Compassionate Critical Thinking and the Teaching And Living Using Spirituality Blogspot

This week, I was invited to write a blog on my book for the Teaching and Living Using Spirituality blogspot.

 

When I first discussed my book with friends, many said that compassion and critical thinking seemed contradictory to them. They thought ‘compassion’ necessitated taking in or opening to people, and ‘critical’ meant being judgmental, questioning or pushing them away. I then asked What happens inside a person when they’re compassionate? And then, after listening to their responses, What does critical thinking mean to you? If compassion leads to openness, taking in information, improved perception and understanding; and if critical thinking requires understanding a person or situation better, then wouldn’t compassion aid such thinking? …

 

To read the whole piece, please use this link. Thank you to Owen Griffith, author of Gratitude: A Way of Teaching, for engineering this guest blog and creating his website.

Compassionate Critical Thinking: A Workshop

We are living through a time that challenges us to learn how to think compassionately, clearly and critically—to think in a manner that facilitates awareness of our own emotions and thought processes while elucidating what is happening to those around us. This workshop will explore how to use practices of inquiry and imagination, as well as mindful and compassionate questioning, to better understand and teach course material and critical thinking.

 

The approach is described in my book, Compassionate Critical Thinking: How Mindfulness, Creativity, Empathy, and Socratic Questioning Can Transform Teaching, published in October, 2016, by Rowman & Littlefield. It was developed over 30 years of teaching. All the techniques help students improve focus, find more meaning in classroom studies, and so are more engaged in their education. Many take only a few minutes and all were used in actual classes.

 

The workshop is part of Ithaca Loves Teachers Week. It will include experiential exercises and discussion. It is open to teachers, administrators and others interested in developing and teaching empathy and critical thinking. For more background, go to my website: irarabois.com.

 

The workshop will be Thursday, February 23, 2:00 – 3:15 pm, at the Tompkins County Public Library, Cornell Reading Room.

The Natural Process of Thinking Critically and Mindfully: A Workshop.

Children, especially those between the ages of 8 – 15, easily look at the world with what Kieran Egan calls a “Romantic” imagination or sensibility. The world becomes a stage for a heroic struggle. They search for enlarged significance in events. They read and like to watch stories of werewolves and vampires, demons and goddesses, heroes and heroines, struggles against oppressors and evils. They seek the strange and the extraordinary. They want to hear about unusual abilities and intense achievements. And even deeper is the desire for awe, for the sense of a mystery lying just behind what they perceive, for the miraculous just beyond their comprehension.

 

I remember this sensibility as a yearning and maybe never totally grew beyond it. It established in me an early expectation for my life that was almost impossible to achieve. I wanted to be extraordinary. And worse, I did not know then what my yearnings meant. I had few words for it. All I knew was that much of life seemed too ordinary, boring, like I was missing something. So, I searched for what was driving me. I searched out the unusual and extraordinary. What about you? Do you remember this yearning?

 

I started meditating as part of this search, particularly Zen meditation. Some of the Zen teachers I met seemed deep and mysterious. But meditation did not fit the ideas I had. It did something unpredicted; it changed the feel of a moment. Whether during or after formal practice, the moments of life could no longer be dismissed as ordinary.

 

To think clearly requires both understanding and feeling. By ‘feeling’ I mean inner sensation, like in my stomach, gut, or breath, as in “I know it in my gut.” To know what to write or say requires monitoring what feels, in this sense, right and true, versus wrong or false. Study this in yourself. For me, the false feels jittery, my stomach and shoulders tighten. It is like wearing someone else’s clothes or like a bone with no marrow. What’s truthful comes unadorned, raw, full of energy, like it’s been there the whole time but I didn’t see it. Feeling is usually speedier than intellectual comprehension, although they can and must work together, check on each other. In the same way, searching “outside” oneself for wonders creates a false sense of two worlds in conflict, “out there” and “in here,” or one part of myself versus another. If “out there” is not good enough, “in here” is not good enough.

 

When you fight yourself, thinking is difficult. When you understand and work with your natural processes of thinking and feeling, thinking, even critical thinking, may not be easy, but it’s easier. Insight is more likely. What is this natural process of thinking? What part do meditation and mindfulness play in it? How do you practice mindfulness?

 

For those not sure what mindfulness is: mindfulness is both a quality of mind and a type of meditation. As a quality of mind, it is very alive. It is moment-by-moment awareness of how to learn from and then let go of whatever arises. It teaches awareness of the quality and focus of awareness and attention. Because you notice, you have choice. You can let go of what might be hurtful to yourself or others before the hurt fully develops, and so can be kinder, less judgmental. Because it monitors attention, it improves focus and clarity of thinking and readies you to act in a more empathetic manner.

 

 

*If you live in the Ithaca area and would like to attend a workshop on The Natural Process of Thinking Mindfully and Critically: This workshop will be for two Wednesdays, led by Ira Rabois, former teacher at The Lehman Alternative Community School. It will be open to any LACS staff and graduates, parents, or any adult with a serious interest. It was suggested that we meet 5:30-6:30, after LACS staff meeting, starting Wednesday, February 4th. The recommended tuition: $5/ session (or what you can pay, from two-twenty dollars/week is fine). Please contact me if you want to attend or have a question, either by e-mail, note to my website, or phone. If there is enough interest, I will extend the duration of the workshop.

Habits of Mind

In the 1990s, Arthur Costa and Bena Kallick wrote a series of books on fostering habits of mind that assist the learning process. I, and many teachers that I worked with, greatly benefitted from their approach. The books argued that if students learned these habits, then they would be able to successfully put in the type of effort that leads to deep learning. The habits included persisting, striving for accuracy, thinking flexibly, managing impulsivity, listening with understanding and empathy, thinking about thinking, responding with wonderment and awe, etc. This approach is being revived today and I think it is a tremendous step, hopefully indicating an increased understanding of the necessity to teach the social and emotional aspects of learning. I would make minor adjustments, such as adding patience to persisting, and gratitude to responding with wonderment and awe. And I’d ask: Is it accurate and beneficial to call these mental processes or qualities of mind “habits”? Are the habits separate and discrete? Or are they merely different ways to view one quality of mind or experience? And what is the most efficacious way to teach what the habits teach us?

 

Costa and Kallick describe many excellent methods for teaching these habits. For example, you can use “word splashes” or brainstorms on the meanings of the habit. You can use questioning strategies that help students elucidate and analyze a problem, and you can incorporate the habits into rubrics students can use to reflect on their thinking process.

 

We teach through modeling. To help teach reflection, for example, we model awareness, honesty and humanity in the class.  We need to admit what and when we don’t really know something or if we get something wrong. If we want to teach flexibility or hearing with empathy, for example, then we teach with those qualities. When there is any doubt about what a student means in his or her analysis of a passage in a text, for example, we don’t just assume we understand what a student means; we paraphrase and then ask for confirmation.

 

Other ways to teach these qualities that I use include linking class content and student concerns. By asking students to work on questions that are meaningful and important to them, we can stimulate the student’s own striving for accuracy, curiosity, and ability to think flexibly and critically.

 

Costa and Kallick state that the habits work together. Thinking critically, for example, is a complex and multifaceted mental process and is best taught as a whole process. I think it begins with clarifying the problem or question and careful observation. Then gathering and immersing yourself in the material, presenting and questioning evidence and theories, mindful awareness and reflection on your process, incubation or stepping back to gain some perspective. And, finally, stating and testing a synthesis or conclusion. It involves not one but possibly all of the beneficial habits Costa and Kallick describe.

 

And I recommend teaching the habits experientially, with mindful meditation. Take a moment to sit back and relax. Just settle into the chair. Close your eyes now, or in a moment or two, as you feel comfortable. Just let your body settle, relax. Pick a place to put your attention, like maybe the area around your eyes. Just feel the muscles around your eyes. Can you feel how your body, very subtly, expands as you breathe in? Just notice it. And as you breathe out, can you feel your eyes relax, settle down, let go of any tension?  Just feel that for a minute.

 

Give the following directions or ask the following questions one at a time, with patience.

 

Now, think of a time that you were very patient, or you witnessed someone else being patient. Just observe yourself or the person. What did you or this person do? What actions did she or he take? What qualities did you or this other person show? How do you think the person felt while being patient? How do you feel when you’re patient? How does it feel when someone is patient with you?

 

Now just sit for a minute with the feeling of patience.

 

When you practice this meditation, notice what you feel at the end. Patience does not stand by itself. It comes along with other qualities of mind, more than I could sum up, qualities like calmness and clarity of thought. You manage impulsivity, for example, by first monitoring it, or by allowing awareness of how the impulsivity is specifically arising moment-by-moment in your body and mind. If you get absorbed in your internal comments or become judgmental of yourself for “having” the impulsivity, or if you don’t allow the awareness of what is going on to fully arise, you become lost. You manage nothing.

 

And this is true with all the “habits.” They are different aspects of awareness of what and how we “pay” attention. To start learning habits of mind, allow into awareness, “How am I thinking, now? What habits am I using now?” One of the habits, for example, is “thinking about thinking” or metacognition. We could also call it “attending to thinking” to avoid using the word ‘thinking’ too ambiguously. What is the goal of attending to our thinking? Is it an intellectual analysis of how our thinking could be improved? Or is it actually thinking consciously and clearly? The two are not necessarily the same, any more than eating a meal and the description of the tastes are the same.  Analysis is based on memory and is an after-the-fact commenting on conscious experience. The other is direct experience. The former depends on the latter. Mindfulness meditation teaches us how to be aware of direct experience, or our moment-by-moment quality of attention. This includes, as we pointed out with “impulsivity,” being aware and open to whatever arises, even confusion, anxiety, or fear. Without developing this clear awareness of direct experience, metacognition is handicapped.

 

The habits of mind bring attention to important mental processes or qualities of mind. However, these “habits” are not discrete and separate. They arise and work together. And to fully utilize a complex mental process, you need clear awareness of your own mental state. Mindfulness meditation provides a wonderful method to develop this clear and direct awareness.