An alternative education
By Sam Graham, LSU
My most profound learning was experience was not in a university classroom. Instead, I was sitting eyes closed, with little sense of the passing time, in pain. There were no concrete outcomes from the course and nothing keeping me there. The teacher’s eyes were closed too.
This was a Vipassana meditation course. As well as teaching me to escape suffering, it was also challenging some of my received wisdom of what constitutes a good education. It made me question the techniques we use at university, the motivators we encourage in students, and the fundamental aims of an education.
Vipassana is a 2500 year old meditation technique taught by the Buddha that teaches wisdom and equanimity through diligent observation of the body’s sensations. The course I was on – standard worldwide – was 10 days long, with 11 hours of meditation and a one hour video explaining the technique each day. Students avoid all forms of communication – even eye contact – and do not read or write. Opportunities for questioning are limited, feedback is nonexistent, and there is no assessment.
So, how did this, as an educational experience, differ from what I have seen at universities?
Being actively discouraged from coming reinforced my personal commitment. Before the course starts, participants are asked three times whether they can commit to staying for 10 days, stick to the timetable, and give the technique a fair trial. Each time, the difficulty of the course, as well as the potential benefits, were emphasised. This reinforced intrinsic motivation, making external authority unnecessary. Whenever I felt like slacking, I remembered my personal commitment, and understood that there was a connection between the costs and the benefits.
A lack of authority encouraged good decision making. Despite having agreed to the rules three times, I did not always do exactly what I was told. The occasional nap through half an hour of meditation time led to five hours more of improved meditation. I broke my silence when I saw a cobra trying to get into the meditation hall. Sometimes, I personally experienced why guidelines were important. I quickly found that moving body positions removed pain for just a few seconds at the cost of several minutes of lost attention. This helped me understand the process more, while taking responsibility for my learning.
Memorising was pointless without understanding and experiencing. In the videos, the teacher explained Vipassana and its underlying philosophy, but told us to withhold judgement until we had experienced it. With limited oversight, I had the freedom to experience where I found the theory sometimes dubious. Usually, though not always, I found further understanding and experience led to me agreeing.
By avoiding communication, we avoided developing partial understandings of the meditation technique. Had we been able to speak and compare experiences, we would have risked locking ourselves into a half-baked or incorrect understanding, which might have hindered full understanding. Not communicating gave us time to work out how the different aspects of the technique and philosophy fit together.
With no communication, reading or writing, there was little to do during the 10 days except focus on the course. This absorption also helped learning and showed that what we learned was not just a semi-relevant academic set of ideas, but instead personal and applicable.
So what does this mean for the university classroom?
Traditional university education has several softened versions of the principles of Vipassana training. Lecturers hope that students are personally committed to their studies and are interested in mastering the content and skills of their chosen field rather than simply the grades. There is little authority or oversight over students, and if they want to fail they are free to do so.
However, this traditional view doesn’t play out for most modern students in most modern universities.
These universities do not encourage learning for its own sake and self-motivation. In the interests of financial health, rankings and in the name of access, universities aim to recruit and then keep students studying. Support services – potentially effective in helping students excel and widening access – can lead to hand holding and a perception that student success is the university’s responsibility. Where students are thought of as customers to the extent that typefaces of internal communications materials are regulated to maintain a university brand, telling students that learning is hard work needs to be done cautiously. Continuous assessment and regular exams fertilise extrinsic motivations and leave little time to nurture intrinsic ones.
This is picked up on by students and is supported by the expectation of employers for students to have practical skills and a decent GPA. The primary motivation of most students is to widen and improve their career prospects and paths through the acquisition of transferable skills and a degree to put on their CV. Students choose courses not just on the basis of interest, but also on the basis of which are rumoured to be easy. Although there is, in most universities, little direct authority in making students work, the indirect authority of a results- and rewards-oriented system thrives.
Students thus often study courses of marginal interest and with a primary focus on success in assessments. Focus is not on mastery of the material, and motivation is not intrinsic. Unlike in the Vipassana course, the indirect authority of the promise of the benefits of good grades is necessary and intrinsic motivators are not nurtured.
What can be done?
Universities need to communicate to students that we – academics, administrators, and support staff – are there to help them work towards their goals, and that their success in learning is for their benefit, not ours (course satisfaction surveys not withstanding!), in the same way as my meditation teacher gained nothing from my learning.
We need to communicate to students that while a hard-working and lazy student might end up with similar degrees, the dedicated student walks away with more than a piece of paper, in the same way as I walked away with more than I would have had I sat wiggling and dreaming for 10 days. These benefits are real. In Academically Adrift, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa found that regardless of degree classification, students who scored higher in a test of critical thinking scores were more likely to be employed, married and have left home, and have lower levels of debt.
Communicating this, though, is only half of this approach. We need to ensure our courses help students toward their goals and that those that work harder do indeed walk away with more than just a higher degree classification.
We can also provide reflective tasks, unassessed and possibly even unread by anyone other than the student themself. We also need to give them time to let thoughts ferment before having them commit thought to words and words to paper. Assessments can be delayed. Most undergraduate degrees at Oxford University are assessed only in the final semester. This lets students dream and debate without worrying about how it fits into the marking criteria. Analytic education is of course incompatible with a prohibition on communication as in the Vipassana course, but these measures might go some way to encouraging truly individual, uncompromised understanding and opinion.
It is easy to value what can be measured. It is fairly easy to measure assessment outcomes and career outcomes, and these are certainly aspects of a university education that should be valued. However, the benefits of mastery of a field are less easily measured; even displaying the higher Bloom’s skills can be played like a game. Because they are less easily measured, they are more easily ignored.
Perhaps, then, we need to step back even further and evaluate our pedagogy. We should be careful in thoughtlessly following ‘good practice’ in our assessment. Instead, we need to step back and evaluate – afresh each time – how students might benefit and what we can do to give them the biggest chance of benefiting, providing they are willing to work, and, perhaps, to hell with pedagogy. This would be real student-centred learning.