From the Director: Meditating on . . . Contemplative Pedagogy.

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Dr. Ann Johnson, Faculty Development director
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By: Dr. Ann Johnson (Faculty Development)

I often hear from faculty members frustrated with rising expectations about classroom activity levels.  Students seem to want games, videos, and lots of variety in their classes. The latest teaching trends and best practice lists highlight active, hands-on learning that engages students – requiring teachers to be nimble, quick responders who are adept with the latest technologies.  Those trends will continue, and most are yielding good results in terms of student learning.  But there also appears to be a balancing movement occurring as teachers find ways to incorporate “slow” moments to counter the fast cognition of the modern classroom (those familiar with the “slow food” movement will recognize the concept). 

At two recent conferences, I’ve attended sessions on “contemplative pedagogy” – integrating strategies for promoting quiet reflection, prolonged opportunities for focusing, and even meditation in the classroom.  This follows a quiet increase in interest going back to 2008 when the Association for Contemplative Mind in Higher Education was formed.  This nonprofit group advocates for integrating contemplative practices through its conferences and workshops.  Institutions like Brown University and Vanderbilt have established formal initiatives to promote integration of contemplative pedagogy, and here at UST, we recently established a Faculty Learning Community on “Meditation, Mindfulness, and Teaching.”  Led by Bill Brendel and Carol Bruess, it’s generated a lot of attention from interested faculty, and I’m looking forward to hearing more from this group.

Some believe that this approach is especially well-suited to our current generation of multi-tasking, easily-distracted college students, as it promotes sustained focus and reflection.  But as any Buddhist will tell you, the problem of mental distraction is not new, nor is it restricted to college students.  Neuroscientists now tell us that constant neural activity is the brain’s ‘default mode’.  Some who study technology and its applications, like sociologist Sherry Turkle, fear that our new digital devices and the social media practices evolving around them are making us distractible in new and troubling ways; she argues that they degrade our ability to focus, especially on each other, promoting social disconnection. Turkle’s Ted Talk, drawn from her book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, is featured in our “Found Wisdom” column and it’s worth a look.   

Turkle doesn’t address education issues, but others are making a connection to the classroom. Physicist Arthur Zajonc sees contemplative pedagogy as a corrective to one-sided rationality governing education practices since the Enlightenment; he argues that it benefits both students and faculty. It’s an interesting claim, and I am eagerly awaiting news on this front from our own faculty exploring the topic.

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