Learning to stop

Ms Natalie Smith, Director of International Studies

An article that crossed my desk recently caught my attention with its title “Learning to stop; Stopping to Learn” (Brady, 2005). I wondered why the title of the article intrigued me— perhaps it was the word “stop”. I was told that in the midst of the inherent busyness of school life that it was permissible to stop: that stopping equated with learning. I was more than interested.
On reading further the introduction asserted that to arrive at the simplest truth required not activity, not reasoning, not calculating, not busy behaviour of any kind, not reading, not talking, not making an effort, not thinking. It required contemplation: simply bearing in mind what it is one needs to know (Brown, 1979 as cited in Brady, 2005). Contemplation, the act of attending with nonjudgmental awareness or being open to things just as they are has long been practised and cultivated in the world’s wisdom traditions. But what place, if any, does it have in my classroom (Brady, 2005)?

Life is busy. Schools are busy. Families, in particular, are busy. We cram activity into our day. We are on the go from the moment we open our eyes until the moment we close them at night. There is school, work, deadlines to meet, bills to pay, children to be taxied, homework to be negotiated, concerts to be performed, sports to be played— the list seems endless. Life is incredibly busy. How many times do we find ourselves responding ‘really busy’ when asked how we are. It’s almost as if to admit to not being busy is the same as admitting that we are not up to the mark or that we are wasting time. There is an emphasis on efficiency, speed, constant productivity, as well as, a keeping up with the constant information flow in an Internet wired world (Hart, 2004).

School is busy for students as well. The curriculum requires levels of busyness just to complete the things that students need to learn … need to know, need to understand, need to be able to do. However, there is a danger that for some students, particularly by the time they reach tertiary level, education becomes about performing whatever is asked, even if it fails to connect to their lives, to address their deep questions and deepest longings. (Zajonc, 2005, p.7).

Many of the discussions I have with students at this time of the year, particularly with girls in higher grades, revolve around the busyness of their lives. Much of the talk with colleagues also focuses on the frenetic activity around timetables, deadlines for exams, meetings, reports, marking assignments and the myriad other activities that come with teaching. Often unstated, there is this uneasy feeling that in this hive of activity something is missing; that there is a lack of wholeness, a lack of deep meaning.

For myself, I wonder if I am a human doing rather than a human being. I am reminded that the Japanese word for busy 忙しい uses the Chinese character 忙 which actually consists of two characters, 心meaning ‘Heart’ and 亡 meaning ‘Death’. I am struck by the paradox to which this points. In our western culture in particular, we often equate fulfillment with how much action we have successfully undertaken. Success is wrapped up in the awards, the citations, the numbers, the sales, the output or the completed to-do lists. Yet the ancients tell us this leads to the death of the heart.

So what does the death of the heart look like? It is in the creation of conditions where the outcomes of learning are purely superficial. It is the outcome of cramming, of too much disconnected information, of hurried processing.

But education should be about transformation and development. About students becoming all they can be. We know that depth of understanding is where transformation and deep learning (wisdom) can occur. Depth implies higher order understanding and application, creativity, problem-solving and self-reflection. Deep encounters with knowledge and with one another have the potential to transform the learner and the process of learning (Zajonc, 2005, p.8). What does it mean for us as teachers and, more importantly, what does it mean for our students?

In a recent newspaper article, Steven Schwartz, (2012), the Vice-Chancellor of Macquarie University in Sydney stated that graduates from university should exhibit the following attributes to make them employable in a continuously shifting, changing, and increasingly technological economy:
• Flexibility
• Resilience
• Adaptability
• Being team players
• Technologically savvy
• Ability to apply skills in different contexts
• Life long learners
• Ability to make the most of new opportunities

He went on to say that he would add ‘Wisdom’ to this list, that ‘wisdom gives you the ability to get more out of your experience than you would otherwise’ (Schwartz, 2012). That struck a chord because here at Girls Grammar we proclaim that the intent of the School is to “establish an educational foundation for young women to contribute confidently to their world with wisdom, imagination and integrity”. Wisdom, imagination and integrity: a powerful triad and the first of these is Wisdom.

So how can we encourage and assist our students develop the capacity to draw more out of their life experience?

Dr Kay Kimber (2011) wrote of creating a ‘wisdom space’. She argues that the first step towards growing wisdom is making the time and space in which to allow self knowledge to surface and blossom into insights… (Kimber 2011, 27 May). What would it look like if we created time and space in the busy school day for students to reflect and contemplate? Maybe we need to create time and space in individual lessons – time and space in the day’s cycle – time and space at the end of the week – time and space at the start of the week. What would it look like if we created a culture where time and space for reflection were considered as valuable as work, study time and recreation?

What would it look like if turning off the television, Facebook and mobile phones created family time and space? Time to sit in silence and reflect and ponder.

Interestingly enough, the ancients that reminded us that busyness resulted in the ‘death of the heart’ also created the character 休to mean to stop doing some ongoing activity for a time; to suspend busyness; to rest (Denshi Jisho, 2012). This character is also made up of two separate parts, 人meaning Person and 木 meaning Tree. Perhaps it is a timely reminder to us all, to allow wisdom to grow, to develop wholehearted students, we need to create the time and space to ‘sit under trees and contemplate’. Less human doing and more human being.


Brady, R. (2005). Learning to stop; stopping to learn: Embarking on the contemplative learning path. Retrieved from http://mindfuleducation.org/Brady.pdf
Denshi Jisho Online Japanese Dictionary. (2012). Retrieved from http://jisho.org/kanji/details/休む
Hart, T. (2004). Opening the contemplative mind in the classroom. Journal of Transformative Education, 2(1). Retrieved from http://www.mindfuleducation.org/resources.html
Kimber, K. (2011, May 27). Creating a wisdom space [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://www.bggs.qld.edu.au/blog/2011/05/26/creating-a-wisdom-space/
Schwartz, S. (2012, May 2). Employability skills – where is wisdom? The Guardian. Retrieved from: www.guardian.co.uk/higher-education-network/blog/2012/may/02/wisdom-as-an-employability-skill?

Zajonc, A. (2005, February 11-13). Love and knowledge: recovering the heart of learning through contemplation. In Contemplative Practices and Education: Making Peace in Ourselves and in the World. Washington, USA: Teachers College, Columbia University. Retrieved from www.contemplativemind.org/programs/academic/zajonc-love-and-knowledge.pdf

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