Posts Tagged ‘MIndfulness’

Precarity

Barely liveable hourly wages, no job security because there is no permanent contract (so employment may be terminated at short or no notice), no social security, paid health care or pension, struggling to meet everyday needs, such as food and accommodation … this is the situation for at least one in five workers in the UK and similar figures exist in many countries (e.g. one in six in New Zealand). As Bourdieu (1998: 81ff.) noted, job insecurity is now everywhere.

Many English language teachers, especially those working for private schools or universities operating like private schools, belong to what has been termed the global educational precariat. In addition to language school and university language teachers, there are hundreds of thousands of teachers, mostly American and British, working in English-medium schools ‘international schools’ around the world (Bunnell, 2016). Besides financial insecurity, many of these teachers also suffer from a lack of agency and a marginalisation of their professional identities (Poole, 2019). There’s a very useful article on ‘precarity’ in ELT Journal (Walsh, 2019) that I’d recommend.

Even teachers with reasonable pay and job security are facing attacks on their pay and working conditions. A few weeks ago in Jordan, security forces shut down the teachers’ union and arrested leading members. Teachers union leaders have also been imprisoned recently in Iran and Cambodia. The pages of the website of Education International , a global federation of teachers’ trade unions, catalogue the crises in education and the lives of teachers around the world.

Teacher bashing, in particular attacks on teacher unions, has been relentless. Four years ago, it was reported that teacher bashing had ‘reached unprecedented levels’ in the US (Saltzman, 2017: 39), where there has been a concerted attempt, over many years, to blame teachers for shortcomings in the educational system (see, for example, Kumashiro, 2012). Although it may have been the US that led the way, closely followed by Australia and the UK, attacks on teachers have become a global phenomenon. Mary Compton and Lois Weiner’s book, ‘The Global Assault on Teaching, Teachers and their Unions’ (Compton & Weiner 2008), gives examples from China to South Africa, from Denmark to Mexico, of how teachers’ pay and conditions have been eroded. The reason? Quite simply, it is because teachers have stood in the way of so-called ‘reforms’ (e.g. pay cuts). It is because they have, as they are doing now in times of COVID-19, stood in the way of what governments have wanted to do. In an earlier post, I wrote in more detail about the ways in which the World Bank has spearheaded the drive towards privatized, lower cost education around the world.

COVID-19 has, of course, made matters worse, much worse. As often as not, the pandemic has been used as an excuse to accelerate attacks on teachers that were well under way long before.

Wellbeing

In the circumstances, it is not surprising that teacher wellbeing has recently become a more talked-about topic. Precisely because there is so little of it about.

The publication earlier this year of a book about teacher wellbeing (Mercer & Gregersen, 2020) for language teachers is very timely. The authors acknowledge that real change for wellbeing [must] addresses structural and systemic levels of change and is not just a matter for individual teachers to cope with alone. They acknowledge that teachers should not have to compensate for fundamental flaws in the system as a whole that undermine their wellbeing, and they express concern about the risks associated with discussing teacher wellbeing at the individual level and not acknowledging that the systems in which teachers work may be at fault (Mercer & Gregersen, 2020: 9). But, with these caveats out of the way, the matter is closed, and the whole book is about how individuals can improve their wellbeing. Indeed, the book begins: As you read the title of this chapter, you might have thought how self-seeking or egocentric it sounds: It’s all about me? Our response is, ‘Yes, you!’ Throughout this book, we want you to focus your attention on yourself for a change, without any guilty feelings (Mercer & Gregersen, 2020: 1). Mindfulness techniques, tips for time management, ways of thinking positively and so on – it’s a compendium of self-help advice that may be helpful for language teachers. The real ravages of precarity, the real causes of so much lack of wellbeing, these do not get a mention.

Banksy_-_Grin_Reaper_With_TagPositive psychology

Mercer and Gregersen’s approach is directly inspired by the work of Martin Seligman, often referred to as the founder of ‘positive psychology’ (see, for example, Seligman, 2011; 2018). Positive psychology and Seligman’s ideas about wellbeing are not uncontested (see, for example, Bache & Reardon, 2016; Bache & Scott, 2018). The nub of the critiques is that positive psychology chooses to focus on happiness or wellbeing, rather than, say, justice, solidarity or loyalty. It articulates an underlying individualism and narrow sense of the social (Cabanas & Illouz, 2019: 68) and it is, therefore, not entirely surprising that much of the funding that made the rapid growth of positive psychology possible came from the ultra-conservative and religious institution, the John Templeton Foundation (Cabanas & Illouz, 2019: 20).

Mercer and Gregersen are not unaware of such critiques (see, for example, MacIntyre et al., 2016: 375). They mention the critiques of Barbara Ehrenreich (Ehrenreich, 2009), but, to the best of my knowledge, they have never troubled to respond to them. They have a very clear agenda – the promotion of positive psychology ideas in language teaching / learning contexts – which is made explicit in MacIntyre and Mercer (2014). A slew of articles, books and conference presentations have followed since then, and ‘Teacher Wellbeing’ is one of them. Mission seems to have been achieved.

Positive psychology has not only been criticised for its focus on the individual. Others have focused on its foundational assumptions, including decontextualized and ethnocentric claims; theoretical oversimplifications, tautologies and contradictions; methodological shortcomings; severe replicability problems; exaggerated generalizations; and even its therapeutic efficacy and scientific status (Cabanas & Illous, 2019: 29). Probably the most important of these critics was Richard Lazarus, whose work is certainly familiar to Mercer, Gregersen and their collaborators, since Lazarus’s criticisms are listed in MacIntyre and Mercer (2014) and elsewhere. These include:

  • the over-use of crosssectional research designs
  • a tendency to treat emotion too simplistically as either positive or negative
  • inadequate attention to both differences among individuals within a group as well as the overlap between groups when discussing statistically significant group differences
  • poor quality measurement of emotions.

However, as with the critiques of Ehrenreich, I have yet to find any examples of these authors actually addressing the criticisms. Instead, they prefer to talk about how problems such as those listed above need to be avoided in the future. For example, there is no doubt that the future development of the [positive psychology] approach within SLA can learn from these and other criticisms, write MacIntyre and Mercer (2014:161), and they see the future of positive psychology in language learning / teaching as being fundamentally grounded in science.

Empirical science

Acknowledging, but without actually addressing, past criticisms of the scientific shortcomings of positive psychology, MacIntyre and Mercer (2014: 15) insist that positive psychology is the empirical study of how people thrive and flourish […] it represents a form of “rebirth” for humanistic psychology, but with a stronger emphasis on empirical research. The word ‘empirical’ appears 4 times on this page and another 5 times in the article. In their follow-up book, ‘Positive Psychology in SLA’ (Macintyre et al., 2016), there is a whole section (over a third of the book) entitled ‘Empirical’. In a historical survey of positive psychology in foreign language teaching, written by close collaborators of Mercer, Gregersen and MacIntyre (Dewaele et al.,2019), the same focus on empirical science is chosen, with a description of positive psychology as being underpinned by solid empirical research. The frequency of this word choice is enough to set alarm bells ringing.

A year before the MacIntyre and Mercer article (2014), an article by Brown et al (2013) questioned one of the key empirical foundations of positive psychology, the so-called ‘critical positivity ratio’ (Fredrickson & Losada, 2005). Wikipedia explains this as the ratio of positive to negative emotions which distinguishes “flourishing” people from “languishing” people, and the ratio was 2.9013. A slightly later article (Brown et al, 2014) further debunked the work of Fredrickson, arguing that her work was full of conceptual difficulties and statistical flaws. Wikipedia now describes the ‘critical positivity ratio’ as ‘a largely discredited concept’. In contrast, Mercer and Gregersen (2020: 14) acknowledge that although the exact ratio (3:1) of positivity has been called into question by some, they reassert the value of Fredrickson’s work. They neither cite the criticisms, nor rebut them. In this, they are following a well-established tradition of positive psychology (Rhyff, 2003).

Given growing scepticism about the claims of positive psychology, MacIntyre et al (2016) elected to double-down. Even if empirical evidence for positive psychology was in short supply, it was incumbent on them to provide it. Hence, the section in their book entitled ‘Empirical’. Personally, I would have advised against it. The whole point of positive psychology, as outlined by Seligman, is to promote ‘wellbeing’. But what, exactly, is this? For some, like Mercer and Gregersen (2020: 3), it’s about finding meaning and connection in the world. For others, it’s not a ‘thing’ that needs research to uncover its essential nature, but as a social and cultural construction which is interesting as such, not least for what it can tell us about other social and cultural phenomena (Ereaut & Whiting, 2008). We may agree that it’s ‘a good thing’, but it lacks solidity as a construct. Even Seligman (2011: 15) comes to the conclusion that ‘wellbeing’ is not ‘a real thing. Rather, he says, it is a construct which has several measurable elements, each a real thing, each contributing to well-being, but none defining well-being. This, however, simply raises the question of how much of a ‘thing’ each of these elements are (Dodge et al., 2012). Seligman’s elements (Positive Emotion, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, and Accomplishment (PERMA)) form the basis of Mercer and Gregersen’s book, but none lend themselves to clear, workable definitions. In the absence of construct validity, empirical research evidence will prove hard to find.

How well does the ‘Empirical’ section of Positive Psychology in SLA (MacIntyre et al., 2016) stand up? I don’t have space here to discuss all 7 chapters. However, I’ve selected the first of these, ‘Positive Psychology Exercises Build Social Capital for Language Learners: Preliminary Evidence’ (Gregersen et al, 2016) because it includes ‘evidence’ in the title and because it was written by two of the book’s editors. The research reported in this chapter involved five volunteer women, aged 20 -23, in an English program at an American university, who took part in a number of positive psychology exercises (PPEs) which entailed laughter, exercise, interaction with animals, listening to music, expressing gratitude and engaging in altruism. The data collected was self-rating questionnaires and some self-reflection discussion. The results indicated that the PPEs led to more positive emotions, with exercise and laughter leading to the greatest gains (but since the order of the PPEs was not randomized, and since the sample size was so small, this doesn’t really tell us anything). Some of the participants doubted the value of some of the PPEs. However, the participants developed better relationships with their partners and this may have led to gains in confidence. The authors conclude that although the present data-set is small, we see preliminary evidence of all three pillars of positive psychology supporting positive outcomes (p.164).

My own view is that this is wishful thinking. The only thing that this study does is to indicate that in this particular context with these particular learners, feeling good about what you are doing may help things along a bit. In addition, this has absolutely nothing to do with ‘social capital’, which the authors seem to have misunderstood. Citing an article by Nawyn et al (2012), they describe ‘social capital’ as emerging friendships that provide learners with positive emotional experiences and intangible resources for language acquisition (Gregersen et al, 2016: 147). But this is a misreading of the Nawyn et al article, which adheres fairly closely to Bourdieu’s notion of social capital as fundamentally about power relations, but extends it beyond purely economic power relations. Given the connections between the lack of teacher wellbeing and precarity, and given Bourdieu’s writings about precarity, the authors’ attempt to bring Bourdieu into their justification of positive psychological experiences, best undertaken at the individual level (Gregersen et al., 2016: 149), is really quite extraordinary. And if this is empirical evidence for anything, I’m a positive psychologist!

Cui bono?

It may be that some of the exercises suggested in Teacher Wellbeing will be of benefit to some, even many, teachers. Maybe. But the claims of empirical science behind this book are questionable, to say the least. More beneficial to teacher wellbeing would almost certainly be strong teacher unions, but these are only mentioned in passing. There is, incidentally, some recent evidence from the U.S. (Han, 2020), that highly unionized districts have higher average teacher quality and improved educational outcomes. But positive psychologists seem unwilling to explore the role that unions might play in teacher wellbeing. It is not, perhaps, coincidental that the chapter in Teacher Wellbeing that deals with teachers in their workplaces contains three recommendations for further reading, and all three are written for managers. The first on the list is called Build It: The Rebel Playbook for World-class Employee Engagement (Elliott & Corey, 2018).

The problems that teachers are facing, exacerbated by COVID-19, are fundamentally systemic and political. Mercer and Gregersen may be aware that there is a risk associated with discussing teacher wellbeing at the individual level and not acknowledging that the systems in which teachers work may be at fault, but it’s a risk they have chosen to take, believing that their self-help ideas are sufficiently valuable to make the risk worthwhile. I agree with a writer on the National Education Association blog, who thinks that self-care is important but argues that it is an insufficient and entirely too passive way to address the problems teachers are encountering today.

There are other ways of conceptualising teacher wellbeing (see, for example, the entries on the Education International website with this tag) and the Mercer / Gregersen book may be viewed as an attempt to ‘claim the field’. To return to Paul Walsh, whose article about precarity I recommended earlier, it is useful to see the current interest in teacher wellbeing in context. He writes: Well-being has entered ELT at a time when teachers have been demanding greater visibility and acceptance of issues such as mental health, poor working conditions, non-native speaker and gender equality. Yet to subsume these issues under a catch-all category does them a disservice. Because as soon as we put these issues under the well-being umbrella, they effectively vanish in a cloud of conceptual mist—and lose their sharp edges.

In this sense, a book like Teacher Wellbeing, although well-meaning, may well contribute to the undermining of the very thing it seeks to promote.

References

Bache, I. & Reardon, L. (2016) The Politics and Policy of Wellbeing: Understanding the Rise and Significance of a New Agenda. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar

Bache, I. and Scott, K. (eds.) (2018). The Politics of Wellbeing: Theory, Policy and Practice. Palgrave Macmillan

Bourdieu, P. (1998). Acts of Resistance: against the new myths of our time. Cambridge: Polity Press

Brown, N. J. L., Sokal, A. D., & Friedman, H. L. (2013). The complex dynamics of wishful thinking: The critical positivity ratio. American Psychologist, pp. 68, 801–813. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0032850

Brown, N. J. L., MacDonald, D. A., Samanta, M. P., Friedman, H. L. & Coyne, J. C. (2014). A critical reanalysis of the relationship between genomics and well-being. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 111, 12705–12709. http://dx.doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1407057111

Bunnell, T. (2016). Teachers in International schools: a global educational ‘precariat’? Globalisation, Societies and Education, 14(4), pp. 543-559

Cabanas, E. & Illouz, E. (2019). Manufacturing Happy Citizens. Cambridge: Polity Press

Compton, M. & Weiner, L. (Eds.) (2008). The Global Assault on Teaching, Teachers and their Unions. Palgrave Macmillan

Dewaele, J. M., Chen, X., Padilla, A. M. & Lake, J. (2019). The Flowering of Positive Psychology in Foreign Language Teaching and Acquisition Research. Frontiers in psychology, 10, 2128. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.02128

Dodge, R., Daly, A., Huyton, J. & Sanders, L. (2012). The challenge of defining wellbeing. International Journal of Wellbeing, 2(3), pp. 222-235. doi:10.5502/ijw.v2i3.4

Ehrenreich, B. (2009). Bright-Sided: How the relentless promotion of positive thinking has undermined America. New York: Metropolitan Books

Elliott, G. & Corey, D. (2018). Build It: The Rebel Playbook for World-class Employee Engagement. Chichester: Wiley

Ereaut, G. & Whiting, R. (2008). What do we mean by ‘wellbeing’? And why might it matter? Research Report No DCSF-RW073 Department for Children, Schools and Families https://dera.ioe.ac.uk/8572/1/dcsf-rw073%20v2.pdf

Fredrickson, B. L. & Losada, M.F. (2005). Positive affect and the complex dynamics of human flourishing. American Psychology, 60 (7): pp. 678–86. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.60.7.678

Gregersen, T., MacIntyre, P.D. & Meza, M. (2016). Positive Psychology Exercises Build Social Capital for Language Learners: Preliminary Evidence. In MacIntyre, P.D., Gregersen, T. & Mercer, S. (Eds.) Positive Psychology in SLA. Bristol: Multilingual Matters. pp.147 – 167

Han, E. S. (2020). The Myth of Unions’ Overprotection of Bad Teachers: Evidence from the District–Teacher Matched Data on Teacher Turnover. Industrial Relations, 59 (2): pp. 316 – 352

Kumashiro, K. K. (2012). Bad Teacher! How Blaming Teachers Distorts the Bigger Picture. Teachers College Press

Lazarus, R. S. (2003). Target article: Does the positive psychology movement have legs? Psychological Inquiry, 14 (2): pp. 93 – 109

MacIntyre, P.D. & Mercer, S. (2014). Introducing positive psychology to SLA. Studies in Second Language Learning and Teaching, 4 (2): pp. 153 -172

MacIntyre, P.D., Gregersen, T. & Mercer, S. (2016). Conclusion. In MacIntyre, P.D., Gregersen, T. & Mercer, S. (Eds.) Positive Psychology in SLA. Bristol: Multilingual Matters. pp.374 – 379

MacIntyre, P.D., Gregersen, T. & Mercer, S. (Eds.) (2016). Positive Psychology in SLA. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

Mercer, S. & Gregersen, T. (2020). Teacher Wellbeing. Oxford: OUP

Nawyn, S.J., Gjokai, L., Agbenyiga, D.L. & Grace, B. (2012). Linguistic isolation, social capital, and immigrant belonging. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 41 (3), pp.255 -282

Poole, A. (2019). International Education Teachers’ Experiences as an Educational Precariat in China. Journal of Research in International Education, 18 (1): pp. 60-76

Ryff, C. D. (2003). Corners of myopia in the positive psychology parade. Psychological Inquiry, 14: pp. 153–159

Saltzman, K. J. 2017. Scripted Bodies. Routledge

Seligman, M. (2011). Flourish – A new understanding of happiness and well-being – and how to achieve them. London: Nicholas Brealey Publishing.

Seligman, M. (2018). PERMA and the building blocks of well-being. The Journal of Positive Psychology, DOI: 10.1080/17439760.2018.1437466

Walsh, P. (2019). Precarity. ELT Journal, 73 (4), pp.459 – 462

Wong, P. T. P., & Roy, S. (2017). Critique of positive psychology and positive interventions. In N. J. L. Brown, T. Lomas, & F. J. Eiroa-Orosa (Eds.) The Routledge International Handbook of Critical Positive Psychology. London: Routledge.

I noted in a recent post about current trends in ELT that mindfulness has been getting a fair amount of attention recently. Here are three recent examples:

  • Pearson recently produced the Pearson Experiences: A Pocket Guide to Mindfulness, written by Amy Malloy. Amy has written also written a series of blog posts for Pearson on the topic and she is a Pearson-sponsored speaker (Why use mindfulness in the classroom?) at the English Australia Ed-Tech SIG Online Symposium this week.
  • Russell Stannard has written two posts for Express Publishing (here and here)
  • Sarah Mercer and Tammy Gregersen’s new book, ‘Teacher Wellbeing’ (OUP, 2020) includes a section in which they recommend mindfulness practices to teachers as a buffer against stress and as a way to promote wellbeing.

The claims

Definitions of mindfulness often vary slightly, but the following from Amy Malloy is typical: ‘mindfulness is about the awareness that comes from consciously focussing on the present moment’. Claims for the value of mindfulness practices also vary slightly. Besides the general improvements to wellbeing suggested by Sarah and Tammy, attention, concentration and resilience are also commonly mentioned.

Amy: [Mindfulness] develops [children’s] brains, which in turn helps them find it easier to calm down and stay calm. … It changes our brains for the better. …. [Mindfulness] helps children concentrate more easily on classroom activities.

Russell: Students going through mindfulness training have increased levels of determination and willpower, they are less likely to give up if they find something difficult … Mindfulness has been shown to improve concentration. Students are able to study for longer periods of time and are more focused … Studies have shown that practicing mindfulness can lead to reduced levels of anxiety and stress.

In addition to the behavioural changes that mindfulness can supposedly bring about, both Amy and Russell refer to neurological changes:

Amy: Studies have shown that the people who regularly practise mindfulness develop the areas of the brain associated with patience, compassion, focus, concentration and emotional regulation.

Russell: At the route of our current understanding of mindfulness is brain plasticity. … in probably the most famous neuroimaging research project, scientists took a group of people and found that by doing a programme of 8 weeks of mindfulness training based around gratitude, they could actually increase the size of the areas of the brain generally associated with happiness.

Supporting evidence

In her pocket guide for Pearson, Amy provides no references to support her claims.

In Russell’s first post, he links to a piece of research which looked at the self-reported psychological impact of a happiness training programme developed by a German cabaret artist and talk show host. The programme wasn’t specifically mindfulness-oriented, so tells us nothing about mindfulness, but it is also highly suspect as a piece of research, not least because one of the co-authors is the cabaret artist himself. His second link is to an article about human attention, a long-studied area of psychology, but this has nothing to do with mindfulness, although Russell implies that there is a connection. His third link is to a very selective review of research into mindfulness, written by two mindfulness enthusiasts. It’s not so much a review of research as a selection of articles which support mindfulness advocacy.

In his second post, Russell links to a review of mindfulness-based interventions (MBIs) in education. Appearing in the ‘Mindfulness’ journal, it is obviously in broad support of MBIs, but its conclusions are hedged: ‘Research on the neurobiology of mindfulness in adults suggests that sustained mindfulness practice can ….’ ‘mindfulness training holds promise for being one such intervention for teachers.’ His second link is to a masterpiece of pseudo-science delivered by Joe Dispenza, author of many titles including ‘Becoming Supernatural: How Common People are Doing the Uncommon’ and ‘Breaking the Habit of Being Yourself’. Russell’s 3rd link is to an interview with Matthieu Ricard, one of the Dalai Lama’s translators. Interestingly, but not in this interview, Ricard is very dismissive of secular mindfulness (‘Buddhist meditation without the Buddhism’). His fourth link is to a video presentation about mindfulness from Diana Winston of UCLA. The presenter doesn’t give citations for the research she mentions (so I can’t follow them up): instead, she plugs her own book.

Sarah and Tammy’s three references are not much better. The first is to a self-help book, called ‘Every Teacher Matters: Inspiring Well-Being through Mindfulness’ by K. Lovewell (2012), whose other work includes ‘The Little Book of Self-Compassion: Learn to be your own Best Friend’. The second (Cresswell, J. D. & Lindsay, E.K. (2014). How does mindfulness training affect health? A mindfulness stress buffering account. Current Directions in Psychological Science 23 (6): pp. 401-407) is more solid, but a little dated now. The third (Garland, E., Gaylord, S.A. & Fredrickson, B. L. (2011). Positive Reappraisal Mediates the Stress-Reductive Effects of Mindfulness: An Upward Spiral Process. Mindfulness 2 (1): pp. 59 – 67) is an interesting piece, but of limited value since there was no control group in the research and it tells us nothing about MBIs per se.

The supporting evidence provided by these writers for the claims they make is thin, to say the least. It is almost as if the truth of the claims is self-evident, and for these writers (all of whom use mindfulness practices themselves) there is clearly a personal authentication. But, not having had an epiphany myself and being somewhat reluctant to roll a raisin around my mouth, concentrating on its texture and flavours, fully focussing on the process of eating it (as recommended by Sarah and Tammy), I will, instead, consciously focus on the present moment of research.

Mindfulness and research

The first thing to know is that there has been a lot of research into mindfulness in recent years. The second thing to know is that much of it is poor quality. Here’s why:

  • There is no universally accepted technical definition of ‘mindfulness’ nor any broad agreement about detailed aspects of the underlying concept to which it refers (Van Dam, N. T. et al. (2018). Mind the Hype: A Critical Evaluation and Prescriptive Agenda for Research on Mindfulness and Meditation. Perspectives on Psychological Science 13: pp. 36 – 61)
  • To date, there are at least nine different psychometric questionnaires, all of which define and measure mindfulness differently (Purser, R.E. (2019). McMindfulness. Repeater Books. p.128)
  • Mindfulness research tends to rely on self-reporting, which is notoriously unreliable.
  • The majority of studies did not utilize randomized control groups (Goyal, M., Singh, S., Sibinga, E.S., et al. (201). Meditation Programs for Psychological Stress and Well-being: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. JAMA Intern Med. 2014. doi:10.1001/ jamainternmed.2013.13018).
  • Early meditation studies were mostly cross-sectional studies: that is, they compared data from a group of meditators with data from a control group at one point in time. A cross-sectional study design precludes causal attribution. (Tang, Y., Hölzel, B. & Posner, M. (2015). The neuroscience of mindfulness meditation. Nature Reviews Neuroscience 16, 213–225)
  • Sample sizes tend to be small and there is often no active control group. There are few randomized controlled trials (Dunning, D.L., Griffiths, K., Kuyken, W., Crane, C., Foulkes, L., Parker, J. and Dalgleish, T. (2019), Research Review: The effects of mindfulness‐based interventions on cognition and mental health in children and adolescents – a meta‐analysis of randomized controlled trials. (Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 60: 244-258. doi:10.1111/jcpp.12980)
  • There is a relatively strong bias towards the publication of positive or significant results (Coronado-Montoya, S., Levis, A.W., Kwakkenbos, L., Steele, R.J., Turner, E.H. & Thombs, B.D. (2016). Reporting of Positive Results in Randomized Controlled Trials of Mindfulness-Based Mental Health Interventions. PLoS ONE 11(4): e0153220. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0153220)
  • More recent years have not seen significant improvements in the rigorousness of research (Goldberg SB, Tucker RP, Greene PA, Simpson TL, Kearney DJ, Davidson RJ (2017). Is mindfulness research methodology improving over time? A systematic review. PLoS ONE 12(10): e0187298).

 

The overall quality of the research into mindfulness is so poor that a group of fifteen researchers came together to write a paper entitled ‘Mind the Hype: A Critical Evaluation and Prescriptive Agenda for Research on Mindfulness and Meditation’ (Van Dam, N. T. et al. (2018). Mind the Hype: A Critical Evaluation and Prescriptive Agenda for Research on Mindfulness and Meditation. Perspectives on Psychological Science 13: pp. 36 – 61).

So, the research is problematic and replication is needed, but it does broadly support the claim that mindfulness meditation exerts beneficial effects on physical and mental health, and cognitive performance (Tang, Y., Hölzel, B. & Posner, M. (2015). The neuroscience of mindfulness meditation. Nature Reviews Neuroscience 16, 213–225). The italicized broadly is important here. As one of the leaders of the British Mindfulness in Schools Project (which has trained thousands of teachers in the UK) puts it, ‘research on mindfulness in schools is still in its infancy, particularly in relation to impacts on behaviour, academic performance and physical health. It can best be described as ‘promising’ and ‘worth trying’ (Weare, K. (2018). Evidence for the Impact of Mindfulness on Children and Young People. The Mindfulness in Schools Project). We don’t know what kind of MBIs are most effective, what kind of ‘dosage’ should be administered, what kinds of students it is (and is not) appropriate for, whether instructor training is significant or what cost-benefits it might bring. In short, there is more that we do not know than we know.

One systematic review, for example, found that MBIs had ‘small, positive effects on cognitive and socioemotional processes but these effects were not seen for behavioral or academic outcomes’. What happened to the promises of improved concentration, calmer behaviour and willpower? The review concludes that ‘the evidence from this review urges caution in the widespread adoption of MBIs and encourages rigorous evaluation of the practice should schools choose to implement it’ (Maynard, B. R., Solis, M., Miller, V. & Brendel, K. E. (2017). Mindfulness-based interventions for improving cognition, academic achievement, behavior and socio-emotional functioning of primary and secondary students. A Campbell Systematic Review 2017:5).

What about the claims for neurological change? As a general rule, references to neuroscience by educators should be taken with skepticism. Whilst it appears that ‘mindfulness meditation might cause neuroplastic changes in the structure and function of brain regions involved in regulation of attention, emotion and self-awareness’ (Tang, Y., Hölzel, B. & Posner, M. (2015). The neuroscience of mindfulness meditation. Nature Reviews Neuroscience 16, 213–225), this doesn’t really tell us very much. A complex mental state like mindfulness ‘is likely to be supported by the large-scale brain networks’ (ibid) and insights derived from fMRI scans of particular parts of the brain provide us with, at best, only a trivial understanding of what is going on. Without a clear definition of what mindfulness actually is, it is going to be some time before we unravel the neural mechanisms underpinning it. If, in fact, we ever do. By way of comparison, you might be interested in reading about neuroscientific studies into prayer , which also appears to correlate with enhanced wellbeing.

Rather than leaving things with the research, I’d like to leave you with a few more short mindfulness raisins to chew on.

Mindfulness and money

As Russell says in his blog post, ‘research in science doesn’t come out of a vacuum’. Indeed, it tends to follow the money. It is estimated that mindfulness is now ‘a $4 billion industry’ (Purser, R.E. (2019). McMindfulness. Repeater Books. p.13): ‘More than 100,000 books for sale on Amazon have a variant of ‘mindfulness’ in their title, touting the benefits of Mindful Parenting, Mindful Eating, Mindful Teaching, Mindful Therapy, Mindful Leadership, Mindful Finance, a Mindful Nation, and Mindful Dog Owners, to name just a few. There is also The Mindfulness Coloring Book, a bestselling genre in itself. Besides books, there are workshops, online courses, glossy magazines, documentary films, smartphone apps, bells, cushions, bracelets, beauty products and other paraphernalia, as well as a lucrative and burgeoning conference circuit’.

It is precisely because so much money is at stake that so much research has been funded. More proof is desperately needed, and it is sadly unforthcoming. Meanwhile, in the immortal words of Kayleigh McEnany, ‘science should not stand in the way.’

Minefulness and the individual

Mindfulness may be aptly described as a ‘technology of the self’. Ronald Purser, the author of ‘McMindfulness’, puts it like this: ‘Rather than discussing how attention is monetized and manipulated by corporations such as Google, Facebook, Twitter and Apple, [mindfulness advocates] locate crisis in our minds. It is not the nature of the capitalist system that is inherently problematic; rather, it is the failure of individuals to be mindful and resilient in a precarious and uncertain economy. Then they sell us solutions that make us contented mindful capitalists’.

It is this focus on the individual that makes it so appealing to right-wing foundations (e.g. the Templeton Foundation) that fund the research into mindfulness. For more on this topic, see my post about grit .

Mindfulness and religion

It is striking how often mindfulness advocates, like Amy, feel the need to insist that mindfulness is not a religious practice. Historically, of course, mindfulness comes direct from a Buddhist tradition, but in its present Western incarnation, it is a curious hybrid. Jon Kabat-Zinn  who, more than anyone else, has transformed mindfulness into a marketable commodity, is profoundly ambiguous on the topic. Buddhists, like Matthieu Ricard or David Forbes (author of ‘Mindfulness and its Discontents’, Fernwood Publishing, 2019), have little time for the cultural appropriation of the Pali term ‘Sati’, especially when mindfulness is employed by the American military for training for snipers. Others, like Goldie Hawn, whose MindUP programme sells well in the US, are quite clear about their religious affiliation and their desire to bring Buddhism into schools through the back door.

I personally find it hard to see the banging of Tibetan bowls as anything other than a religious act, but I am less bothered by this than those American school districts who saw MBIs as ‘covert religious indoctrination’ and banned them. Having said that, why not promote more prayer in schools if the ‘neuroscience’ supports it?

Clare is a busy teacher

Image from Andrew Percival , inspired by The Ladybird Book of Mindfulness and similar titles.