Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Book review: Contemplative Practices in Higher Education

Contemplative Practices in Higher Education, by Daniel P. Barbezat and Mirabai Bush.
Jossey-Bass, 2014. 
[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.
The largest part of this book develops twenty years of experiments of various contemplative practices in higher education, that were put forward to strengthen that quality of teaching, especially in the first grades of American college, and in almost all fields (law, economics, physics, chemistry, environmental sciences, music, literature, psychology).

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:
  1. The class is divided in ten groups of three people; the member of one group receive $1000 each, the other nothing
  2. Everybody receives $200
He then asked everyone to choose between these two possibilities, and to guess with which proportion each possibility would be chosen. He returned to that exercise later following a meditation exercise about gratitude (think about things you are grateful for, then think about someone who is at the source of this gratitude). The results were not at all the same, therefore opening a way for thinking on the place of individual in society.

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.
Moreover, isn't it our role to develop a profound sense of compassion to our students, especially those who prepare themselves to become teachers?

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:
  1. Assign to the contemplative exercises a clear pedagogical goal, whose impact can be evaluated;
  2. Disjoint the practice of these exercises from the cultural and religious backgrounds in which they were first devised;
  3. Be able of managing students who would not be at ease, or even would reject, such practices.
Anyway, the variety of possibilities that is described in this book is an invitation from its two authors that we embrace these millenary-old techniques to deeply transform our teaching. So, to the question that begins this book review, the author do much better than answering “Why not?” since they tell us “Follow us, try, and see!”.

So let us try, and see.








5 comments :

  1. Bonjour Monsieur Chambert-Loir,

    c'est avec un grand honneur que j'ai découvert hier que vous citiez mon travail sur votre blog. Sachez que mes pratiques pédagogiques actuelles ont de nombreuses influences, parmi lesquelles la passion d'un certain professeur de Rennes qui a su me donner l'énergie pour avoir l'agreg en vulgarisant auprès de ses étudiants des mathématiques extraordinaires.
    Pour cela et pour le reste, MERCI.
    Au plaisir d'échanger de vive voix avec vous à nouveau !

    Adrien Guinemer.

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    1. Bonjour Adrien,
      Merci de votre commentaire, et surtout bravo pour tout ce que vous faites. Il me semblait bien vous avoir fréquenté dans une ancienne vie, mais mes trop faibles capacités en physionomie m'avaient fait douter. N'hésitez pas à prendre contact par mail, je serai très content de prolonger cette discussion.
      Cordialement
      Antoine

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  2. Bonjour Antoine, je trouve très interessant cet article mais je me demande comment introduire de telles pratiques de façon naturelle sans forcer les choses ni les gens... Sans que cela paraisse "bizarre". Nous ne sommes pas tres habitués a ca ni en tant qu'enseignants, ni en tant que "personne sérieuse" dans notre société. Il n'y a qu'à voir le regard des gens parfois quand on parle de méditation.
    Des pistes pour introduire en douceur de telles pratiques ?
    Marusia

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    1. Bonjour Marusia

      Bien sûr, rien de la société actuelle ne favorise réellement les pratiques contemplatives, et si elles semblent à la mode, cela cache le fait qu'elles ne touchent qu'une toute petite partie de la population, alors qu'elles sont potentiellement si bénéfiques...

      J'ai fait le pas de proposer une méditation guidée aux étudiants de master 2 la semaine dernière. Auparavant, je leur avais demandé de lire l'article du blog, de sorte qu'ils n'ont pas été trop surpris. Tous les étudiants se sont prêtés à l'expérience, ou en tout cas sont restés neutres ; je ne peux pas dire ce que cela a apporté à chacun d'entre eux individuellement, mais je peux témoigner de deux faits:
      1) pendant la méditation, le silence qui régnait dans la classe était d'une qualité incroyable ; la présence à soi de chacun était palpable, et les quelques retardataires n'ont pas perturbé ce calme en s'installant ;
      2) en ce qui me concerne, la suite du cours a été très agréable et j'étais moi-même plus concentré.

      Maintenant, ces expériences ne doivent pas rester sans lendemain, et il faudrait les renouveler, jusqu'à ce qu'elles soient partie intégrante de notre vie. J'ai bon espoir qu'un peuple contemplatif n'ait plus besoin, lorsqu'il boit un verre avec un ami, lorsqu'il va au cinéma, admire un paysage, participe à une réunion un peu ennuyante, ou suit un cours de mathématiques, puisse profiter pleinement de ce moment, sans avoir besoin de surveiller son téléphone, au cas où par exemple un contact Facebook enverrait un messsage.

      Chacun doit trouver sa voie d'accès. En ce qui me concerne, c'est probablement par le yoga que j'ai pris conscience de l'importance des pratiques contemplatives, même si au début, je n'en attendais qu'un exercice de relaxation. Les livres (ceux de Christophe André, Mathieu Ricard, etc.) sont sûrement un bon moyen de démarrer, mais le medium est moins concret ; cela dit, les méditations guidées de Christophe André sont très accessibles, je trouve. Pour les petits enfants, il y a de très beaux disques — Calme et attentif comme une grenouille, ou Un cœur tranquille et sage, par exemple. (J'aime beaucoup La méditation de la pluie.)
      Cordialement
      Antoine

      PS. Êtes-vous "la" Marusia R. que je connais ?

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