The 2021-22 “Teaching for Student Flourishing” project will develop a modular online course that integrates experiential, creative and/or contemplative practices aiming to increase engagement and well-being among students. The project’s goal is to put student flourishing at the centre of post-secondary course design. We will create a course focused on key themes in Asian religions that decolonize standard approaches to religious studies and highlight issues of equity, foreground the teaching of specific skills for well-being, and stimulate environmental ethics by highlighting the interconnectedness of human and environmental well-being. Our approach to creative, embodied, and contemplative experiential learning practices is informed by key principles of trauma-informed, place-responsive and “regenerative sustainability” pedagogies.
This project is funded by eCampusOntario’s Virtual Learning Strategy. Launched in 2020, “the VLS is an historic $50 million investment by the Ontario Ministry of Colleges and Universities (MCU) intended to drive growth and advancement in virtual learning across the province’s post-secondary institutions.”
This project is an extension of the Engaging Education in Buddhist Studies initiative.
Course Modules and Approaches
During the summer of 2021, we are developing several online modules that will be available for integration into other courses.
The Biohacking Breath module explores Asian practices of manipulating (“biohacking”) the act of breathing. We study presentations of breath, “wind” or “life force” (e.g., prāṇa in Sanskrit or qi in Chinese), compared to intentional breathing practices in the history of European thought and breathwork in contemporary biohacking movements. Experiential exercises teach breathing and movement practices with guidance of qualified teacher-practitioners. Next, the Buddhist Meditation module introduces Buddhist meditative and contemplative practices and techniques, focusing on the role of race in their implementation in North America. Students learn how meditation practices including mindfulness interact with colonialism, Orientalism, and white supremacy. Experiential contemplative, self-care, “deep listening,” and art-making exercises enhance self-awareness, community well-being, and approaches to coping with social and systemic oppression. Finally, the Touching the Earth module studies Buddhist relationships with the earth, including “earth touching” contemplative practices and ecological movements responding to climate disruption. Place-responsive experiential exercises focus on human relations with the environment, stimulating environmental ethics and expanding students’ understanding of gender and decolonization.
The design, content, and student experience for each module is grounded in research on place-responsive and trauma-informed experiential learning. While these practices are rare enough in live classrooms, they are even more challenging to implement in an online environment, and the project’s challenge is therefore to find ways to prioritize these forms of learning in an online environment.
Place-responsive (also called place-based or land-based) pedagogies use project-based or experiential tasks to help students explore how historical, cultural, environmental, geographical and other aspects of place are interconnected. These approaches center decolonizing and sometimes Indigenous perspectives on the land. Research shows that place-responsive education, when framed as a form of critical pedagogy oriented toward sustainability and equity, can enable transformative learning and shift perspectives towards decolonization.
We also draw on research on “regenerative sustainability” education, which recognizes the interconnectedness of human and environmental well-being via an ethic of restoration rather than harm reduction. Teaching “traditional” practices of interacting with place, such as making fire or walking the land, creates a connection to place that can instill in students a sense of responsibility toward local and global landscapes. Research emphasizes how this type of learning can transform human relations to the environment, bring forth Indigenous perspectives on relating to place and land, stimulate environmental ethics, and expand understanding of gender and decolonization. In addition, a large body of research emphasizes the effects of place-responsive programs to student wellness. Mental health benefits from such programs include positive changes to self-concept and self-esteem, compassion, cognitive autonomy, reduced absence from school, increased group cohesion, and prejudice reduction.
As we face the ravages of climate disruption and social and racial inequities globally, we are also seeing a real crisis in student mental health and well-being in higher education. Up to 85% of university students report trauma exposure. BIPOC students are often the most affected, but the impact of COVID-19 pandemic puts everyone at risk. Effects of trauma observable in post-secondary learners include behaviors such as difficulty focusing, attending, retaining, and recalling information; tendency to miss classes; challenges with emotional regulation; fear of risk taking; anxiety about deadlines, exams, group work, or public speaking; anger, helplessness, or dissociation when stressed; withdrawal and isolation; and involvement in unhealthy relationships.
At the level of course design, course content, assignment and assessment design, and class community building, modules in this project are grounded in the five core values of trauma-informed pedagogy: safety, trustworthiness, choice and control, collaboration, and empowerment.
Frances Garrett, Associate Professor, University of Toronto
Ellen Katz, Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work, University of Toronto
Sarah Richardson, Department of Historical Studies, University of Toronto Mississauga
Jeffrey Cupchik, York University