Word of the week: mindfulness

Mindful learning. It’s such a powerful concept. As one of the last blog posts going up this week, I had the pleasure of reading the reflections of so many of my classmates before I composed this post. I have to say that was probably the best thing for me as I have been struggling with what mindful learning should/could look like for an educator in the design field. I enjoyed reading my classmate’s stories because I realized that we all have a shared experience of classrooms/learning environments that are not actually designed for student learning. Each story I read was different, some students shared stories of triumph over the obstacles that stood between them and accomplishment; others were sadder: reflections on surviving in an educational system that wasn’t designed to educate but to test.

In the end, I realized it’s not what you teach, but how you teach. Dissecting “how you teach” for me became another series of questions I’m asking myself: what will my lessons be like if I’m going to encourage mindful learning? How do I create a culture and environment in the classroom that can facilitate the learning outcomes I want for my students? What small changes can I begin to incorporate so that I can systematically overhaul my teaching style to reflect the kind of educator I want to be for my students? What can I do to make sure that every student leaves my class feeling like they gained something beneficial?

For any readers that are new to this concept, here is the link to the TED talk given by Sir Ken Robinson “How to Escape Education’s Death Valley.” It’s a 19 minutes well-spent.

So here’s the honest truth: there’s a learner in each of us. It’s human nature to be able to grow as learners. To suggest that some people are just incapable or don’t want to–well, to me, that’s just preposterous. To give up on a difficult student is a failure of the educator and the system that the student is in. Sir Robinson is right: “Teaching properly conceived is not a delivery system.”

Coming up, I could tell the difference from day 1 in the classroom whether or not the class was going to be fun, exciting, and something to look forward to or if it was going to be difficult in the sense that I was going to have to force myself to survive it until the term was over.  Even today, I can generally tell on the first day of class what my experience is probably going to be like over the upcoming semester. And despite there being all of these awesome resources out there-seminars, TED talks, workshops, and the like–we still seem to have a large population of our educators who either don’t know or just don’t get it. I’m a class right now that I find super-fascinating and I’m excited to be learning the topic–but the lectures—well, they’re fast, full of jargon, and truth be told, after the hour and a half is up, I find myself thinking “what in the hell just happened?” Because I don’t remember a bit of what he just said. Thankfully, I’ve learned to develop an independent reading list from the sources that get cited on the PowerPoint or else I would be completely lost. I’m determined to make it through the course, but it’s proving to be a rough ride. So then I think about it in the context of this course, and I wonder: why isn’t it fun for me? What can I do as the student to make this more fun? I don’t have an answer to those questions yet.

But learning IS fun and exciting (I wouldn’t have chosen to spend my life learning new things if it wasn’t!) And learning IS an adventure (Thank you Dr. Nelson!) So why, if these ideas about changing the way we approach teaching and learning are we still running into educators (and administrators) who don’t appreciate that there is a difference and there is room for they themselves to grow?

Again, I don’t have an answer to this question, but I’m working on a philosophy. In the meantime, I am working hard to change how I choose to think, act, and react in the classroom (and out of it). Bringing mindfulness to every aspect of my life has been a real challenge–I’m having to step outside of myself and learn to view the world with a new perspective. I’m fighting falling into the trap of automatic behavior, thinking, and responses. Just because we were trained in our formative years to be good little students doesn’t mean that we were actually being trained to be good learners and thinkers.

For me, the real challenge is learning how to see the difference and then changing my approach so that I can be a facilitator instead of a road-block in my own classroom and learning environments. I’m grateful for this experience in Contemporary Pedagogy–every week, there are new seeds planted and I am eager to support this personal growth.

I’m late writing my blog this week because we had a family emergency over the weekend. I have a 9-month old who has been very ill the last few weeks. Friday night was pretty difficult. She spiked a fever, so we returned to the doctor Saturday morning and we ended up spending the night in the Pediatric wing at Carilion in Radford for her to undergo some testing and receive IV fluids. Lucky for all of us, she had a positive response to the new medication they placed her on and we were able to return home Sunday to continue her care. After a sleepless weekend I am finally starting to catch up with my academic life (as I put everything on the back burner for a couple of days), but I’m still feeling pretty scatter-brained from the mental and physical exhaustion. The lessons on mindfulness were extremely helpful in coping with the ups and downs of the last few days. Interesting how that works.


  • Jyotsana says:

    Hey Sarah! Hope the little one is better. Do take care of you and your family.

    Your post made me think about a TedTalk I recently heard….I am not sure if it is applicable to your particular area but here it is for you: https://www.ted.com/talks/sinead_burke_why_design_should_include_everyone
    The question you ask is important…how, right?! Think big and small is the only way that I have made sense of it…little things can change big picture scenarios and big things can sometimes fall flat…it depends on what works best in creating the balance.

    • Sara Lamb Harrell says:

      Thank you, Jyotsana. She is doing much better, it was SO SCARY for us there the first handful of days. We really didn’t know what was going on and it was extremely stressful for all of us.

      I am looking forward to checking out that TedTalk–I appreciate the referral. I feel like I’m asking the “how” a lot lately. We’ve been given numerous examples, but I haven’t yet put into plan or action what that will be like for me. (But the Syllabus exercise looms on the horizon, so I think that will be a huge help!)

  • Chang says:

    I totally agree that “how you teach” really matters. When thinking back about middle school and high school, I can not remember the content of the classes, but I am still impressed by some teachers who can give any topic in an interesting way. Actually for some courses the content should be similar, especially when students are using the same text book. The real challenge for teachers are how to make the class attractive and get students engaged. Try to make students learning in a mindful way would be helpful.

    Hope your baby will get well soon. Best wisher!

    • Sara Lamb Harrell says:

      Hi Chang, thank you for sharing your experience with me. I can think back on almost an identical set of memories: the lessons are fuzzy, but the teacher and their approach is clear in my mind. This question of engagement is a good one. At the college level, we are probably better at what we do as teachers when we know our topic really well–or at least well enough to recognize what we don’t know–and maybe use that as a place to start exploration for the class. I envision giving my students design tasks that will ultimately generate really nice products that they can use again in their portfolios. Also, I’d like to help them discover a few things about themselves-like how they learn the best, what about the course really interests them-and then help them reach their end-goal on their own terms. I think this might be a way to add a layer of mindfulness to my classes. Have you thought of what you might want to do in your own classes in the future?

    • Sara Lamb Harrell says:

      Also! Thank you for the kind words about my daughter. She is definitely getting better, we look forward to her being back to her normal self soon!

  • A. Nelson says:

    Thanks so much for this, Sarah! I’m sorry you had such a rough week and am really glad that the little one is better. This sentence in your post really jumped out at me: “Just because we were trained in our formative years to be good little students doesn’t mean that we were actually being trained to be good learners and thinkers.” That’s so true —
    and your post does a wonderful job of raising awareness around how we as teachers need to mindful of what we do and why.

    • Sara Lamb Harrell says:

      I appreciate your feedback Dr.Nelson. I am enjoying the process of learning and discovery that is unfolding in your class. Now that I have been made aware of the difference in teaching technique, style, and outcomes, I’m finding that I’m questioning everything. I spend time scanning my memory for moments in education that made a big impression on me (for better or worse) and I’m trying to identify why they stand out to me so distinctly (Out of the thousands of hours I’ve spent in one classroom or another, what about each memory is significant?) This is a big time of growth for me and I am grateful for the privilege and opportunity to get to learn, reflect and take this journey.

Leave a Comment