Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Contemplative Education: Modeling Mindfulness in the Classroom

A sunrise over a frost-covered pasture, behind an apple tree.
Just as when enjoying every moment of a sunrise,
mindfulness requires non-judgmental observation.

Barbazat and Bush, writers of Contemplative Practices in Higher Education: Powerful Methods to Transform Teaching and Learning refer to mindfulness as "the practice most widely incorporated into higher education" (2014, p. 98), yet mindfulness remains difficult for students to define.  

Nonetheless, faculty committed to contemplative educational practices, and faculty who model specific mindfulness behaviors in the classroom, can help students learn to understand the essence of mindfulness.

Defining Mindfulness

Bhante Henepola Gunaratana, in his  Mindfulness in Plain English, refers to it as "pure awareness" (2002, p. 138), "nonjudgmental observation," and an "impartial watchfulness" (p. 139).  He goes on to explain that mindfulness "is not thinking" and "it does not get involved with thought or concepts," and "it does not get hung up in ideas or opinions or memories" (p. 140). Faculty ask for a type of concentration mindfulness practices can enhance during lectures, when they want students to be "in the moment," taking notes as they listen so they can quietly reflect on the ideas later, perhaps in a paper or online post.  Faculty also often ask for negative capability, or the ability to hold two contradicting ideas as true at the same time, a type of mindful concentration students must practice when faculty present hot button issues, wanting students to accept information without, as Gunaratana states, getting "hung up in opinions or memories."  University faculty, however, even those who model a mindful presence in the classroom, may not realize that mindful classrooms rarely exist without structured guidance towards mindfulness.  Furthermore, practicing mindfulness in the classroom can be difficult for students and faculty both, all who have learned to live in a world that promotes narcissistic behaviors such as overt defensiveness against criticism or new ideas, or clinging to assumptions to protect the self or one's unique identity. 

Modeling Mindfulness: Silence and Hospitality

Radical Presence: Teaching as Contemplative Practice presents two ways faculty can model a mindful presence for students is by incorporating both silence and hospitality into the classroom experience.  On moments of silence in the classroom, O' Reilley reminds us that "The classroom, in today's multimedia culture, may be the only site of reflection in a student's day" (1998, p. 7).  Of hospitality she writes:

Hospitality calls me to consider the singularity of each person, the diversity of needs.  The discipline of presence requires me to be there, with my senses focused on the group at hand, listening rather than thinking about what I'm going to say - observing the students, the texts, and the sensory world of the classroom. (p. 9)


The extended moments of silence to which O'Reilley is referring allow faculty to create a classroom space for students to practice mindfulness, for both students and faculty to notice what is happening in the classroom, and to move beyond mindfulness to thinking.  Mindfulness must occur before thinking, and thinking must occur before answering, discussing, or writing.  A respectful silence that does not last long enough may promote "off the cuff" responses, responses that stem only from personal opinions or experiences, or responses students guess the professor may want to hear instead of authentic, thoughtful responses that allow for true assessment of learning objectives and outcomes.  Faculty who incorporate silence into the classroom are modeling how to create a space others can use to be mindful.  The faculty member must set aside his or her ego and embrace what may be an uncomfortable silence in order to simply observe what is happening in the classroom.  This allows for more accurate and authentic assessment of the levels of proficiency of student learners.


The very specific activity O'Reilley explains as an act of hospitality is one with which many faculty are familiar, that of taking attendance (1998, p. 8).  She uses a method similar to the "Student info cards" method explained by Barkley in the text Student Engagement Techniques, which suggests faculty keep index cards about each student completed by each student (2010, pp. 113-114).  Although there are several other ways to learn more about students in order to promote successful learning suggested by Barkley, O'Reilley uses the note cards as a way to have a mindful presence in the classroom each day as she marks attendance on the reverse of each student's individual note card.  "Hospitality," she states, "defines a space for the visitor - the student - to be herself, because she is received graciously" (p. 8).  Again, the faculty member must set aside his or her ego in order to focus on the acceptance of the students in the moment, as they are, each individual on each individual day.  

More than being a "tip" or "strategy," for classroom management or retention, silence and hospitality are mindfulness behaviors faculty should model for students, especially students struggling with narcissistic behaviors such as speaking out for attention or suffering from feelings of isolation or otherness.  By following their professors' examples, students can learn to negotiate social interactions in and out of the classroom more effectively.

Want to read more about pedagogy and learning?  Try


Barbezat, D. P, & Bush, M. (2014). Contemplative practices in higher education: Powerful methods to transform teaching and learning. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Barkley, E. F. (2010). Student engagement techniques: A handbook for college faculty. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, A Wiley Imprint.
Gunaratana, Bhante H. (2002). Mindfulness in plain English. Boston, MA: Wisdom Publications.
O'Reilley, M. R. (1998). Radical presence: Teaching as contemplative practice. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/ Cook Publishers HEINEMANN.

Copyright Amy Lynn Hess.  Please contact the author for permission to republish.

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