About Mindfulness Pedagogy: in advance of the 5th Annual Research Academy for University Learning Teaching & Learning Showcase on May 2nd – by Julie Dalley

April 29, 2014

Dear Neil,

In anticipation of our Fifth Annual Research Academy for University Learning Teaching & Learning Showcase this coming Friday,  thank you for your interest in mindfulness pedagogy (also called contemplative pedagogy, or contemplative science) and its practice in higher education.  My own teaching practice attempts to always take a compassionate and contemplative approach, and, as a student of mindfulness pedagogy, here is what I know.

First, I must acknowledge that, while we are seeing an upswing in attention to how mindfulness and higher education intersect — (The New York Times has covered mindfulness in the classroom herehere, and here; The Chronicle of Higher Ed highlights this practice here; and NPR had a recent story available here) – mindfulness is founded upon historical and ingrained cultural and spiritual traditions developed long ago. Now considered secular, contemplative pedagogy has its roots in ancient Greek and Roman societies and borrows heavily from venerable Asian wisdoms: Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism. There are also many Christian and Judaic spiritual traditions that use meditative or contemplative practices as a form of reaching deep understanding and cultivating heightened attention to ourselves and our relationships with others.

Mindfulness is concerned with our inner selves, cultivating mind and spirit to reach a deeper understanding of who we are, what is important in life and in our relationships with others, and what intrinsic values we uphold as worthy of our attention and development. It encourages an intuitive development of self,  practicing deep attention and focus, and opening awareness that promotes self-compassion, peace, non-anxiety (or reduced anxiety), and social cohesiveness.

In higher education today, we seek to transfer these same practices of deep insight and meditation to our students in order that they can focus more upon things that have value to them and to their communities, and thereby be less distracted by superficial and stress-inducing concerns coming at them from all sides. We teach students to gently and without judgment push away thoughts, distractions, and negative attachments (anger, sadness, jealousy, hatred) so that they can begin to focus on their studies, their health, and their communities.

We can’t learn when we are too focused on things that prevent learning;  indeed, these factors can prevent us from honoring diverse perspectives and ideas.  My colleague Michael Lees argues that, “If a college campus as a microcosm thrives, then academic achievement rises. If academic achievement flourishes, then a fully functioning living system such as a healthy college campus now has the opportunity to take life and learning to the macrocosm and succeed in the global community” (Lees, 4). This is why there has been a renewed interest in contemplative pedagogy; there is a concern in higher education that students lack the skills necessary to “turn off” or, as Sherry Turkle puts it, “untether” themselves from the increasingly dominant and superficial demands for our attention (cf. Chapter 9 of Turkle’s book Alone Together, Basic Books, 2012. ) You can also view a fascinating interview with Turkle here, which discusses her research on how technology actually increases our solitude and our inability to focus on relationships.

The beauty of contemplative pedagogy and practice is that it is interdisciplinary, and benefits both faculty and students. We focus on the now, we attend to ourselves – our physical, emotional, and mental health – and each other, and we concentrate on what matters most to us and learn to push away ideas or distractions that compete for our attention (incoming text messages, constant Twitter feed, work email, Instagram post). This isn’t simply a science that we impose on students to generate better learning (putting it on them, so to speak), but a way of being that we as teachers adapt ourselves, in order to generate excellence in teaching and deeper, more engaged, learning. Ultimately, it is un-crowding our mind, allowing time for reflection and insight, and honing our focus, that we model and sometimes practice with our students.  Here and here are just two examples of the new research that pointedly reveals the benefit to teachers who practice mindfulness. 

You asked about what we are doing at Montclair State University to forward and promote this pedagogy.  At the Research Academy, we have a very active faculty and staff Fellows Program involved with generating discussion, promoting contemplative pedagogy and practice on campus, and designing and implementing new research in the field.

The following is an example of just one small exercise I use to get students to focus on the present moment, and that they find very illuminating and fun.  At the beginning of each semester, I ask my Freshman Writing students to scroll through their texting history and estimate how many texts they send in a day.  In some cases, they couldn’t even estimate how many, as it was well into the hundreds.  I then ask them to write down who they texted most. Usually it was about 5-10 of the same people, all day long (mostly parents and girlfriend/boyfriend). Then I ask to them to look at their texts. What was the most common topic, or exchange? Surprisingly, they were very mundane texts, saying little. Most students couldn’t even recall what they texted to each other. It was a form of communication that existed just to establish or reinforce a connection, but it communicated very little. This exercise was very illuminating to my students, because it showed them how much time and energy they put into a practice they had never stopped to question. It also gave them the chance to do a piece of reflective writing about something that was entirely relevant to their lives.

Hopefully this brief letter will generate some curiosity about the contemplative pedagogy movement, and readers will reach out to me or my colleagues to ask questions or get involved at their own institutions. The exercise I shared above is one of hundreds of ways that educators can introduce more mindful instruction in their classrooms, but the first step is generally adopting a contemplative practice of our own.  Our 5th Annual University Teaching and Learning Showcase on Friday, May 2, 2014  will feature keynote speaker Dr. Daniel Barbezat, arguably the most popular and well-known “face” of contemplative pedagogy in higher education.

Below are some key articles in this field that will inspire and provide more knowledge about this growing pedagogy. Thank you to the Creative Research Center, as always, for being interested in the work of the Research Academy, and for asking the right questions.

— Julie Dalley   dalleyj@mail.montclair.edu  — Assistant Director, Research Academy for University Learning

Select Bibliography 

Barbezat, Daniel and Mirabai Bush. Contemplative Practices in Higher Education: Powerful Methods to Transform Teaching and Learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2013. Print.

Brown, Richard C. “Inner to Outer: The Development of Contemplative Pedagogy.” Naropa University. Web. 20 April 2014.

Flook, Lisa, Goldberg, Simon, Pinger, Laura, Bonus, Katherine, and Davidson, Richard J. “Mindfulness for Teachers: A Pilot Study to Assess Effects on Stress, Burnout, and Teaching Efficacy.” Mind, Brain, and Education. 7:3 (2013), pp. 182-195. Print.

Langer, Ellen. The Power of Mindful Learning. New York: De Capo Press, 1998.

Lees, Michael. “Example Program Evaluation and Benefits of Educational Research: Ecoliteracy, Sustainability, and the 21st Century College.” Walden University, August 2013.

Palmer, Parker. “The Violence of Our Knowledge: On Higher Education and Peace Making.” Transcript of public lecture given at University of Wisconsin-Madison (November 29, 2001). Web. 20 April 2014.

Turkle, Sherry. Alone Together. New York: Basic Books, 2012. Print.

Zajonc, Arthur. “Contemplative and Transformative Pedagogy.” Kosmos. V:1 (Fall/Winter 2006). Web. 20 April 2014.

Zajonc, Arthur, and Parker J. Palmer. The Heart of Higher Education: A Call to Renewal. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010.

[Julie Dalley enjoys an expansive academic background and extensive study of the position of women in society, historically and in present day. Her research has branched into the fields of rhetoric, rhetoric in fictional narrative, and the rhetorical situation of women writers and gender bias in the literary establishment. Her work is primarily focused upon gender issues in writing development, as well as analyzing the rhetorical writing space of all marginalized communities, including gay/queer, racial, ethnic, and transgender rhetorical discourse. Within this field, she has developed a growing relationship with how teachers can approach social issues from a more mindful and purposeful position within the classroom.  Ms. Dalley’s professional work includes faculty development programming, research on emerging issues in teaching and learning (with a focus on creativity, contemplative practice and pedagogy, and writing) as well as writing, editing, and blogging for the Research Academy at Montclair State University Teaching Times in Higher Education. She has contributed to new scholarship on how to foster creativity in the classroom, the role of faculty development in new teaching practices, and the role of technology in teaching and learning.]

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