The importance of contemplation in teaching

Diverse Elementary ClassThe concept that the practice of teaching is based solely on the type of thinking involved in planning and decision-making is too limited and leads to a misunderstanding of the complexity of teaching, suggests Margaret Buchmann, professor and senior researcher at the Institute for Research on Teaching at Michigan State University.

She tells teacher educators that conceptions of teachers’ thinking must be expanded beyond planning and decision-making. Buchmann asserts that contemplation is an essential and ultimately practical element of the teaching profession.

Contemplation important part of process

Buchmann describes contemplation as a kind of careful attention to ideas, people or things. Contemplative thinking suspends judgment or action in favor of an absorbed way of looking that leads to an objective perception of what is observed. Buchmann states that contemplation involves thoughtfulness and that through contemplation, we develop a carefully considered vision which is an essential basis for later action.

Buchmann quotes Thomas Aquinas, who described teaching as composed of both action and contemplation. Aquinas wrote that contemplation leads to a clarity of vision which engages not just the mind, but the emotions, the will and the moral virtues, and that it helps direct one’s attention to worthy objects. Aquinas believed that the practical side of life should be guided by contemplation. Indeed, he thought, that if it were divorced from contemplation, it would be cut off from its source of value.

Buchmann feels that in recent years, unfortunately, the call for educational reform has led to increased pressure on teachers to concentrate on academic achievement goals along with methods to reach these goals. More than ever, therefore, the work of teachers involves making decisions based on ‘means-to-an-end’ kind of thinking. Buchmann urges, however, that contemplation, which often runs counter to ‘means-to-an-end’ thinking, affords teachers an opportunity to look at problems in another way.

Focus on the individual student

Buchmann describes several things worthy of teachers’ contemplation – the intrinsic good of learning, the subject matter and the students themselves. For example, she calls on us to renew our engagement with the content of the curriculum.

Our sincere involvement with the ideas and values underlying the lessons, she believes, can increase the depth of our students’ thinking. It is important, she believes, to pass on to them a sense of wonder about the world and man’s knowledge which enhances their motivation to learn.

In order to meet the demands of our profession, and to ensure the quality of education we provide, we have to care and to show concern for the children we teach. Buchmann believes that we can achieve this by contemplating the object of our actions, the student. By focusing our attention non-judgmentally on an individual child, we begin to see with accuracy and with kindness the person that is there. It is by carefully looking at individual students that we develop the understanding which enables us to create appropriate and productive instruction for each student.

“Teaching is a virtuous activity that is the bearer of human good,” Buchmann states, and it is by contemplating the children, the subject matter and the ultimate goals of our work that we, as teachers, maintain and perfect our craft.

“The Careful Vision: How Practical is Contemplation in Teaching?” American Journal of Education November 1989, pp. 35-61.

Published in ERN May/June 1990 Volume 3 Number 3

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