster curiosity and engagement with my own learners? There is no one set answer. For myself I feel it is a combination of nurturing my own curiosity about my learners and their learning; getting to know them over time and, as best I can, adapting my approach, the activities, the materials, in realistic ways. Through interactions with learners, creating an environment that is safe for individuals to have a go, to make mistakes, to learn from them, knowing that I won’t always get it right and that’s ok, but that I care enough to try again. Each of these experiences must be explicitly planned and not left to chance. This includes the teaching of mindfulness strategies.
Considering my own example of “waking up”, there are numerous circumstances affecting and influencing the lives of the young people we work with, many of which we may not be aware. We can take them so far, and then we have to let go.