Science

Mindfulness meditation in school: why not, if it is under “strict control”

In 2019, former Ille-et-Vilaine MP Gael Le Bohek (LREM) began promoting mindfulness meditation in schools. At that time and until the end of his mandate (June 2022), he argued that such practices reduce anxiety, increase student levels, fight inequality. In October 2020, National Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer agreed to a project to experiment with this practice in several hundred classrooms. Finally, in February 2022, the minister reconsidered his decision, fearing possible abuses and, in particular, the lack of “political-philosophical neutrality” of the speakers.

Meanwhile, the Human Rights League (LDH) opposed the experiment. In June 2021, she released a statement explaining the practice’s Buddhist origins, accusing it of causing “loss of critical thinking and subjugation of the personality” and of serving as a gateway to esoteric practices and sectarianism. It was based in particular on the report of the Inter-Ministerial Mission for Vigilance and Combating Sectarian Deviations (Miviludes). The LDH considered the practice of mindfulness meditation to be inconsistent with the 1905 law and the principle of secularism in public schools. In January 2022, the LDH returned to responsibility with an open letter to the Minister of National Education, this time supported by several parties, including the student parents’ federation and several teachers’ unions. It was in the face of this intense pressure that the minister eventually gave in. But was he right or wrong?

Thousands of Scientific Studies on Meditation

In parallel with these developments, the National Science Council on Education took up this topic, and after a systematic review of scientific research, my colleagues and I published a note based on the analysis of numerous scientific studies on mindfulness meditation. Approximately 3,000 studies are published each year, and among these, hundreds of studies cover tens of thousands of participants with the most rigorous methodology, the results of which are synthesized in meta-analyses. These studies show that mindfulness meditation is a form of psychotherapy. [interventions non-médicamenteuses, NDLR] most effective for adults with psychological disorders, including depression and addictions. Used as an intervention for everyone in schools, it has also shown, albeit modest, effects on students’ symptoms of anxiety and depression. Moreover, when used in this context, it does not appear to pose any significant risk.

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In addition, the Scientific Council for National Education highlights the wide variety of mindfulness meditation practices. Practices that have been tested by research and proven to be effective no longer have a religious or spiritual element. Therefore, they are compatible with public schools. But there are many other practices whose effectiveness is unknown and which may be associated with religious or even sectarian movements. In other words, the risks mentioned by LDH and Miviludes are real for some meditation practices, as well as almost all healing practices. The Scientific Council for National Education believes that this risk can be controlled if we limit meditation practices in the school to forms that are positively assessed by scientific research, and if we strictly control the training of those who practice and the compliance of their practices with protocols.

A note from the National Education Science Council concludes that the new research into mindfulness meditation in schools is legal and should be conducted under highly controlled conditions. It does not comment on the feasibility of expanding these practices, but offers an analysis of the potential benefits and costs that should be considered in making a decision.

“Everybody got science to tell them what suits them”

What is the takeaway from this episode? First, the arguments on both sides were flawed. Former MP Gaël Le Bohek mainly used the results of the Franco-Belgian study to support his project, but in fact the results of this study were inconclusive. For its part, LDH erroneously argued that the scientific studies concluded that there was no benefit and highlighted the risks to practitioners. In short, everyone biasedly read the scientific literature and forced the science to say what suits them. Of course, researching, reading, understanding and critically evaluating scientific research in order to synthesize it is not easy. In fact, this is the profession of a researcher in the relevant field. Hence the need to call for a committee of competent experts.

Secondly, we can only regret that the Minister, who had the opportunity to arbitrate between these conflicting positions, did not consider it useful to turn to his scientific advice to clarify his decision. What is the point in having scientific advice in this case?

After all, mindfulness meditation gave us the opportunity to have one of those politico-media debates that France holds the secret of, where scientific knowledge is invoked only in a selective and biased way in support of pre-existing positions. ultimately, political decisions are made more in line with the balance of power than with a rational analysis of benefits and costs to citizens. Mindfulness meditation deserves neither blissful enthusiasm nor censure. It deserves to be tested without expecting miracles, and perhaps practiced under strict supervision.

Frank Ramus is Director of Research (CNRS), he works at the Laboratory for Cognitive Sciences and Psycholinguistics (ENS) and is also a member of the National Education Science Council.

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