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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

How Can Mindfulness Teach Surface, Deep, and Transfer Learning?

By Peter DeWitt — May 12, 2019 4 min read
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Transfer-level learning is the ultimate goal for any teacher. The idea that we can inspire students to find connections in their learning to their greater world is something we all hope for, but we also understand doesn’t happen as often as it should. Stern, Lauriault, and Ferraro write that “transfer learning can help students unlock new situations by recognizing familiar patterns (2018).”

This whole concept of transfer-level learning has been researched for many years. Recently, Stern, Lauriault, and Ferraro wrote that students need to understand conceptual transfer, which means that those students:


  • Recognize the concepts that apply
  • Engage prior understanding of the conceptual relationship
  • Determine the extent to which prior understanding applies
  • Modify and refine understanding based on the new situation (2018. p. 83).

We know that transfer learning can have an impact on how students move forward during their educational career. When faced with an issue in the classroom, or when they are studying or learning on their own, they are able to draw on previous knowledge to help them negotiate their way through their new issue and hopefully overcome that issue.

However, what we also know is that it’s not just in academics that students face challenges. In his guest blog for Finding Common Ground on the benefits of recess, Michael Hynes introduced us to a powerful quotation from Dr. Peter Gray of Boston College. Gray found that,

Rates of depression and anxiety among young people in America have been increasing steadily for the past 50 to 70 years. Today, by at least some estimates, five to eight times as many high school and college students meet the criteria for diagnosis of major depression and/or anxiety disorder as was true half a century or more ago." If that doesn't alarm you as a parent, educator, or as a concerned citizen, I'm not sure you have a pulse. The fact is, we have an existential mental-health crisis in K-12 education and beyond. The question is, what can schools do about it?

The crossroads between the pressures of learning and the pressures of everyday life as a child, teenager, or someone at the university level can sometimes feel insurmountable. There is no better time to begin looking at surface, deep, and transfer-level learning, not just in academics, but in social-emotional learning as well.

Kids Need to Toughen Up
Yes, we have heard that students need to toughen up. As we see an increase in addiction and death by suicide in young adults, the toughen-up mantra does very little to help these students in crisis. The issue with the toughen-up mantra is that it’s a statement people use with very little in the area of practical suggestions on how to do it without fists involved. Personally, I believe a mind built through mindfulness teaches students a very strong resolve.

What we know about mindfulness is that there is increasing evidence to show its benefits, and many of us who practice it believe that it can help students deal with their challenges in a much healthier way. The following are ways to look at mindfulness from the surface, deep to transfer level, that may ultimately guide students through the challenges that they will no doubt face as they grow up and enter the workforce.

Surface—Mindfulness really begins with stepping back and knowing when to breathe deeply. Consistent practice around deep breath in a quiet space is a good way for students to begin. How powerful is stepping back and breathing deeply? Strong enough that it prevents us from moving into a more assertive, negative action that we may regret.

Deep—When we practice breathing deeply enough that it becomes a habit or a daily ritual of deep breathing for 10 minutes a day, we can teach students how to incorporate more meditative nonjudgmental thinking. This guided practice can help them look at negative habits they enter into during stressful times. Do they engage in abusive behavior, drinking, or drugs? When we can get students to move beyond just finding 10 minutes to breathe, and begin to focus on how they respond to negative situations, we help them begin the process of going deeper into their practice.

Transfer—As students begin to understand their triggers, and we all have triggers that send us into stress and anxiety, they begin to use their mindfulness practices to help prevent them from spiraling, and many times due to their practice, they recognize a trigger and become proactive when dealing with it rather than reactive.

In the End
Not everyone wants to jump on the mindfulness train for a variety of reasons, but I believe that our students can benefit from this form of learning. There have been programs like Mind-Up (Goldie Hawn) or Inner Explorer that have been around for years and have research to support how it helps students.

Testing, getting into college or university, and the stress that comes with entering into the workforce can cause students to enter into behavior that may hurt them in the long run. Many times they choose an unhealthy habit to help them escape the stress and anxiety, and mindfulness teaches us that there is another choice out there.

I am on Day 285 of meditation. I have spent the better part of 110 hours participating in mindfulness and mediation so far, and the benefits are clearly transferrable to all parts of my life. When things get stressful, just like life can be from time to time, I take more moments to breathe and try to think clearly about the situation. In my work life, I find that it helps me be more connected to those I work with because I am more present in the moment and less concerned about outside stressors.

Peter DeWitt, Ed.D., is the author of several books including Coach It Further: Using the Art of Coaching to Improve School Leadership (Corwin Press. 2018). Connect with him on Twitter.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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