Being Mindful Saves Lives

Guest Post by Dr. James Houlihan

How often we do accomplish something without knowing that we did? And how would we ever know unless someone told us?

I had just finished teaching my three-week Interim-Term class: Buddhist Meditation and Philosophy, where students develop the ability to sit zazen, facing the wall, for ten to fifteen minutes, and to be present to guided meditations for 20.

At the beginning of the term, I had been asked to admit a student even though the class was full and the space limited. But when I heard the student’s story from our psychologist, I agreed. His father had died suddenly of a rare heart abnormality that was also found in the student, necessitating open-heart surgery. His mother was recovering from brain surgery to remove a cancer and for the moment was doing well.

Throughout the three weeks, the young man showed no emotion whatsoever. Any attempt to draw him out was met with a polite word, no facial expression, and silence. But when the class gathered in the dim reflection room he was the first to sit properly on a zafu. I could tell that he was calm, not-distracted, able to follow his breath or the course of his thoughts. Basic mindfulness.

Later, all of his teachers met to discuss his situation with the psychologist and she touched my arm, and turned to tell the other team members. “The Meditation class,” the psychologist said, hand still on my arm, “was a life saver.” But without her words, I would not have known, for sure, the effectiveness of mindfulness for one challenged young man.

Mindfulness: How to Change Your School Culture by Doing Nothing

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This post is part of a series.

I am in Boston at the NAIS 2015 annual conference to present a workshop about practicing mindfulness in the educational environment. I developed this workshop, “Mindfulness: How to Change Your School Culture by Doing Nothing,” with two colleagues Dr. James Houlihan, my peer at The Kinkaid School, and Larry Kahn, Chief Technology Officer from The I’olani School in Hawaii.

Before Larry took his job in Hawaii, he, James and I developed an informal, collegial sangha (Sanskrit word for community) at The Kinkaid School, where we met regularly for the last 15 minutes of our lunch period to sit in silent meditation together.

zafuswiab.euFor many years, Kinkaid has had a Reflection Room as part of its Character Education complex, and this is where we’d meet. We dimmed the lights, sat on zafu cushions, faced the wall (in the Zen tradition), set the Insight Timer iPhone app, and “did nothing” — on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally. Recently, the Reflection Room was assumed by Kinkaid’s administration to serve as a staging ground for Kinkaid’s ISAS reaccreditation process, and, currently, it’s being reconfigured as a temporary office space for Kinkaid’s facilities managers, as that space undergoes construction renovations. My dearest hope is that the Reflection Room survives these waves of necessary progress; having a dedicated space to practice with colleagues and students is not only visionary, it’s revolutionary; it’s a built in garden where seeds of empathy, authenticity, resiliency, honor and many other positive character traits can be sown and grown. Our NAIS workshop grew out of our practice sitting together in this room at lunchtime.

We all came to meditation differently: I started practicing sitting meditation in the mid-90s, during a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction in Houston (MBSR is the program developed by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn at ); James has been practicing Zen meditation for 20+ years; Larry started with Transcendental Meditation during his teen years in the 70s. Although we all come from different traditions, we all know the positive impact meditating regularly has on our emotional, physical and psychological health.

As educators, we also have experienced the value of sharing this practice with our students and our colleagues. James and I both offer Mindfulness courses during Kinkaid’s three-week Interim session in January. Our classes are among the first to fill up, as students hear from peers who’ve taken them before that our classes are fun, interesting, and ultimately extremely relaxing. In a culture of high-achieving students and faculty, relaxation and peace often sound like elusive fantasies. And yet, through practice, we come to know that peace is available in every step and every breath, as the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh has taught in his seminal book, Being PeaceScreen Shot 2015-02-25 at 6.05.01 PM


In our classes, students learn by practicing mindfulness that they can become masters of their time and thereby their experience; time no longer is their foe, stretching them to their limits, causing undue and intolerable anxiety. This is an invaluable, profound lesson for students who are conditioned to feel like there’s never enough time to do everything they want to do, everything they have to do.

In addition to our Interim courses, James and I facilitate a monthly Mindfulness Study Group for our faculty colleagues. Over 27 Upper School faculty members have joined it. We meet in the morning from 7:15 to 8:00; our principal provides breakfast for us.

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We read Jon Kabat-Zinn’s book Wherever You Go There You Are, and we practice different mindfulness meditations; for example, breathing meditation or walking meditation or eating meditation or Metta (loving-kindness) meditation. This study group has provided us with an incredible community-building experience: in less than 45 minutes, we have connected to one another more deeply, authentically and compassionately than we have in over a decade of working in classrooms next door to one another.

Please join my colleagues and me on Friday morning to learn more about how to “change your school culture by doing nothing.” When: 2/27, from 8-9 am Where: Room 311 at the @NAISAC15.




MOOCs are to Higher Education as _________ are to __________.

MOOCs are to Education as __________ are to ___________. I’m in the process of trying to figure out an apt analogy. Feel free to offer your own.

First you need to know what a MOOC is: Massive Open Online Course. Next, you have to understand the wave (tsunami, it’s been called) these courses are riding, a wave big enough to carry hundreds of thousands of digital natives into the academies of higher learning and the workforce. As a result, the idea that one must follow a traditional path to learning and earning (elementary, secondary, college, (perhaps) graduate school, job) is quickly becoming obsolete. Sites like Uncollege have erupted and argue for potential learners to access the skills and knowledge to pursue their dreams in alternative ways. Uncollege’s “Hack Your Education” is a subtitle I love for the consonant shove. Although one could fathom that hacking an education might result in becoming a hack, I admire the way the Uncollege folks are vying for a different connotation of “hack,” a connotation understood by the digital natives more as “rebellious” or “rough-and-ready” rather than “dull and uninspired.”

On Coursera’s Twitter feed, I ran into this Inside Higher Ed article about possible funding sources for MOOCs. The article is interesting, yes, but what’s even more interesting to me is the first comment on the article.

The basic unseriouness [sic] of all this in regard to anything recognizable as education, is the stunning disregard for librarians, teachers, and scholars that is apprent [sic] in the idea that money might be made by “providing — or outsourcing — library resources, tutoring services, and other accouterments of collegiate academic life.” Accoutrements? Provide, outsource? As long as it looks like a Prada who cares? I wonder if they’ll send the police around every once in a while to check on things. A decent knock-off will serve just as well. After all, it’s just an accessory anyway, next year it’ll be old news.

The writer is comparing his Harvard degree to a authentic Prada handbag. And he is reviling MOOCs for being in the business of offering knock off Prada handbags. I don’t think his analogy works that well, though. It’s not visionary enough. I want something better than a handbag (although, if what a Harvard degree buys its students is higher paying salaries, then perhaps the Prada bag analogy is apter than I want it to be).

I’m intrigued with the bitterness of the above comment. When I followed the linked name of the commenter to his Facebook page (because that’s where it took me), I found out that not only did he graduate from Harvard, but also University of Wisconsin-Madison and George Washington University, damned good schools, at least one of which is considered “elite.”  His flippant “next year [Coursera} will be old news” is probably right; next year Coursera will be old news. But is he correct in his comparison of MOOCs like Coursera, Udacity and edX to knock-off Prada bags?  MOOCs are an entirely different thing than counterfeit luxury handbags.  MOOCs are to Education as ______ are to _________.

Well, what they do have in common — Harvard and Prada — is that they are both in the luxury brand management business. In his 2005 essay, “Getting In,” Malcolm Gladwell asserts that

Ivy League admissions directors … are in the luxury-brand-management business, and “The Chosen,” [the book Gladwell is reviewing by sociologist Jerome Karabel]  in the end, is a testament to just how well the brand managers in Cambridge, New Haven, and Princeton have done their job in the past seventy-five years.

As a teacher at a private Independent Day School, I am well-aware of the belief that getting into Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Stanford, or another school of their ilk is the pinnacle of academic and social achievement among many of my students and their parents. I’m interested in MOOCs in part because of their potential to liberate more people from ignorance, poverty, basic “stuckness” through access to education, a potential which the above commenter seems to overlook. The people who are signing up for these courses — motivated to do so in part by the schools’ “eliteness” — are not the students who are going to attend Harvard or Princeton or Yale or Stanford. Not yet, at least. The people signing up are ones — like me — who would not have the chance to attend those schools, either because of their station in life, their geographical location, their GPA, their age, their SES. And for those students whose families can afford Princeton, I believe that MOOCs could lead to alleviating some of the pressure of having to get into a good school in order to have a satisfying and successful life, a fallacy if ever there was one.

Read more:

Inside Higher Ed

Twenty Well-Spent Minutes that Could Alter Your Perspective

This article by Professors Erica McWilliam and Peter Taylor packs a bunch of powerful mental punches.

Australia has an abundance of energy to share with the world, literally and metaphorically. Their article, Why our kids need a powerful disposition to be self-managing learners when they finish their schooling, why they are unlikely to have it, and what we can do about it, provides a lot of fuel for thought, as you might guess by its title alone. Kudos to McWilliam and Taylor for their incisive, cogent synthesis.

Might MOOCs Contribute to the Demise of Standardized Testing?

Stanford professor Andrew Ng, who with his colleague Daphne Koller, founded Coursera is interviewed by Neal Conan on NPR’s “Talk of the Nation.”

Ng challenges the primacy of “testing” as a way to evaluate what students have learned. Ng suggests (and most worthwhile educators know) that testing must be used as one type of practice exercise, not an end-all-be-all assessment of what the student knows or can do. Ng says,

When we think about grading, we often think about assessing or evaluating students. But it turns out that as educators, we know that the far more important purpose of quizzes and homeworks [sic] is not to test the student but to give students the opportunity to practice with the material and thus remember the material longer.

This point, of course, is extremely relevant in the current debate in primary and secondary public education. Perhaps one benefit of Coursera is that it will help put “testing” in its proper place. It could, because what these elite MOOCs are illustrating is that people are innately drawn to learning, ESPECIALLY when they’re given choices in how they are able to interact with the material.

Standardized testing provides students with the exact opposite of “choice.” No wonder the drop out rates in traditional educational settings is increasing by the moment.

Why MOOCs Might Provide the “Most Powerful Learning Experience” Ever

In this post, I invite Philippe Adjiman, Ph.D, a Researcher and Engineer from Tel Aviv, whom I met virtually yesterday via @Coursera and @Twitter, to expound upon his claim that MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses) provide a learning experience more powerful than traditional education. He originally posted the following as a comment on this blog post, and because of the thoroughness and thoughtfulness of his response, I wanted to re-post it to make sure readers don’t miss it. 

I’ll start by listing what I think are all the weaknesses of a traditional class one can take at the university and how something like the Coursera or Udacity experience blow those away. I’ll also argue why I think that those two sites are starting a revolution in education. As my main point of comparison thus far is a pure Computer Science/Maths class, please assume that the following points hold at least for such a context, though I believe they should apply for most fields of science.

From the least important to the most significant:

(1) In a traditional class, if you come late to a course and miss, e.g, the first 5-10 minutes (it happens…), you might end up being lost, or just behind, during the whole duration of the (up- to-few-hours) course, seriously not optimizing or, rather, wasting your time. No need to argue why an online course solves that.

(2) In a pure math or very technical class, your first step to understanding the course deeply is to get the best notes you can during the course, and most of the time, you wish that you could do “pause” for few minutes, to write down how you understood a certain concept. Instead, you often try to write down what you got while the professor continues speaking and moves to another concept, which could result in you having a hard time catching up after you’ve captured your idea about the previous point.

(3) is a corollary of (2). Many times you feel that a certain part of the course/class is easy for you, and you wish you could do “fast forward” to get to the next concept. Instead, you start being distracted, and often you’re not concentrated enough when the class reaches again a point that you need to follow.

(4) In assignments and/or final exam, in a traditional class, if you happen to be having a bad day or are stressed and do a stupid mistake, you might ruin your exam, even if you labored for days and nights and are super serious during the entire course, the grade you’ll get won’t accurately represent your understanding of the class.

With Coursera/Udacity, you can submit your assignment, fail, sometimes get feedback, understand your error, and retry (made possible thanks to automatic/instant grading! impossible with a “live” professor).  Trying, failing, improving. This is how you get better. Failing the final exam in a traditional class because of a stupid mistake can cost you a year!!

Think also about a student who fails in an early assignment. In a traditional class, he’ll get penalized for the whole course because of that, as his grade will be bounded by this early failure. This is stupid. If you give him an unlimited amount of retries until he gets a perfect score for each assignments (as with Coursera/Udacity), you’ll not only end up with much less students giving up early, but also with much more highly motivated students who will try to get the perfect score, just because they have the opportunity to get to it (don’t get me wrong, not everyone is like that, but the ones that are will flourish in Coursera/Udacity while they could have potentially withered in a traditional class).

(5) If you get stuck in any assignment, in a traditional class you won’t necessarily find someone (who is successful in the class) who is willing to help you. In Coursera/Udacity, if you get stuck in something, with virtually up to 100k students in your class, it is *highly* likely that someone else has had the same problem and shared it already or is willing to discuss it with you in the forums. This is powerful.

(6) Depending on which university you are at, you can end up with the best or the worst professors. It is obvious that your learning experience will be dramatically different depending on the quality of the professor and the content he’s teaching. Coursera/Udacity offer courses from arguably some of the best possible professors of each discipline and/or from the most influential folks in the computer science industry. E.g., even if I can’t prove it, I believe that most of the Introductions to Machine Learning or AI [Artificial Intelligence] classes around the world in traditional universities are of lesser quality (or at best of equivalent quality) than the one taught by Professor Andrew Ng at Coursera (or Peter Norvig/Sebastien Thrun before he founded Udacity) — of course, if you compare similar covered material/concepts.

(7) I grew up and studied in France, where university is mostly free. As you know, it doesn’t work that way in the rest of the world, especially in top universities. The fact that with Coursera, e.g., I have free access to the quality of professors and content of Stanford is simply amazing. Before Coursera, only a handful of lucky (and talented and/or rich) students had access to such a privilege every year.

(8) To strengthen point (7), think about it at large: your country/city of origin may be far from being a capital, or may be a place where you’re unlikely to get good or even decent professors in very specialized disciplines. In these cases, with these websites (Coursera/Udacity), you jump from mediocrity to excellence. I don’t see how universities in the world teaching sciences could ignore that fact long term: what’s the point in attending the class of an average teacher with average content, maybe even pay a lot for that, when the best professors and content are available for free and online? I’m not saying that universities will disappear of course 🙂 but they will need to adapt, and to find a way to combine the benefits of Coursera/Udacity-type programs into their own programs in some way.

(9) When you make available online the best possible material on Machine Learning or AI from Stanford, it means that the available “baseline” knowledge is already at the level of excellence. The most solid foundations are available to anyone willing to acquire them. The result will be much better educated/sharper people in a given field, making everyone starting from the best basis possible and thus raising the level up significantly.

(10) You actually don’t need to wait for university until you take those courses. I’m sure any geeky teenager (maybe even younger) could attend the so-awesome Introduction to Computer Science by David Ewans, which introduces the core basic concepts of computer science based on a compelling project of building a functional web search engine (yes yes, with crawling, indexing, search, etc.; it is really the most compelling way to get introduced to computer science you can think of). Same applies for any professional who already started a career in a non-related field, and would like to acquire important technical knowledge about how to program, etc. Long term, I think it will create new kinds of entrepreneurs and impact positively the career of millions.

Points (1) to (5) illustrates why I think the likes of Coursera/Udacity give that superior learning experience that surpass by far all the ones I got or observed among my fellows at university.
Points (6) to (10) illustrates why I think Coursera/Udacity are starting a revolution in education.

You can learn more from Phillipe by following him on Twitter, @padjiman, and vising his blog,