A Moment, Unplugged: Facilitating Contemplative Practice in the Classroom
Dr. Cheryl Hoy Amanda McGuire Rzicznek Elizabeth Zemanski Cheryl Lachowski
General Studies Writing Program - Bowling Green State University
Over the last decade or so of teaching undergraduates, it seems to have become increasingly more difficult for students to pay attention in class. While, historically, attention challenges have always been a part of higher education, with the rapid advancement in communication and social media technologies, the number of distracted students has grown exponentially (“Media multi-tasking,” 2015). Moreover, each semester, students appear to be facing more personal and academic challenges. They are bombarded with continual pressures and distractions from the media and technological gizmos, and they become conditioned in ways not conducive to being attentive (Purcell et al., 2012). Our journey into contemplative pedagogy began when we started searching for strategies that would eliminate, or at least reduce, distractions in the classroom and aid in increasing student focus, awareness, and learning in our courses. Each of us began integrating different contemplative practices into the classroom and then we began discussing our experiences and the effects on students. Our conclusion is that these practices are effective for helping students get to a place where they can engage in the learning process more fully.
Contemplative practices in the classroom “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” (Barbezat and Bush, 2014 p.6). Consequently, the introspection that develops from contemplative practice improves student attentiveness, increases awareness, and builds a classroom community based on respect and meaningful engagement.
We present four steps for facilitating classroom-based contemplative practices, four examples of contemplative practices we found particularly effective, and some observations about the power of integrating contemplation into the classroom.
Four Steps for Facilitating a Classroom-Based Contemplative Practice
The following steps, based on our own trial and error experiences, helps to facilitate a successful contemplative practice in the classroom.
At the start of the semester, allow 1 -2 minutes at the beginning of each class for contemplative practice. Later in the semester, this time can be extended to 3-5 minutes, depending on the activity and student interest.
Before each class for the first few weeks of the semester, place a sign on the classroom door asking late arrivals to not enter the classroom, to not knock on the classroom door if closed, and to wait quietly outside of the classroom until the contemplative practice ends.
Prior to the class starting time, ask students to turn off all laptops, phones, and other technological devices, and to remove Bluetooth devices, earbuds, and headphones before coming into the classroom. Also ask students to not turn on any classroom computers during the contemplative practice.
Purposefully begin by guiding students into, through, and out of the contemplative practice, allowing for a moment of transition before continuing on into the day’s lesson.
Four Contemplative Practices
The following four practices are interconnected and complementary and should not be thought of separate and distinct from one another.
Create time at the beginning of class for writing down thoughts and ideas or allow for free expression to assist students to move away from the distractions of the day and into an introspective moment where they can give voice to their inner self. Research provides evidence of the positive outcomes of reflective writing that has been linked with other contemplative practices in the classroom, such as those in which students reflect on their mindfulness and awareness raising experiences. Based on their study, Khramtsova and Glascock (2010) conclude that “journaling and mindfulness techniques can be successfully incorporated into college life” and that “These activities increase psychological well-being of student population, reduce stress, and improve overall college atmosphere” (p. 216). Reflective writing can help students learn course content, as well, by writing what they have learned from the content and by noting their questions about that content. To move students into a deeper engagement with the course content, students can make connections between the content and their own thoughts, experiences, and beliefs in their reflective writing. This deeper engagement promotes metacognition in which students are thinking about the content in relationship to themselves. This metacognition can lead to a critical or transformative learning experience in which, through their reflections, they recognize and question their own beliefs and assumptions in light of the content reflection. A constructive and informative resource for integrating reflective writing in any course is Grossman (2009) in “Structures for Facilitating Student Reflection.”
Increase awareness through intense and deliberate attention on a sound. This contemplative practice aids students in blocking out external stimuli and redirecting their energy into the present moment. Sounds can be of nature or single notes played from musical instruments. A single note from a triangle, harp, piano, or guitar; multiple notes from a rain stick or wind chimes; or soundscapes of nature can all be used to hone students listening skills and encourage introspection. Barbezat and Bush (2014) assert that “deep listening is a way of hearing in which we are fully present with what is happening in the moment without trying to control it or judge it” (p. 137). The length of the sound can be shortened or prolonged. Musical notes may be played, although caution should be exercised so as to not let the sounds become the distraction. Barbezat and Bush (2014, Chapter 7) provide more information on deep listening that helps to enlighten this concentrative method of contemplative practice in Contemplative practices in higher education: Powerful methods to transform teaching and learning (p 137-148).
A purposeful and fixed contemplation of a physical object, involving one or more of the students’ five senses, increases students’ levels of observation and redirects their thoughts away from external distractions and toward their inner sensations. If the object is for sight, touch, smell, or taste, individual objects may be passed out to each student before class begins. For sight, objects might be gathered from nature, such as a rocks, leaves, acorns, or pinecones. For touch, natural and man-made items may be used such as felt squares, various shaped wood blocks, and natural items. For smell, objects might be flowers or herbs, and for taste, small food items can be used.
A word of caution, though; students should be asked prior to the class about any allergies. For the focused attention practice, students observe the object, examining it only with their senses, noticing the intricacies of the item. For smell, touch, and taste, students might close their eyes to reduce any distractions and to help them focus on the sensory experience in the moment. More information and discussion of sensory-based contemplation can found in Rechtschaffen’s (2014) “Mindful Seeing” section of The way of mindful education: Cultivating well-being in teachers and students (p. 196-200) and Zajonic’s (2013) section on concentration practice in “Contemplative pedagogy: A quiet revolution in higher education” (p. 85).
Increasing mindfulness, an acute awareness of being or the sense of living in the present moment, is another effect of contemplative practice. Wenger (2015) explains, “mindfulness forces us to be responsive to the sensations of our bodies and our corresponding feelings; it roots us in the present moment so that we may more consciously shape our future actions” (p. 11). A sequence of mindfulness activities centered on a combination of stillness and silence or centered on a sequence of movements can be practiced on alternate days in a course or for longer increments of time, as dependent on the collective student dynamic. While silence and stillness can help quiet students’ internal dialogues, movement and sound can help students decompress and relax. There are a variety of techniques within these two practices. Sometimes a yoga stretch, a breathing exercise, aromatherapy, meditation, or a moment of silence will quiet the mind, relax the body, and aid in refocusing energy. Rechtschaffen’s (2014) The way of mindful education: Cultivating well-being in teachers and students and Wenger’s (2015) Yoga minds, writing bodies are two excellent resources for learning more about bringing mindfulness into the classroom.
The Power of Contemplation
Rechtschaffen (2014) notes that “Students are told to pay attention a thousand times in school, but rarely are they taught how” (p.10), and we have observed that before our focusing activities students generally seemed distracted, stressed, and irritated. After the focusing activity, their posture became more relaxed and they seemed more receptive to learning. Students were more willing to contribute to class discussions and seemed more respectful to each other as evidenced by their openness to differing ideas and opinions during class discussions about course content. Over the course of a semester, students seemed to be more attentive for longer periods of time. Our observations were congruent with research on contemplative practices in higher education, specifically, a review of research from four decades by Shapiro, Brown, and Astin (2011) that reveals how meditation in higher education improves student cognitive and academic performance, student mental health and psychological well-being, and, among students, how it facilitates a stronger sense of self, referred to as the development of the whole person.
Based on our student feedback throughout the course, the vast majority of students expressed appreciation of the time spent in the contemplative practice during each class session. Many students commented that the contemplative practice gave them a moment to decompress from personal and academic stressors they had experienced already that day. Some mentioned that they, of their own volition, participated in the contemplative practice at other times outside of the classroom when they felt stressed or distracted and needed to refocus on an activity or coursework. Some students wanted to learn more about contemplative practices and expressed interest in pursuing, and did research and write about, this topic in their papers.
An unexpected benefit of integrating these contemplative strategies into our classrooms was the effect on us as teachers. We have different experiences in our own contemplative practices and, undoubtedly, these differences have influenced our approach to the practice in our courses. However different we may be, we agree that the practices have helped us to appreciate the differences in every class. Whenever we began to feel burnt out, the focusing time allowed us to release irritations of the day, to be in the present moment, and to connect with students as individuals, genuinely caring about their wellbeing. Over time, our student-centered teaching practice strengthened and the classroom became more of a nourished and meaningful learning environment.
The Journey of Integrating Contemplative Practices
Challenges to the contemplative practice will vary, but common experiences do emerge. One of the first challenges was getting buy-in from the students. Students needed to be assured that we were genuinely concerned about them as individuals and as students. Students needed to know that we sincerely believed that the contemplative practice would be beneficial for them as individuals and beneficial for their success as students. Although many students would shy away from conversations about meditation, awareness, and contemplation, most were receptive to discussions about strategies for helping them to focus and to decompress. Allowing students to try a few different contemplative practices, asking for their feedback, and allowing them to opt-out of participating was effective for generating approval for continuing the practice.
Another common challenge was maintaining consistency in the practice. Although it was preferable to begin the contemplative practice at the beginning of the semester, starting the practice after the first few weeks of the course was still possible. However, once started, the challenge was to consistently begin each class with a contemplative activity. On a cautionary note, faculty who did not regularly engage in the activity along with their students, faculty who falter in their commitment to regularly begin class sessions with a contemplative practice, and faculty who cease to observe student behavior and ask for student feedback in order to alter their practice accordingly lessen the beneficial impact as well as the perception of this as a credible practice for their students.
In addition to the challenges we faced, some unforeseeable challenges that complicate the contemplative practice need to be considered. Students may have allergies to some of the herbs and essential oils that are used in a concentrative focusing practice involving the senses of sight, smell, and touch, and some students may have mobility issues that prevent them from participating in some mindfulness activities. In anticipation of these issues, students should be told the details in advance of the activity and given the option to opt-out or opportunities to participate using other sensory objects or variations of the movements. In addition, some sensory objects and some practices should not be used because of unknown risks. Occasionally, a student may be disruptive during the contemplative practice, which necessitates private conversations about the disruptions and reminders that participating or opting out are both acceptable choices. More often, however, as a class, students may express a preference for one specific contemplative practice for the duration of the course; even focusing on one practice still has benefits for all involved. Also, in early morning or late evening classes, some contemplative practices may make students sleepy; these practices can be replaced with other more active ones. In sum, the key to overcoming challenges, and our approach, is to be informed and flexible in the selection of contemplative practices.
Sometimes when we arrive in class, our students are overwhelmed, overstimulated, and distracted. Taking a minute or two to breathe, to stretch, to be still, and to reflect allows all of us to settle into the true present moment and to clearly see and understand the tasks at hand. The most successful contemplative practice is the one that refocuses our energy into the present moment, that builds and strengthens the connections among us, and leaves us with a positive impact.
Barbezat, D., & Bush, M., (2014). Contemplative practices in higher education: Powerful methods to transform teaching and learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Grossman, R. (2009) Structures for Facilitating Student Reflection. College Teaching, 57 (1), 15-22.
Khramtsova, I., & Glascock, P. (2010). Outcomes of an integrated journaling and mindfulness program on a US university campus. Revista de Psihologie, 56, 208-218. Retrieved from http://journalbuddies.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/06/Integrated-Journaling-Mindfulness.pdf
Media multi-tasking: Effects on students’ attention. (2015, September 11). Washington University in St. Louis The Teaching Center. Retrieved from https://teachingcenter.wustl.edu/2015/09/media-multi-tasking-effects-on-students-attention/
Purcell, K., Rainie, L., Heaps, A., Buchanan, J., Friedrich, L., Jacklin, A., . . . Zickuhr, K. (2012, November 1). Part V: Teachers concerns about broader impacts of digital technologies on their students. Pew Research Center. Washington, DC. Retrieved from http://www.pewinternet.org/2012/11/01/part-v-teachers-concerns-about-broader-impacts-of-digital-technologies-on-their-students/
Rechtschaffen, D.S. (2014). The way of mindful education: Cultivating well-being in teachers and students. New York: Norton.
Shapiro, S. L., Brown, K.W., & Astin, J.A. (2011). Toward the integration of meditation into higher education: A review of research evidence. Teachers College Record, 113 (3), 493-528.
Wenger, C. (2015). Yoga minds, writing bodies. Fort Collins, CO: The WAC Clearinghouse. Retrieved from http://wac.colostate.edu/books/wenger/yoga.pdf
Zajonic, A. (2013, Summer). Contemplative pedagogy: A quiet revolution in higher education. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 134, 83-94.
This blog is based in part on a presentation made at the 2015 Lilly Conference in Traverse City, MI.