Moving Forward

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Moving forward.

In the last newsletters I declared that my focus is on the teacher-student relationship and how to adapt it to meet curriculum and pedagogy needs for self-motivation, collaboration and formative assessment.

In this newsletter I want to explore in more detail some of the practical aspects of what this means.


1.  Learning to notice differences – being mindful in the classroom

In Red Brain Blue Brain, I show how we have all developed a preference for using focused attention and the left hemisphere’s way of engaging with the world - seek what is familiar and respond automatically (because I have done this before).  This is very efficient for doing routine activities.  However, it is not helpful if differences are important.  Noticing difference opens other types of - non-routine - learning.

Recently, whilst researching how our brains learn, I was surprised to discover that the learning of language is the most complex learning that humans can do.  On reflection, this makes sense, learning a language is so much more than memorising vocabulary and learning rules of grammar (both of which lend themselves to focused attention).  We need to be able to hear sentences that may differ slightly from what we have heard before and respond by putting together words and phrases in new ways – and without reflection - to express our thoughts.   We need to use sustained attention to achieve this fluency. A four-year-old can do this effortlessly but a typical eighteen-year-old no longer can.  If you watch a four-year-old as she is paying attention in this context, you can see from their eyes and their body language that he or she is using sustained attention.

It is preferencing focused attention that is at the root of this decline in the ability to do this most complex of learning.  For this form of learning we must be attuned to noticing differences and it is sustained attention, used by the right hemisphere, that has this ability.

For some of the curriculum we need to use focused attention, yet to prevent preferencing this form of attention at the expense of sustained attention there must also be times when sustained attention is encouraged and modelled by adults.  As a rule of thumb, working on something best uses focused attention, working with somebody best uses sustained attention.

As educators, how do we switch off focused attention – our go-to form of attention – and start using sustained attention?  The key is to start noticing difference.  Observe students as they are working and rather than simply ensuring they are doing the familiar start noticing how they differ.  C holds his pen in an unusual way, F screws up his eyes when he is working on something he does not quite get. K seems to need affirmation from someone before committing something to paper.

Noticing difference is also a way to get to know students in a very meaningful way.

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In Red Brain Blue Brain, I show how we have grown up having two mind states.  In the blue brain we are at our best – confident, collaborative and creative.  In the red brain we become self-focused, impulsive and emotional, and we lack choice in how we respond to people and events.

I also show that there is a pathway to managing, reducing and eventually removing the red brain, leaving us operating at our best all the time.

Changing how we pay attention to the world is one of the key changes that we need to make.Sustained attention – noticing difference – rather than focused attention, where we notice the familiar, is the form of attention that we need to re-adopt, we used this when we were children but then were encouraged to use focused attention almost exclusively as we grew up.


2.  Other uses of mindfulness in the classroom

Once we can use sustained attention to notice differences, we can also use it to systematically remove any “red brain triggers” that occur with our students.  What this means is that we are likely to have students who look or behave in a way that triggers an upwelling of negative emotion – a sign that our red brain is engaging – and which we interpret as dislike.  As soon as we dislike a student, we are limiting our ability to help them develop as fully as possible. We behave differently with them, we may avoid them even, to minimise our own discomfort.

Using sustained attention, we can make the upwelling emotion subside again and, little by little our brains reprogram the memories that are causing the red brain to trigger.  Unconsciously, our brains bring up the memory, remove the negative emotion and replace it with a neutral or positive one so that gradually the student no longer triggers the red brain.  We no longer have any feelings of dislike.

Being systematic about this means that over time we can be in the presence of anyone without our red brain becoming engaged.


3. Encounter in the classroom

Once we can use sustained attention to notice differences and to remove red brain triggers, we can start to use it in its most powerful form.  Encounter is the practice of listening to an individual student free of judgement or comparison and, whatever the student says or does, responding with kindness and compassion.

The student experiences a feeling that their teacher really cares and values them, which puts them in the right frame of mind for learning and growth to take place.  Further, the student so values this experience that they want it to continue and will go out of their way not to disappoint or let down the teacher.  This means they will play up less and engage more in whatever work is being proposed.

It is encounter that allows outstanding teachers to have their almost ‘magical’ effect, and a lifelong impact, on their students.

At its heart encounter uses sustained attention coupled with the ability – which we can gradually re-learn - to hear or see any behaviour without the red brain triggering and our becoming affronted or outraged or defensive.

Encounter is the pathway to become an outstanding teacher.


Changing how we pay attention to the world is one of the key shifts that we need to make.  Sustained attention – noticing difference – rather than focused attention, where we notice the familiar, is the form of attention that we need to re-adopt, we used this when we were children but then were encouraged to use focused attention almost exclusively as we grew up.  It is time for us to re-balance how we engage with the world and with each other.

John Corrigan