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My teacher training focused on goals and assessment. When I conduct workshops on teaching and whenever I am asked for advice on teaching, I tell instructors to clarify goals and work backward. Two years ago I gave a presentation on technology in the classroom. I included a laundry list of ...
Contemplative Practices in Higher Education: Powerful Methods to Transform Teaching and Learning
Date Reviewed: November 30, -0001
We live and teach in a world of massive distraction. It is difficult to find spaces or times in which people are simply still, let alone inhabit silence. College students claim they are effective “multi-taskers” but more and more research is suggesting that multitasking is not a route to deep learning, and can even begin to shape attention practices in detrimental ways. What can we do? One generative inquiry into these challenges comes from the field of contemplative practice. What is contemplative practice? The authors of this book define it broadly, noting that these practices
certainly include meditation, but not all are meditative in the traditional sense. . . . They all place the student in the center of his or her learning so that the student can connect his or her inner world to the outer world. Through this connection, teaching and learning is transformed into something personally meaningful yet connected to the world. (6)
Bookended by a foreword written by Parker Palmer, and an afterword by Arthur Zajonc, this book is a much needed and pragmatic resource for anyone teaching in a higher education context. It is based on nearly twenty years of research into contemplative practices in higher education, including the work of 152 fellows who worked on classroom experiments in more than one hundred colleges and universities. Barbezat and Bush provide a concise but thorough overview of this research, while keeping their focus on teaching and learning practice.
The book is divided into two sections, the first concentrating on theoretical and pedagogical background, the second a guide to contemplative practices in higher education classrooms. Issues such as neuroplasticity, the challenges of reflecting on first-person experience, and a range of theoretical resources for introducing and developing meditation and introspection are explored in the first section. In the second section the authors draw from a vast array of pedagogical experiments in a diverse assortment of disciplines to resource specific exercises in mindful reading, writing, listening, movement, and action. These resources include specific writing prompts, examples of syllabi, and a rich collection of bibliographic entries for further study.
The authors also address directly the challenge of the religious studies classroom: “The most problematic place in the academy to introduce contemplative practices has been religion departments, where the concern has been that a professor who practices the religion he or she is teaching would not be sufficiently objective. Teaching contemplative practices to students raises a further concern: proselytizing” (105). Here the authors are quick to point out that contemplative practices of this sort are about “students discover[ing] their own internal reactions without having to adopt any ideology or specific belief” (6).
But is this really an appropriate response? My primary critique of this significant book is to ask what it means to invite students into a “technology” of embodied practice without at the same time inviting them to inhabit the beliefs within which that technology arose. Are we really willing to remove context in this way? Or is the contextual collapse we are already living within (cf. Michael Wesch) necessarily confronted by the intentionally attentive work of contemplation? Can practices of meditation and introspection so ground our knowing as to build the kind of insight, compassion, and systemic analysis necessary for living in a deeply present way in our postmodern world?
There are likely no clear or single answers to these epistemological conundrums. As one of the teachers whose work is explored in the book, Mary Rose O’Reilly, writes: “I learned that the single most important thing a contemplatively centered classroom teaches the teacher is not a pedagogical recipe but pedagogical flexibility” (188).
For my part, I am hopeful and energized by the various experiments with which these innovative educators are engaged. Given that education must, at heart, “create environments for students to inquire and challenge themselves about the meaning of their lives and the lives of others” (200), this book offers both rich reflection and pragmatic resources for doing so.
The Pursuit of Wisdom and Happiness in Education: Historical Sources and Contemplative Practices
Date Reviewed: April 8, 2015
Steel includes in this work both recommendations and critiques that follow from his conviction that educators can and should take up the study of philosophy in their classrooms, which in this discussion is K-12. Using a foundation of classical Greek philosophy, the author takes up five themes in the book: (1) a survey of current ideas about how the pursuit of wisdom is or is not part of education; (2) a retrieval of ancient and medieval ideas of wisdom and the search for wisdom; (3) a critical examination of educational trends and practices and the barriers they create to the pursuit of wisdom; (4) use of ancient and medieval thought to assess current educational movements that aspire to promote wisdom; (5) a survey of movements understood as contemplative pedagogies and some cautions about their limitations. Finally, he indicates his own proposal for this project.
Steel critiques current educational practice along lines that many readers will find familiar: emphasis on assessment, stress on global competition, and pursuit of technological expertise without concern for ultimate ends. All of these, he argues, have not only been mistaken for the ideal goals of education, they militate against the real goal – the pursuit of wisdom. Steel prescribes these as essential for the attainment of wisdom: schole (leisure) leading to theoria (seeing) the ultimate good through the experience of metaxy (an experience of tension as one reaches from ignorance toward the Supreme Good, ultimate truth, or being as such). Taking from Plato the movement of ascent and descent as essential to reaching toward wisdom, he emphasizes the necessity of “dying to self and all that is not wisdom” (4). Steel is thorough in explaining his viewpoint in relationship to a host of educational greats: Augustine, Aquinas, Maimonides, Pieper, and Bloom, to name but a few.
The author states clearly that the pursuit of wisdom in a classroom today is likely to create serious negative pushback from the whole educational establishment. He believes this because he is convinced that only awareness of one’s ignorance makes wisdom possible. Such an experience of ignorance, he argues, is sure to be deeply uncomfortable and even intolerable for today’s students who are trained to attain the “right” answer above all. Such a practice is also contrary, he finds, to the mandate given teachers to produce students who can pass the required assessments. For the most part Steel leaves it to the reader to navigate a second potential problem, the fact that an educational institution may not necessarily agree that assisting students to reach toward the Supreme Good (or some other ultimate) is part of their educational mandate – or is even permissible.
Steel acknowledges that philosophical programs and contemplative pedagogical movements that aspire to facilitate student encounters with wisdom are present. Many of these, he argues, do not reach their essential goal because they are used as a means to some end other than wisdom: health, relaxation, or happiness, for example. According to Steel, “contemplative activity is not a tool for happiness; it is happiness, for it is the highest activity of the best part of the soul in relation to its most sublime object in the Supreme Good” (259). His own programmatic proposal is extremely brief as a proportion of this substantial book and chiefly cites his own experience in teaching Greek philosophy to high school students and using more modern texts such as Walden to encourage a contemplative experience of the world.
This volume will be appreciated by those interested in the intensive application of classic Greek philosophy to current educational practice and to a critique of current contemplative pedagogical movements.
Contemplative Learning and Inquiry Across Disciplines
Date Reviewed: March 5, 2015
In the ongoing conversation about whether higher education exists to make students wise or to teach them marketable skills, contemplative inquiry has attracted a lot of attention. Among the criticisms of college faculty is that they view students as “brains on a stick,” an amusing metaphor idea credited to former Harvard dean Harry Lewis in John Miller’s essay “Contemplation: the Soul’s Way of Knowing.” Miller’s is one of twenty-two essays by researchers and practitioners in contemplative learning assembled here as “a resource for confronting current teaching and learning challenges” (7). Though some contributions have a stronger proselytizing tone, the editors’ stated goal is to “raise awareness” of how contemplative studies can inform, enrich, and sustain the disciplines and instructional contexts of higher education (4).
The authors represent a cross section of experience and education, including tenured faculty, graduate students, administrators, an engineer, and a former monk. Though contributions come from many academic disciplines, the social sciences have the largest presence. Only two authors write from the field of Religious Studies; teacher-scholars interested in specific applications to theology and religion will be better served by the book Meditation and the Classroom: Contemplative Pedagogy for Religious Studies byJudith Simmer-Brown and Fran Grace (reviewed in TTR 16, no. 3, 2013).
As with any anthology, most users will read selectively, but the four parts of the book work well as a whole, articulating the rationale for and benefits of contemplative methods, identifying practical classroom and campus applications, and reflecting on future directions in the field. Part 2, “Domain Specific Perspectives,” is the most pedagogically helpful, with entries from political science, history, economics, and information sciences, among others. Many of the practices are grounded in Buddhist teachings, chief among them mindfulness meditation. Widely embraced as a balm in an age of distraction, meditation has become separated from its roots in the wisdom traditions, which is problematic for both sectarian and secular institutions. Other contemplative activities such as silent reading or detailed observation may have religious or philosophical forms, but are well established methods for teaching and learning.
Those considering adopting contemplative pedagogies may wish for more data on their effectiveness than this volume offers. Though research results appear in many of the essays, only two authors examine studies of mindfulness practice in depth, one from the laboratory and the other from the classroom. As Alfred Kasnziak observes from his work in the cognitive sciences, the results are “encouraging,” but he notes that there is almost no research on the “educationally relevant consequences of meditation practice with students that would allow for relatively unambiguous interpretation” (207).
Administrators and teachers with more ambitious goals of transforming an institutional culture or curriculum will find Part 3, “Individual and Collective Transformation,” relevant but perhaps not especially practical for dealing with resistance to this pedagogy. Daniel Vokey, for example, presents contemplative inquiry as an antidote to what he calls “academic materialism”: higher education’s attempt to preserve the status of an elite minority by promoting competition, fear, and isolation (260). Such an indictment, though arguably true, will likely appeal more to the already converted than to the skeptics still suspicious of contemplative education.
The book’s concluding essays on the philosophy of “intersubjectivity” take the conversation in a “mystical” direction that will attract advocates and critics alike. Educators who seek a more prominent role for spirituality in the classroom will appreciate the presentation of teaching as a sacred process and teachers as spiritual mentors; critics will be troubled by the view of teaching as an extension of one’s own spiritual practice. Teachers and scholars of comparative religion will perhaps be uneasy with Edward Sarath’s claim that among the highest priorities for contemplative education is the cultivation of a “21st century spiritual intelligence” through the “melding” of wisdom traditions (369).
I think most college faculty could agree that students are not just “brains on a stick” and the liberal arts should foster in them a deeper engagement with self, others, and the world. But reasonable people can disagree about how to create that engagement. This volume will educate the simply curious, inspire the deeply committed, and advance the conversation among proponents and skeptics of contemplative inquiry, which is all to the good for the larger discussion of why we teach.