Research review of meditation in schools

A recent review of the effects of meditation in schools by a University of Melbourne team confirms the strong role of contemplative practices in education. And has implications for those working in higher education.

The team led by Professor Lea Waters reviewed 15 studies which collectively included data from 1800 students across Australia, Canada, India, United Kingdom, United States, and Taiwan. Waters recently wrote that their meta-review concluded:

Meditation is beneficial in the majority of cases and led to higher optimism, positive emotion, self-concept, self-care and self-acceptance as well as reduced anxiety, stress, and depression in students. Meditation was also associated with faster information processing, greater attentional focus, working memory, creativity and cognitive flexibility.

While mediation’s efficacy in these areas is now well supported a second level conclusion of the study points to interesting directions for further research and practice:

The meditation programs that were the most effective were those that encouraged regular practice, those that went for a term or longer and those that were delivered by teachers (as compared to an external meditation instructor).The meta-review found a strong case for infusing meditating into the culture of schools and making it a core part of teacher training.

This points to the importance of developing cohesive programs that introduce students to these practices over the life of a course. It also points to the need for University Teaching and Learning Centres to provide continuing professional development programs in these areas.

Waters and her colleagues also propose a theoretical model of the lines of relationship and effect between meditation and student wellness. They argue that “currently, the literature is fragmented, and no model has been put forward to understand what happens to students “inner worlds” when they meditate…the research has focussed on outcomes rather than causal variables” (121)

‘The School-Based Meditation Model’… Waters et al 2015

Although the pathways in the model are hypothetical it is strongly based on a range research.

The “School-Based Meditation Model”….has been developed using three strands of research: first, research from education showing that cognitive function and emotional regulation are positively associated with well-being, social competence and academic achievement; second, adult neuroscience research showing associations between meditation and areas of the brain that are responsible for cognitive function and emotional regulation; and third, research from contemplative education showing that students who attend school meditation activities have increased cognitive function (e.g. better working memory) and increased emotional regulation (e.g. students and teachers report being better able to manage anger and stress) compared to control groups. (121)

A Brief History of the Current Reemergence of Contemplative Education

Although many people consider contemplative pedagogy to be a new field of research and practice it is in fact a reemergence of ancient contemplative educational practices . In my investigation of the current form of contemplative education I have identified three waves of this remergence starting in the US in 1840.

In my article examining these three stages I concentrate on the third or current reemergence of contemplative education, which arguably started in 1995 with the establishment of the Centre for Contemplative Mind in Society (CCMIS), Massachusetts. This stage was preceded by two others.

The second began with the establishment of three contemplative tertiary institutions, starting in 1968 with the opening of the California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS) San Francisco, then the Maharishi University of Management (MUM) in 1971, and Naropa University, Colorado in 1974. This second wave is underpinned by the first, in which Buddhism was introduced to the United States by Chinese immigrants to the West Coast starting in 1840.

This contemporary history is framed by ancient history reaching back to Ancient Greece and further to prehistoric ritualised forms of learning that incorporated meditative trance states. These early and more recent histories of contemplative education allow us to see that what arose with the founding of the CCMIS, CIIS, Naropa, and MUM is not an ‘‘emergence’’ but a ‘‘reemergence.’’

But this reemergence did not occur in isolation. I believe there are five primary influences on the current reemergence of contemporary contemplative education in the West. They are:

  • Buddhist and Hindu philosophy;
  • transpersonal psychology;
  • medicine, psychology, business and sport psychology and meditation research;
  • Yoga in the West; and
  • cognitive and neuroscience and meditation research.

The first has directly affected the founding of educational institutions that incorporate the contemplative practices of their Buddhist and Hindu foundations. The impact of the other four is less explicit and their outcomes not always obvious, which makes it difficult to quantify their influence although I suggest that it is significant. It is important to remember that I present these influences as a means to initiate dialogue not as a conclusive list.

Contemplative education has reemerged, I believe, because of a desire for the holism that was lost through Cartesian efforts to ‘‘cut man off from his deeper embodied perplexities as a whole knower’’ (Holbrook, 1987, p. 46). Although Cartesian reason produced an exponential growth in the natural sciences, it obscured the passage back to a locus of meaning, knowledge, and sense of wholeness, which lies within the individual’s subjective consciousness.

It appears that educational practitioner theorists struggling with their own and their students’ chronic stress, fragmented attention, time poverty, and quest for meaning are now finding that contemplative practices provide a means to navigate both the entry and the exit of a passage back to wholeness that contemplation can provide. The ability of these practices to link the inner and outer worlds, the psyche and soma, frames these practitioner theorists’ restoration of the subjective and somatic in education through their development of contemplative pedagogy. Their theoretical and applied researchis, in essence, a return to an approach that has had a continuing presence in education, so suggesting that it is an essential part of who we are an how we learn. 

This post is adapted by the author from A Brief History of the Current Reemergence of Contemplative Education which was recently published in the Journal of Transformative Education.