Wheaton College Norton, Massachusetts

Mary Lee Griffin

Paying attention to mindfulness

Taking on a relatively new field of study, Associate Professor of Education Mary Lee Griffin currently is researching mindfulness practices and the effect on young readers and writers. As part of a 2009-2010 Wheaton Research Partnership, she and six Wheaton students—Matthew Powell ’11 and sophomores Caitlin Vomastek, Kathryn Powers, Raphael Sweet, Emily Timm and Amanda DeGroff—have been conducting research in a local public school. They plan to do the same work in two other schools this spring. Griffin, who teaches courses on early literacy, reading and writing curriculum, and the social contexts of teaching and learning, is exploring whether the practice of being still and in the moment can help young children better focus on their work for prolonged periods and improve their literacy skills. The interest in the learning applications of mindfulness has grown around the world in recent years. In the United States, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has expressed an interest in mindfulness approaches to improve education and student achievement. She is happy to answer questions on the subject.

What is mindfulness?

It’s the awareness that comes from intentionally paying attention, in the present moment, in a nonjudgmental way.

What led you to this research?

This has been a professional and personal interest of mine for a number of years. I have a couple of regular mindfulness practices—meditation and yoga—that have been a part of my daily life for a number of years. Then, in 2008, I needed to develop a spring First Year Seminar for our department. As I thought about a topic, I asked the students in my educational foundations course for their input and one student talked at length about the stress students face when they arrive on campus mid-year. His comments resonated with me, and I decided to develop a course that would help January admits to process their experiences, while engaging them intellectually in interesting ways that would support their learning. The seminar was called “Edge of Forever: Waking Up to Who We Are and What We Do.” The overarching theme was mindfulness, which was incorporated through all kinds of reading—poetry, nonfiction, novels—and writing. We started every class with about 10 minutes of mindfulness practices such as meditation, guided visualization or yoga. I have taught this FYS twice now and what I have observed with both classes is a marked difference in student engagement in discussions, in the quality and depth of the students’ writing, and the ways they engage with the reading. What I was seeing was not incidental or trivial. It was also too powerful to ignore. As a consequence, I have stepped out of my comfort zone—as a researcher of emergent reading and writing and the contexts in which they happen—to design a study that explores the potential of mindfulness for readers and writers.

How are you going about your research?

I’m working with six research partners who are Wheaton students. Two teams of three students each go into a local school once a week where they offer 30 to 40 minutes of mindfulness instruction to two 5th grade classes. In preparation for this work, the team had a retreat for two days in August, during which time we developed the structures and instructional protocols for the current study.  As part of this research, 5th grade teachers follow mindfulness activities with a reading or writing activity. The children then journal about what their experiences were and whether the mindfulness seemed to have had any effect on their literacy task. We’ll end the study by conducting interviews with students and teachers as well as surveying parents to ascertain whether mindfulness made its way home.

Why is it so hard to quiet the mind?

Our minds naturally race. Some traditions call this a “monkey mind.” We’re always thinking about the past or what we’re going to do next, and we’re never centered in the moment and really appreciating the present. It’s very hard to quiet the mind and keep it here because it wants to go a zillion other places. Staying present in order to then focus intellectually has a lot of potential. Research tells us that the major educational benefits of mindfulness seem to be reducing stress, calming the mind, giving students greater access to intellect during learning tasks and helping them to be more consistently engaged in academic tasks.

How does this help students with reading and writing?

That’s what we’re trying to find out. Students—college students and younger students—have given me feedback about how they use mindfulness in stressful situations, such as when they are about to take an exam or about to sit down to write a big paper. By quieting the mind and focusing on the task at hand, they tell me that they are able to be more comfortable and focused. They’ll also persist longer. That’s what schools may find the most compelling, if the research supports this. In this high-stakes testing era, we find many kids and adults in constant states of stress and worry.  Neuroscientific research is demonstrating that mindfulness has a positive affect on the middle areas of the brain’s prefrontal cortex. These areas are essential for social communication as well as self-observation and self-regulation, and they represent an important central hub in the brain’s social circuitry. This is really exciting to me.

What is the goal of your research?

I’m hoping schools will consider integrating mindfulness practices and training into the curriculum.

Why is this so important, particularly now?

For all the reasons I just mentioned—most notably helping people to better attend and focus—but also to feel comfortable and confident as learners. We know students are bright and capable; we just need to find ways for them to consistently and confidently show up and demonstrate their many capabilities and strengths.