Dr. Jennifer W. Shewmaker

Parent, Teacher, Author

Creativity, edu: Contemplative Pedagogies and Learning

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As we think about our students as heroes on a journey, we’ll be considering the three stories that they’ll be exploring: the story of self, the story of others, and the story of the world around us. In my last post I talked about how the learning process can threaten the learner’s identity as she faces the fear of the unknown. In coming to understand the story of self, the unknown that we’re facing may be what we believe about something, or how we’re going to reconcile a new piece of knowledge with the things that we had previously thought to be true. In this step in the Hero’s Inner Journey, the learner has faced their fear and overcome it.

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The next task is to begin to prepare for major change, to accept new knowledge, commit to the changes that it calls for, and experiment with our new learning. At this point, teachers need to give students the opportunity to apply the new knowledge, to try it out in different scenarios, see how it fits in with other things they know or have previously accepted as true. I’ve found that using contemplative pedagogies can be extremely useful at this stage in the learning process.

As a member of the Association for Contemplative Mind in Higher Education (ACMHE) and a contemplative pedagogy learning community at my university, for the past few years I have been considering how contemplative pedagogies might be best incorporated into college courses in order to provide students with a better learning experience. For example, in my work in ACU’s first course within the university’s liberal arts core, I found that even though most students were interested, they often struggled to articulate their thoughts in group discussions on some of the complex topics we explore, such as the banality of evil, living with mindfulness, engaging culture critically, and global thinking.

To allow students to accept the new knowledge and commit to change, they need the chance to relate the concepts discussed in class with real world problems and to apply them to their previous experiences and beliefs. I decided that in order to help them to do this, we would use the contemplative practice of informal writing. Educational research has supported the use of informal writing as contributing to positive learning outcomes and aiding in the achievement of learning goals (Pettko, Eger, & Graber, 2014; Hudd, Smart, & Delohery, 2011).

I used this contemplative pedagogy for two reasons. First, giving students time and regular opportunity to explore their own beliefs about a complex topic and apply critical thought to it allows them to move through the second phase of the Hero’s Journey in coming to understand new knowledge, how they will accept it, and how they will integrate it into their former system of belief. Second, in order to understand their own thoughts, students often need the chance to share them and process them with others through small or large group discussions. Using the informal writing process allowed students to begin to think through the application of a concept and then use that as a jumping off point in sharing it with others.

So, how might teachers use informal writing in the classroom to help students explore their own thinking around a certain concept? Let me share with you what I’ve done. I start most class meetings with 7-10 minutes of informal journal writing in which students respond to a prompt about the topic for the day. For example, when we were exploring the idea of identifying and using one’s personal strengths, the prompt was an anonymous quote, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” This idea related to some concepts that we had read about in our text and previously heard a lecture on. I asked the students to write a response to the quote, and to consider some specific questions, which I provided, if they needed more guidance. After writing, students  share their thoughts on the topic. We did this in different ways, sometimes we paired up to discuss, sometimes a small group talked with one another, and at other times we engaged in a large group discussion. The point is to allow each student to explore their own thoughts around the topic alone, and then to have the chance to continue to grow in their understanding by talking their ideas through with others, debating differing opinions, and/or explaining themselves to someone with a very different perspective.

Using a contemplative pedagogy in our hectic world can be a refreshing change of pace for students who were raised with ever-present technology. This technique and others like it can be crucial in providing learners with the chance to embrace and apply their new knowledge and begin to move into a place of true change in their understanding. For more information about using contemplative pedagogies in higher education, I recommend exploring the resources of the Association for Contemplative Mind in Higher Education.

References

Hudd, S. S., Smart, R. A., & Delohery, A. W. (2011). ‘My Understanding Has Grown, My Perspective Has Switched’: Linking Informal Writing to Learning Goals. Teaching Sociology, (2). 179.

Petko, D. D., Egger, N. N., & Graber, M. M. (2014). Supporting learning with weblogs in science education: A comparison of blogging and hand-written reflective writing withand without prompts. Themes In Science & Technology Education, 7(1), 3-17.

 

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