Faculty workshop on Contemplative Pedagogy

Here are the notes from a workshop I recently gave to faculty. The notes don’t reflect what actually happened. I ended up speaking extemporaneously and people had lots to contribute. So what I’m posting here is more like what I over-prepared and doesn’t reflect any lived reality. But I hope people find it useful and interesting! Would love your comments.


This workshop is a quick and dirty introduction to a process that doesn’t lend itself well to quick and dirty. As the term suggests, “contemplative pedagogy” requires contemplation. And so for the next hour I’ll give you a bit of background and context, pose some questions for reflection and discussion, and conclude, but I want to encourage you to take these questions with you, let them kick around for a while, do some freewriting and brainstorming, talk to your friends about them over good food and drink.

I’ll give you a list for further reading, but research needs to be augmented by reflection, and you might not leave this workshop with any particular answers or even ideas. I hope instead that this workshop provokes your curiosity and motivates you to pursue answers to your own questions of pedagogy and purpose.

I stumbled upon contemplative pedagogy while searching for ways to 1)  make my job more interesting and more fulfilling for me. 2) make my students genuinely curious about my subject and 3) deal with questions of assessment, which were at first distracting and then utterly consuming me last year.

The assessment models I had seen defined education in a way that was alien to me, and I saw these models as annoying and antithetical to getting my job done successfully and in a way that’s fulfilling and satisfying to me and my students. I also didn’t have the skills or knowledge to make new models without embarking on some serious research and reflection adventure. And so I embarked.

It started with How can I measure what I’m and they’re doing? Led to, what are we doing and why are we doing it? Is there any single thing we can say that “higher education” attempts to do?

Contemplative pedagogy has given me some very satisfactory ways of living these questions. (Give out handout)

I see people drawn to contemplative practices in the classroom for a variety of reasons.

1)      Helps students acquire information. Mindfulness practices can help students focus, increase their attention span, bolster their ability to recall information. Studies in mindfulness can also help us as teachers interrogate these assumptions (attention, recall, etc.) about learning

2)      Helps students use information in creative and critical ways. Contemplative and mindful practices can provoke and hone creative and critical thinking skills. Focused attention paired with open awareness. Can be a process of discovery. Flexible thinking around corners and outside of boxes, etc.

3)      Helps students stay or get well: anxiety level of student; spiritual wellness, feeling a sense of meaning or greater purpose.

4)      Helps students serve. As we explore Higher Ed and students’ role in society, we want to think how we can make ethical compassionate creative citizens of the world.

And so reasons for engaging in contemplative pedagogy range from the most pragmatic to most visionary and engage the physical, emotional, intellectual, social, and spiritual aspects of a person.

Researchers in a variety of disciplines are demonstrating benefits in each of these areas. And the field of mindful or contemplative pedagogy is remarkably interdisciplinary, as pedagogy can be.

I’m interested in all of these at different times and I see them building on one another. Understanding one’s attention processes can lead to wellness and provoke ethical action in the world, just as a desire to act ethically in the world can lead one to reflect on one’s own wellness and attention, behaviors.

I believe that the first two are the most accessible and easily integrated into classroom experiences and so I planned to spend less time on that. Grounding exercises, mini meditations, visualization, and pragmatic modifications to content delivery can be found in the sources I’ve provided and developed by individual instructors. These first two can be created by instructors who have an understanding of the field and its goals and approaches, which we will focus on.

The third springs from disciplines as diverse as psychology, neuroscience, counseling, Health and Human Performance, Anthropology, Sociology, and Religious Studies. Here I rely on the work of, most famously, Jon Kabot Zinn, and other resources cited, which demonstrate in a variety of ways how contemplative practices enhance all parts of the wellness wheel

What I’d like to focus on in this workshop, because it’s what I most want to learn from my colleagues, is the fourth point—what meaning underpins our teaching? what makes our teaching in higher ed meaningful to us and to society? what meanings do we explore in the teaching and research of our disciplines? how does our service to higher education and our communities contribute to meaning-making? Why do we do what we do? What’s our ontology and epistemology? because these drive our pedagogies.

And I want to focus on this fourth point not only because it will help you individually develop and apply 1-3, but because disciplinary divisions encourage us to see these radical gulfs between the content, skills, and methodologies of my discipline vs. your discipline. Our focus on pedagogy can help us speak across these disciplinary lines, and contemplative practices can bridge those divides to help us see a common pursuit of meaning.

While faculty, students, and administrators talk about “relevance” quite often (How is this material or discipline relevant to students’ lives?) I find that we rarely talk about “meaning.”  Relevance suggests a static relationship and risks vagueness—there is a life and there is material that relates to it. It’s a most imprecise term.

But change that to “meaning,”—how is this material meaningful to your life—that begs the questions: what do you find meaningful? What is your life about? And that’s precisely what we can’t bring to students but what they bring to us, to our classes, their notions of what is meaningful, which I’ve found to be remarkably more flexible and interesting than their notions of what is relevant.

And I like this focus on “meaning” rather than “relevance” because it can be very present-focused rather than future-focused. Langer’s work illustrates the dangers of teaching something “because you might need this later”. If we want to teach curious and motivated students, that’s not the way to provoke curiosity or instill motivation. But offer them the experience of reflecting on course material and making present meaning with it (not future, hypothetical “use” of course material), and you’ve provoked some curiosity and tapped some motivation.

So, rather than justifying my existence or the place of my discipline’s content, skills, methodologies in “how is this relevant to what you already know,” or “how will this help you get a job,” I tap students’ pre-existing interest in questions of meaning and allow them to create the sense of relevance.

I try to remember that my course material is a vehicle in service to Exploring Questions of Meaning. And when I root my content in a parallel exploration of their answers to those questions of meaning, I can provoke transformation. In fact, we do transformative learning when we use contemplation as a practice and teach “contemplative” as a way of being in the world and with ourselves.

If it’s not already clear, I have a hunch that all disciplines have at their root explorations of meaning. They are all ways of meaning-making and we should not confuse them with meaning itself. The discipline, the major, the job: these are simply tools and avenues for making meaning. Meaning is what students’ bring to it. And the alchemy of the two is education.

I believe that we can all create assignments that encourage students to explore how they’re defining their lives and perspectives. But it’s necessary for us to be engaged in these questions ourselves, for us to be open to multiple responses to these questions, and to be reflective about our own perspectives.

So for the next 20 minutes or so, I would like us to explore many facets of one question: In what service do we see our disciplinary content, skills, and methodologies, working?

Each of us knows what’s attractive, appealing, useful, and interesting about the what-why-and-how of our discipline. I’d invite you to spend significant time thinking, writing and talking about this.

Read through reflective questions. (My example of reading, writing and studying the past).

Do freewrite for 10, discussion for 10.

By first exploring these questions for ourselves, with plenty of reflection, writing, and conversation, we can then be patient with and curious about students’ pursuits and questions, about what they bring to and do with our disciplines and materials.

When we’ve pursued these meta questions, we can make manageable, concrete assignments that have at their core students using disciplinary terms, methods, and materials to explore at some level what it is to be human, what it means to be alive, why and how they make decisions, the impact of their thoughts, speech and actions (on the environment, their wellness, the economy, or whatever our discipline privileges).

And it may not be obvious that the assignment does this but we can give them the prompt and then let them know the underlying explorations they’re doing, why you’re interested in how they’ll respond to it, ways that this assignment is, at its core, deeply meaningful.

For example… what are some things people have done in class? 10 minutes discussion.

So, just to sum-up here:

It’s important to note that we should give students the most valuable commodity: time. I recommend using face to face time, if you have any, for the reflection, writing, and conversations I’m encouraging you to do outside of this workshop.

Deliver content and information any way you like, but use presence for experience.

Contemplative pedagogies are incredibly experiential. We’re not just giving students an experience of applying skills and content from the classroom in the outside world. We’re rooting disciplinary materials in students’ experiences and creating ways for students to let these two speak to one another.

So, students reflect on their experiences, then refract that through the lens of our disciplines or course materials, and, from there, meaning-making can happen.  Happily, I think it’s my job to provoke that process.

Thank you all for sharing. Closing comments, questions.

[the handout is the next blog post]


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