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Mindful, resilient learning for success

Mindfulness and resilience have become, in just a few years, two prevalent concepts in many areas of our personal and professional lives. Rightfully, educators have also showed interest in them. Here is why.

In my 25 years of teaching French, I have come across a significant number of people who explained to me they could not learn French because they have no gift whatsoever for languages or because it is too complicated.

Learning is something we all do constantly. It guarantees that we can adapt to the changing realities of our world and survive. Some people seem to excel at it and others struggle to achieve it. Mindfulness and resilience possess wonderful techniques to help us become more efficient at learning.

Be mindful in your learning

Mindfulness teaches us to be more present in the here and now. It may therefore enhance our ability to concentrate and make sense of concepts unknown to us. In this article, I am not going to equip you with some meditation exercises to improve your learning skills but, rather, invite you to consider three important aspects of mindfulness that deserve special attention when learning:

1. Letting go

To be able to learn, you need to let go of the beliefs you hold about the subject being taught, for example: French grammar is too complicated. Self-limiting beliefs act as powerful antidotes to successful learning and become self-fulfilling prophecies. If you believe French grammar is hard, a part of your brain[1] will make sure it finds sufficient evidence that it is hard! If you learn to let go of this belief and approach French grammar with a curious, open mind, your brain will be more inclined to absorb the new grammar rules.

2. Letting be

Sometimes, we cannot change a situation. Fighting it drains us from our energy and leads to nowhere. Likewise, when learning a foreign language, you will certainly come across concepts that you cannot grasp or words you don’t understand. Rather than get frustrated because you cannot figure out the meaning of a word, accept that you cannot understand every single word of the French language at once. All it takes is time and patience!

3. Letting in

Learners sometimes resist new approaches to learning contents and skills. A typical example of this is ‘I can’t pronounce a word if I don’t see it written’, which is every language teacher’s nightmare: we are trained to train the ear before the eye (there is a logic to that). When the teacher asks you to repeat a word or sentence and you feel unable to do so, allow yourself to just give your best shot at pronouncing it and keep an open mind when the teacher feeds back the correct pronunciation of the word. Learning takes a lot of repetition. After all, if you knew everything beforehand, you would not be in that class!

Practising mindfulness is a great way of managing our emotional state before the lesson starts. Many learners bring into the classroom their worries and frustrations from work, home or elsewhere. This mind chatter is a major interference to learning. As the lesson is going on, your mind is internally living a different, maybe more stressful, story. The learning, together with its expected outcomes, become secondary to that story. First of all, accept your feelings and emotions: it’s okay to feel this way – fighting it is counterproductive. Going for a mindful, 5-minute walk before the lesson, during which time you look with curious eyes at your surroundings: the buildings, the trees, the shop windows, and pay attention to the sounds without trying to label them, just listening to the sounds around you, focusing on their pitches, rhythms, patterns, looking for the softest sounds hidden by the more prominent ones, maybe a bird singing? Also, before you enter the classroom, taking a few deep breaths and focusing on your lower abdomen rising and falling will change your physiology and your frame of mind. My personal tip: it’s better to arrive for your lesson five minutes late but with a mindful attitude rather than on time or early with all your problems and worries still at the forefront of your mind. The results will speak for itself. Most teachers allow 5 minutes for the latecomers anyway! Build up progressively these five minutes into your schedule, so you arrive to the class on time and in your best state.

Resilience is the second pillar of successful learning

Very often, learners give up their dream of learning a foreign language or anything else because of the setbacks they encounter. Learning a foreign language is a confusing experience. But there is good news! Science has now identified that confusion is one of the stages of the learning process. ‘If you are confused, it means you are learning.’ Some experts even recommend staying a bit longer in that stage because it pushes the brain to figure out the correct answer, which is more productive than trying to guess the answer immediately. Besides, progression in learning is not a straight line going up. On the contrary, it goes up and down, forward and back … but if you look at it over a longer period of time, it does show you are moving forward.

5 tips for a successful resilient learning experience:

1. Write a check list of all your learning outcomes. As the list expands, you will have a sense of achievement.

2. Regularly look back at all the things you have learnt since you started a course. Your mind wants to focus on the things you don’t master yet. Make a conscious effort to present your mind with all the things you have already mastered.

3. Be kind to yourself. Beating yourself up about something you don’t understand will not help. Tell yourself it’s okay not to get it and you are not ready for it yet.

4. When it comes to learning, the devil is in the detail. Don’t lose sight of the big picture!

5. What would you say to a friend who is failing to learn something? Would you encourage them or put them down? What would you say to them? Probably cheerful, supportive words. Say these words to yourself! And feel these words sink into your heart as you say them.

Remember you are constantly learning and achieving goals. Learning a new subject means achieving thousands of goals. Patience and leniency towards yourself will get you through the rough patches.

[1] It is the function of the Reticular Activating System to filter all the ideas you focus on and present them to you on every possible occasion.

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