The Contemplative Mind in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning
reviewed by Paul Thomas - October 05, 2018
Title: The Contemplative Mind in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning
Author(s): Patricia Owen-Smith
Publisher: Indiana University Press, Bloomington
ISBN: 025303177X, Pages: 208, Year: 2017
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Patricia Owen-Smiths The Contemplative Mind in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning is ambitious in scope as she calls for a reimagining of higher education that embraces contemplative education as it relates to the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL).
The Introduction to this brief volume represents well the pattern Owen-Smith (2018) follows throughout, clearly defining the key concepts and then grounding them in the tensions and problems faced:
The absence of first- and second-person perspectives contributes to a disengagement from others and the sense of isolation experienced by many students in todays classrooms. It also contributes to a fallacious understanding of knowledge as that imposed and received rather than constructed and shared. (p. 10)
Owen-Smiths Chapter One, A Historical Review, establishes her stance that contemplative education and SoTL overlap, but remain distinct, especially as they fit within traditional approaches to higher education. SoTL has a stronger place in this sphere, while contemplative practices often remain marginalized because of implications about the secular and religious purposes of formal schooling. Yet, Owen-Smith argues, both have ancient roots despite being often considered innovative and new (p. 11).
This mischaracterization, I think, stems from the core practices in higher education, practices that Owen-Smith recognizes contrast with university mission statements and claimed values. While universities may claim social justice and diversity commitments and often offer rhetoric about student-centered practices, Owen-Smith argues that institutions have dismissed ideas of interiority and internality in practice, and that the consequences of this myopic vision have been profound for academic institutions, resulting in a nineteenth-century perspective of knowledge as objective and education as reducible to teaching students how to manipulate that knowledge (p. 14).
In short, Owen-Smiths argument for contemplative education is a debate about the external versus the internal concerns of learning, and this first chapter makes the most damning claim about higher education today: While theoretical attention to the whole student as a learner and knower is well substantiated in higher education, many of the actual classroom practices associated with these theories continue to be partially understood, underdeveloped, and inadequately engaged (p. 19). Consequently, Owen-Smith argues for contemplative education as the exact reform higher education needs because the university-as-corporation model has failed both students and our larger society.
The second chapter shifts to contemplative practices as a way to [canvass] both interior and exterior epistemologies (p. 27). To make the shift, she explains, practices must embrace stillness and silence, mindfulness and attention, and reflection in the form of listening, contemplative reading, contemplative writing, contemplative arts, and service learning.
All of these moves and alternative commitments, it seems, are working against the current norms of higher education and of formal education in general since so much of learning is about the transmission of knowledge (often uncritically) and traditional forms of measuring learning (e.g., standardized, selected response testing). Throughout the volume, then, I continually wondered how contemplative practices could be incorporated into traditional spaces since a complete overhaul of the education system seems highly unlikely.
The tremendous problem of the idealism beneath this argument rests against a compelling goal: the distinguishing feature of contemplative practices is the emphasis on the students self-examination and the cultivation of this awareness of self and others (pp. 56-57).
However, Owen-Smith does not fall into the trap of idealism. In Chapter Three, Challenges and Replies to Contemplative Methods, she offers: [C]ontemplative education and SoTL are situated in a polemic about definitions of academic integrity and rigor, assessment, classroom efficiency, student agency, and the appropriateness of affective and introspective dimensions in teaching and learning (p. 58). Here she discusses the hurdles that contemplative education faces, including institutional structures, language ambiguity (and the related tension between secular and religious practices in higher education), ethical debates about emotionality in the classroom, teacher preparation and qualifications, and grading interior dimensions.
In Chapter Four, Owen-Smith faces her greatest challenge: how to shape an argument for contemplative practices both against and into the norms of higher education and the relatively narrow concepts of evidence, measurement, and research. Owen-Smith identifies the relatively sparse current research base on contemplative methods while also emphasizing that to embrace contemplative education is to seek ways to challenge and reform what counts as high-quality research. The effort to justify contemplative education through traditional research methods and practices (or only slightly modified research paradigms) feels doomed to fail on one hand and misguided on the other. If different ways of knowing and being are valid, and I believe they are, we must find different ways of observing and describing that learning. Overall, the research problem in this volume flounders under too much hedging that erodes the central argument about the need for contemplative education and a greater profile for SoTL.
The final chapter returns to a tried-and-true formula for analyzing higher education: the failures are posed against solutions. Here, Owen-Smith does not fall into the tired trap of false failures and trendy solutions. The failures she highlights, in fact, are sharp: college students suffering mental stress, disjointed programs and learning, hidden knowledge, data for the sake of data, and a disconnect between the classroom and the so-called real world (p. 100).
With 18 years in K-12 education and an additional 17 (and counting) in higher education, I am a critical educator who rejects traditional testing and grading; therefore, I find a final call in Owen-Smiths book to be incredibly important:
The task for contemplative educators is to demonstrate clearly how a pedagogy of ethics and compassion serves as a critical response to the urgent issues of a global world. We are obliged to teach in a way that moves our students past ideas of boundaries and tribalism and toward a compassionate understanding of the self in relationship with the noble community of nations. (p. 108)
Owen-Smiths thoughtful and nuanced argument for contemplative education and SoTL proves to be itself a contemplative journey that deserves our time and contemplation.