I just returned from two weeks of study at Michigan State University as part of my PhD program in Education. My study related to qualitative research purposes and methodologies. I gained experience in writing field notes, conducting interviews, collecting data, and describing and analyzing observations. Although much of this work requires taking notes, this is not mindless activity; rather, all of this requires an attentive mindfulness to the present and reflection on what has occurred. Ellen Langer, in her book, The Power of Mindful Learning, characterizes this state of mind as involving an “openness to novelty, alertness to distinction, sensitivity to different contexts, implicit, if not explicit, awareness of multiple perspectives, and orientation in the present.”
To illustrate, during a walk across campus in between class sessions, I came across this bench.
Naturally, I sat down and waited for some brilliant ideas to enter my mind. As I was sitting and taking in my surroundings (and waiting for the next great idea), I realized this was exactly what was needed to increase my attention to my surroundings. I was noticing the landscape–trees, birds, and squirrels–and watching people walking and biking across campus. I was able to reflect on my recent experiences and make sense of them, thinking more deeply about patterns of interaction and my responses.
Benches like this one are not unique to the MSU campus. Where are the Spartan benches in our own lives? Where are the places where we stop our activity and take a moment to enhance our attention to the present? This is not easy to do, especially given our busy lives and full schedules, but if we maintain an alertness in the present, what might we notice?
Consider also what teachers might notice in classrooms with an enhanced alertness to the present. Children’s actions can be more closely observed, their comments and discussions can be listened to with sensitivity, and their ways of thinking can be explored with more openness to multiple perspectives. As Ellen Langer explains, “If we respect students’ abilities to define their own experiences, to generate their own hypotheses, and to discover new ways of categorizing the world, we might not be so quick to evaluate the adequacy of their answers. We might, instead, begin listening to their questions. Out of the questions of students come some of the most creative ideas and discoveries.”
Our alertness to the present can make room for new ideas and reflection. Let’s find our benches and help students find theirs. Together, we’ll generate some powerful ideas.