Cultivating Curiosity in Students

For educators, which would include teachers and also parents who are in many ways the first educators of children, the term mindful is very interesting because the first part of it, the mind part usually it doesn’t have any kind of definition. And so a mindful education at the simplest level would be just to say, “We want an education that actually focuses on what the mind is, and how you can cultivate a healthy, resilient mind.

When we think about the mind, and take a moment just to say, “Well, what is the mind?” The mind has several facets that address this question of what is it that a teacher can do to cultivate attentional processes and open awareness called presence? And so, we see the mind as having subjective experience, just the felt texture of life, which is different from just brain functioning.

What Does Curiosity Look Like?

We’re not equating the mind with brain activity. It includes brain activity, but it includes the whole body. So a teacher knowing this then could say, “Oh, a whole body education is what I’m interested in.” But then you see that this pattern of subjective experience, which we’re aware of with consciousness is also happening in the relationships people have with the other students, with the teacher, with the internet, with nature. All sorts of ways relationships shape mental life too, so then a teacher can realize, “Okay, what is this thing that’s both within the whole body, not just the brain, but in the between us?”

Intention is something that kind of is a directionality of all these energy flow patterns. So now you have intention. You’ve got attention and awareness, and amazingly a teacher can learn how to cultivate each of the three in a student, realizing they are different but linked. So you can integrate them together and we can talk about how you do that, but basically if a teacher can approach a classroom and realize that she or he is doing much more than just dumping knowledge into this child, that it’s about keeping curiosity alive, which is really an interest in these three things. To have an intention of being wondering on all of the amazing things you can learn. That’s what curiosity is all about, and you can have intention to be open to things. You can learn to pay attention by focusing in a very stable way where energy and information flow is going. And then you realize through this practice we call the wheel of awareness that you can separate the knowing of awareness in a hub of this metaphoric wheel for the knowns, which are these elements of the rim, and intentionally direct a spoke of attention from awareness to whatever you need to pay attention to.

So the teacher says focus on the sensations of your body. Now that we’ve talked about this current event thing, look what’s happening in the news. This tragedy that happened in this place or that place or political news that happens all the time. Let’s take it in and just focus on what your heart is feeling, what’s happening in your intestines. And this interoceptive perception of the interior focus of attention has been shown to actually cultivate aspects of the brain that are a direct resource for intuition and wisdom. Beyond just intellectual knowledge. A teacher who teaches that gives a student the capacity to develop this internal compass that will guide them through life. And a teacher can do that when she or he knows about the mind, and realizes that the body is a very important source of information processing as well as relationships.

The Wheel of Awareness

So these are ways where when you take the wheel of awareness, you get the whole spectrum of things on a rim that students who learn the wheel of awareness in the classroom, we have a lot of schools now do it using it, can see I can sit in the hub of awareness, direct a spoke of attention with intention to wherever the teacher is asking me to guide it to. My body, facts, the internet, a book, a drawing I’m doing, an essay, listening to what a colleague is saying right now, a peer. And all these ways you learn to actually control what you’re doing. And basically regulating energy flow is what the mind is all about and a teacher can learn how to teach that to Natalie himself or herself, but to teach to the students directly. And then it’s truly a mindful classroom. We use the word mindsight because you’re training the ability to see the sight part of mind and mindfulness is one part of that. But learning to have this more mind based practice, train the mind, cultivate attention, open awareness, and to actually develop kind intention. These are three pillars of mind training that research has shown create well-being in our lives.

What’s so exciting about the wheel of awareness is it comes from scientific reasoning. Totally. So the two scientific concepts are integration is the basis of well-being, and consciousness is needed for intentional growth and change. So when you put those two together and say integrations for health, consciousness for change, what if you integrated consciousness? And the practice is very simple. It takes the visual image of, it was a table in our office, but it’s better to talk about a wheel. And the wheel has a center hub and an outer rim, and if you’re going to integrate consciousness, you want to differentiate its facets and then link them. Well what are the facets of consciousness? There are two basic facets. One is the knowing called awareness. The other is the knowns, the things you’re aware of. So if I say hello, did you know I said hello?

So you have two things there: You have the knowing, being aware, and you have the hello. Now, most people don’t think about it this way but when you do, huge things happen. So you teach students how to put the knowing of being aware in the hub of this visual image, this drawing for a young kid where it’s a practice for older people. You put the knowns like the sound hello, or if you were reading hello, there are all sorts of things. So the rim would have four segments. The first segment of the first five senses you hear, see, smell, taste, and touch. You move this metaphoric spoke over to the second segment. That’s the interior of the body. What you feel in the muscles and bones and your intestines, your respiratory system, your heart. You move the spoke over to the third segment. That’s mental activities, feelings, thoughts and images. Memories, hopes, dreams longings, desires, all those mental activities there in the third segment.

And then you move the spoke over again to the sense of relationship, your sense of connection to your fellow pupils, to your student, to your parents, to your siblings, to your neighborhood, to the city you live in, to this larger state, to the larger country, to all humanity, and then even to a sense of all living beings. So it’s a relational sense of our interconnection. And that’s the simple model of the wheel.

So, basically you draw out a circle with an inner circle. So it’s a wheel, and you make a single spoke. You say to a child, “Did you know that the mind is kind of like a wheel? And in the hub of this wheel is your sense of knowing.” Like if I say hello, did you know I said hello? And the child says, “Yeah,” you go, “Well that’s in your hub,” but the hello itself, that sound is here on the rim. Let’s say this part where you’re hearing stuff. Then you can direct attention to what you’re hearing or right now, let’s pay attention to what you see. And then the child focuses on what they say and that’s over here next to the hearing and you go through the whole rim and point out what’s there.

And you can have for example a sadness if a good friend didn’t come to your birthday party because she had the flu and you can put on the rim sadness, but at the same time you’re also mad at your friend because she didn’t come so you could put anger. Well at the same time you’re also filled with love because you love your friend, you put love. And at the same time you can be aware from the hub that you have sadness, you have anger, and you have love. You have all those feelings.

But if you get lost on the rim, you usually get filled with just one of those feelings. So now you’re just angry at your friend even though she had the flu, and you’re just filled with anger. So learning to draw this out for a kid, it’s just a drawing and say one of the many feelings actually allows the hub to become more a part of their life. So that’s for a young kid. For adolescents, they can do that too, and for adults that’s useful. But you can also do a reflective practice where you actually invite people to go inward, centering themselves sometimes with the breath, letting the breath go. And then imagining being in the hub of the wheel and then going systematically imagining in your mind’s eye moving that spoke of attention around and around the first segment of the rim for the outer senses, to the inside of the body to mental activities, and then over to a relational sense. And then in an advanced stage, we even bend the spoke around or leave the spoke in the hub so people experience what the pure hub experience is like, awareness of awareness. It’s mind blowing because in many ways when you access the hub more readily, your life develops emotional and social intelligence.

You develop mindful awareness. You basically cultivate presence, because presence comes from the hub. And this very simple practice, whether it’s a drawing or a reflective practice called meditation, just training the mind. When you access the hub, presence is more a part of your life.

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About the author

Dan Siegel

Dr. Siegel is a clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine and the founding co-director of the Mindful Awareness Research Center at UCLA. He is also the Executive Director of the Mindsight Institute which focuses on the development of mindsight, which teaches insight, empathy, and integration in individuals, families and communities. Dr. Siegel has published extensively for both the professional and lay audiences. His five New York Times bestsellers are: Aware: The Science and Practice of Presence, Mind: A Journey to the Heart of Being Human, Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain, and three books with Tina Payne Bryson, Ph.D: The Whole-Brain Child, No-Drama Discipline, and The Power of Showing Up (to be released 1/7/20). His other books include: The Developing Mind, The Pocket Guide to Interpersonal Neurobiology, Mindsight, The Mindful Brain, The Mindful Therapist, and The Yes Brain (also with Tina Payne Bryson, Ph.D). Dr. Siegel also serves as the Founding Editor for the Norton Professional Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology which contains over seventy textbooks.