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My teacher training focused on goals and assessment. When I conduct workshops on teaching and whenever I am asked for advice on teaching, I tell instructors to clarify goals and work backward. Two years ago I gave a presentation on technology in the classroom. I included a laundry list of ...
Buddhist-Based Universities in the United States: Searching for a New Model in Higher Education
Date Reviewed: December 16, 2015
Expressing her concern about the current direction of higher education in the West, Dr. Storch argues that we can learn from the pedagogical principles of four “Buddhist-inspired” universities in the U.S. The first four chapters of this slim book each focus on one of these universities. Each is “a university that is state-accredited, which offers degrees in liberal arts and professional fields, and at the same time uses Buddhist pedagogical principles” (vii). Each chapter begins with a one to two page description of the school’s campus and the values its landscape and architecture embodies. This is followed by a brief biography of the male leader who founded the University or its parent Buddhist organization. These biographies, which occupy roughly a third of each chapter, are taken from official materials published by the organizations. The final two sections of each chapter review describe the historical founding of the school, its curriculum, and the impressions of its students. Data is drawn from websites and other promotional materials, and a few interviews. The last section of each chapter outlines the Buddhist pedagogical principles used at these universities, and the impact the author sees these having on students.
The fifth and final chapter is the most engaging part of the book. Here the author discusses Buddhist pedagogical principles in three categories. (1) “Mindfulness”: Even though traditional meditation practice is not required, or even taught, at all of these schools, an atmosphere of mindful engagement is cultivated, and this is beneficial for students and faculty. (2) “Interconnectedness of all life”: These schools emphasize this principle inside and outside the classroom. Students are treated as real people, not as consumers; there is plenty of green space and fresh air in the classrooms; and values of environmental protection and vegetarianism are promoted. (3) “Right motivation for giving and receiving education”: These schools resist the pervasive contemporary tendency toward the commodification of all things, especially education. Students are taught values instead, and faculty and administrators treat students with compassion. This book concludes with a reflection on two of the pedagogical themes of the book: the teaching of meditation and ethical education (meaning an education that is both ethical toward students, and that teaches students to be ethical themselves).
There are many places where the author could have deepened her inquiry. For example, how much do the educational models described here, which focus on educating the whole person and a commitment to values, represent a novel approach to education, and how much do they repeat already well-established models of liberal arts education? Also, although other Asian religions have not established comparable schools in the U.S., there is a long history of religiously-based liberal arts education, such as Jesuit Universities. How do these different approaches compare?
Ultimately, this book is short in length and narrow in scope. The first four chapters range between thirteen and eighteen pages, without notes. The most substantial chapter is the fifth, and it could easily have stood alone as a journal article. This chapter raises a few important points about Buddhist pedagogical principles, but the book as a whole seems only half finished, and at this price it is difficult to recommend it to the readers of this site.
Contemplative Practices in Higher Education: Powerful Methods to Transform Teaching and Learning
Date Reviewed: November 30, -0001
We live and teach in a world of massive distraction. It is difficult to find spaces or times in which people are simply still, let alone inhabit silence. College students claim they are effective “multi-taskers” but more and more research is suggesting that multitasking is not a route to deep learning, and can even begin to shape attention practices in detrimental ways. What can we do? One generative inquiry into these challenges comes from the field of contemplative practice. What is contemplative practice? The authors of this book define it broadly, noting that these practices
certainly include meditation, but not all are meditative in the traditional sense. . . . They all place the student in the center of his or her learning so that the student can connect his or her inner world to the outer world. Through this connection, teaching and learning is transformed into something personally meaningful yet connected to the world. (6)
Bookended by a foreword written by Parker Palmer, and an afterword by Arthur Zajonc, this book is a much needed and pragmatic resource for anyone teaching in a higher education context. It is based on nearly twenty years of research into contemplative practices in higher education, including the work of 152 fellows who worked on classroom experiments in more than one hundred colleges and universities. Barbezat and Bush provide a concise but thorough overview of this research, while keeping their focus on teaching and learning practice.
The book is divided into two sections, the first concentrating on theoretical and pedagogical background, the second a guide to contemplative practices in higher education classrooms. Issues such as neuroplasticity, the challenges of reflecting on first-person experience, and a range of theoretical resources for introducing and developing meditation and introspection are explored in the first section. In the second section the authors draw from a vast array of pedagogical experiments in a diverse assortment of disciplines to resource specific exercises in mindful reading, writing, listening, movement, and action. These resources include specific writing prompts, examples of syllabi, and a rich collection of bibliographic entries for further study.
The authors also address directly the challenge of the religious studies classroom: “The most problematic place in the academy to introduce contemplative practices has been religion departments, where the concern has been that a professor who practices the religion he or she is teaching would not be sufficiently objective. Teaching contemplative practices to students raises a further concern: proselytizing” (105). Here the authors are quick to point out that contemplative practices of this sort are about “students discover[ing] their own internal reactions without having to adopt any ideology or specific belief” (6).
But is this really an appropriate response? My primary critique of this significant book is to ask what it means to invite students into a “technology” of embodied practice without at the same time inviting them to inhabit the beliefs within which that technology arose. Are we really willing to remove context in this way? Or is the contextual collapse we are already living within (cf. Michael Wesch) necessarily confronted by the intentionally attentive work of contemplation? Can practices of meditation and introspection so ground our knowing as to build the kind of insight, compassion, and systemic analysis necessary for living in a deeply present way in our postmodern world?
There are likely no clear or single answers to these epistemological conundrums. As one of the teachers whose work is explored in the book, Mary Rose O’Reilly, writes: “I learned that the single most important thing a contemplatively centered classroom teaches the teacher is not a pedagogical recipe but pedagogical flexibility” (188).
For my part, I am hopeful and energized by the various experiments with which these innovative educators are engaged. Given that education must, at heart, “create environments for students to inquire and challenge themselves about the meaning of their lives and the lives of others” (200), this book offers both rich reflection and pragmatic resources for doing so.
Contemplative Learning and Inquiry Across Disciplines
Date Reviewed: March 5, 2015
In the ongoing conversation about whether higher education exists to make students wise or to teach them marketable skills, contemplative inquiry has attracted a lot of attention. Among the criticisms of college faculty is that they view students as “brains on a stick,” an amusing metaphor idea credited to former Harvard dean Harry Lewis in John Miller’s essay “Contemplation: the Soul’s Way of Knowing.” Miller’s is one of twenty-two essays by researchers and practitioners in contemplative learning assembled here as “a resource for confronting current teaching and learning challenges” (7). Though some contributions have a stronger proselytizing tone, the editors’ stated goal is to “raise awareness” of how contemplative studies can inform, enrich, and sustain the disciplines and instructional contexts of higher education (4).
The authors represent a cross section of experience and education, including tenured faculty, graduate students, administrators, an engineer, and a former monk. Though contributions come from many academic disciplines, the social sciences have the largest presence. Only two authors write from the field of Religious Studies; teacher-scholars interested in specific applications to theology and religion will be better served by the book Meditation and the Classroom: Contemplative Pedagogy for Religious Studies byJudith Simmer-Brown and Fran Grace (reviewed in TTR 16, no. 3, 2013).
As with any anthology, most users will read selectively, but the four parts of the book work well as a whole, articulating the rationale for and benefits of contemplative methods, identifying practical classroom and campus applications, and reflecting on future directions in the field. Part 2, “Domain Specific Perspectives,” is the most pedagogically helpful, with entries from political science, history, economics, and information sciences, among others. Many of the practices are grounded in Buddhist teachings, chief among them mindfulness meditation. Widely embraced as a balm in an age of distraction, meditation has become separated from its roots in the wisdom traditions, which is problematic for both sectarian and secular institutions. Other contemplative activities such as silent reading or detailed observation may have religious or philosophical forms, but are well established methods for teaching and learning.
Those considering adopting contemplative pedagogies may wish for more data on their effectiveness than this volume offers. Though research results appear in many of the essays, only two authors examine studies of mindfulness practice in depth, one from the laboratory and the other from the classroom. As Alfred Kasnziak observes from his work in the cognitive sciences, the results are “encouraging,” but he notes that there is almost no research on the “educationally relevant consequences of meditation practice with students that would allow for relatively unambiguous interpretation” (207).
Administrators and teachers with more ambitious goals of transforming an institutional culture or curriculum will find Part 3, “Individual and Collective Transformation,” relevant but perhaps not especially practical for dealing with resistance to this pedagogy. Daniel Vokey, for example, presents contemplative inquiry as an antidote to what he calls “academic materialism”: higher education’s attempt to preserve the status of an elite minority by promoting competition, fear, and isolation (260). Such an indictment, though arguably true, will likely appeal more to the already converted than to the skeptics still suspicious of contemplative education.
The book’s concluding essays on the philosophy of “intersubjectivity” take the conversation in a “mystical” direction that will attract advocates and critics alike. Educators who seek a more prominent role for spirituality in the classroom will appreciate the presentation of teaching as a sacred process and teachers as spiritual mentors; critics will be troubled by the view of teaching as an extension of one’s own spiritual practice. Teachers and scholars of comparative religion will perhaps be uneasy with Edward Sarath’s claim that among the highest priorities for contemplative education is the cultivation of a “21st century spiritual intelligence” through the “melding” of wisdom traditions (369).
I think most college faculty could agree that students are not just “brains on a stick” and the liberal arts should foster in them a deeper engagement with self, others, and the world. But reasonable people can disagree about how to create that engagement. This volume will educate the simply curious, inspire the deeply committed, and advance the conversation among proponents and skeptics of contemplative inquiry, which is all to the good for the larger discussion of why we teach.