Contemplation in 21st Century Learning
Public education in America faces a complex web of challenges. More children are coming to school with unmet social and emotional needs. Rates of childhood obesity and similar public health concerns are rising, yet funding for k-12 physical education programs continues to decline. Questions are being raised as to whether school will prepare students for the 21st-century economy.
Our children’s teachers are expected to handle these challenges with fewer resources than ever, resulting in high rates of burnout. Children at risk of psychological and behavioral problems have more difficulty attending to learning activities, sitting still, and getting along with their peers. These behaviors make it difficult for teachers to manage the classroom dynamic for all children, as well as their own response to the situation.
Under these conditions, teachers can become more likely to burn out and leave the profession at a time when, more than ever, we a need workforce of calm, supportive and understanding teachers. Nearly 50% of new teachers leave the profession within their first five years of teaching. These are just some of the many factors which make the classroom a stressful place for both teachers and students. Stress makes it hard to teach and hard to learn.
The University of Virginia is pursuing an innovative solution to the challenge of stress in the classroom. In 2012, UVA founded the Contemplative Sciences Center, whose mission is to pursue research, learning, and engagement related to contemplation.
In collaboration with the Contemplative Sciences Center, Curry School faculty members are using mindfulness and other contemplative theories to address teacher burnout and improve student outcomes for 21st-century learning.
If these methods prove effective in helping students and teachers cope with classroom stress, we could provide teachers and children nationwide with evidence-based strategies to help foster a more compassionate, healthy, and educated citizenry.
The Curry School of Education is working on several projects and which we believe will demonstrate the outcomes described above. The research is targeted to both the students and their teachers.
Compassionate Schools Project (CSP)
The CSP is the first-ever large-scale randomized trial of a groundbreaking health curriculum that integrates self-control and stress management; personal and social relationships; nutrition and physical health and ability; and self-care and care for others. The CSP curriculum aims to be a complete program overhaul that, if successful, would replace traditional health and physical education curriculums. This curriculum is designed to help kids be able to understand themselves better and control themselves better.
In addition to nutrition education, the lessons within the CSP curriculum integrate social and emotional learning, deep self-understanding, stress resiliency skills, mental fitness training, and physical regulation/exercise within a contemplative and compassionate framework, based on recent scientific advancements in the understanding of brain function and the body, child and family health, child development, and academic and social functioning.
Universities Alliance (UA)
UA is a large-scale research project between the University of Virginia, Penn State, and the University of Wisconsin which will study the impact of a freshman curriculum centered on improving the first year experience. Turning the lens inward to study contemplation at the university level is a key aspect of this project. The collaboration between the Contemplative Sciences Center and the Curry School of Education’s 13th ranked Higher Education program is a natural partnership for this type of research.
Comprehensive Approach to Learning Mindfulness (CALM)
CALM seeks to reduce stress and burnout among teachers through a short daily intervention involving the contemplative practices of yoga, somatic breathing, and intention-setting. The three-year pilot involves the development and delivery of a regular daily stress-reduction program to a sample of school teachers randomly assigned to receive the intervention during the first or second years (with a wait-list control group). Psychological and physiological assessments will be conducted pre-and post-intervention at a follow-up assessment during the fall of the second year.
Cultivating Awareness and Resilience in Education (CARE)
The CARE program aims to increase the well-being of participating teachers by providing them with specific skills and practices to better cope with classroom demands. Over the school year, 224 teachers from 36 New York public elementary schools participated in a series of five six-hour unique professional development sessions. Participants received instruction on emotion skills instruction; mindfulness/stress reduction practices to promote self-regulation of attention and non-judgmental awareness; and caring and listening practices to promote empathy and compassion.
The study shows that CARE has significant positive impacts on teachers’ well-being; it reduces personal distress and the stress associated with time pressure and improves emotion regulation and promotes mindfulness.
The study shows that those participating improved the quality of their classrooms. The study also showed the CARE program directly impacted students, as the students in the CARE classrooms were rated as more productive than those in the control group.
Mindfulness + Movement (M+M)
M+M is a community program in Albemarle County, Virginia, which builds on the hypotheses and findings of CSP, CALM, and CARE, providing secular mindfulness programming to Albemarle County Public Elementary Schools. Under the direction of Professor Jennings, Marian Matthews currently leads the Mindfulness + Movement program in four schools. The program promotes students’ social and emotional well-being and supports their ability to learn inside and outside the classroom. The program finished its second year in 2016 and hopes to expand reach to additional schools in the future.
Tish Jennings, Associate Professor at the Curry School of Education, notes that “research is beginning to show that mindfulness-based approaches can help teachers manage the stresses of the classroom.”
In addition to helping teachers manage stress, which improves the child’s classroom experience, the role of contemplative science in schools can lead to many other positive outcomes, which can have a lifelong impact.
When schools help students develop self-awareness and caring for others, students are more likely to succeed. They do better in school when they are mindful of their own thoughts and feelings, can empathize with others, understand their bodies, and practice healthy lifestyle habits such as physical activity and good nutrition. These practices can also reduce antagonism and bullying and promote compassion and caring behaviors.
Mindfulness skills can also prepare students for the high-level work of the 21st century economy. In her 2015 book Mindfulness for Teachers, Professor Jennings writes that “most high-level work today in every sector of our economy involves the collaboration of individuals within interdisciplinary teams…. This type of work requires a high degree of social and emotional competence, creativity, and higher-order thinking. Because of the constantly changing social, cultural, and economic landscape, it also requires flexibility and adaptation.”