A note on Mindfulness

When I saw that the most recent ELTchat topic was ‘mindfulness’ I was a bit worried because I’d never heard of it before. Being someone who likes to keep abreast of EFL developments, I thought I should check it out and so to Google went I.

My heart sank a little when I came across the world ‘therapy‘ in  relation to this (the bizarre neuro-linguistic programming also comes from therapy/psychology) and sank further when I spied the word ‘Buddhism‘. I recalled Scott thornbury’s article The Unbearable Lightness of EFL in which he notes:


An alternative to TEFL’s lack of respectability is to construe it as a form of therapy.  Professional self-esteem is achieved by co-opting both the discourse and the procedures of certain new age practices, and by investing the teacher with an almost shamanistic function.(393:2001)

But what is “mindfulness”? Well if you drive to work then you probably have days where you get in your car and then you just seem to arrive at work, almost like you were on auto-pilot. This is known as ‘automaticity’, a feature of your amazing brain, and seemingly the opposite of ‘mindfulness’.  Processing information is hard work for your brain.  Think about how you feel after marking a lot of badly written essays (as oppose to well collocated ones) or if you’ve recently met a lot of new people (social interactions are very tough on the brain). Switching your brain to auto-pilot for task you do regularly is a great way to save processing power. In fact most of what you do is done automatically by your brain.  
Take picking up a glass for example.  You brain has to work out the distance of the glass from you, the weight, the position of your thumb and fingers. It has to move the muscles in your arm, exert the exact amount of pressure so the glass doesn’t drop from your fingers or get smashed to pieces in your grip.  This might seem pretty straight forward, but it’s something you learn and something that becomes automatic.  If you had to focus and think about things like speaking, walking and moving then you wouldn’t be able to do them. 

 Another good example is reading.  You are so good at reading that if you see a text in your native language you won’t be able to stop yourself from starting to process it. The famous Stroop test is a good indicator of this. Try saying the colours of these two sets of words.  The second set will be harder than the first.
set 1
RedGreen, BlueYellow, Pink, Black, Gold

set 2
Red, Green, Blue, Yellow, Pink, Black, Gold

Two different parts of your brain are competing here, the one automatically reading the word “red” and the one seeing the colour blue. 
For those promoting ‘mindfulness’, automaticity is painted as something of a bad thing.  This is a bit ironic as fluent speech, like fluent reading, requires automaticity, but let’s put that to one side. Mindfulness teaches that we should pay attention “in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non judgmentally” and pay attention to the here and now on a “moment-to-moment basis” (Ruth Baer)
The idea of paying attention to the presents needs unpicking. With what we know about the brain, what does it actually mean to pay attention to the present? Is it to focus more on what you’re seeing and hearing? If so, isn’t that just concentrating?  And which here and now does it refer to? The here and now just a second ago when you started this sentence or this one, now….or now….or now?  Also aren’t students supposed to remember new language?  Probably unlikely if they are constantly trying to focus on everything that’s happening in the here and now.  Leon Wieseltier  writes “‘Pay[ing] attention moment-to-moment’ is a renunciation of the critical temper. The pure present is for infants and mystics”

Some people in ELTchat linked mindfulness to ‘reflection’, but reflection is a process of reviewing past events whereas mindfulness is a focus on the  now. I was also not clear as to whether mindfulness was for the teacher or the student, or both?  And what would you actually have the students do in class?  From this video it seems a lot like meditation.


In the video the teachers were saying that “it works”. I’d like to deal with this idea in a separate post but briefly, students and teachers saying something “works” is not the same as something working. As with BrainGym, exercises may help student, with or without the posh name. Likewise, stopping, focusing and having students concentrate may be good things, but does that require a special term complete with an ancient philosophy?

In its defence, mindful teaching, as far as I’m aware doesn’t have any expensive courses or materials nor can you become a ‘master mind-filler’ for only $2,000, (not yet anyway). In this sense, mindful teaching is not doing anyone any harm and the activities it promotes may even be helping some teachers and students. I don’t really know enough about mindfulness to criticise it here and there is very little on the web about mindfulness & EFL so for the time being I’ll have to suspend my judgement. 


Thornbury, S. 2001. ‘The unbearable lightnessof EFL.’ ELT Journal 55/4: 391-402

Teacher beliefs in EFL

There are many odd beliefs around the world, strongly held yet completely ridiculous.  I like to collect them. I’ll introduce some of my favourites here for you: 


Penis theft:

In nations like Nigeria, the Congo and Uganda witchcraft is still believed in.  Witches and warlocks have magical powers and, so the legend goes, one of these is the ability to steal a man’s penis by touching him.  The fear of penis theft is quite real yet there have been no reported cases of men with missing genitalia.  There have, however, been several cases of “witches” being murdered for stealing penises.  Penis theft is a kind of mass-hysteria in which a man may scream in a crowd “oh my penis has been stolen” or something like this at which point panic breaks out, a witch is found and often beaten to death. 

Korean Fan death

Thanks to newspaper misinformation many Koreans believe that leaving a fan on overnight will lead to death.  Quite how this works is a mystery, but there have been a couple of suggestions.  One is that the fan blades chop the air molecules up and thus decrease the amount of air and the other is that the fan creates a kind of vortex sucking all the air out of the room.

Chinese period panic

monthly taboos are common in many cultures.  Chinese medicine is a bit like western medicine was 400 years ago and so the idea of people being hot and cold etc still exists in the popular conscious.  Women are ‘colder’ than men and during their period they become even more so and thus must avoid cold foods like ice-cream, eschew ice in drinks and avoid some foods, like alcohol altogether.  It seems partaking of these things will lead to discomfort for women.   There are around half a billion people living their lives like this because this is what they believe.   

Interesting!  but what does this have to do with EFL?  
Bear with me! 

If you haven’t heard of these beliefs before, you may have read them with disbelief.  You may have even thought, “how stupid!” or “how could anyone believe that?” and perhaps assumed I was exaggerating.  You might have even entertained the idea that those countries have poor education so perhaps it is to be expected.  But how would you react if something you believed was on that list?

Well, I wouldn’t believe anything so patently untrue, -you might think, and if I had made mistake I would quickly change my views.  But would you?  We’ll do an experiment later on. The crucial thing to remember is that no one believes that they hold mistaken views.  If they thought they were wrong then they would believe something else.  You might expect, if we were rational, we might just say “oh I see, thanks for telling me!” but people don’t.  What you think is connected to who you are.  Believing something that turns out to be wrong makes you feel like an idiot, -it shouldn’t- but it does.  Only an idiot, after all, would believe in stupid things. 

So time for an experiment, read the following sentences and see how many of them you believe?

1.       People should drink 8 glasses of water a day

2.       You should wait an hour after eating before going swimming

3.       You lose 40% of your body heat from your head.

4.       Daddy long legs are very poisonous but cannot bite through human skin

5.       Fingernails and hair continue to grow after death

6.       We only use 10% of our brains

7.       Emus, when threatened, bury their heads in the sand

8.       The great wall of China is the only man-made object you can see from space

9.       Eskimos have 7/50/100/1,000 words for snow

10.     Blood in your veins is blue

Well, they are all wrong.  Not a bit wrong, or right under certain circumstances but all widely believed and absolutely wrong.  But what’s this got to do with EFL? I’m coming to that…
But first think about compare your reaction to the ones you already knew were wrong and the ones (if any) that you just found out were wrong.  No doubt you’ll pulling a pained look and heading straight for Google to check them out.  Perhaps a little shocked?  Perhaps even trying to justify your belief (well, it might not be 8 glasses, but drinking water is important etc etc).  Secondly think about how you came to know and believe in that “fact”. 


How does this all relate to teaching?  Well EFL has a similar trickle-down of knowledge effect.  Examine the following sentences and see which ones you have heard/believe:

1.       An ideal class should have at least 60% student talking time to 40% TTT.

2.       A task-based approach is the best method for teaching languages

3.       A process approach to writing is better than a product based approach

4.       L1 should, where possible, be avoided in the classroom

5.       An inductive approach is best for grammar teaching

6.       It’s useful to have students activate their schemata

7.       Each student has their own individual learning style

8.       It’s useful for students to get feedback on grammar mistakes

Now, I’m not going to now tell you that all of these are wrong. But before we go any further you might want to think about if you believe in these ideas, and if so, why? Personally, I have no idea for most of them but I’ll comment on a few.
In number 2 for example, Swan looks at the idea that Task based instruction is superior to other methods and, after carefully examining the evidence, concludes that “The claim that TBI is a superior teaching approach, solidly based on the findings of current theory and research, cannot be sustained” (2005:396) a view he shares with Richards and Rogers (2001). Another example is process approaches to writing which seem quite popular these days but  for which “there is little hard evidence that they actually lead to significantly better writing in L2 contexts.” (Hyland 2003:17-18)
Most teacher give students corrective grammar feedback for their writing. But does it do any good? Truscott and Ferris have argued over this point for over 15 years. Truscott has claimed that feedback is not only pointless but might even harm students while Ferris has tried to find evidence for its efficacy. In a 2004 article entitled ‘The ‘‘Grammar Correction’’ Debate in L2 Writing: Where are we, and where do we go from here?’ Ferris admits that “despite the published debate and several decades of research activity in this area, we are virtually at Square One” (2004:49) If we don’t know whether it works, and it could even be harmful why are we doing it?
For a lot of this, we just don’t know. I am hopeful that as research techniques get better we will learn more. The purpose of this article is, though, to warn against dogmatism and bandwagon jumping. I’ve heard many teachers (myself included) make claims about this method or that approach, that just can’t be backed up. New interesting ideas seem to move quickly to dogma in the EFL world and it becomes difficult to challenge the orthodoxy. Just think about how easily other false beliefs have implanted themselves in your mind, -or other people’s for that matter. The medical world was convinced that bleeding people was a super cure for all manner of diseases, until it turned out that in fact it wasn’t. And if you’re thinking how stupid people were in the past, remember that it didn’t seem stupid to them.
When asked about approaches teachers claim things like “I know this works, I can tell from the students faces” and “since I started doing [method/technique/approach] things have been better in my class” or “I don’t care about evidence, it works for me!”. Now these teachers may well be right, or they might be suffering from confirmation bias, but until there is solid evidence about practices, it’s probably best if we all proceed with caution.

nb: As always, comments and corrections are very welcome!


Ferris, D.R. (2004) Grammar Correction’’ Debate in L2 Writing: Where are we, and where do we go from here? Journal of Second Language Writing 13 (2004) 49–62

Hyland (2003) Genre-based pedagogies: A social response to process Journal of Second Language Writing 12 17–29

Richards, J. and T. Rodgers. (2001). Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Swan, M (2005) Legislation by Hypothesis: The Case of Task-Based Instruction Applied Linguistics 26/3: 376–401