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Contemplative InquiriesReconnecting students to the purpose of education

Annie Johansson – Universiteit van Amsterdam
Matilde Jacobsen – Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, Aarhus University
Paul Ellsiepen – Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam


With the starting premise of developing a new Honours course, we decided to design a program in which contemplation and contemplative practices are explored in an academic setting. For us, this approach constituted an opportunity to challenge existing problems such as the increasing gap between students and educational institutions or the struggle to find purpose and belonging in our modern society. Furthermore, our aim was to introduce contemplation in a way that not just falsifies stereotypes but also engages with contemplative practices in their pure and original form. 

In order to tackle this complex task, we reached out to various researchers that had worked on contemplation or engaged with contemplative practices in their private lives. From these conversations, we extracted a vision of the course in terms of its outline and goals which we 

then developed into a more formal framework. In a finalizing step, we had several in-depth conversations with a potential course instructor to refine our mostly theoretical knowledge of course creation and design. 

The result of this process is a course template which engages with contemplation in a holistic way. Students will engage with contemplation from first and third person perspectives, following a perspectival framework of education. Course elements range from practical exercises to abstract conversations of the societal implications of contemplation to the neuroscientific analysis of the effects of contemplation.


Our proposed course, Contemplative Inquiries, aims to provide an answer for several issues that are currently present throughout all levels of education in the Netherlands, and hence relevant for everyone. 

First, from a students’ perspective, schools as the main educational institution struggle to adapt to students’ needs. For example, as showcased by the Covid Pandemic, the procedures and concepts that the daily implementation of abstract education goals are based on display a lot of rigidity and are furthermore out of date. Despite the need for education to prepare students for a complex, rapidly changing world, it is famously stuck in a machine-view of the world, stemming from the Industrial Age, where the outcome of education is reproduction, rather than creation and advancement of knowledge (Montouri, 2012; Robinson, 2012). In sum, “students are being prepared to be consumers, not creators of knowledge” (Montouri, pg. X). The little room for individualization and personal growth have led students to lose connection with the purpose of education and their ability to use it as a means of impacting the world around them. 

Second, despite the long period of peace and prosperity in the West throughout or since the Cold War, mental illnesses have been increasingly affecting our society. (WHO, 2019) As with all illnesses, while some occurrences cannot be avoided completely, people can take preventative measurements or at least reduce risk factors. For mental illnesses one of the most significant factors is stress and stress-related behaviors. Since in a simultaneous trend Western societies have been abandoning many reflective or self-awareness-aimed practices (often within the context of secularizing), it has become important to teach about said practices and explore their impact on individual and collective well-being. 

Third, building on the first argument, the institutions of education are going to struggle increasingly with fulfilling their role of caring for their students due to the described disconnect between students and education. Particularly relevant in higher education, students are often rewarded (by, for example being admitted to graduate degrees) on the basis of reproduction of knowledge, rather than their ability to contribute originally to their fields, which is the main goal of research (Lovitts, 2005). In fact, reflected and self-aware students often constitute the basis for successful research innovations or projects. Human understanding and management is a skill that is fundamental to constructive work and study environments and itself is based on awareness, empathy, and reflection. Yet, it is still often disregarded when teaching a field’s skills and knowledge.

These issues call for new educational practices which are centered around creative inquiry: an active practice in which learners are engaged in and embody new ideas, reflect on their experiences, and view knowledge not in an abstract realm, but as a tangible process which directly influences their behavior in the world (Montouri, 2012; Robinson, 2012). 

In our process of building this new course, we have been in contact with various possible contributors to the course, who have also themselves led similar courses, here is a small summary of some of the important takeaway messages we got from our conversations: 

In an interview with associate professor in anthropology at Aarhus University, Martijn van Beek, who has led an elective course called The Contemplative Life, we discovered the importance of an embodied understanding in the course. From Martijn’s experience, the effectiveness of such a course comes from the integration of contemplative practices in the classroom, not only as tools for mental well-being, but also in a way where the contemplative techniques become useful as aspects of the way students think about research within their own field. He also emphasises that these techniques are not groundbreaking or complicated but rather he says: “you are not teaching people anything new, you are helping people discovering what they are already capable of doing but they haven’t been training it.” According to Martijn there are a lot of interesting discoveries to be made if students engage in these practices and from the evaluations he gets, although, as he says: “not everyone thinks it’s God’s gift to their academic training”, many students report getting a lot out of the course (M. van Beek, personal communication, February 17, 2021). 

In our conversation with professor Max van der Linden at UvA, we got confirmed that there really is a demand for these kinds of courses at the universities in Amsterdam. Max has coordinated the course The Eternal Pursuit of Happiness which for many terms successfully has tried to answer some of the same questions as Contemplative Inquiries focus on. His course takes 80 students each semester, and still more are applying to the course, so according to Max there is no doubt that a similar course will attract the attention of students (M. van der Linden, personal communication, March 2, 2021). 

On several occasions we have also been in contact with Maja Wrzesien who is the academic director of the 3 week UvA summer school course Mindfulness and Compassion-based Interventions where she combines multidisciplinary knowledge from experts with contemplative practices to a program mostly focusing on mental well-being. Maja has been a kind of mentor on our course development, and she has also agreed to lead workshops in this course believing in the feasibility of its implementation. She believes that working on the authentic self and compassion through contemplative practices at the university level will lead to more resilient students, more satisfactory courses, and generally help solving many problems we face in our age (Wrzesien, personal communication, March 2021).


Please click here to access the course outline.


Contemplative education

Contemplative education (CE) is at its heart the integration of contemplative practices (CP) in any form of education. This approach is controversial in modern higher education institutions, such as universities, where most focus is on obtaining information and rewriting it in the right format to satisfy professors and get the best grade (Oberski et al., 2015). Furthermore, as previously elaborated upon, many students are disengaged and dropout rates are high at the university level (OECD, 2007; Thomas, 2012). Interestingly though, initial research has shown that the integration of CP in higher education may be a potential remedy for disengagement, a tool to reconnect with the purpose of education, and importantly to reflect upon the knowledge obtained (Oberski et al., 2015). At a Scottish university, a CE program was introduced with mandatory and extracurricular CPs on a regular basis throughout an academic year. Results from an evaluative questionnaire showed positive responses where students and staff indicated that the practice had helped them to reflect, to concentrate better, to cope with stress, and improved their academic performance (Oberski et al., 2015)

So what does it mean to engage in CE at the course level? There are many dimensions to the adoption of such a model as revealed by the working model of CE (figure 1) and it can be implemented to a lesser or greater extent. But importantly, at the core of the model is contemplative pedagogy, which aims to integrate experiential and embodied learning to academic studies, and shifting the focus from the conventional third person approach to a more internalized first person perspective. According to advocates of the use of contemplative pedagogy in higher education, this approach can potentially shift the current paradigm of universities from “more shallow and instrumental view of education” to a deeper and more holistic view with more critical thinking (p. 38, Weare, 2018).

Figure 1: A working model of contemplative education (The Community of Contemplative Education (CCE), 2020)

With our course, Contemplative Inquiries, students will be introduced to a diverse pallet of CPs, such as mindfulness, meditation, reflection, compassion, and embodiment. The core goal is to make students connect these practices to their learning, but also to zoom out and connect the learning from the course to their lives in general, through reflection and introspection. By educating students through the CE model, there is potential for planting a seed in each individual which can grow for the benefit not only of the individual, but also of the community around them and the society as a whole (Weare, 2018).

Psychological perspective

Another concern relating to mental well-being of university students is that statistics show particularly high rates of depression, stress, and anxiety (Eisenberg et al., 2007). Although first-year students entering university show an equal prevalence of psychiatric symptoms compared to the general population, these increase markedly during the second year of university (Macaskill, 2013). Interventions aimed at increasing non-judgemental awareness of the self and the world, such as mindfulness, have shown psychological benefits in a variety of domains. In general, mindfulness meditation is associated with increased psychological well-being (e.g. Brown & Ryan, 2003). In university students, mindfulness-based meditation has been shown to decrease anxiety symptoms (Saul & Fish, 2019), as well as decrease psychological stress during an examination period (Galante et al., 2018), with beneficial effects shown up to a year later (Galante et al., 2021). 

Importantly, the participation in a mindfulness curriculum course at the University of Amsterdam was shown to increase mindful awareness in university students, both directly following the course as well as 6 weeks after the course (De Bruin et al., 2015). In this sample, especially strong effects were seen among international students. This has important implications for the benefits of undertaking university courses with a contemplative focus (which do not require the intensity that clinical mindfulness interventions do) for gaining abilities to cope with stress and to improve general well-being. 

In addition to benefits in mental health, contemplative practice has shown benefits for regulation and monitoring of attentional resources, meta-cognition, cognitive flexibility, and working memory (for reviews see e.g. Lutz et al., 2008 and Weare, 2019), all of which have important implications for well-being and academic performance. Based on the aforementioned findings, it seems reasonable to conclude that the implementation of contemplative courses, where experiential learning is a focus, can have benefits for the psychological well-being and academic performance of university students.


Intrigued by a philosophical guest lecture from Tobias Servaas, we have chosen to incorporate his proposed model of Perspectival Education into our course. Perspectival education stems from the tradition of Perspectivism which stresses that “to really understand something, it must be considered from a variety of human and non-human perspectives and out of the diversity of perspectives arises an understanding of the universe as a whole” (Makedon, 1992). Hence, it can be claimed that the nature of science itself can be described as perspectival as further elaborated by Giere: “claims about what is observed cannot be detached from the means of observation” (Giere, 2006). Jacob Pearce extends Giere’s notion of scientific perspectivism onto education and science communication by arguing that “the nature of science […] is a dynamic, dialectical process; an inherently human endeavour [sic] which does not attempt to understand the world from nowhere” (Pearce, 2013). Especially in natural sciences, discoveries are seldom objectively true. Rather, they represent a hypothesis that is found to be true given a set of parameters and constraints, of which the most fundamental are measuring devices (Giere, 2006). These statements naturally lead to a necessity of applying perspectival models to scientific education since otherwise students’ experiences neglect fundamental constraints. Contemplation and contemplative practices facilitates a smooth introduction to perspectivist practices and models, since they inherently incorporate the notions of complexity and multiplicity of truths. Thereby, contemplation and modern science go hand in hand in providing methods and tools for inquiry and discovery. Contemplative inquiry inspires a similar approach to problems as modern science, resulting in a similar understanding of truth and knowledge (see Deligiorgi 1998 for an application of perspectivism on modern science and education). 

In our redesign we follow Servaas’ model introducing three categories, each corresponding to a set of perspectives that accumulate into a more accurate notion of truth:

Figure 2: A perspectival Model for Education (Servaas, 2020, own illustration)

“The self” encompasses the process of becoming aware of one’s own unique perspective, described as the “’phenomenological’ and ‘hermeneutical’ moment” (Servaas, 2020). “The other” expands one’s own perspective towards a multiplicity of frameworks and worldviews, representing a “’dialectical’ moment” (Servaas, 2020). Lastly, “the world” constitutes an abstract notion of objectiveness where the world in its multi-facedness is no longer forced into a single perspective, but rather experienced in a “’analytical’ and ‘speculative’ moment” (Servaas, 2020). We believe the introduction of such a model can be a step towards increasing creative inquiry in students, ultimately striving for more engaging and impactful education.


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