01/24/2018 by Carney Sandoe Staff |

Mindfulness, Diversity, and Technology

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The beginning of a new year always encourages some reflection on our lives and work. For many of us, a common desire is to find fulfillment in work and build wider margins in our lives so we don’t feel under constant pressure. To that end, we took notice of Alex Soojung Kim Pang’s book, “Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less.”

Most of us are not great at resisting the lure of busyness. But Pang makes a good case for why we should. Pang, a consultant in Silicon Valley and a visiting scholar at Stanford University, makes it clear that constant stress doesn’t lead us down the Yellow Brick Road to success or happiness. His thesis, in fact, is that rest not only makes us more productive and more creative but it also makes our lives more fulfilling.

“In the last couple decades,” Pang writes, “discoveries in sleep research, psychology, neuroscience, organizational behavior, sports medicine, sociology, and other fields have given us a wealth of insight into the unsung but critical role that rest plays in strengthening the brain, enhancing learning, enabling inspiration, and making innovation sustainable.”

Pang’s article, of course, makes us think about the world of education — both what we want for our students and what sustains teachers in their work. We know many talented and energized educators who make a huge difference in the lives of their students, but we also know many who push themselves too hard (or are pushed too hard) and would benefit from throttling things back. At the same time, we know of students who are eager to learn, but who would clearly benefit from programs that put less pressure on them. As the film “Race to Nowhere” made clear, constant pressure to achieve (mostly to impress or please adults) is not the best formula for a quality education. Consider the news reports about elementary schools dropping recess in order to “cover” more content.

In an interview for “Independent School” magazine, psychologist Michael Thompson said, “My concern is that if parents continue to pressure for more and more academic excellence, and schools continue to add more enriched activities to their schedules, that students will eventually be unable to savor anything…that they will become psychologically overwhelmed and burned out.”

Fortunately, more and more schools these days have become aware of unproductive and damaging pressures on students and adults and address them in various ways, including through “mindfulness” programs and practices — in which students and teachers alike are encouraged to develop stress-management skills. More broadly, we’re aware of many independent schools that are making an interesting shift from institutions of high-academic pressures to institutions focused broadly on the academic, social, emotional, and physical well-being of students. This kind of whole-child perspective is a central goal of every school we know, but for too long it has been sublimated to the pressures of standardized tests and overstuffed curricula.

This is not to say that schools are lowing expectations for students. Nor do we mean to suggest that all stress is bad. Rather, we simply want to acknowledge schools that are shifting toward more mission-aligned programs that understand the value of social and emotional growth to student development. As the research increasingly makes clear, learning is as much emotional and social as it is intellectual. We’re glad to see this trend, of course. We’re glad to see that colleges and universities are beginning to better align the qualities they say they want in a student with their admissions practices so that the fattest transcript and test perfection don’t always rule the day. And we’re glad to see that an extension of this work is a renewed focus on teaching life skills such as creativity, problem solving, and collaboration.

We know that none of this work has been particularly easy — especially with the growing worries (and overblown fears) about academic achievement for admissions to a thin stratum of highly competitive college and universities. But we also know that schools that make holistic health central to their missions have the research to back them up.

Writing this column shortly after the 2018 Martin Luther King Day and a few days before our own FORUM/Diversity in Philadelphia — with Tim Wise as our keynote speaker — we’re also deeply interested in how this focus on mindfulness connects with school efforts at diversity and inclusion.

All well-functioning diverse school communities include three essential elements. They are diverse on various levels but especially by race; all members of the communities feel respected and supported; and adults and students have the capacity to talk honestly and openly about diversity issues in all areas of school and community life.

To be successful in this latter endeavor, of course, educators need to know how to discuss difficult situations, especially regarding race. In the independent school world, as many have noted before us, the tendency to value a culture of niceness has often gotten in the way of hard, but honest conversation, especially if that conversation involves challenging certain longstanding norms in the society and schools. In “Race Talk and the Conspiracy of Silence: Understanding and Facilitating Difficult Dialogues on Race,” psychologist Derald Wing Sue argues, however, that the ability to deal with racialized incidents well requires that teachers develop an understanding of their own racialized identities.

In short, diversity work shares the concerns of mindfulness practices in schools to support the social, emotional, and intellectual growth of all students. But diversity work also requires adults in school to have the knowledge, skills, and willingness to help their institutions meet their diversity goals. One might argue that, at any given time for an individual school, other areas of professional development could be more important. But we can’t imagine a school that doesn’t need to see this work as essential today — especially in a time of such sharp social divides and the persistence of white power and privilege.

An “Educational Leadership” article, “Combatting Race-Related Stress in the Classroom,” makes a clear connection between diversity work and mindfulness. In fact, the first point the authors make is that “[to] support students of color, educators must understand the impact of discrimination and racism on mental health.” To this end, the authors, like Sue, encourage educators to build in time for their own reflection and conversations about both their personal perspectives on race as well as their understanding of the school’s culture. In particular, the article encourages Glenn Singleton’s 2015 field guide, “Courageous Conversations About Race,” for teachers to use during staff development time. It also points educators to Dorothy Steele’s 2013 comprehensive series of guidelines called “Identity Safe Classrooms.”

While we’ve focused on race here, we also want to acknowledge that diversity work includes other areas of social inequity or stress — particularly gender, sexual orientation, and religion. In all instances, the goal is inclusiveness. The goal is a community that supports all students’ social and emotional health, which is essential if we want them to thrive intellectually. We focus on race here because the inequities and injustices based on race run high in our culture — and thus need focused attention in schools.

You may remember that we include “technology” in our title, too. We did so because we also see the link between mindfulness and diversity with technology. From a cultural perspective, our devices have turned out to be classic double-edged swords — so great for sharing information, but so ironically isolating.

Our technology has not only made us busier (against all early promises), it has also made many of us feel more lonely and disconnected. Painfully ironic, we know. Equally bad is the degree to which technology has also reduced empathy. We’re not just referring to partisan Twitter wars and all the other stunningly bad behavior on social media. A 2010 study led by the psychologist Sara Konrath also found a 40 percent decline in empathy among college students, with most of the decline taking place after the year 2000. The study also noted that the emotional capacity of middle schoolers has been declining — and the culprit is screen time.

Sherry Turkle notes in her book, “Reclaiming Conversation,” that the mere presents of smartphones, tablets, and laptops undermines our efforts to engage in meaningful conversation.

It is becoming increasing clear that any conversation about mindfulness and stress requires a conversation about the impact of technology on our lives. It’s also clear that any conversation about diversity and inclusion requires a conversation about technology’s role in social isolation and the decrease of empathy.

We know…just linking mindfulness with diversity with technology use can feel exhausting. It’s a lot to process and it forces use to think creatively and collectively about solutions in school. But we also know that our schools are full of intellectually, socially, and emotionally smart adults who can synthesize the issues and challenges and find solutions that work as important and needed countercultural levers — educating today’s students for a society that lives up to its beautifully stated ideals.

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