Thursday, April 24, 2014

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Faculty Explore the Usefulness of Contemplative Practices in the Classroom

With the fast pace of society, its multi-sensory distractions and temptations for multi-tasking, a contemplative approach to teaching and learning that helps students and faculty members slow down and pay closer attention is gaining traction in higher education and at the University of Virginia, as well as other settings.

A rapidly growing, multi-disciplinary area, contemplative practice includes activities such as guided meditation, mindfulness, yoga and written personal reflection, among others. Including such methods in the classroom is called “contemplative pedagogy.”

At U.Va.’s Teaching Resource Center, the Contemplative Pedagogy Program, led by associate director and associate professor Dorothe Bach, provides support to U.Va. faculty members who wish to systematically integrate these practices into their courses.  

The Teaching Resource Center website defines contemplative pedagogy as simply “the integration of reflective or meditative practices into higher education.” Recent scientific research into brain function shows that meditation can boost concentration and improve cognitive and academic performance, reinforcing learning.

“Studies also indicate that this integrative approach increases capacities such as self-awareness, creativity, empathy, compassion and interpersonal skills,” the website says.

Bach received a grant from the Center of Contemplative Mind in Society and U.Va.’s Contemplative Science Center, whose opening last year vaulted U.Va. to the forefront of research and scholarship in this rapidly growing multi-disciplinary approach, she said. The contemplative pedagogy program is one of the Teaching Resource Center’s several “learning communities” – small groups of faculty members who come together to explore new ways of teaching.

“More faculty are expressing interest in engaging contemplation to deepen learning, inquiry and meaning-making,” Bach said.

Other aims include lowering stress for graduate students teaching for the first time and enabling health care professionals to be more attentive to patients and avoid burnout. The U.Va. School of Nursing offers courses incorporating reflective practices, and the School of Medicine teaches mindfulness and motivational interviewing to medical students. The School of Medicine’s Mindfulness Center also offers mindfulness-based stress reduction classes for health care professionals.

Sometimes professors lose touch with the bigger picture as they focus on their specialties, Bach said, but contemplative practices can provoke profound questions about the implications of what they’re studying and teaching – and that fundamentally “requires a commitment to the well-being of everyone involved.”

Bach co-teaches “Spiritual Journeys in Young Adult Fiction” with John Alexander, associate director of Sciences, Humanities and Arts Network of Technological Initiatives, known as SHANTI.

She said the course has evolved over several years to include more contemplative exercises, and has shown her that “students from different academic backgrounds and with different interests have benefitted from the class in numerous ways.”

The course covers young adult fiction through particular disciplines such as religious studies, gender studies, history and literary studies. “But instead of neglecting our personal reading experiences and focusing solely on an academic study of these texts, we will investigate the productive tension between the two,” Bach wrote in describing the class.

Bach and Alexander have been surprised at how quickly students form a community in the class. “It’s really not about impressing us,” Bach said. “Instead of looking to us for the right answers, they are deeply engaged personally with each other, with asking probing questions. They are thinking on deep levels, connecting the material to questions that are meaningful to them. This type of rich inquiry helps make the learning endure.”

One former student wrote, “What I loved about this class was that it was more than the typical ‘academic’ class: in ‘Spiritual Journeys’ I learned more about myself, my beliefs and how to think than in any other class I’ve taken at U.Va. The irony lies in the fact that I had no idea I even needed to learn any of these things.”

“I discovered ... that academia does not need to be cold and distant,” another student wrote. “In fact, we can learn the most beautiful and profound things from one another, when we are vulnerable and open to sharing not only our analytical thoughts, but our lives as well.”

No stranger to innovation in teaching, Emily Scida, associate professor of Spanish, joined the contemplative pedagogy program to refine her graduate course for future Spanish and Italian teachers, as well as to learn from her colleagues.

Most of her students are “teaching for the first time in their lives and so can experience a great deal of anxiety about performance in the classroom, content knowledge, classroom management and other teaching matters,” said Scida, who participated in the “Fall 2012 Challenge for Newly Hybrid Technology-Enhanced Courses,” part of U.Va.’s efforts to employ the best technological enhancements to teaching and learning.   

“I wanted to explore if and how the integration of contemplative practices in my pedagogy course might reduce the effect of stressors on graduate students, particularly those related to teaching,” she wrote in an email, “and what effect it might have on their learning in my course and on their general well-being.”

This past semester, she invited her students to engage in short contemplative practices at the beginning of class, including “different types of meditations to cultivate inner stillness and compassion.” Other activities included writing, intention setting, deep listening and recording appreciative moments. 

“These interventions have been shown to enhance well-being, increase positivity and happiness, reduce the effects of stress and burnout, and improve concentration and performance,” Scida said. 

So far, initial feedback has been “very positive about the effect of the activities,” but she’ll collect and analyze data after grades are submitted.

Gina DeGennaro, an assistant professor in the School of Nursing, also joined the contemplative pedagogy program, wanting to help her students reduce stress and learn to ward off burnout, “to deepen the experience of non-judgmental, present-moment awareness through deep listening exercises, body scans, exploratory writing, observation of the breath, silence and appreciative inquiry,” she wrote in describing her course, “Clinical Practice and Decision Making,” In addition, teaching self-awareness to nursing students has been shown to aid in maintaining attention and thus, improving safety for patients.

She aims to offer students “a deeper opportunity for you to become the nurse you dream of becoming,” she wrote on her syllabus.

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