Can Meditation Help Our Schools? An Interview with Psychologist Joshua Aronson

Joshua Aronson is the director of the Center for Achievement, Research and Evaluation, which is housed in Steinhardt’s Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools. Aronson creates scalable interventions that schools can use to improve the performance and learning of their students. We spoke to him about the power that meditation has to transform the learning environment.

What happens in schools where meditation is part of the curriculum?

All different things depending upon the context and approach. We’ve learned a lot about meditation by studying the literature and by closely observing schools that use meditation in their classrooms. Our strategy has been to watch, observe, and learn from the many different approaches educators have been taking in introducing meditation to children. Watching what happens when children meditate in school has been truly eye opening. When schools get it right, you don’t need much quantitative analysis. You actually feel the difference between meditating schools and schools that don’t in the atmosphere of the classroom. The data from a few studies confirms that meditation is worth a try for schools everywhere.

For example, one of the schools we observed was a middle school in a very rough San Francisco neighborhood beset with violence, academic failure, and gang activity. After introducing regular meditation, this school reduced its suspension rate by 80%. This same school had a reduction in fighting and saw an increased test score and graduation rate. But, best of all, after two years of meditation, no teachers were quitting. Each time a teacher quits, the school’s environment becomes less conducive to self-control and intellectual development, so this is a very big deal.

What have you learned from your study?

I think one of the more surprising things about meditation that I’ve learned by doing this research is that it works even if you are convinced it will not. Many therapeutic effects rest partially on belief or faith. If you are convinced a psychological effect cannot happen it won’t. And we worry about placebo effects all the time. But time after time, I see kids who approach meditation with an attitude of This is not going to work. This is stupid. Then, with a little time, they are smiling and telling us how much better they feel. It’s the rare person who really tries this in earnest and doesn’t experience a real benefit.

Do you have a meditation practice?

I do have a meditation practice, and so do most of the students who work in my lab.  I’m very eclectic since I want to learn everything I can about all forms of meditation that are out there.  But my basic practice is extremely simple.  I try to meditate twice a day by shutting my eyes and focusing on my breath or on a single thought or word or sensation.  Then I relax my body as completely as possible and settle into a state of restful alertness.