From ‘mindfulness’ to ‘contemplative practice’ as starting points for educational inquiry.

Year: 2018

Author: McCaw, Christopher

Type of paper: Abstract refereed


‘Mindfulness’ is a term which is being deployed with increasing frequency, and holds increasing currency, within educational research and practice, and is also making inroads into educational policy (e.g. Jennings, 2015; Schonert-Reichl & Roeser, 2016). While the historical, conceptual and praxiological roots of mindfulness are located firmly within the traditions of Buddhism, these roots are often absent or obscured in its contemporary usage in educational discourse. In this presentation I will develop a distinction between ‘thin mindfulness’ and ‘thick mindfulness’ to help distinguish variations in use of the term, and attempt to map out some associated ontological, epistemological and ethical commitments. ‘Thin mindfulness’ is framed in primarily individualistic and psychological terms, being primarily associated with concerns about wellbeing, stress-reduction and productivity. I argue that the deployment of ‘thin’ mindfulness has facilitated the adoption, popularity and impact of mindfulness research within education. ‘Thick’ notions of mindfulness, on the other hand, draw more strongly on the philosophical, ontological and ethical themes of the related religious, spiritual or ‘contemplative’ traditions. Thus considered, the contemporary uses of mindfulness within education presents a range of dilemmas to researchers and educators, which run parallel to similar issues arising in clinical settings embracing mindfulness (Dawson & Turnbull, 2006; Purser, 2015). As a way forward, I propose that ‘mindfulness’ can be usefully located within a broader conception of ‘contemplative practice’, which helps to position both ‘thin’ and ‘thick’ mindfulness more clearly in relation to one another, and in relation to their deployment within education. It also broadens the focus to consider other forms of contemplative practice and their implications for education. This discussion will draw on Heidegger’s phenomenology (Heidegger, 1927), Schatzki’s theory of social practices (Schatzki, 2005), and aspects of contemplative traditions (Trungpa, 2015). I will argue that ‘contemplative practice’ and ‘thick mindfulness’ may serve as rich and generative starting points for educational inquiry, and while also presenting significant challenges for the researcher.