wave-motion-64169_640By Tim Jensen, UCAT Graduate Instructional Consultant

“[T]he faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention, over and over again, is the very root of judgment, character, and will [ . . . ] An education which should improve this faculty would be the education par excellence.”

~ William James

Last year researchers published findings from a National Science Foundation-funded experiment on multi-tasking, attention, and meditation that are directly relevant to teachers across the university.  Participants were asked to complete a series of tasks, such as scheduling meetings or copying notes.  They were then subjected to the usual culprits of interruption: e-mail, texting, knocks on the door, instant messaging, etc.  The results, published as, “The Effects of Mindfulness Meditation Training on Multitasking in a High-Stress Information Environment,” show that those who received meditation training were less stressed and more productive during a test of their multitasking abilities than those who received no training.

Lead researcher Professor David Levy, University of Washington, commented,  “While there is increasing scientific evidence that certain forms of meditation increase concentration and reduce emotional volatility and stress, until now there has been little direct evidence that meditation may impart such benefits for those in stressful, information-intensive environments.”

For students and instructors alike, higher education can frequently prove to be a “stressful, information-intensive environment.”  Demands on our attention seem to be more numerous than ever, especially in media-saturated environments.  Such demands have detrimental consequences on our capacities for sustained attention, creation of new knowledge, and the fostering of empathy.  The above report is one of many that demonstrate the substantial benefits of meditative practice.  Educators across the disciplines are taking note, too, bringing elements of contemplative pedagogy into their repertoire of effective teaching practices.

What is Contemplative Pedagogy?

Broadly speaking, contemplative pedagogy refers to educational approaches that focus on generating mindfulness, or an awareness of one’s experience in the present moment.  It is a holistic pedagogical approach that recognizes the many rewards of cultivating a relaxed and focused attention.  As William James puts it, mindfulness is “the faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention, over and over again.”

In this sense, contemplative pedagogy is a relatively new name applied to a traditional component of many educational cultures that aspire to apply knowledge in ethical, effective ways—wisdom, in other words.

Why use Contemplative Pedagogy?

Like the above research report indicates, the benefits to integrating contemplative practices into your pedagogy are numerous:

  • Enhance attention
  • Increase creativity
  • Improve listening and suspension of judgment
  • Deepen self-awareness
  • Strengthen critical thinking
  • Lower stress
  • Increase capacity for empathy and compassion
  • Boost engagement with course content

As Tobin Hart contends, “If we knew that particular and readily available activities would increase concentration, learning, wellbeing, and social and emotional growth and catalyze transformative learning,” “we would be cheating our students to exclude it.”

How do I integrate Contemplative Pedagogy into my current teaching?

There are many ways to bring contemplative practices into your course, and in varying degrees.  Rather than prescribe certain methods, here are some resources that show how others have brought elements of contemplative pedagogy into their classrooms and why:

You’re Distracted.  This Professor Can Help.”  By Marc Parry. The Chronicle of Higher Education. March 24, 2013.

Opening the Contemplative Mind in the Classroom.” By Tobin Hart. Journal of Transformative Education. Vol. 2 No. 1. January, 2004

Contemplative Activities in the Classroom.” Center for Teaching, Vanderbilt University

Contemplative Modes of Inquiry in Liberal Arts Education.”  By Susan Burggraf and Peter Grossenbacher.  LiberalArtsOnline. June, 2007

A New Professional: The Aims of Education Revisited.”  By Parker J. Palmer.  Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning.  November, 2007

Toward the Integration of Meditation into Higher Education: A Review of Research.” By Shauna Shapiro, Kirk Brown, and John Astin.  Prepared for the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society. October, 2008

The Mindful Teacher.” A webinar with Steven Emmanuel, recorded for the Center for the Contemplative Mind.  June, 2012