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Contemplative Pedagogy in Virtual Exchange


As I headed into a Zoom workshop on contemplative pedagogy, I could not have been in a more disparate mindset. I was thinking about all the emails I needed to send, the grading to be done, the next meeting, etc. As all of these thoughts went spiraling around in my mind, the facilitator invited everyone to take two minutes and do whatever they needed to do in order to be present (mentally and physically) over the next hour for the workshop.

After taking many deep breaths, fidgeting with my chair, staring out the window, and getting into a comfortable position, I was ready to go. So I invite you to do the same before reading this post. Take a minute to cast all other thoughts and worries aside to focus on reading, learning, and growing as a teacher over the next five minutes.


Dr. Karolyn Kinane, Associate Director of the Contemplative Sciences Center at the University of Virginia, led a workshop titled “Contemplative Pedagogy: Making Process Visible.” After beginning with the exercise above, I was sold on how useful this workshop would be, and I was not disappointed. Today, I want to share some of the ideas and advice that I learned from Dr. Kinane as well as other participants, so that it may inspire you to include more contemplative practices in your virtual exchange projects.


First, what are the benefits of contemplative pedagogy? What is the point of it?

  • It both involves and creates dispositions, and it can lead to more productive, thoughtful conversations and assignments in a classroom

  • It is process-focused, which can be quite transformative as we consider how we arrive at certain information

  • It builds awareness and connection, both with the subject or object that you are studying and with the people around you (in the physical or virtual classroom, for example)

  • It also develops patience, awareness, humility, generosity and fosters an intellectual community and interconnectivity


Whenever I heard colleagues talk about contemplative practices, I always assumed that meant mindfulness in the sense of meditation. This workshop broadened my perspective and invited me to consider new ways of including mindfulness in the classroom.


By focusing on the process of completing an assignment, students must think about how they come to understand the material. One technique I will certainly use is asking students to take a contemplative pause between being given an assignment and producing the product. During this pause, students think about what they will learn from the assignment and the process of completing it. At the same time, making sure assignments are scaffolded and learning objectives are clearly communicated for each assignment makes the process visible to students. How will each task contribute to the overall learning objectives of the course?


Another way to make the process visible is inviting students to share what they notice about the text/subject/object at hand. For example, if my students are studying websites in France and the United States, I could start by asking them to simply point out what they notice on each website. The goal is not to analyze, but simply state observations. The students should spend time observing and being with the website. An observation might look like: the text is all blue, the title is in the center of the page, there are three images. This is similar to the concept of visual thinking strategies where the focus is on observing, seeing, finding information rather than analyzing and judging it.


The other benefit that I see from this activity is that it eases students into the assignment and allows a student who is perhaps less confident in the analytic component of the course to voice their opinions on what they observe in basic terms, without the jargon of the field. As Dr. Kinane mentioned in the workshop, partaking in this kind of observation also creates a gap between observing and judging. Through that gap, students are able to inquire, engage, recognize bias or assumptions, discover something unexpected, and explore new information that we find as a result of developing patience with the object of study. It helps students analyze why they make a certain assumption or analysis based on an observation.


This is a particularly great tool to use for virtual exchange projects where students in one class may have a higher level of understanding of the subject-matter. It is a way to level the playing field and allow beginner and advanced students to participate equally and meaningfully. This is especially true if the disciplines are vastly different. For example, students don’t need an art education to notice color on a page, and this step of the process is all about noticing, rather than analysis.


Dr. Kinane also pointed out that instructors need to use the proper currency to get students engaged with an activity, and in this case, the currency is a grade. These activities can be assessed with a basic completion grade - students have freedom to explore and throw out answers without worrying about if they are correct, but they also feel like they are being rewarded for participating.


Lastly, I really enjoyed Dr. Kinane’s ideas on how to engage students in equitable and inclusive participation practices. In her classes, she provides students with a document that describes what behaviors demonstrate equitable and inclusive participation. One example of a behavior is active listening to peers when they are speaking in order to value diverse opinions. Then, students pick a few of those that they would like to practice and improve. After a few weeks, students self-assess how well they have progressed toward that goal. This is a great way to give students agency in their own learning experience at the same time that it makes them responsible for creating their own terms of participating. I know I will definitely be using this method in my own classroom!


It would also be highly effective in a virtual exchange setting where students are asked to value diverse opinions and broaden their perspectives. Instead of guessing how to show that they are valuing opinions, why not share behaviors that would demonstrate that mindset and ask them to evaluate how well they are achieving it?


Making our classroom spaces more intentional, contemplative, and inclusive is more important than ever. I hope this post gave you some ideas of ways to incorporate contemplative pedagogy in your home course or CLICK virtual exchange course! Be sure to check out Dr. Karolyn Kinane’s blog post for more ideas. She also has a YouTube miniseries on contemplative practices in the classroom!


By @AlexaJeffress

March 2, 2021