Monday, March 17, 2008

Insights from Mindfulness

In the article “Are You Working Too Hard?”, Herbert Benson (2007) describes the Yerkes-Dodson Curve, a simple graphic representation that shows how stress improves performance—to a point. Increased stress beyond that point hampers performance. Insights from this relationship led Benson and his research partner to identify a four-step method of optimizing cognitive performance. First, suggests Benson, an individual should “struggle mightily with a thorny problem” (p. 19). This period of concentrated attention provides the brain with the data it needs to continue exploring possible solutions. Second, Benson suggests the individual walk away from the problem and do “something utterly different that produces the relaxation response” (p. 19). Such activity ignites “the mental rearrangement that is the foundation for new insights, solutions, and creativity” (p. 19). Third, as the mind mulls the problem and the needed solution, patterns begin to emerge, producing insights or “breakouts” (p. 19). Finally, Benson suggests acting on the insights with confidence, allowing the breakthrough to influence not only how an individual approaches the problem but also the disposition with which the individual proceeds.

So, what happens when an individual follows such a sequence? In The Mindful Brain, Daniel J. Siegel (2007) recounts an experience he had while participating in research. He and 149 other volunteers participated in a “retreat” that required them to spend 36 hours in complete silence—not isolated, but in silence, somewhat like an extended “relaxation response.” During this period, Siegel describes his thinking and his metacognition regarding his thinking. An insight that will be of interest to those familiar with the
Architecture of Learning™ Instructional Design Model involves Siegel’s “streams of consciousness.” Siegel recognized that in his silence, he could 1) attend to direct sensory experience by focusing on the data his senses picked up, 2) observe the data his senses picked up, stepping away from direct experience to consider what had been gained through the experience, 3) conceptualize, recognizing patterns emerging from the sensory data and converting the disparate data into cohesive ideas, or 4) recognize a “sense of knowing,” developing a confidence in the validity of the cohesive ideas. Interestingly, Siegel suggests it is extremely difficult, if even possible, to focus awareness on more than one of the “streams” at a time. We can experience, we can reflect on experience, or we can recognize new knowledge gained from reflection.

What, then, can we conclude from the insights these studies reveal? First, students who seem to struggle with some concept we are teaching may need a break from it. The stress of frustration may exceed the point where cognitive performance is enhanced. At that point, allowing/encouraging the student to step away from the material may enable later success. It is important to note that by “later” I am NOT suggesting the student step away until the next grade level! But a brief break from difficult material can ignite the thinking that may enable a breakthrough when the student returns to the material.

Second, from mindfulness, which I would define as focused attention (admittedly, an oversimplification), and metacognition, the brain’s basic operating processes become evident, and those mirror the core processes of Architecture of Learning™: experience, comprehension (Siegel’s observing “stream”), elaboration (Siegel’s conceptualizing “stream”), and application (Siegel’s knowing “stream,” which enables the use of knowledge). By designing instruction that engages these processes, we can teach in accordance with how the human mind functions.

Finally, both researchers identify the brain’s need for reflection. We cannot engage endlessly in direct experience and expect to construct new understandings. Understanding requires a break from sensory input so that the brain can engage in “the mental rearrangement that is the foundation for new insights, solutions, and creativity.” This reminds us that students need “downtime,” opportunities to comprehend and elaborate on newly presented material.

We continue to see validation of the Architecture of Learning™. These are exciting confirmations of our practice!

Benson, H. (2007). Are you working too hard? Harvard Business Review OnPoint (Winter, 2007).
Siegeal, D. J. (2007). The mindful brain. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.

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