MYRIAD Reflections

Photo of Richard Burnett MiSP co-founder and chair

Thank you to all trained teachers who attended the MiSP MYRIAD reflections surgery on Wednesday 21st September 2022, at which MiSP’s Co-founder and Chair, Richard Burnett, shared some background.

In response to feedback from attendees, here are some more of Richard’s reflections on the recently published findings from the MYRIAD project; a large randomised control trial exploring the effectiveness of mindfulness training in schools.

What question was MYRIAD trying to answer?

In 2014, when MiSP was invited by one of the world’s foremost universities to research our secondary school curriculum –  .b – it was very exciting. We had already been testing curricula since 2009 but here was an opportunity to see whether the positive outcomes we were seeing in smaller trials could be replicated on a much larger scale.

And so began MYRIAD, the first large-scale trial of mindfulness in schools, funded by the Wellcome Trust and led by Oxford University, alongside Cambridge, Exeter, King’s College London, University College London and Pennsylvania State University.

100 schools. 650 teachers. 28,000 children. This was serious stuff.

Eight years later, what have we learnt?

The attention-grabbing headline was an easy one and a gift for the sceptics: ‘Mindfulness in schools doesn’t work’.

But let’s unpack that.

It is easy to lose sight of one of the key questions that MYRIAD was trying to answer.

MYRIAD was not asking “Does mindfulness work?”. We know that mindfulness ‘works’ if by ‘works’ we mean that, at its most simple, it helps people who practise it. We could back this up with the ‘science’ of large-scale randomised control trials, or the commercial interest in the sector, but I’d point you towards the person or people you know who might have done some Headspace, or been on a Breathworks course, or read Mark Williams’ book, and it has helped them.

Like going to the gym, for most people, most of the time, it is a healthy thing to do, even if people who do it a lot and tell you about it may be a bit annoying to some!

MYRIAD was not even asking “Can mindfulness work in schools?”. The Wellcome Trust would not have funded MYRIAD if they hadn’t been reasonably sure from earlier trials, of the same curriculum, that mindfulness can support children and young people in a wide range of educational contexts.

No. At the heart of MYRIAD’s approach and implicit in the design of the research was the question:

Is this scalable?”

The early evidence base for mindfulness in schools was coming primarily from trials where it was being taught by schoolteachers who were also mindfulness experts.  But if we were serious about scaling this up, we would have to ask a more difficult question:

Could thousands of teachers be trained up from a standing start – teachers who don’t yet practise mindfulness and may not even have an interest in it – so that it can be swiftly and cost-effectively implemented for the benefit of children and young people?

How transformative it might have been if the answer had been ‘yes’.

But it wasn’t.

Were we disappointed?

Of course – who wouldn’t want to find a way of supporting young people’s mental health? But were we surprised? Not especially.

MYRIAD was testing whether a single curriculum could be scaled up to deliver measurable improvements in mental health and well-being via teachers with no mindfulness background, who had taught it only once before. And all of this is in secondary education with adolescents, whose need is arguably the greatest but who are less biddable than their primary school counterparts.

It was always ambitious. Mindfulness was the new kid on the block and this was one of the questions that needed to be answered. With the mental health of children and young people seemingly continuing to worsen, according to NHS Digital, I even wonder if we were asking it more in hope than expectation.

Was it worth doing?

Definitely – even if with the wisdom of hindsight those involved might have changed a few things.

Those of us who teach mindfulness in schools regularly see the impact it can have, but we also know how difficult it can be and that it is not for everyone. The spirit of MYRIAD was intended to be investigative and exploratory; it was not supposed to be asking ‘whether’ but ‘how?’. What works and for whom? How do gender or cultural differences for instance play out? What about teacher interest, mindfulness experience and competency? What about socio-economics? The findings are nuanced and some of them are at odds with other research, but it is all helping to build a clearer picture of how mindfulness in schools does and doesn’t work.

In mindfulness, we talk a great deal about the ‘beginner’s mind’. So, whilst acknowledging that there were limitations as with any large-scale trial, let’s turn towards these findings with an open heart to better understand which aspects of the approaches used in the trial don’t work, which ones do and for whom, and innovate accordingly.

Interested in further reflections on MYRIAD?

  1. See MiSP’s initial response
  2. See also the response from the Mindfulness Initiative.