The Role of Stillness in Education and the Problem of Thinking Too Quickly

When our brains become overloaded with too much information, or when our working memory is compromised by being exposed to too many distractions, there are certain mental functions that stop working as well. According to the research (which I have shared here and here and here), some of the cognitive functions that become diminished when we are bombarded with too much information include,

  • conceptual and contextual thinking;
  • the ability to grasp over-arching narratives of meaning (the big picture);
  • the ability to make unexpected connections between different ideas and facts;
  • the ability to put knowledge into schemas.

In short, scientists are finding that too much information can cause our brains to become lost in a sea of particulars without the ability to connect these particulars into larger structures of understanding. Other functions to be shut down include the ability to be attentive to others, to empathize, and the ability to understand things from another person’s point of view.

In order for these higher cognitive functions to work, the brain needs lots of time during the day when we are at rest, when we are quiet, and when we can focus on specific mental, imaginative or interpersonal tasks against a backdrop of stillness.

I’ve been involved in various college prep schools, including charter schools and classical schools, and it’s interesting for me that when I talk to the educators in these systems the one thing they always lament is lack of time to cover everything they would like. Content, content, content – the more the better. Accordingly, curriculum is structured with the goal of cramming as much information into the students’ minds as possible. As inputs are continually increased, the outputs expected of the students also increase, with the result that little space is left for reflecting deeply on any one thing, let alone being still. Thus, from an early age students learn that success in life is directly correlative to the speed at which they can absorb inputs and produce outputs. When students are occasionally given time to reflect deeply on a single thing, their minds often find it difficult to adjust to the slower pace. When the freneticism of information overload is the norm, thinking deeply feels strangely uncomfortable, while stillness comes to feel unnatural, even frightening and disconcerting.

On one level it makes sense for educators to throw as much information at our kids as possible. After all, our goal is to produce smart kids who will be able to get into good colleges and tackle the demands of an increasingly competitive world. But what if the effective means for reaching these goals is opposite to what we usually think? But what if a child is very different to a machine? What if a child’s ability to sit in silence, to voluntarily slow down the speed of inputs and outputs, is actually one of the biggest indicators of future success, prosperity and academic achievement?

I pose these as questions, but science is already on the way to providing the answers. In his book Focus, Daniel Goleman shared research suggesting that the ability to focus is an even greater indication of future life success than IQ. A series of randomized-controlled studies conducted in the 2011-12 school year found that periods of focused stillness improved students’ aptitude in attention, self-control, self-care, participation, and showing care for others.

In San Francisco after some of the roughest schools implemented periods of focused breathing, they had twice as many students score proficient in English on the California Achievement Test compared to schools that didn’t use the program.

This shouldn’t be surprising since the ability to attend to one thing, and one thing only (be it a conversation, a piece of music, someone else’s feelings, or just the pattern of one’s breathing), is a skill that is directly related to the same part of the brain we use for planning, creativity, strategic thinking, empathy, schema formation, memory and learning, and the ability to grasp the big picture.

This should prompt us to ask some serious questions about the use of technology in our schools. Each year American school systems spend inordinate time, money and training to more fully integrate technology into the classroom. Often we feel that if our students are not tech-savvy from as young as possible then they will struggle to compete in the global economy of the 21st century. As teachers and school administrators, we may also feel that integrating digital technology into the classroom shows that we are advanced and forward-looking. The result is not only that devices like laptops, iPads and smartphones are becoming integrated into the classroom, but that it is now considered normal for students to use the internet instead of books for their research. Although an increasing body of studies show that technology damages students’ brains in precisely those areas required for learning and serious reflection, teachers who raise concerns about this are often dismissed with caricatures like “Luddite” or “old fashion.”

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The irony is that this movement to bring more technology into our schools runs parallel with the movement to integrate mindfulness into the classroom. At first glance, one might be forgiven for thinking that the habits of mind that the mindfulness movement tries to cultivate—habits such as attention, inner stillness, mono-focus, meta-cognition, contemplation and impulse control—might be compromised by devices that practically encourage compulsive multitasking, digital saturation and information overload. But apparently many people within the mindfulness movement do not see it like that. Not only are those at the forefront of the mindfulness movement neglecting to initiate a public conversation about the effect of technology on our children’s brains, but they often see technology as the friend of mindfulness. The industry of “mindfulness apps” is now big bucks, as a variety of programs offer digital assistance for being calm, achieving inner quiet, improving attentiveness skills and becoming more mindful. The irony is that the areas of the brain that are being atrophied by our technology are precisely those areas involved in attentiveness, the cornerstone of mindfulness.

William James talked about the “the faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention, over and over again,” as being “the very root of judgment, character, and will” and added that “an education which should improve this faculty would be the education par excellence.” As more and more education takes place in front of a computer, however, the habit of remaining attentive to any one thing for long is weakened.

Within a digital environment children’s “brains are rewarded not for staying on task but for jumping to the next thing,” Harvard professor Michael Rich told The New York Times. “The worry is we’re raising a generation of kids in front of screens whose brains are going to be wired differently.”

I’m not saying that our schools shouldn’t give our students access to technology. But maybe sometimes we should encourage them to unplug and just be still.

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