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Benefits to a Contemplative Approach to Teaching and Learning

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Benefits to a Contemplative Approach to Teaching and Learning

Spotlight on CSC’s Faculty Engagement 
The Contemplative Faculty Learning Community
 
What does it mean to bring a contemplative approach to teaching and learning? That’s the question that 17 UVA faculty from six different schools are investigating with assistance from the Contemplative Sciences Center’s Contemplative Faculty Learning Community (CFLC) this academic year. 
 
This diverse, transdisciplinary group—including instructors in English, foreign languages and culture, music, studio art, commerce, engineering, nursing, medicine, and education—joined the CFLC as part of attending the Center for Teaching Excellence’s award-winning Course Design Institute (CDI) this past summer or spring. The CDI is an intensive, week-long seminar for faculty to design or redesign a course with learner-centered principles in mind. 
 
As part of the CDI, participating faculty can join smaller learning groups around particular themes. The CFLC cohort chose to include a focus on contemplation and contemplative pedagogy in their course design and to participate in CFLC workshops and consultations throughout the academic year.
 
Shepherding the CFLC is the Contemplative Sciences Center’s Associate Director of Pedagogy and Faculty Engagement, Karolyn Kinane, who explains that integrating contemplation and contemplative approaches into academic courses is broader than having students meditate to increase focus or lower their stress levels. The larger purpose is to create meaningful, rigorous, experiential learning experiences for students, the kind of learning experiences that Kinane says, “bring to the fore students’ unexamined habits or behaviors, that promote collaboration rather than competition, that ask students to refract the content of a course/discipline through their own values and experiences, or that aim to promote deep presence with and compassion for that which is being studied.”
 
A primary goal of contemplative teaching, as it turns out, is one that is familiar to and embraced by most educators: to help students view and approach learning as an immersive, transformative experience and to cultivate a classroom environment that facilitates that kind of experience. 
 
What does contemplative teaching and learning look like?
Some CFLC instructors have integrated contemplative approaches more casually or indirectly. For example, some have focused on improving interpersonal dynamics in the classroom, encouraging students to be more compassionate, kind, and reflective in order to create a classroom environment where all students feel comfortable engaging in genuine inquiry. Many have empowered students to take ownership of their own learning through reflective assignments designed to probe their own thinking. 
 
Other instructors have incorporated discrete contemplative practices or exercises. A few specific examples include embodied listening practices in Noel Lobley and Jason Clinton Bennett’s course “Curating Sound: Art, Ethnography and Practice”; a contemplative looking and listening exercise through downtown Charlottesville as part of Sharon Ku and Sean Ferguson’s “Engineering into Engineering Design and Community Engagement for Smart Cities” course; and reflective writing exercises in Indu Ohri’s “Studies in Global Literature: The Global Ghost Story” course. 
 
Another distinctive example comes from two-time CDI and CFLC participant and studio art instructor Matthew Shelton’s “Drawing as Contemplation” course last year. Students in the course engaged in the well-known “blind contour” exercise in which they had to draw an object without ever looking down at their papers—imagining instead that they were physically tracing the object with their pencils. Shelton says that just like the breath can be an anchor for attention during meditation, so too is the cultivated awareness of the pencil touching the object. 
 
 
Matthew Shelton (left) and Halle Strosser ’20 (right) blind contour drawings
 
Several CFLC instructors have incorporated a brief mindfulness practice (e.g., meditation; a breathing exercise; a moment for quiet reflection) into the start of every class to help students reset and prepare to be fully present. This semester Spanish lecturer David Florez-Murillo implemented Mindful Fridays during which students engage in a three-minute breathing meditation, followed by gratitude practices and a brief deep listening exercise on the highs and lows of the week. Several of his students expressed appreciation for the weekly practice in their mid-course evaluations, saying they looked forward to it all week or that it helped them feel more focused and connected and less stressed during class. 
 
Room for silence
A common theme among the CFLC instructors has been cultivating students’ comfort with silence and reflective listening. It’s been a particularly important endeavor in classes that involve cross-cultural communication. In Ku’s “Smart Cities” engineering course, for example, UVA students engage in a global classroom experience, collaborating remotely with counterparts in China. Ku says the Chinese students have a much different approach to communication, tending to reflect longer before responding. That subtle difference and other biases have led to some frustration and misunderstanding among U.S. students who ​often unconsciously impose their standards to judge others. For example: mistaking periods of silence for disinterest or agreement. 
 
"In our course, we encouraged students to practice mindful listening and gaining comfort with silence through the singing bowl exercise. The ability to listen reflectively and empathize with other people’s perspectives are key to effective collaboration,” says Ku.   
 
Similarly in Lobley and Bennett’s “Curating Sound” course, students collaborate with indigenous partners in South Africa and Australia whose modes of communication eschew the rapid-fire, Q and A conversation style of many Americans. They advise the students on being deeper and more reflective listeners and developing awareness of and respect for other people’s perspectives and practices. They’re also helping students gain comfort with ambiguity and uncertainty and slow down their thinking—telling them not to rush to fill silence with an answer. 


Maker Space Specialist Jason Clinton Bennett and graduate student Timothy Booth listen to a student during the "Curating Sound" class.

Contemplation in the arts and the sciences
Contemplative practices and approaches are associated with numerous beneficial outcomes related to learning, such as increased emotional awareness and attentional control. Still, some students and faculty remain skeptical of changing more familiar content-focused teaching and learning methods. Some CFLC instructors have experienced push-back from students and faced challenges due to their methods or values differing from the dominant approaches of their schools or disciplines. Some people still believe that the hard sciences are less conducive than, say, humanities courses to integrating contemplative practices or pedagogy despite contemplative approaches mirroring the tenets of scientific inquiry in many respects,
 
Shelton agrees that contemplative approaches do fit quite easily into the studio art discipline. When he first participated in the CDI and joined the CFLC, he says he was a bit surprised to discover that what he was already doing with his art students was learner-centered and contemplative. Making art, he explains, requires embodied awareness, focused attention, sensory attunement, and comfort with failure. Additionally, he says, “Art is supposed to involve emotional ambiguity. It doesn’t give you answers but poses questions, and the role of the artist is to make something that asks questions without giving it away. To do so requires that artists be able to sit with uncertainty, with not knowing. That’s contemplation.”
 
Embodied awareness, comfort with failure, focused attention—one could argue these things are relevant to skill-building and problem-solving in every academic area. 
Ku believes they have a place in engineering. She says, “Contemplative exercises involve a very scientific approach to the mind—how the mind functions and how we can gain better control over the mind and our reactions.” A practitioner of meditation herself, Ku has personally experienced how it can help cultivate critical and reflexive thinking, but says she wasn’t sure about introducing the practice to the engineering classroom until joining the CFLC.
 
One way she incorporated contemplation into her “Smart Cities” class this semester was through a “city sensing” walk through Charlottesville. She explains that many students naturally come to class ready to focus on smart technology and to engage in designer-driven problem solving. To cultivate complementary perspectives, students were asked to engage in mindful walking and listening through Charlottesville and to practice “slow observation.” She told the students, “Don’t just focus on the number of utility poles; take notice of the mundane, social relationships, etc.” It didn’t take long for some of the 4th-year students to confront their own limited perspectives during the exercise. One was surprised to encounter actual trees on the Corner upon such careful observation; another had to admit having no idea how to get to downtown Charlottesville. 
 
The ultimate goal of the city sensing exercise was to help the students begin to develop a community-driven design approach and to understand that “smart” doesn’t necessary mean cutting-edge tech—that it includes being sensitive to and smart about community needs. Although it is too early to judge the outcome, there is evidence that the experience had its desired effect on some students—two groups was inspired by the exercise to tackle a smart transportation design project, not with autonomous vehicles (as might be expected), but with design and technology intended to make public transportation more accessible and welcoming to the whole community and more responsive to riders’ experiences, particularly those from underrepresented and disability groups.
 
A pathway to flourishing and well-being
Many CFLC instructors have found that participating in the learning community has had a significant impact on their own dispositions toward students and teaching. For example, Florez-Murillo says he used to feel impatient when students wouldn’t do the coursework. Now he says that he’s more present and kind with students: “I have experienced compassion, and I like the way it feels.” Similarly Marcel Schmid, an assistant professor in the department of Germanic languages & literatures, says that the CDI and CFLC have made him “more aware of the students and the energy in the room and more reflective about what I am doing and why.”
 
The positive impact on instructors themselves is not incidental, but another key goal of contemplative teaching and learning. According to Kinane, faculty attitudes and well-being profoundly influence students’ learning and well-being. “If we are going to create more humane institutions and reduce students' stress,” she says, “it’s important to help faculty build their own resources so they can bring care and attention to their work, their students, and our communities.”
 
The CFLC is just one of the ways the Contemplative Sciences Center engages with faculty to advance its mission of greater flourishing at the University. Learn about its other programming and services, including additional resources for faculty here. Also check out the center’s curated list of UVA courses with content related to contemplation and flourishing.

(Picured above right: Assistant Professor, Noel Lobely, "Curating Sound" instructor)