George Lucas Educational Foundation
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As part of the opening of any professional development session that I lead, I always invite participants to "set an intention" for their learning time. This is a simple practice that takes very little time and that can have a great pay off.

It can help us learn in a much deeper and more authentic way; it helps us connect with others, and it helps us show up as our best selves. Whether I'm working with a group once for two hours or ongoing for a year, I always include this routine and get positive feedback on it.

Recently, someone asked if I could describe exactly what I do the first time I introduce this routine. How do I frame it? What exactly do I say? Here's what I do.

Getting Started

First, the "Intention Setting" activity comes right after three others: the Welcoming, Agenda Review, and Community Agreements. In the Welcoming section, I garner all the warmth, enthusiasm, and calmness I can muster and express my gratitude for being wherever it is that I am and I add other introductory comments. But I keep them short, just a few minutes.

Next we get into the Agenda Review. Sometimes I offer a little framing commentary, giving them some background about why we're going to learn or do what we will and then I invite them to read over the agenda.

They all have hard copies of the agenda which provides a detailed road map for our learning, with overarching outcomes for the session:

  • The "What" (the activities and topics)
  • The "Why" (the reasoning behind each section), and,
  • the "How" (the structures in which they'll learn, the timing for sections and the materials they'll need)

Group Norms and Agreements

Then I ask them to identify what they're looking forward to doing, what they're excited about learning -- and to share those reflections with a partner. This section is important; I want to start directing their thinking to what they'll feel positive about.

After they've shared with a partner and I've answered any clarifying questions about what we're going to do, then I review the community agreements or norms for the group. When I'm working with a group that doesn't have any established, I offer a few of my own: take care of yourself, take risks, be a vulnerable learner, and be mindful of other learners.

And then I move into intentions, and I say this:

"Given where we're going today in our learning together and given whatever you're coming in the room with -- whatever is on your mind and going on in your life -- I want to invite you to set an intention. An intention is a statement about how you want to be today or what you want to get out of today. It describes an aspiration for how you might think, feel, engage with others or engage in your learning so that you can be your best self today.

"This is for you. An intention can sound like, 'I want to be fully present.' To be honest, that's often mine. It could be 'I want to take risks.' An intention could also be, 'I want to connect with others' or, 'I want to ask hard questions because I usually shy away from doing that.' An intention can be 'I want to be accepting of my colleagues and not get annoyed by things they say.' That's been mine on a few occasions. An intention reflects whatever might be most helpful for you, right now, to get the most from today."

Rationale for Setting Intentions

I also offer some information about why setting intentions is useful. I tell them:

"When you set an intention, you are more likely to make choices that support it -- in what we do or what we think. You might forget all about your intention today, but some little part of your mind remembers it."

Sometimes I share this quote by Daniel Siegel, from The Mindful Brain, "Intentions create an integrated state of priming, a gearing up of our neural system to be in the mode of that specific intention: we can be readying to receive, to sense, to focus, to behave in a certain manner." I like sharing that neuroscience supports this activity and that it primes our mind to notice the actions, opportunities, people, and things that can bring about our intention for us. Some who may be less excited about intentions get engaged when I offer scientific reasoning.

After I say these things (and show a couple slides with a few of these phrases on them) I invite them to write their intention on the top of their agenda so that they can find it later. This accomplishes two things: It becomes somewhat mandatory because the overwhelming majority of people will do this since everyone else will be writing, and it lets them know that we'll come back to it.

I also invite them to turn to their partner and share their intention. I tell them, "Speaking your intention to another person creates a really nice, soft accountability for ourselves. Our partner is not going to keep track of whether we're holding it, but because we've told someone else, we'll be more mindful of it."

Then I share my intention with the whole group. Sometimes I share it earlier; it depends on the mood in the room and my relationship with them, but I always share mine at some point. I do this because I want to be softly accountable to them and I also want to model the ways in which we can set an intention -- the depths to which we can go. I look for ways to model intentions that are authentic, vulnerable and that connect me with participants. It's an opportunity for me to show up as a colleague, a learner, and a human being.

If I'm working with a group for more than a couple times, I sometimes add on a piece: I ask them to set an intention and then identify what it'll look or sound like to someone else if they're holding that intention today. "So if your intention is to be present, perhaps that means you will only check your phone or email during the break, or if your intention is to take risks, then maybe you'll contribute to the whole group discussion at least once." I do this because I want to nudge people towards the actions that will demonstrate the intention and that will help them feel successful.

That's how I roll out intentions.

Closing and Reflection

It's really important to go back to them during the time you have with a group. If it's a short meeting (an hour or two) then I'll just return to it at the end of the time, during the "Closing" section of the agenda. I'll say this:

"Pull out your agenda and recall the intention you set. How did that intention work for you today? Were you aware of it at any point? Did it help you in any way? This isn't an opportunity to beat your self up; if you forgot all about it or didn't hold it, that's ok. This is just a gentle reflection on whether it showed up for you."

Sometimes I invite people to share their reflection with their partner, but not always. If I'm working with a group all day, then mid-day, before lunch I'll ask them to return to their intention and see how it's been showing up for them. And after lunch, often as they're returning to their spaces, I'll say:

"As you're settling back in, recall your intention. Does that still feel like the best one for the afternoon? Or is there another intention that might be more helpful? You can always change intentions. As you settle down, settle yourself back into your intention."

The longer you work with a group and engage in this intention-setting routine, the faster, easier, and deeper it gets. That's simply because the more you do something, the easier it gets. And so the more often we remind ourselves that we are intending to do something, the easier it gets.

I set intentions before I go into a coaching session, lead a workshop, or sit down to write. It's a quick way for me to get focused and clear, it helps me feel like I have control over what how I feel, how enter into a conversation, and how experience it.

Try setting them for yourself and see what happens. And try inviting a group of teachers to set intentions and see what happens.

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Sue J's picture

I LIke this, tho' it would take confidence to pull it off, lest I wonder whether some folks' sincere intention would be "get through this lame session without openly looking disgusted or bored or saying something insulting." I know that's been my best at some meetings ;)

(I'm thinking that if I'm going to present I need to be prepared enough to summon that much confidence ...)

Gary Garcia's picture
Gary Garcia
An Educator

Its similar to goal setting but you have explained it very well. A good way to start an encounter with students, or training/workshops/seminars. Thanks Elena for sharing this.

Chris Davis's picture
Chris Davis
Teacher, Tech Innovation Project Coordinator

I'm fascinated by this focus on setting a mindset separate from the projected learning outcome. As teachers we aspire to move students past mere declarative knowledge, but often neglect in our own collaborations to move beyond the "what" of the doing. Priming for the "how" and the "why" seems so... logical. And yet we often don't do it. In fact, reviewing David Jonassen's catalogue of human cognitive architecture, a mindfulness of feeling doesn't seem to be present.

Recently I have borrowed a Design Thinking mindset of close observation and method of using photographs for research (d.School Mindset and Method Cards). We spend time with students discussing what is going on in the photograph, how it is happening, and why it is happening. Teaching this kind of media literacy keeps the students more mindful of the digital media surrounding them. In that discussion the feelings surrounding an observed process often come out and an empathy for the subject is projected. What I haven't thought through as closely is a simultaneous inner projection. "How do you feel about this?" is probably an equally valid question.

In Goleman's Emotional Intelligence he establishes emotional well being as a greater indicator of success than all of the other forms of intelligence. Reflecting on your article urges me to think we have choice in the direction of our emotional being. Framing that emotional stance prior to acting ensures a greater potential for maintaining a positive emotional presence in the here and now, a mindfulness of the current process, and a greater potential for learning.

Finally I think you have addressed the marriage between our reasoning and our gut feeling. Do we reason towards a gut feeling we already have, or is our gut feeling a result of experience and reasoning? Leveling the two and understanding their relationship seems to be at the core of setting out a mindful intent before a learning session. (See TED: The Long Reach of Reason)

My questions for you are...

How do you present this to your teachers without sounding like Mace Windu in Star Wars, The Phantom Menace, "Be mindful of your feelings"?
What kind of feedback do you get from teachers on this practice?
We have used Restorative Practices before but I found that getting this kind of mindfulness between feeling and reasoning requires a critical mass of "believers" to implement across an institution. Any thoughts, recommendations, methods for promoting this?
In your mindfulness of intent approach, do you engage the teacher learning community beyond sharing your intent with someone?

Thanks for the inspiration!

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

"How do you present this to your teachers without sounding like Mace Windu in Star Wars, The Phantom Menace, "Be mindful of your feelings"?"

LOL! I can see how this could come across as a little too kumbaya if one weren't able to facilitate it with absolute sincerity. Because so much of my work is rooted in Critical Friends and Mindfulness (with a heft dose of Parker Palmer), I think participants would blink an eye if this kind of activity were presented in a class or session I was running. We sometimes use a Connections protocol to help folks transition from out "there" and into whatever work we're going to be doing together. The think I like about what Elena describes here is that it's 90% internal- no one *has* do participate- but it invites the individual to ponder a bit.

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

Elena, I particularly love the way that you transition from the expected and concrete parts of a workshop day or class (welcome, agenda review, etc) to this abstract idea of setting an intention- and the way you root that in neuroscience.

I'd love to hear more about the specific neuroscience and how you present it, if you have a minute!


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