Finding a Mindful Balance with Technology

This weekend, I had the opportunity to spend time with other administrators learning about the power of technology from our very interesting guest speaker, George Couros. I left with so many great ideas about how to better integrate technology in my school. I was also left questioning the role of technology in mindfulness education.

During the day, I rarely stop using technology, and often that extends into my home life. I hate to admit it, but it is not unusual for me to be watching television, working on my computer, and checking email on my iPhone all at the same time. This is the same thing I see with many of my students. The space our children live in is fast pace and technology has very much shaped how they live in the world. A vast amount of information is just a click away and even communication and friendships have gone online. In Goldie Hawn’s book, “10 Mindful Minutes,” she argues that in some ways this has created what she calls a “butterfly brain.” Constantly flitting from subject to subject, we lose focus on the single task. Brain research has shown that this “butterfly brain,” can be toxic to brain development. It has an impact on cognitive functioning, memory formation, focus and attention, and, when socialization predominately shifts online, to the development of healthy interpersonal relationships. With that said, does technology have a place in mindfulness education? After much reflection, I would argue that it does.

To argue that technology has a place in mindfulness education may seem ironic, as the two often seem like opposing forces. With that said, technology can also play a very positive role in a child’s education and in the development of a more mindful child. Below are just some of the “mindful” uses of technology in the classroom.

Technology can connect us as a community of learners

I recently watched a fascinating documentary called, “I AM.” It is well worth a watch and can be viewed on iTunes. One of the many powerful messages in the documentary is that the human desire, above all else, is for connection and mutual cooperation. When used efficiently, technology has the capacity to connect us as a community of learners and can also foster a sense of interdependence and cooperation fundamental to any mindful classroom environment. The following YouTube clip illustrates how one school in Hawaii used technology to connect as a school, as well as to their community, to the larger world, and to their own family histories.

Technology allows students to share powerful ideas

In our recent technology presentation, our speaker, George Couros, quoted Chris Lehmann when he said, “It is no longer enough to do powerful work if no one sees it.” Our students are a wealth of powerful ideas and their capacity for kindness, compassion, and empathy always inspires me. Technology has provided students with the opportunity to share their thoughts and issues of deep importance to them like never before. One of these students is my friend’s son, Cole Philipp. Inspired by a simple school project on “Paying it Forward,” he took his learning and passion for an orphanage in Mexico to another level. Using what he knew about blogging and social media, he set up a facebook page, created his blog, and documented his journey. A grand total of $35,000 later, he continues to raise awareness for a cause close to his heart.

While Cole raised money for an orphanage in Mexico, former Coquitlam student, Zoya Jiwa used technology to share her struggle with lupus. It was through her experiences that she created her own positive self-esteem program she calls, “Simply You.” Through her multi-media presentations, and her TEDXKids Talk, Zoya now puts on workshops, talks to schools, and works with students to enhance self-esteem and healthy body image.

Technology allows us to spread kindness, compassion, and empathy

There are many ways to improve brain function, and participating in acts of kindness is just one of them. Each time we do a kind act, we grow our brain’s capacity for care. Dopamine levels rise in the brain fostering a positive mood and increased levels of optimism, energy, and self-esteem. We also know that watching kind acts gives us a similar positive experience. A few years back, a group of School District 43 students, with their counsellor, started Random Acts of Kindness. Before they knew it, Random Acts of Kindness became a nationally recognized day and sparked thousands of people to use technology to document their own kind acts.

For a few samples, click on any of the links

Student Kindness Project

Sticky Hearts Campaign

Free Hugs Campaign

Technology connects us to the larger world

It was not that long ago, that our world seemed like a much smaller place. The chances of knowing what the average person was doing halfway across the world were nonexistent. Technology has allowed students to connect to the larger world in an unfathomable way. My former leadership students used technology to create presentations on issues affecting students in other parts of the world. YouTube has also provided educators with the opportunity to put a human face to issues plaguing our society both locally and globally. Mrs. Andrews’s Grade 2 class took their passion globally when they used Facebook to create the Kindness Project. Their goal was to challenge a million people across the world to participate in a Random Act of Kindness. Upon my last check, they had over 16,000 subscribers. Students used this Facebook project to connect to the larger world, explore the countries their followers lived in, and engage in discussion based on the comments and random acts of kindness left on their Facebook page. In this case, the use of social media took the simple message of kindness to a global level and left students feeling they had left their positive mark on the world.

Technology has the capacity to increase student engagement

One of the biggest goals of education should always be to inspire and engage students in life and in learning. Technology has provided one positive tool for engagement. What we know about student engagement is that when students are fully engaged in an activity, they are most often present in the moment. In addition, when students are involved deeply in their own learning, it has a significant impact on the brain. Involvement in meaningful activities increases dopamine levels which increases alertness, attentiveness, quick thinking, motivation, and mental energy. Meaningful, engaging activities also create a positive association with school and learning, and aid in the rich formation of memories needed for future learning. In the following YouTube clips, two sisters explain how technology allowed them to engage in a deeper understanding of Japanese internment. One of the students explains that in the past, she read a book and maybe completed a worksheet. Using technology, she argues she was able to make much more out of her learning than could ever be demonstrated on a page.

While we all need to be mindful of our dependence on technology, and on some of the negative impacts it can have on brain development when used improperly or in excess, the value of technology still exists in any mindful classroom environment. The key is to find a balance between using technology to enhance learning and providing students with the inner tools needed to calm their minds in a very fast pace world. While students can’t slow down the world they live in, mindfulness education is one of the keys to living more successfully within it.

Teaching the Brain

Everything is better with a great book and teaching students about the brain is no different. Books on the brain for students can be few and far between, with most information found between the pages of dense non-fiction material. With that said, I have two favorites that I use with students all the way from kindergarten up to grade 8.

“A Walk in the Rain with a Brain,” by Edward Hallowell, is a great book for younger students. The main message of the book is that “each brain finds its own special way.” The story begins with Lucy, the main character, walking in the rain when she finds a brain sitting in a puddle. The brain asks for her help in finding his way home and, on their walk, Lucy expresses her  belief that she isn’t very smart. Fred, the brain, explains that everyone is smart but just in their own unique ways. He also argues that everyone just thinks and learns a little bit differently. The notion that everyone has unique strengths, and that everyone thinks and learns differently, is a commonly held belief amongst educators. Helping students to discover and utilize their own strengths, while at the same time providing strategies and structures to improve learning is crucial to the positive emotional well-being of children. This book provided the opportunity for students to take what they knew about the brain, and what they knew about themselves, to create their own cartoon brain. Each student spent time brainstorming a list of strengths they had. Students then had fun imagining what their cartoon brain might look like. In the end, each brain was an accurate representation of the child and the visual depictions were a general match too.

My other favorite book is “Your Fantastic Elastic Brain,” which is published by Little Pickle Press. You can download an activity guide from their site. I love this book for so many reasons. First, it does a fantastic job of introducing the parts of the brain we focus on in MindUp. Second, it explains to children, in a simple way, how we are all born with a brain that is flexible and can be shaped by the things we do each day. To improve our own fantastic elastic brains, the author suggests we try simple strategies such as taking risks, learning a new skill, solving problems, and even making mistakes and learning from them. This book can lend to rich discussion whether in a Kindergarten class or in a middle school class. Little Pickle Press also recently came out with a fantastic ipad app to support their book. It does cost a little money to download, but it allows your students or child to participate in the reading of the story. It also includes a wealth of fun activities, games, and journal prompts to stretch your own fantastic elastic brain.

With students, I have used this book in a variety of ways. I have had them work in groups to brainstorm specific examples of the various ways to stretch their brain. We have also displayed these “fantastic elastic ways,” in the classroom for future reference. For younger children, I have challenged them to find examples, in the books we were reading, of ways others were stretching their brain. Each time a student discovered an example, they would say the word “snap,” to represent the snapping of an elastic band. Students also made plasticine models of their own brain that demonstrated the unique strengths and skills of each child. The lesson plan for this activity can be found on the Kids Relaxation Website. For a high school example of a plasticine model of the brain, check out Newton High School’s blog, for a very cool look at their high school psychology project on the brain. This is a perfect example of the creativity of teachers and the ability to take an idea and stretch it to meet the needs of your own “fantastic elastic” students. More lessons on this book to come…


All About the Brain

Last week, I had the opportunity to spend a block of time introducing a class of grade 6’s to the amazing world of the human brain. I began by telling them a bit about MindUP, and then asked them why they thought we started with the brain. As always, their answers were insightful and showed real thought. One student argued that we need to understand the brain to understand how we learn. Another stated that by understanding how the brain works we are able to make it work even better. Another student argued that everything starts with the brain, which is something I had not really considered. Really, they are all correct. When it comes to MindUP, or being mindful, everything really does center around the brain and how it functions, how it allows us to learn, and how it can be shaped and molded to function more efficiently.

In a single lesson, students learn all about four key parts of the brain. They learn about the prefrontal cortex, which is the learning, thinking, and reasoning center of the brain. They discover the hippocampus, which students refer to as a memory bank where we store and retrieve memory. There is the reticular activating system, which filters information and distributes it to the various parts of our brain. Finally, they learn about the amygdala, which I describe as the security guard for the brain. The job of the amygdala is to protect us and to process danger quickly and efficiently in order to keep us safe. When faced with danger, or a stressful situation, our amygdala tells us to fight, flight, or freeze.

Where this information all comes together is how these four parts of the brain interact. This is also where MindUp comes to play. What we know about the brain is that when it is in a state of calm, the reticular activating system is able to process information in a more efficient manner. Information generally gets to the places it is intended and learning is more efficient. When our mind is in a state of stress, it treats everything like a five-alarm fire. At that point, the amygdala kicks into overdrive. Suddenly simple things send the brain into a tail spin and we find ourselves in survival mode. While our amygdala’s are in an overactive state learning is hindered, forming and retrieving memories becomes harder, and focus can be near impossible. As an adult, think of a time when you have faced enormous stress or when life has moved at a pace that seems too fast. Often, we find ourselves in a fog. We can’t remember what we had for breakfast let alone what we were supposed to accomplish in the day. We feel out of sorts, anxious, and muddled. We may even become reactive and snappy to those around us. That is an overactive amygdala at work. Dan Siegel often refers to this as flipping our lids. For a great clip from Dan on the hand model of the brain check out the following clip.

The reason I love this lesson so much is largely based around the insight and connections I see students make between what they are learning and how their brain is functioning. I remember one student, who had a particularly hard time making good choices, approach me with a sense of excitement. The student explained that they had finally figured out why they made so many bad choices. It was because they had a huge amygdala and a teeny tiny prefrontal cortex. In fact, the student was not sure if they had a prefrontal cortex at all. I assured the student that their prefrontal cortex and amygdala were the same size as everyone’s. Rather, what we needed to do was to figure out how he could make each part of his brain function a little bit better. He seemed equally satisfied with the revelation that his inability to make good choices did not have to be a lifelong curse.

Understanding our brain is not about making excuses for our behavior. What we know about the brain is that it is constantly changing. This gives hope to our students who find it hard to focus, who find it difficult to make good choices, or who react before thinking. I have seen more than a few of my toughest kids come out at the other end much calmer, more focused, and able to make better choices. Learning about the brain lets them know that their actions may not entirely be their fault but that they have the capacity to train their minds to work for them and not against them. It is like Oprah always said, when we know better we have the chance to do better.

Education should be about empowering students and about providing them with knowledge that makes a difference. There is no greater sense of empowerment than to understand how their minds work and to feel a sense of control and ownership over the decisions they make. As they dive deeper into mindfulness education, they will keep returning to what they know about the brain and, in turn, add additional information to what they have already learned. It becomes the foundation for all future work and each lesson they learn focuses on ways to shape the brain to make it calmer and more efficient. Like any new skill, students realize it takes perseverance and practice but in the end it never fails to pay off.