Embracing mindfulness to facilitate active learning

Amy Edwards-Smith

What is the idea?

Mindfulness is often described as being present, an awareness achieved through curiosity, an open-minded approach, and embracing perspective. Such skills are beneficial for students to be active in their own learning. This chapter will explore the theoretical concept of mindful teaching and ultimately mindful learning with suggestions on how this can be implemented in teaching practice. By embracing mindfulness concepts, educators will promote a safe learning environment that fully encourages students to participate in active learning opportunities. Kisfalvi & Oliver (2015) explains that a safe space, one in which there is no judgement, mutual respect and trust, results in deeper learning as there is no fear, participation is encouraged, and students explore their own thoughts.

Why this idea?

Mindfulness embraces the present moment without judgement and purpose; it is a conscious effort to focus on the now rather than the past or future (Ludwig & Kabat-Zimm, 2008). Epstein (2020) explains the opposite of mindfulness as being mindless or on ‘autopilot’. Langer (2000) describes ‘mindful learning’ as a cognitive process with a sense of openness to experiences and possibilities. Her research shows that students’ skills in problem solving and flexibility are increased and contrasts with ‘mindless learning’ which is learning through repetition in a manner devoid of critical thinking or reflection. From a neurobiological perspective, practising mindfulness has been beneficial for metacognitive processes such as awareness and the ability to pay attention and emotional regulation. This occurs by enhancing the frontal lobe activity whilst disengaging primitive and stress responses (Tang et al., 2015).

How could others implement this idea?

Create a safe learning environment

For a learning environment to be effective, students need to feel safe (Caverzagie et al., 2019). Any concerns students hold about being judged, or indeed humiliated, will negatively affect their ability to learn due to stress hormones (Bynum & Haque, 2016). Mindful educators pay attention to their students in the moment and respond to promote trust and supportive relationships. Through observation of engagement and reflection in action (Schön, 1987), educators can be intuitive and responsive to students’ needs. To create a safe space one needs to be reflexive to students needs through observation of contribution and body language, and modelling positive behaviour (Kisfalvi & Oliver, 2015)

Being ready to learn

Students and educators are not immune to outside influences on their classroom experiences. Starting the lesson with a mindful exercise serves two purposes; it assists in displacing any emotional energy and prepares them to be fully present in their learning. Mindfulness activities that would be suitable include breathing exercises (inhale for 4, hold for 4, and exhale for 8), tuning into our five senses, or scanning the body for sensations.

Embracing multiple perspectives

Practising mindfulness involves taking perspective; analysing issues in a variety of different ways (Kabat-Zinn, 2013). Educators can foster this approach through questioning, encouraging students to differentiate between ‘fast thinking’ (recognising patterns) and ‘slow thinking’ (intention and analytical) (Hayes et al., 2017). One way to achieve this would be by asking ‘How do we know what we know?’ and playing Devil’s Advocate. Mindfulness encourages one to become aware of different possibilities and become flexible through embracing change (Anglin et al., 2008). Consider using language in the classroom to promote critical thinking, such as ‘could’ instead of ‘should’. Encourage curiosity by framing questions and activities that do not have a correct answer but encourage curiosity and discussion. Curiosity can be developed further by encouraging students to reflect on their own learning (Borrell-Carrió & Epstein, 2004).

Remember good teaching is about facilitating learning

Mindfulness practice encourages one to be present in the moment without attaching value to any particular outcome. It can be relatively easy for teachers to forget that good teaching is not about transferring knowledge but rather the facilitation of learning (Slavich & Zimbardo, 2012). Lesson planning should be seen as a guide, not an outcome that needs to be adhered to, and good teachers are responsive to their students and focus on the learning process rather than the outcome. This flexibility encourages educators and students to consider new ways of accessing information, ultimately developing critical thinking and problem-solving skills (Langer, 2000).

Be a role model

Mindful teaching cannot occur without a mindful educator (Dobkin & Laliberte, 2014). As mentioned previously, mindfulness practice encompasses the notion of being present, being in ‘the here and now’ (Aldridge, 2015). Before you begin your class, make an intentional effort to centre yourself in the environment and acknowledge external influences. It is not expected that adopting a mindful approach will always be intuitive; indeed a great deal involves reflection and focus (Epstein, 2017). Mindful practitioners agree that a mindful approach will never become second nature and should be practised and prioritised. There are many apps, online courses, and videos that can help an educator practice personal mindfulness to become a role model for their students. Educators can be a role model in the classroom by asking non-threatening questions, sharing their own thoughts and acknowledging their own gaps in knowledge.

Mindful teaching is something to be, rather than something to do.

Although arguably an educator could introduce mindfulness as a taught session, perhaps during a study skills session, to truly achieve it one needs to assimilate the approach into their teaching philosophy consistently. To embed this into your pedagogy you could take a ‘no correct’ answer approach to facilitate curiosity, be flexible and recognise plans are not concrete to create a safe environment and use low pressure starter activities which allow transition from the outside world to the learning world.

Transferability to different contexts

Mindfulness can be embraced by teachers of all disciplines who wish to develop their pedagogy. Much of the research is within the field of health and social care due to interest in staff burnout and compassionate practice. Still, the core principles of being present, curious and open-minded are fundamental in promoting active learning. Even for those disciplines where there often is a ‘correct’ answer, such as mathematics, a mindful approach can assist in building relationships with students and encourage students’ reflection on their knowledge and experiences. The promotion of self-awareness for all students will positively influence developing skills for life-long learning and autonomy over their learning journey.

Links to tools and resources


Aldridge, M. (2015). Modelling mindful practice. Reflective Practice, 16(3), 312–321. https://doi.org/10.1080/14623943.2015.1023278

Anglin, L. P., Pirson, M., & Langer, E. (2008). Mindful learning: A moderator of gender differences in mathematics performance. Journal of Adult Development, 15(3–4), 132–139. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10804-008-9043-x

Borrell-Carrió, F., & Epstein, R. M. (2004). Preventing errors in clinical practice: A call for self-awareness. Annual Family Medicine, 2(4), 310–316. https://doi.org/10.1370/afm.80

Bynum, W. E. & Haque, T. M. (2016). Risky business: Psychological safety and the risks of learning medicine. Journal of Graduate Medicine Education, 8(5), 780–782. https://doi.org/10.4300/JGME-D-16-00549.1

Caverzagie, K. J., Goldenberg, M. G., & Hall, J. M. (2019). Psychology and learning: The role of the clinical learning environment. Medical Teaching, 41(4), 375–379. https://doi.org/10.1080/0142159X.2019.1567910

Dobkin, P. L., & Laliberte, V. (2014). Being a mindful clinical teacher: Can mindfulness enhance education in a clinical setting? Medical Teaching, 36(4), 347–352. https://doi.org/10.3109/0142159X.2014.887834

Epstein, R. (2017). Attending: medicine, mindfulness, and humanity. Scribner.

Epstein, R. (2020). Mindfulness in medical education: Coming of age. Perspectives in Medical Education, 9(4), 197–198. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40037-020-00598-w

Hayes, M. M., Chatterjee, S., & Schwartzstein, R. M. (2017). Critical thinking in critical care: Five strategies to improve teaching and learning in the intensive care unit. Annals of the American Thoracic Society, 14(4), 569–575. https://doi.org/10.1513/AnnalsATS.201612-1009AS

Kabat-Zinn, J. (2013). Full catastrophe living: using the wisdom of your body and mind to face stress, pain, and illness. Bantam Books.

Kisfalvi, V., & Oliver, D. (2015). Creating and maintaining a safe space in experiential learning. Journal of Management Education, 39(6), 713–740. https://doi.org/10.1177/1052562915574724

Langer, E. J. (2000). Mindful learning. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 9(6), 220–223. https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-8721.00099

Ludwig, D. S., & Kabat-Zinn, J. (2008). Mindfulness in medicine. Journal of the American Medical Association, 300(11), 1350–1352. https://doi.org/10.1001/jama.300.11.1350

Schön, D. A. (1987). Educating the reflective practitioner: toward a new design for teaching and learning in the professions (1st ed.). Jossey-Bass.

Slavich, G. M, & Zimbardo, P. Z. (2012). Transformational teaching: Theoretical underpinnings, basic principles, and core methods. Education Psychology Review, 24(4), 569–608. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10648-012-9199-6

Tang, Y. Y., Hölzel, B. K., & Posner, M. I. (2015). The neuroscience of mindfulness meditation. Nature Review Neuroscience, 16(4), 213–225. https://doi.org/10.1038/nrn3916

About the author

Amy Edwards-Smith teaches across a range of subjects within the School of Community Health and Midwifery at the University of Central Lancashire. She has experience of working with individuals with additional learning needs and disabilities in education and social care settings. Amy’s expertise is in Social Policy, in particular ideology, social justice and welfare. She is committed to developing students who are independent learners with a passion for life-long learning.


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100 Ideas for Active Learning Copyright © 2022 by Amy Edwards-Smith is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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