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Mindful Facilitation: Don’t Do Something, Just Stand There

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Editor's note: Susan Dreyer Leon, a board member of the QED Foundation and the Vermont Insight Meditation Center, co-authored this post.

In a PBL classroom, students do things. But what about the teacher? What do we need to be doing while the students are doing things? What does it look like when the teacher is a coach? Are we still doing things, and if so, what are they? In Making Space for Thinking, we made the case that good facilitation is largely an internal process of observation, data collection, and questioning that, while it requires the full attention of the teacher, looks a lot like "standing around drinking my coffee, watching the kids." We may worry, "What if my principal walks in and sees me not doing things?" So we get into the middle of student processes, correcting and nudging and answering questions before we need to, because that's what we think teaching is -- doing things.

What if we took a page from the mindfulness community and chose to not do things, but rather to be present with whatever's happening around us and within us? Here are five things that you can do now, no matter your level of experience with mindfulness, to become a better facilitator.

1. Pause

Claire Stanley defines this as "a moment taken intentionally before one begins." The PBL classroom is busy -- it's hard to focus our own attention. Rather than rushing headlong between groups and tasks, take a pause. Pause before you jump into a group's process, before you gather the class for an announcement or new information, between talking with one student and the next. Create a tiny space and see what difference that makes.

2. Just One Breath

Try to be present in your body for just one breath. This technique can be used during your pause or in any moment when you feel anxious or too busy (which is sort of all the time for most of us). PBL classrooms, especially as students are learning to be more self-sufficient, are filled with questions. One conscious breath before answering can give you the time that you need to relax. Then you can choose a response with more care. You can decide whether you even need to answer the question at all. Consider suggesting that your kids wait for one breath before they ask -- they may realize that they already know the answer!

3. Tuning Into Your Body

You can stop at any moment and ask yourself, "What is happening in my body right now?" How often do we find ourselves feeling crabby and frustrated with our students just before lunch, at the end of the day, or when our classrooms are too hot or too cold? It's amazing how often we can transfer physical discomfort -- hunger, exhaustion, pain -- into frustration with our students. Just acknowledging we may have a headache or feel anxious about time can help us be less reactive. Checking in with our physical selves can help bring us back to the present moment and keep us from overreacting or losing our cool with the kids.

4. Nonjudgmental Observation

"Paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally" is a commonly-cited definition from Jon Kabat-Zinn, and one that can be very helpful. When kids are moving through a well-designed PBL experience, what we see is often unexpected. The nimbleness of our responses can make a big difference in how much risk students are willing to take and how much they're able to accomplish. By asking ourselves, "What is really happening right now?" we can separate our expectations of what we think should be happening from what is actually taking place, without labeling what we see as right or wrong, good, or bad. If you're thinking, "The kids are doing that wrong, I need to go redirect them or fix it," you're bound up in your idea of what should be rather than what is, which means that you're less available to help them with their ideas. If we're always trying to make sure that they do it our way -- the expected way -- we're never going to get anything new. Nonjudgmental observation allows us to say, with curiosity and interest instead of worry, "That's interesting. I wonder how it's going to work for them."

5. "Don't Know" Mind

This way of thinking, also sometimes called beginner's mind, is the essence of PBL done well for both teachers and students. It's the space of openness and childlike delight in the new, the unpredictable, the infinite variety that humans bring to their efforts, and the myriad ways that we approach problem solving and the creative process. The "don't know" mind is a delight in letting go of control and accepting the limitations of our own perspective and conditioning. We embrace the idea that our students might actually know some things that we don't.

Give one of these mindful facilitation strategies a try in your classroom and let us know how it goes. In the comments section of this post, add your own techniques and tools for staying in the moment with your kids, and let's see what we learn from each other!

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All Students Thrive's picture
All Students Thrive
Changing the World One Conversation at a Time!

I certainly agree! Our school in Oakland needed a much more comprehensive approach because of the level of trauma-based behaviors we were seeing in our students. Schools don't need to wait for formal programs, as it is just as easy to begin a practice in a classroom. All I know is that the Mindfulness does work and definitely has a place in schools!

Rusul Alrubail's picture
Rusul Alrubail
Edutopia Community Facilitator/ Student Voice & Literacy at The Writing Project

Love this post Laura, I am in fact going to use these tips when my kids are playing or working on something. I think many times, our interactions and behaviour can influence the way they learn, and so being mindful can help us to step back and allow them the opportunity to explore and learn on their own.

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

Thanks Rasul. You're spot on there- we sometimes end up stepping all over their learning processes because we want to help. It's well-intentioned mucking up, but it's still mucking up. :-)

I am Bullyproof -Lessia Bonn's picture

Love this! Years ago I wrote a "being mindful" message song for a teen of mine who needed something to fit her quirky voice and personality. I was shocked and very pleased when lots of tweens and teens I was working with began telling me they loved the song. Funny thing - I really thought the message of "be here now" was more an adult message at that point. After discovering more and more teachers were using my songs to teach social skills, mindfulness, and other lovely lessons in their classrooms, I joined a site where I could share with more teachers - and eventually drew the attention of a teacher outside Detroit - very far away from our northern California shore. She now has a club 66 strong based on songs that are all very mindful. But here's why I share; I could not BELIEVE the amount of urban kids who insisted they needed to speak on camera about the lyrics to this one song- and how mindful it made them. The kids even chose "Gift in this Present" as their graduation song. Those were fourth graders! And now, I just heard from another teacher that her third graders can't get enough of the song.
I love your post. Sorry this comment is so long, but I just wanted to share - since you asked - how, in my experience, kids LOVE this whole area of thought, and re-directing thoughts. Thanks for being so awesome :-) PS Retta (the teacher I spoke of) sent me little clips of her club kids to edit and organize around the song they love so much. . More FYI; The voice on our actual recording is a twelve year old student who, after hearing our original teen recording, insisted that "Your songs teach me about life! I have to record GIFT!" and so we let her. So, in answer to your question? This is how I (we) get kids to put down their phones - with songs that matter to them!

Lyndi Maxwell, PhD's picture

I've been stepping back more, creating time for non-judgmental observations, so as not to interrupt my students' problem-solving process, and I'm learning so much more about their little brains and personalities! For example, one pair was playing a place value card game together. It was intended to be a "Memory" style game, but they were growing bored with it. Instead, they turned it into a "Go Fish" game, where they looked at the place value picture on their card, and asked the other if they had the corresponding number. If not, obviously they had to "Go Fish" from the draw pile. They found a way to make the game more active and fast-paced. They're teaching me to be less controlling over how they play, and it has provided a world of insight as to who my true "outside the box" thinkers are. How about you?

Lyndi Maxwell, PhD's picture

I, too, love the "Don't Know Mind." I think it shows students that we're human too, and we don't know everything. They look at me like, "What do you mean you don't know? Isn't that why you're here?!" The real fun comes when I give them to tools to learn and they get to teach not only me, but their peers as well.

mphillips's picture

I love this! My school switched to a PBL through New Tech Network this year, and I'm still adjusting to the facilitator rather than teacher role. The fourth and fifth ideas really struck a cord with me. I was just in a meeting that focused on the questions you ask students as a facilitator. In order to stay nonjudgemental and not the expert, we were told to use questions to guide the students. This way the students are answering the questions on their own or with their group rather than the teacher telling them. Also, just because I have an idea for what I think my students should do, doesn't mean its the best idea for that group. The questions will help the students to figure that out on their own.
Thanks for a wonderful post!

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

I'm glad you found it helpful! There are some great resources out there for good questions aligned with Bloom's Taxonomy- if you google, you'll find some great examples to get you started. (Shameless self-promotion: I actually wrote a whole book just about the facilitation part of PBL- Facilitating Authentic Learning. It's usually very cheap on Amazon. ) Good luck and let us know if there's anything we can do to help!

Matt Vosmik's picture

Thanks for sharing your thought-provoking and helpful ideas. I've been involved with scouts for years and have seen the benefits of applying these mindfulness skills with the scouts as they discover the natural world and work on projects together. We often coach parents to challenge themselves to "pause" and do some "nonjudgemental observation" -- the clear way you present these skills/challenges will be helpful to me in articulating them clearly. Thanks again!

MrsSlaviero's picture

Terrific article! Number 5 is especially true--students of ALL ages need to utilize the "beginner's mind" in school as much as possible. I have taught the same US History content for more than 20 years but it's never boring because we utilize this mindset. I learn from my students everyday and and our "beginner's minds" keep the stories of History interesting, exciting, and relevant for all of us.

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