Ira Rabois is the author of the new book Compassionate Critical Thinking: How Mindfulness, Creativity, Empathy, and Socratic Questioning Can Transform Teaching. He taught for many years at the Lehman Alternative School in Ithaca, New York.
Q: How would you define “compassionate critical thinking,” and how did you use it in the classroom?
A: Compassionate and critical can sound like opposing perspectives. But for me, it perfectly expresses the dynamic approach that is necessary to perceive and think clearly about the world. It is a process of thinking that integrates heart and mind in order to answer questions, solve problems, and understand the world better.
The process of compassionate critical thinking is critical thinking, questioning, and solving problems with added benefits. It is a process that integrates not only information and logic, but also feeling and emotion.
It expands the reach of your life. It is not dry, objective, and unemotional but engaged and deeply concerned, not just with the world, but as the world. You realize you can never step out of the world or be anything other than an aspect of it. You are, ultimately, the world examining itself.
To teach compassionate and clear thinking, teach practices to integrate heart and mind in all aspects of the classroom setting.
First you model it yourself. When students come in to the room, make sure you’re fully in the room with them; greet them with care and attention. You are creative in establishing a calm and enticing atmosphere, with music, the layout of the room, whatever you invent.
Each lesson starts with an activity to focus the mind and increase self-awareness, as well as introduce or actually teach material. You bring students’ own questions and experience into the lesson and teach the most important material through inquiry and questioning instead of dictating answers.
Students learn how to uncover the depth and breadth and the living reality of a question. And you, the teacher, checks in with your students before you leave each day.
Q: You write, “If you do not practice [mindfulness] on your own as well as with the students…you will not be able to help your students do it.” Can you say more about what teachers can do to encourage mindfulness in the classroom, and what are the best ways to encourage teachers to practice it themselves?
A: You make it real. You can’t fake mindfulness. Students will see through you. Treat your teaching as a practice, so whatever you do, even if you make a mistake, treat it as an opportunity to learn something new. Help students research the benefits of mindful compassion, so they know you are not just pushing a fad or a self-help technique.
Use mindfulness practices to elucidate the reality of a student’s life, to tie their increasing level of emotional and social awareness to what you study. They will then begin to understand how the quality of their mental state influences the quality of their learning—and their level of joy.
Mindfulness, inquiry and visualization exercises make the school experience more meaningful. Have students imagine empathically the way their spoken words touch others, so the classroom becomes a supportive community, a safe place.
Teachers, if they practice, will also experience the benefits. The more you mindfully hear yourself, the more you hear others, the more students engage with you.
Q: In the book, you write, “If you say to a class that the brain is more powerful than any computer, don’t be surprised if students argue vociferously against you.” Can you say more about this, and about how brain research relates to the themes of your book?
A: You need to understand where the students are coming from. First of all, adolescents especially like to, often need to, challenge you on important emotional, conceptual and ethical topics. They need to be pushed to figure it out for themselves. They need to see how real you are, and want you to argue them free of some hurtful and limiting ideas of the world.
For example, many teenagers are filled with the drive for love, yet don’t believe they will be loved, or that love is real or is anything other than lust or a “chemical addiction,” as some students of mine put it.
Students know their mind and brain through what they hear and read and experience. One thing they hear often in our culture is just how powerful computers are. They probably have little perspective on just how powerful their brains are, just how miraculous it is that they can feel, see, taste and imagine a world at all.
I give my students basic information about how the brain works, but also tie the neuroscience to their experience. A simple example is research on neuroplasticity, or that the brain constantly changes with experience, which can show them that they can let go of painful habits.
Or research shows how sleeping and dreaming help you integrate material, so if you want an answer to a deep question, follow the old saying: “sleep on it.” And create times to step back, take a calm breath, so your mind can quiet and you can hear the world.
Q: Do the recommendations in your book apply to teachers whose students are very young as well as to those whose students are in high school or college?
A: The recommendations in my book apply to any person. I think they also apply to my cats, who sometimes want to be with me when I do a mindfulness practice.
Young children take to mindfulness practices readily. They also love visualizations—teaching them to progressively relax their bodies and then picture in their minds a place of safety or the characters in a novel they were reading or a time in history they were studying.
I mainly taught high school, some middle school. I once had a group of middle school boys who couldn’t sit still. Other teachers thought I could never teach them to sit and meditate or lie down and visualize.
Well, they did, especially the visualizations. After the first visualization practice, they asked to do it almost every day. We negotiated and decided we’d do it once a week.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m a perpetual reader and learner. It was hard to decide when the book was done, because I was learning new things all the time. How do you capture the constantly changing world in a few or even thousands of words?
Also, the finished book is less than a third of the first draft. So, it is possible I will have another book sometime. I also keep on writing blogs about education, mindfulness, and compassion and such.
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: Yes. Compassion is heart, being able to feel what others feel and value the experience. Critical thinking is rational thought guided by mindful reflection on your process. You test your reasoning with feeling, and test what you feel is correct with logical analysis and depth of examination. You also need time to let the material sit, and get perspective.
Most of all, be kind and engage with others. To feel valuable, value others and what you can learn from them.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb