[Center for Contemplative Mind in Society] [Library of Congress] [Amazon] [Fnac] [Barnes&Noble]
“Contemplative practices in higher education”? what the f...? Does this means that we should have to have our students meditate instead of practicing mathematics by doing more and more exercises? Again, what the f... ? And is it really appropriate, in our universities (which, in France, are mostly laïques et républicaines) to experiment such practices?
The subtitle of the book under review should perhaps reassure us: Powerful methods to transform teaching and learning. Indeed, as its authors explain to us in the very first lines of its preface, contemplative practices always has a well established place in the intellectual inquiry, a place which goes well beyond their vital role in all the major religions and spiritual traditions. The authors acknowledge many objectives to these practices, pointing out 4 of them whose importance can difficultly be denied:
- Development of attention and focus;
- Deeper understanding of the content of the course;
- Compassion, relation with self; deepening of the moral and spiritual component of education;
- Development of personality, and of creativity.
Daniel Barbezat, a professor in economics at Amherst, explains for example how these methods allowed him to solve the following contradiction: how is it possible that his field (economics) pretends studying the mechanisms of decision that are supposed to lead people to well-being, without every considering the nature of well-being? He proposed to his class various alternatives, of the following kind:
- The class is divided in ten groups of three people; the member of one group receive $1000 each, the other nothing
- Everybody receives $200
David Haskell, who teaches environmental sciences and biology, adapted the reading method of monks (as he says, lectio without too much divina) to have his class study problems of hunger and development. He asked his students to alternate between periods of quiet rest (say one minute) and the reading of one or two sentences of the text (each one reads by turns) and to brief commentaries by the students, etc. Other teachers propose the students to behold some text, or some graphic representation, and then to comment it. Examples are given of the probability distribution of the hydrogen bromide atom, according to its energy levels, or to two charts of industrial production (in absolute vs relative value). The authors claim that such exercises deepen the relation with self, with the studied document, and with other materials of the course.
Mathematics are absent from this book. In a blog post hosted by the American mathematical society, Luke Wolcott evokes this possibility, but acknowledges that he did not go further than personal meditation. In fact, I could not find other explicit examples in various sources, even none in the archives of the Center for contemplative mind in society that the authors of this book lead. However, it seems to me that some practical exercises organised by a teacher such as Adrien Guinemer in his middle/high school classes go in that direction (notably, the study of sections of cubes, cones, cylinder made from plasticine).
There are at least two methods that I find interesting and that could easily be implemented in our classes:
- Meditation exercises at the beginning of the class — first have everybody focus his attention on its breath during five minutes, and then report it on the subject of the class.
- Introspection techniques to fight failure anxiety — the student is asked to solve an exercise while writing on his sheet everything that comes to his mind, whatever relation it has with the exercise.
The first part of the book proposes a theoretical and practical background that is necessary to appreciate the variety of these methods, as well as some issues that need to be avoided. Three of them seem particularly crucial to me, all of them requiring from the teacher a quite deep personal involvement in these contemplative practices:
- Assign to the contemplative exercises a clear pedagogical goal, whose impact can be evaluated;
- Disjoint the practice of these exercises from the cultural and religious backgrounds in which they were first devised;
- Be able of managing students who would not be at ease, or even would reject, such practices.
So let us try, and see.