Mindful and Contemplative Pedagogy

Mindful and Contemplative Pedagogy

Table of Contents

Mindfulness in the classroom, sometimes called “contemplative pedagogy” involves teaching methods designed to cultivate deepened awareness, concentration, and insight.

The Pedagogical Role of Mindfulness

Mindfulness and contemplation foster additional ways of knowing that complement the rational methods of traditional liberal arts education. As Tobin Hart states, “Inviting the contemplative simply includes the natural human capacity for knowing through silence, looking inward, pondering deeply, beholding, witnessing the contents of our consciousness…. These approaches cultivate an inner technology of knowing….” This cultivation is the aim of contemplative pedagogy, teaching that includes methods “designed to quiet and shift the habitual chatter of the mind to cultivate a capacity for deepened awareness, concentration, and insight.” Such practices include guided meditation, journals, silence, music, art, poetry, dialogue, and questions.

In the classroom, these forms of inquiry are not employed as religious practices but as pedagogical techniques for learning through refined attention or mindfulness. Research confirms that these practices can offset the constant distractions of our multitasking, multimedia culture. Thus, intentional teaching methods that integrate the ancient practice of mindfulness innovatively meet the particular needs of today’s students.

Benefits of Mindful and Contemplative Pedagogy

  • Enhanced cognitive capacity including focus and creativity
  • Improved stress management and coping skills
  • Increased community, connection, and awareness
  • Increased resiliency and overall well-being
  • Improved work/life balance

Meditation in Higher Education

In the article Toward the Integration of Meditation into Higher Education: A Review of the Research, Shapiro, Brown, and Astin (2008) noted that meditation is contributing to enhanced cognitive and academic performance (including attention and concentration), management of academic stress, and the development of the “whole person.” All of these are factors involved in higher education, and thus connections to higher education can be hypothesized; however, little research has looked individually at the benefits of integrating meditation into higher education settings.

Multitasking and divided attention tend to result in rote learning rather than a deep understanding of the material. Meditation can increase creativity, which is essential in higher education. It is a recommendation that instructors engage in regular meditation practice so that they can respond adequately to students’ experiences and questions.

Mindful Activities

The following are examples of ways of incorporating mindfulness and contemplative practice into the classroom, as described by faculty in a variety of disciplines. To learn more about each of the mindful activities, click on the toggles below.

The goal of this mindful practice is to calm your mind by using your five senses to focus on your environment instead of your thoughts.

Here are the steps to complete this exercise:
  1. Notice 5 things that you can see. Look around you and become aware of your environment. Try to pick out something that you don’t usually notice.
  2. Notice 4 things you can feel. Bring attention to the things that you’re currently feeling, such as the texture of your clothing or the smooth surface of the table you’re resting your hands on.
  3. Notice 3 things that you can hear. Listen for and notice things in the background that you don’t normally notice. It could be the birds chirping outside or an appliance humming in the next room.
  4. Notice 2 things you can smell. Bring attention to scents that you usually filter out, either pleasant or unpleasant. Catch a whiff of the pine trees outside or food cooking in the kitchen.
  5. Finally, notice 1 thing you can taste. Take a sip of a drink, chew gum, or notice the current taste in your mouth.

UV-Medical Center. (2018, January 29). Mindful Monday: Try the “five senses” mindfulness exercise. Retrieved (February 17, 2021) from https://medcenterblog.uvmhealth.org/wellness/physical/mindfulness-mindful-monday-exercise/

One of the great things about engaging in any breathwork practice is that you can do it anywhere and at any time. Taking just a few moments out of your day to concentrate and breathe deeply will calm your mind and body, giving you an opportunity to hit the reset button and get refreshed!

How to do square breathing (box breathing, 4×4 breathing)

  • Begin by slowly exhaling all your breath.
  • Then, gently inhale through your nose to a slow count of 4.
  • Hold at the top of the breath for a count of 4.
  • Then gently exhale through your mouth for a count of 4.
  • At the bottom of the breath, pause and hold for the count of 4.

Rollo, N. (n/d). Square Breathing: How to reduce stress through breathwork. Retrieved (February 17, 2021) from https://blog.zencare.co/square-breathing/

“What we know of learning is that the predominant factor is not merely a time on task; it is the quality of attention brought to that task. If our attention is somewhere else, we may have little capacity to be present. Paradoxically, we may need to not do for a few minutes to be more available for doing the task at hand.

At the beginning of class, I might turn the lights off and instruct students:

‘Take a few deep, slow, clearing breaths. Let your body release and relax; let any parts of you that need to wiggle or stretch do so. Now feel the gentle pull of gravity, and allow the chair beneath you to support you without any effort on your part. Just let go and allow yourself to be silent and not do anything for a few minutes. You may want to focus on your breathing, allowing it to flow in and out without effort.’” 

Tobin Hart, Professor of Psychology, University of West Georgia, Opening the Contemplative Mind in the ClassroomJournal of Transformative Education, Vol. 2 No. 1, January 2004.

“To facilitate student understanding of the broad range of contemplative practices available to them, I use the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society’s “Tree of Contemplative Practices” image (click on the image to enlarge it along with accessing the website).

I ask students to write a reflective posting about their experience and share it on the class discussion board. Online learning platforms allow for quiet, private time for reflection that is often not possible in the face-to-face classroom. Students can engage and reflect in their way, not hindered by the time constraints of the classroom, and make connections with their own experiences.

Giving the students the choice of the kind of contemplative exercises to experiment with accommodates different learning styles, and gives students responsibility and agency in their learning; the activity is ‘student-owned.’

Jane Compson, Associate Professor of Politics, Philosophy and Public Affairs, University of Washington, Tacoma, Cultivating the Contemplative Mind in Cyberspace: Field notes from pedagogical experiments in fully online classes. The Journal of Contemplative Inquiry, 4(1), 2017.

To put this into practice, see the Discussions Strategies page.

Instructors instruct students to contemplate on a raisin for ten full minutes silently: to take a close look at, touch, smell, and, finally, taste, chew, and swallow a single raisin.

“You can imagine that spending 10 minutes with a single raisin helps students increase their powers of attention, but what I find most rewarding has to do with their heightened self-awareness.

As we discuss their experiences, they realize with astonishment what rewards they reap when they pay greater attention to their moment-by-moment experience of life. Slowing down to eat a raisin turns out to be complex and exciting.

Not only do they discover many facets of their relationships with raisins as memories arise, but they rediscover the taste of this wrinkly, ordinary fruit. They take notice of their wonder, instead of allowing it to slip away, and they learn one way to cultivate wonder: to pay attention to what’s happening right now.” 

Sid Brown, Professor of Asian Studies, Sewanee: The University of the South, Cultivating Wonder. Sewanee Magazine, Spring 2008.

“At the end of the course, students are required to find someone whose religious commitments (or lack thereof) are different from their own or someone about whose religion they don’t know.

Outside of class, with phones turned off, and no interruptions anticipated, the student and the interviewee carefully answer a series of questions such as ‘What’s your fondest and oldest memory related to your religion or your secular ethics/values? Why is this such a fond memory?’ and ‘What’s your most painful memory related to your religion or your secular ethics/values? What makes this memory so painful?’

Each person answers all the questions and has at least three minutes for each one. …If the speaker uses only one minute of the three, the listener still waits patiently, making eye contact, waiting for any more words the speaker might want to share. Both students spend time as a listener and speaker as they go through the questions.

This kind of conversation can be awkward and exhausting. Students often report that they realize through the experience how little they listen. Often in conversation, they are instead remembering something or planning what they will say next. (So discussions are generally more about them than about the person with whom they’re conversing.) This new kind of listening is different and differently rewarding. Students are frequently surprised by the depth of intimacy they achieve with another person, how close they feel.

In some cases, how much a person can love another and still utterly disagree with her worldview and ethics. Refraining from judgment, if only for a few minutes, opened the door to peaceful, honest, and directly spoken disagreements.” 

Sid Brown, Professor of Asian Studies, Sewanee: The University of the South, Cultivating Wonder. Sewanee Magazine, Spring 2008.

“With other art historians, I have begun to practice and teach ‘beholding,’ experiencing works of art ‘face-to-face,’ as Susan Wegner put it. ‘You stand in front of [artworks], hold them in your hands, look them in the eye, awed by the scale of them, or drawn in by the intimacy of their tininess.’

Beholding is a counter both to the usual two-second walk-by experience that characterizes many museums looking and to the analytical dissection of art. …beholding often leads to another kind of encounter. My love of Islamic manuscripts and calligraphy has grown from this kind of sustained beholding.” 

Deborah Haynes, Professor of Art, University of Colorado at Boulder, Contemplative Practice and the Education of the Whole PersonARTS: The Arts in Religious and Theological Studies, 16, 2, 2005.

Writing at the beginning of a class can provide each student with something to say in discussion and writing in the middle of a class can provide a time for reflection and calm amid a challenging or intense talk.

“In most of my classes, we begin with a short period of journal writing, which is a time of silence and a contemplative few minutes at the beginning of class. I find that the students and I get centered by doing this. Then every few weeks, I ask them to write a one or two-page piece called ‘small writing’ and then share that one small statement of where they are with the group. …

There are three fundamental questions [for the journal]. The first question is, ‘What matters here?’ I tell them that if they ask that question of themselves in every class, they will get better grades. This question is about taking ownership of oneself in the world, and it leads to that. Our course is a community because we are taking ownership of our role in the classroom. And I think it all goes back to caring. The format of this is to encourage people to care—care about the work and care about each other.

The second big question is, ‘Where are you now?’ This question has implications about maps, the map of our lives, where are you on the map. It’s psychological and emotional. Where are you with your feelings, where are you spiritually?

The third big question is, ‘What do you know now?’ This question is the question behind all traditional research papers. You’ve done the research or read the text, now tell me what you know, what you can say about it. I want the student to think about knowing on different levels, not just the intellectual level. So I’m trying to get them to write from their experience, to value their own experience.” 

Michael Heller, Professor of English, Roanoke College, Case Studies, The Center for Contemplative Mind in Society.

Assigning fewer texts and reading the books in more intentionally and contemplatively can foster students entering into texts in profound and transformative ways rather than using the documents for their information alone.

Reading aloud and in different configurations can highlight several aspects of a text. Alternating readers by line, sentence, or paragraph provides varied voices and different emphases. Specific strategies, such as echoing, frequently used, or significant words, influence students’ attention.

Additional opportunities to engage students in reading? Visit the Reading Activities – Instructional Strategies page.

Though silence can be uncomfortable, silence can make room for different dialogue and varied voices.  The Fruit of Silence is an article that speaks about one teacher’s experience incorporating silence into her teaching.

Download Marilyn Nelson’s The Fruit of Silence (PDF), from the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society website.


CELT Resources

The CELT staff members facilitate a variety of events in our Mindful and Contemplative Series. Please contact celt@iastate.edu for more information or refer to the schedule of events on our website.

View the condensed workshop Explore the benefits of mindfulness video (10m 14s).

ISU Resources 

Mindful and Contemplative Pedagogy, by the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching (CELT) at Iowa State University is licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0. This work, Mindful and Contemplative Pedagogy, is a derivative of Mindfulness in the Classroom developed by Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching (retrieved on February 13, 2020) from https://cft.vanderbilt.edu/guides-sub-pages/contemplative-pedagogy/.