In MindUP, a social and emotional learning program pioneered by actor Goldie Hawn, children learn to be mindful—that is, attuned to the present without judgment. This skill engenders a healthy outlook on life, hones the ability to pay attention and creates a sense of calm, preparing the mind for learning. (For more on the brain benefits of mindfulness, see Friday’s post “The Education of Character—Carefully Considering Craisins.”)

The video below illustrates another technique for training mindfulness. In this exercise, third-grade teacher Marianne Prins at Sir William Van Horne Elementary in Vancouver asks her students to pick an ordinary gray stone from a pile of similar-looking rocks, to examine it very closely (mindfully) and then to put it back in the center of the circle, where the rocks form a pile again. The children focus on the feel and appearance of the rock they chose, trying to remember these sensory features so they can recognize their rock after it is back in the pile.

In the middle of this exercise, Prins asks the students to identify the area of the brain they are using. A little boy points on a brain diagram to the prefrontal cortex, the seat of self-regulation and some types of memory, among other functions. In MindUP classrooms, kids learn brain anatomy. Children apparently love hearing about their brains, but the anatomy lessons are also supposed to be empowering. Pinning thoughts to a structure may help hone the ability to think about thinking, or metacognition, and that, in turn, could help kids feel more in control of their own minds and behavior. (For more on social and emotional learning, and the importance of self-control, see my feature article “Schools Add Workouts for Attention, Grit and Emotional Control” in the September/October Scientific American Mind.)

Another concept that intrigued me pops up in the students’ discussion of the brain. Prins at one point asks, “Is our brain hard and solid or is it stretchy?” “Stretchy,” a chorus of children answers. Prins then says: “Every new experience is helping our brain grow.” This type of talk presupposes, and emphasizes, something called a growth mindset, the idea that intelligence is malleable (not fixed) and can be developed through education and hard work. Research by Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck has shown that type of attitude greatly boosts motivation to learn, and success in school. (See “The Secret to Raising Smart Kids,” by Carol S. Dweck, Scientific American Mind, December 2007/January 2008.)

The kids’ brains did indeed seem to grow. When I watched this activity in Prins’ class, the children performed it twice, and as Prins notes in the clip, they were much better at finding their stones the second time. Why? “Practice,” says one astute child, underscoring the importance of effort in learning. At the end of the second trial run, Prins holds up one last stone, a leftover after all the kids had found theirs. It was mine.

To learn more about social and emotional learning in schools, listen to me discuss the topic on NPR's On Point with Tom Ashbrook: "Reading, Writing and Character."

Later this week: The Education of Character—Your Brain in a Coke Bottle. Marianne Prins, a third-grade teacher, demonstrates how the brain reacts to stress using a soda bottle packed with sand, glitter and water.

See previous posts in this video series:

The Education of Character—Teaching Control with a Cottonball

The Education of Character—Carefully Considering Craisins


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