By CHRISTINA FRASHER
As we reflect on the provost’s call to spotlight emotional well-being this coming academic year, we may be pondering how to address student well-being in our courses. Perhaps, we may also be taking stock of our own well-being and wondering how to both support our students and ourselves.
One area in which caring for our well-being and supporting a dynamic learning environment converge is in the use of contemplative practices in our teaching. Contemplative practices offer a space in which instructors and students can be fully present in the learning experience, it values not only the content that is covered but also the human beings that are part of the process.
What is contemplative pedagogy?
Contemplative pedagogy is an approach to teaching and learning that centers the learner’s experience and engagement of content through contemplative practices. It prioritizes the student’s experience of learning and values the students’ lived experiences and unique connections to the content offered. Some of the learning benefits of this approach include bolstering awareness, increasing focus and strengthening reflection (Morgan, 2014).
When faculty integrate contemplative practices, students are encouraged to consider multiple perspectives and identities as each student’s experience is different. Bringing in a contemplative pause assists a student in finding intrinsic meaning in their learning. When students perceive value or meaning in an activity, it can increase their motivation to learn more.
Contemplative practices are varied and can be adapted for many disciplines and topics, some of which include mindfulness practices, nature observation, deep listening, compassion practices, and many others.
A visual way of conceptualizing the variety of methods is the Tree of Contemplative Practices created by the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society (2015). Among the many practices displayed, the practice of Beholding is particularly impactful. This teaching activity encourages students to settle quietly into their learning space (classroom, virtual space, etc.), bring attention to their breathing and then quietly gaze at an image that is offered. This image could be a graph, a work of art, a photograph, a map, or any image that would relate to the course topic. After a few minutes of beholding the image, students are encouraged to jot down their experiences.
Instructors may also choose to offer a prompt specific to the image, such as what could be surrounding this image? Or what might we imagine that person is feeling? Another instructor has used this in a physical chemistry course (Francl, 2016). The image in this case was a molecule and she encourage students to draw the molecule and then after looking at the image again noticing their reactions. At the end of the course, students reported the practice was particularly helpful in learning how to write code, which was a course requirement. Other suggested activities and examples of how instructors implemented these practices can be found in the resources below.
Contemplative Pedagogy supports student learning by
Boosting attention skills and ability to focus (O'Donnell, 2015)
Increasing creativity, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills (Morgan, 2014)
Assisting in clearer comprehension and greater connection to course content (Barbezat & Bush, 2013)
Increasing the community building skills of empathy and compassion for others (Rodríguez-Carvajal, et al. 2016)
As a support for well-being
Frequently, instructors have turned to contemplative practices to strengthen their own and students' well-being, many times as a result of their own experience with contemplative practices. Studies have shown that contemplative practices support student and instructor overall well-being, boost relational dynamics in learning, and aid the growth of empathic responses (Barbezat & Bush, 2013). Students specifically benefit from the increase in self-regulatory skills and self-compassion (Rodríguez-Carvajal, et al., 2016). Instructors benefit from increased engagement, a deepened sense of purpose, and resilience (Barbezat & Bush, 2013).
Integrating contemplative activity into teaching
Make a plan: Take time to plan beforehand and lay out the steps for each portion of the contemplative activity. Consider timing and space of the classroom if in-person or technology needs if virtual. Walking through the activity can be helpful as well.
Focus on a specific teaching goal: Be transparent to students about how the contemplative activity will support their learning and/or a specific teaching goal. Some examples of this might be contemplative brainstorming before starting a project, encouraging focus before an assessment, allowing a reflective moment during a particularly challenging portion of the course, or helping them to become more reflective practitioners if teaching at the graduate level.
Acknowledge the origins of the practice: Be sure to look into the background of an activity that you are offering and share this background with students. Most contemplative practices originate in rich cultural backgrounds (Rendón & Kanagala, 2017) and it is important to highlight, cite and acknowledge these backgrounds when offering them. This is also true if an activity you are offering has been inspired by a tradition.
Offer choice: Create safety and support by allowing students to opt-out of the experience and allowing time for reflection after the activity by writing or discussion.
Practice the practice: Make sure that you are taking time to engage in the contemplative practice before sharing it with students. There are some resources below on how to find a local group and the Teaching Center also has additional suggestions. By engaging in the practice beforehand, you will be aware of your own experience and can self-reflect before offering it to students.
Be patient with yourself and your students: start small! If you are interested in this approach but want to wait to implement it, instructors also can benefit from incorporating a contemplative sensibility into their teaching: a pause before lecturing, creating a quiet space around lesson planning, or taking a contemplative walk after class. As we continue to navigate changes in the academic landscape, engaging in pedagogies that both support learning outcomes and our well-being, can be a welcome respite.
For a consultation on these issues or other teaching concerns, please contact the Teaching Center for help.
An excellent text to begin your contemplative pedagogy exploration is “Contemplative practices in higher education: Powerful methods to transform teaching and learning” by Daniel Barbezat and Mirabai Bush. There is additional guidance on planning a contemplative activity, extensive examples of activities you can offer to your students, and additional researched studies on the benefits of this approach.
Pitt’s own Center for Mindfulness and Consciousness Studies has a vast array of resources directed toward mindfulness and other contemplative traditions, including local resources for contemplative groups.
The Center for Contemplative Mind in Society has a plethora of webinars, workshops, an annual conference, scholarly journal, and sample syllabi of contemplative-based courses.
The University of Virginia has an academic center dedicated to contemplative education, the Contemplative Sciences Center. Their website is an excellent resource with many programs open to the public.
Christina Frasher is a teaching consultant with the University Center for Teaching and Learning. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Barbezat, D. P., & Bush, M. (2013). Contemplative practices in higher education: Powerful methods to transform teaching and learning. John Wiley & Sons.
CMind. (2021). The Tree of Contemplative Practices [Illustration]. The Center for Contemplative Mind in Society. https://www.contemplativemind.org/practices/tree
Francl, M. M. (2016). Practically impractical: Contemplative practices in science. The Journal of Contemplative Inquiry, 3(1).
O'Donnell, A. (2015). Contemplative pedagogy and mindfulness: Developing creative attention in an age of distraction. Journal of Philosophy of Education, 49(2), 187-202.
Morgan, P. F. (2015). A brief history of the current reemergence of contemplative education. Journal of Transformative Education, 13(3), 197-218.
Rendón, L., & Kanagala, V. (2017). Embracing contemplative pedagogy in a culturally diverse classroom. ICEA Journal, 1(1), 15-25.
Rodríguez-Carvajal, R., García-Rubio, C., Paniagua, D., García-Diex, G., & de Rivas, S. (2016). Mindfulness Integrative Model (MIM): Cultivating positive states of mind towards oneself and the others through mindfulness and self-compassion. Anales de Psicología, 32(3), 749-760.
Shapiro, S. L., Brown, K. W., & Astin, J. (2011). Toward the integration of meditation into higher education: A review of research evidence. Teachers College Record, 113(3), 493-528.