Learning on a Steep Curb | Mobile Education and Mindfulness in Myanmar

I met Tim Aye-Hardy while living in Yangon, Myanmar in 2015. He is a native Burmese man who fled the country after his participation in the student protests in 1988 led to military persecution, and proceeded to spend the next two decades studying and working in America. Upon returning to his homeland he started Myanmar Mobile Education Project (MyME), a social enterprise that educates young tea-shop employees on the back of retrofitted, antique Hino buses (see below).  In Myanmar, many children from the countryside are sent by their parents to work at these tea-shops and collect a little extra money for their families. They are essentially swept up into a type of modern indentured servitude- sold to tea-shop owners as cheap labor and stripped of any fundamental access to education.


A classic Hino bus still used for public transportation in Yangon, Myanmar. MyME is now retrofitting these buses into mobile classrooms. See video documentation here.

It is amazing that a country so intensely mindful in its religious practice of Buddhism can be so mindless when it comes to primary education and stripping this basic right for millions of their youth. Not only that, tea-shops literally represent the cultural center of communities in Myanmar. They are the setting for eating and drinking at breakfast lunch and dinner, studying, conversing, debating, catching up, having discussions, watching news, viewing sports, etc. – the essential pulse of social life in Yangon. Yet the kids who run them are being dreadfully denied access to the learning they will need to keep the country vibrantly progressing out of poverty for generations to come.


A girl working at the tea-shop next to my office near the South Dagon industrial zone of Yangon. Employed children like her are often forced to work 12+ hour days and get paid next to nothing. 

Of course this is not the only controversy surrounding Myanmar at the moment. Their beloved leader Aung San Suu Kyi has neglected to intervene with the atrocious military treatment of the Muslim Rohingya ethnic group in the northeastern part of the country. Recently the burning of villages have sent thousands of additional refugees flooding over the border into Bangladesh. Though many speculate that Suu Kyi is in a very precarious political situation and is essentially powerless in controlling the military’s actions in the region, the strong current of seemingly radical Buddhism seems to uphold peace and justice if and only if you are also Buddhist. The majority in Myanmar tends to blame all Muslims for the terrorism of the select few that radicalize toward violence. They don’t understand that the word Islam in Arabic actually derives from the root Salaam meaning peace. Muslims literally greet one another with this same peaceful salutation. Yet the violence and the racism and the misunderstandings persist. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeaux plans to bring the Rohingya crisis up as his main point on Tuesday’s UN council meeting in New York City.

Learning anything in the context of this social, economic, and political turmoil is an enormous challenge. Tea-shop kids have the same situational stress plus 10-14 hours of work a day.  So for Tim Aye-Hardy and MyME to succeed they knew they must go a step further and get very creative with their approach. They have already incorporated many of the gamification principles that we discussed last week into their courses. But there might be more to learn from their country’s strong Theravada Buddhist tradition when it comes to integrating principles of mindful learning into their mobile classrooms.

Two Burmese monks walk past my corner tea-shop near Shwedagon Pagoda where I lived during my time in Yangon. The server in the background was a twelve year old boy nick-named “Ja Bao” or baby tiger. He had no access to formal education.

In his teachings, Buddha often talked about mindfulness and single pointed focus. Recognizing distractions and coming back to the subject at hand is something that could be invaluable to many students and modern day professionals alike. Just replace the focus on the breath in meditation with focus on the next task on your long list of to-do’s. Buddha also insists on complete personal detachment from the subject- an objective, non-biased perspective that many scientists strive toward for their entire career. Of course the end goal of these teachings in the Buddhist context is not a diploma or a career path with socio-economic security, it is a spiritual path toward Nirvana or enlightenment. If only some of these tenets of the religious culture in Myanmar could be applied to their education system. It could quickly become a baseline for deeply mindful education worldwide.

I learned a lot about mindfulness and Vippassana meditation while I was in Myanmar. I sat face to face with many monks struggling to understand the practice and learning what I could through hand gestures and broken Burmese. I taught my first ever yoga class at Yangon Yoga House and went on to start a collective called Transp0se while I was living in Washington D.C. We integrated lessons from Nada Yoga (the yoga of music) and Yoga Nidra (yogic sleep) with technology and mixed media as a way to make mindfulness more approachable for the masses. Our programs were also geared towards teaching mindfulness techniques rather than general education but we identified many amazing overlaps. Yoga Nidra, for example, is especially interesting in its ability to enable subjects to subconsciously absorb and retain information. Imagine being able to learn a language or study for an exam in your sleep! In his famous book on the subject Swami Satyananda Saraswati echos warnings from both Buddha and Ellen Langer alike- “Be mindful (especially) of mindlessness”. We need to be aware of not just what we learn but how we learn as well.

Luke and I in a Transp0se meditation circle in Upstate New York this past summer. Everything comes full circle.

I met Luke Namer at The Fresh Air Collective gathering in upstate New York this past summer. We went to undergrad together at Cornell but never met in Ithaca. Transp0se was hosting a meditation session there and Luke organized the event. A couple of days ago I got an email from Luke and his friend/collaborator Daniel who started a social-impact educational tourism platform called Edventurists. They were hosting screenings of a couple new short films from Luke’s production company Redefined. One of the films was called Steep Education, a 20 minute documentary on Tim Aye-Hardy and the Myanmar Mobile Education Project. They asked if I could help organize a screening on September 27th, without the faintest clue that I had met Tim in 2015 and was currently studying this exact topic in Contemporary Pedagogy.

If anyone would be interested in trying to screen the film during our class please comment! I plan to pitch the idea to Dr. Nelson immediately after submitting this post. A sudden change in the curriculum might be just what we need to drive home this idea of mindful learning and teaching right here at home.

Mind Gym

After graduating from college, I worked at a learning & development consulting company called Mind Gym. The goal of Mind Gym is to promote lifelong learning in the workplace, and to teach people to think differently. One of Mind Gym’s beliefs suggests that people choose how they think – and with a little exercise of the mind, we can choose to think up some pretty awesome, positive things. Consequently, our life at work and at home can change drastically, allowing us to be more productive in all aspects. But for the most part, people think in rigid, repetitive ways. Go to work, go home, eat, go to sleep, do it all again. For a lot of people, maybe the actual work they do is repetitive, and they see no point to changing how they think. Mind Gym, and this week’s readings, would totally disagree – and so do I!

While the readings for this week focus mainly on education in the form of schooling, so much of it can be applied to work settings. My belief, and Mind Gym’s, is that learning should not end when “formal” education ends. We can’t just graduate from college and stop learning. You got a job that suits you perfectly? Great. Does that mean you’ve peaked? I hope not! And for those who don’t want or don’t have the opportunity to graduate from any formalized educational system, how are we making sure they’re still learning? At Mind Gym, most of the learning centers around people. The learning Mind Gym promotes isn’t math or writing or languages (though it certainly helps to stay on top of those things). Instead, the focus is on how we interact with people at work and how we reflect on ourselves. Are we kind, inclusive, and understanding of others? And are we thinking about our own needs and developmental goals? Without this mindset, we’re more likely to fall back in to routine ways of thinking, back to that “go to work, go home, eat, go to sleep, do it all again” mindset.

I could go on and on about my thoughts on mindful learning, lifelong learning, out-of-classroom learning, etc. . But my biggest take away from working at Mind Gym is simple and concise, and something that Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown mention in “A New Culture of Learning”. It’s also something I try to remember as I work towards a degree in higher education. Learning isn’t the new idea you came up with, or the formula you’ve memorized, or the paper you got an A+ on. Learning is a type of citizenship. It’s how you engage with other people and how you strive for personal development that allows you to contribute something to society, no matter how small. “A New Culture of Learning” tells the story of a young boy named Sam who is a talented programmer. To Sam, the most important part of being a programmer isn’t creating new games, it’s being kind to others in his programming community, and providing them with helpful feedback. If we think about formal education in a similar way, as well as learning beyond a formal education, I think people will be more passionate about topics, more likely to remember and utilize things they’ve learned, and they’ll be happier.

So take a minute to exercise your mind – why are you learning the things you’re currently learning? Because you want that A+, or that promotion, or because you know it will benefit you in a meaningful way?


Should Humans be MINDFUL?… Am I insane for asking this?

If by any chance you are confused about this post’s title, be confident that probably you are not alone. Before reading the next lines, I would be confused too, maybe except for the fact that I chose the title. If you read Langer’s “The Power of Mindful Learning”1 and “Mindful Learning”2, you might be thinking: it seems insane to even ask the question after going through them. If you are in fact thinking this, then respectfully I say to you that perhaps you were mindless while reading about the power of mindfulness. So, why am I asking: “Should Humans be MINDFUL?” The answer is quite simple. No, not to my question, but to why am I asking it: I tried to be mindful while reading.

I truly hope that my introductory paragraph was good enough to encourage you to keep reading. Well, seems the previous sentence was written under the influence of mindlessness. Now that I reflect about it, if you managed to read it, then it means I was successful to engage you, and therefore that sentence is meaningless. On the contrary, had you not read it, then probably I would have failed to gain your attention, or maybe not? But since I kept you interested, which may or may not be measured by you leaving a comment to this post, then travel with me, while I attempt to share with you my answer to the perhaps confusing title of this post.

So, was I mindful while writing the previous two paragraphs? Where you mindful while reading them? Like Langer mentioned, many times we think of being mindful when actually we are not. For instance, an answer to the first question could be that I just wanted to play with your mind, engage you in this reading and then confuse you as much as possible, with the purpose of making you agree with me that I am being mindful about my writing. After all, there is also power in confusing people. But, it is possible that you have another suitable answer to conclude that I was not mindful. And that response, will likely be correct too. Mainly, and this is a fact, because I have no idea of what you think being mindful is, and your definition might be different to mine. Remember, we don’t have the power of reading minds.

Professors must be alert to distinguish if the students are engage and following the topic being discussed, and be open to consider a different approach if needed. Students, will likely maximize their learning experience when their minds are open to process, not just receive, new information. An alert student, will likely be better prepared to apply learned skills under different scenarios, as long as the professor left the door open for such alternate context, in comparison to the student that sits and repeatedly copies what is being told. The previous thoughts that remained with me from Langer’s reflections, probably to some degree, a mere paraphrasing of what being in a mindful state could mean. To continue in the same line of thought, just imagine the infinite possibilities that collaboration between a mindful student and a mindful teacher could potentially bring. A classroom environment where all players are being creative, discovering together, discussing and giving alternatives, rather than, as Langer puts it: taking the facts as the only truth in the absence of context. Certainly, one cannot just 100% agree with the content of Langer’s writing. Otherwise, like I previously expressed, that would mean that we read under a state of mindlessness.

If you have read my previous posts under GEDI F17, I hope you are wondering: where is the personal story? Well, I don’t want to leave you with that uncertainty. Although leaving in uncertainty might be actually better. The post you just read is my personal story about how hard being MINDFUL can be. Writing this post I tried to carefully choose which words to use and what message I wanted to pass. I wanted to try another writing style. I tried to give you options, I tried to transmit a message with confidence, but still leaving you open doors for other possibilities, rather than presenting my thoughts about being MINDFUL as absolute certainties. I tried to explain to you what being MINDFUL is to me, and why humans should be MINDFUL, without directly telling you why. At the end, what I can tell you, as a fact, is that it was not an easy task, but it was an enjoyable one.

Let’s keep learning. Let’s keep educating. Let’s keep moving forward. Let’s keep asking WHY. Let’s start to be more MINDFUL and less mindlessness about who we are, and alternatives to improve our education system.

Carlos F. Mantilla P.

  1. Langer, Ellen J. The Power of Mindful Learning. Book.
  2. Langer, Ellen J. Mindful Learning. Current Directions in Psychological Science. Vol 9, No 6 (Dec. 2000), pp. 220-223



So you’re saying I haven’t been doing it wrong all along?

Third grade… multiplication tables… timer goes off… and once again, I’m still not done the worksheet. Being an overachiever, (go figure someone willingly pursuing a PhD is a overachiever) the worst part of it all is the chart in the back of the room. Every student who completed the worksheet got a sticker next to their name. Next to my name appallingly fewer stickers than the rest of the class. Endless repetition to teach basic math, endless and fruitless torture for me as a student with a number of learning disabilities.

It wasn’t until much later, senior year of college, working through some system of equations to solve some kind of fluids problem that I realized, I had just gotten through a page of work without grabbing for my calculator. FINALLY! I felt like I could do math like a 3rd grade student… I guess I stand as proof positive that the basics don’t have to be learned to the point of second nature. Basic math still requires active thought and I will still grab for the calculator more often than not just to be sure. Yet I would say I have been successful in my ventures so far.

Similar to the children observed absorbing Harry Potter through some unknown process, some topics just clicked for me. Ask me about how to reconfigure the suspension on a car to suit a style of driving and I can do it no problem. Ask me to calculate the forces in the suspension during a turn and the calculator is going to come back out, but I learned the equations for that.

I wish I could identify the means which I learned these things. I think, some level of interest and engagement factors into the learning with mindful practices. Based on my experiences, if there is no way to foster the engagement and enjoyment for learning no amount of mindful practices will aid in the process. But if you can foster the learning experience to cultivate that engagement, mindful learning has the opportunity to organically develop and follow.


Before I get started, I just want to say – this post is personal. The central character is my beautiful, talented, creative granddaughter, who has actually played a prominent role in all my posts so far. But this post is different. It is one grandmother’s wish for her granddaughter.

Secondly, the post is about Korea, but it isn’t.

Okay, the groundwork is laid.

My granddaughter learns much everyday, but much of her daily learning has nothing to do with high school subjects. What she learns about most days has to do with what she is curious about. I asked her to make a collage of things she is curious about. This is her montage.

My Granddaughter’s Collage

As you can see (or perhaps not see), much of her interests lies in Korea, in K-pop bands,(the picture in the middle is of a k-pop band entitled BTS), in creative arts, (YG entertainment group in top left), in dance (IM is a dance studio in Korea), in food (especially Korean food), and in the Korean language (the text on the top right) and in the connections she has with people all around the world that share her same interests. Extending out from this, East Asian culture and history interests her as does Italian ballet, hip hop moves, living as second generation Asian American, photography and a myriad of other curiosities that come up through her connectedness. She loves learning about these things in a way that is very digital and connected. She pursues her curiosities and she is very good at it.

What gets in the way of her learning on a daily basis, however, is her schoolwork. She must take certain subjects – subjects that tick off boxes and, in the process, put her in a box and leave her bored and less than impressed with school – kind of like this cat….which I think is just a great depiction of “less-than-impressed” and “I’m bored.”

I believe my granddaughter’s boredom with much of her schoolwork stems from the many subjects she takes that do not line up with her curiosities. She’s interested in learning Korean, but can’t. It doesn’t tick off the right box – another language does that was chosen for her and she must complete the requisite number of years in. Literary analysis must be done on certain books chosen for her. “Physical Education” consists of having to read an inordinately thick and boring book on human nutrition. Something she must do although she is a tremendous dancer – but dancing, although very athletic, doesn’t tick off the PE requirement. (And just a head scratcher here, reading a big, thick boring book and taking multiple-choice quizzes on it does?)

Okay enough of that. On to what we have been studying for this week – there really is a connection. And the connection is curiosity. As we listened to Dr. Ken’s TED talk Wednesday night, it struck me that curiosity drove my granddaughter’s learning outside of school – a revelation I should have put together much sooner. She is very curious and satisfies that curiosity through her intimate connection with information on the web, you-tube, social media and her connections.

Now to my wish as her grandmother – I wish her schooling tapped into her curiosities. Why not learn Korean? Sure it’s a relatively obscure language but a language that is deemed “critical” by the US State Department. Why not world history instead of American History? Even East Asian history? How about cultural studies? How about literary analysis of contemporary lyrics? And how about incorporating dance into algebra?

Algebra and Dance

And, in desiring something different for my granddaughter, where does this leave me as an educator tasked with teaching students only one to two years older than my granddaughter? Just as I have little control of the boxes that must be ticked off for my granddaughter, I have no control over the boxes that must be ticked off for the students I teach early world history. Some may be curious – others may need to just tick of a particular box. So, in this environment how can I bring learning into my classroom? How can I incorporate the ideas that students are curious about? How can I know what they are curious about? Also, how can I balance graduate school, department expectations for my performance, the desire to step out and try things outside of my comfort zone? Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated.

In bringing this post to a close, there is actually an idea in the Langer reading that I found intriguing and “doable” I guess you might say. Something I could incorporate in my classroom – if I indeed decided to be mindful. This idea is the idea of the “value of doubt.” Langer wrote in connection with the value of doubt, “The key to this new way of teaching is based on an appreciation of both the conditional, or context-dependent, nature of the world and the value of uncertainty.” This “value of doubt” does not particularly need any new technology. I think, and I may be wrong here, that it takes a mindset on my part as a teacher. It involves introducing doubt, asking questions, challenging narratives, asking for students to analyze and where possible, to invite my students to work on the ideas/events/time periods they find most intriguing – giving up certainty for uncertainty.

In my granddaughter’s world of school, certainty abounds. Boxes are ticked off and those in charge feel safe in giving her a diploma that says “You Now Are Educated With a High School Education.” Colleges feel “safe” in admitting her and the world of education remains aligned to some paradigm created by the administrators and my heart as her grandmother is haunted by what might have been.

PS. My granddaughter just read this post and said, “I approve of this post!” ?

Defending the old schools

It seems the fashion way of making impacts is to critique the old school and say something new. It is justifiable: things keep changing as time goes, and time keeps going. People destroy the old tools and inventing the new tools and call it a revolution. It’s an iteration. The old tools used to be some great inventions replacing their predecessors, and now it should be understood that they are replaced by the new generations.

The evolution is inevitable.

So is the evolution in education. I see many arguments talk about stopping the standard test. The old schools which look serious and hard on students should be changed into joyful places.No students should be blamed.

Here I want to kindly remind you that most tools can excel other tools for a certain purpose. We should acknowledge that competition always exists when resources are limited. And the truth is that the resources are always limited and certain resources are so limited that people can feel the lack of them. In a market,  a supplier, in most cases, won’t get the chance to tell the clients or customers not to buy sofas but to buy chairs because they can only make chairs. They can survive if there are no other competitors and the chair is needed. However, if the chairs market cannot make any profit, they may not survive. I treat the standard tests as requests from the clients, the education system. Education is important to everyone and the educational resources are limited. The standard tests are part of the approaches to grant the education resourced. It should also be noticed that there are always paths beside the ordinary ways for extraordinary students.

Taking advantage of cognitive flexibility

The writings of Douglas Thomas & John Seely Brown in A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change (particularly Chapter 3: Embracing Change) got me thinking quite a lot about cognitive flexibility and adaptation in a constantly changing technological world.  The authors point out the insane rate of change, especially in regards to technology, but I think it’s worth mentioning that our ability to adapt to that change is also increasing at an absurd rate.  I think that the more we’re exposed to the digital world, the more literate in it we become.  When we use technology often enough, and in enough of its various forms, we can eventually reach a gestalt and more readily transfer knowledge and skills from one domain into another.  For example, I have some foundation of basic computational skills and literacy, and I think that allows me to generalize my knowledge beyond simply my laptop, my operating system, my video game console interfaces, etc.  I have enough experience with such a breadth of technological devices that when my phone or computer undergo a massive overhaul in firmware/software updates, I can still rely on context clues and prior knowledge to adapt to those changes.

Obviously this flexibility and adaptability was at a very different stage in their example with color TVs.  When this specific technology was the first of its kind, of course no one knew how to use it or what to expect at the outset.  It takes some time to reach proficiency when you’re using a system to go from zero to full comprehension in any context or domain.  We, as a society, had to learn how to use these systems at this time with no prior knowledge, background, or experience to relate it to.  But as these resources continue to expand, and truly explode, we can transition more easily.  We do have a mental prototype or template now for what we expect technology to look like and what we expect technology to be able to do.  We can adapt our prototype when something is similar enough, and we can piece together a variety of knowledge bases to make sense of something a bit new.

Their statement of “When change comes slowly, adaptation is easy” comes off as somewhat too general for me.  I think it’s more accurate to say that adaptation is easy when the changed product resembles the original product, regardless of how slowly or quickly that happens.  When there is no original product with which to make a comparison, slow is better.  But when we have the progression to trace, that adaptation can happen more readily.  I think it should also be noted that this adaptation is possible only with the accompaniment of a mindful approach, such as that described in Ellen Langer’s Mindful Learning.  To me, this means using prior knowledge and experience in a critical manner to evaluate the current iteration in front of you, and then intentionally incorporating the past (familiar) and present (newer) iterations to derive some kind of context on which to move forward.  To employ this approach when faced with a firmware or software update is one thing, but we can, and should, extrapolate this concept to all areas of learning.

Wake-up headaches??

Back to the time when pursuing my Master’s degree, a professor shared a very short-story that will be hardly to forget, this helped me to understand the definition of “Ecological Fallacy”.

The story is about a Ph.D. student that was analyzing data from a project that he was unfamiliar with, he received the data base and the main research question: What factors are involved with morning headaches?. From all the variables that he was analyzing, he found a very strong and statistically significant association (p<0.001) between variable “Z” (shoes) and the outcome (headaches). After the relevant result, he quickly went with his advisor to give him the good news. But what he did not realize were all the factors behind the variable. At the end, he “discovered” that 96% of the participants of the study who had a woke-up headache slept with shoes. So, should we all sleep without shoes to avoid wake-up headaches?

What the student never asked was the Why? And the why had a simple answer: one common characteristic among the participants that fitted with his “discovery”, all of them had more than five glasses of alcohol before going to sleep.


This is a typical example, where following the instructions, in this case protocol and statistical analysis, is not enough. The Ph.D. student was doing his task without motivation, passion and he just found an isolated fact due to his automatic pilot behavior and mindless approach.

“We are poorly served by mindless learning”. Ellen J. Langer

What would have happened with this student with a bit more engagement or curiosity? Perhaps, he would have been aware of more than one perspective to build his conclusion. Well, at least his experience helped me, to be more conscious and to become as mindfulness as I can. Moreover, this story is the how of my understanding of “EcologicalFallacy”.

Practicing mindfulness as students or professors might have positive results such as a decrease in implicit biases (as the student on the story). Educators have a big role to engage students and to facilitate curiosity. Personally, I think that education is not a mechanical system and, as professors we have the challenge and responsibility to create the environment, provide the accurate tools to develop critical thinkers.

The evidence is robust about how environments have the power to change experiences and can influence actions, perceptions and decisions. A theory that have helped to build healthy environments and to design policies is the “Nudge” theory, which can provide a different perspective of how environments are a key factor to influence an outcome.


About the Author

Sofia Rincon Gallardo Patino, is a Mexican dietitian and a public health researcher.

Automaton Fingers and The Five-Paragraph Essay

This blog is going to be messy, a conglomeration of scattered thoughts on a topic that I recognized was an issue throughout my entire history of learning. In the “When Practice Makes Imperfect” chapter in The Power of Mindful Learning, Ellen Langer mentions  the “inventive transformations of the routine” and follows it up with an example of traditional methods of learning classical piano (24). This example immediately through me back to how I learned pieces for piano recitals. I grew up taking piano lessons. Once a week from elementary school through my junior year of high school, I was at a lesson practicing pieces in front of my teacher that I may or may not have had time to practice during the week before the lesson. I liked playing piano, but I hated piano theory and I hated public performance.

These sentiments mostly stem from how I “mastered” recital pieces and the crash-and-burn experience I had from this method of learning. See, I was a rote memorization learner. I practiced and practiced and practiced until my fingers were on autopilot and my mind had seemingly nothing to do with what was going on with the keys. Rote memorization. It worked at home. It even worked at recitals. Until the one time it didn’t.

One night, while performing in public, my fingers blanked. I simply could not remember the next two lines of music. I sat with my back to audience in utter mortification trying to recall the next notes, but I couldn’t. Though I wanted to get up and flee the room, I was finally able to jump ahead in the piece and finish it, but I had failed. My automaton fingers had failed. My memory had failed. And failure is bad, isn’t it? I had learned the basics of performance and the piece itself in a “rote, unthinking manner” and had become less than mediocre by the end of the process (Langer 14). It took me a long time to even think about performing in public again. I’d still rather not.

I saw this same thing happen to a number of us students in high school. We memorized the facts that needed to be learned, took the test where we may or may not have recalled the memories, and then discarded the memorized facts to make room for new ones. Sometimes, we were successful in this method of learning; sometimes, we crashed and burned. Hard. So while reading the “seven pervasive myths” that Langer lists in the introduction to the book, I saw that I had adhered to at least four of those myths just by how I learned piano alone (2).

I appreciated this section on mindful learning because I think it applies to some of my lessons this week in First-Year Writing. In teaching writing and critical thinking, rote memorization is a little more difficult to come by. Because in many area of the humanities, there are no wrong answers. We don’t necessarily memorize. But when we’re taught writing, we do practice the basics so that “they become second nature” (Langer 2). As my students begin to write their first paper, I want to talk about the difference between high school contexts and college contexts. Example: the five-paragraph essay. It’s taught in high school because of its relative easiness to explain and because of its usefulness in writing the types of essays high schoolers have to write. I mean, a oddly high percentage of my essays in high school were timed. Because that’s real life, right? No. Because that’s the AP Test and the SAT writing section and maybe even the GRE writing section for many of us, if we’re honest.

Though I understand that the difference between college and high school may not be that different for some students, for many it is. Students practice writing this type of essay so often that it becomes second nature. It’s the formula they need to succeed. But writing is so much more messy than that formula. Thinking about how to analyze, organize, and write about new concepts and perspectives takes more time than 45 minutes. Now, in college, the basic five paragraph essay isn’t as useful. It’s actually more confining.The five paragraph essay isn’t wrong; it was appropriate for some people in a certain time. It’s just one way of writing in a certain context.  This college context is different, and it’s time for learning to build on itself and evolve. So now, many students will now have break themselves of the basics that have become second nature and try something new.

A lesson in perspective

Meet Stormy.  Ok, let me back up.  Meet Stormy, minus a year and some change.  We adopted him from an animal rescue out of state last August.  He came from a litter of Chow’s, mixed with a then undetermined breed.  He was only a few months old when we met.  I was then a newly funded graduate student who had just left a full-time career of over a decade to embark on a new journey in academia.  My wife thought it would do me, and my then 12 year old Beagle mix to have a new friend.  I was skeptical at first but then I was (repeatedly) reminded that I got to pick out, name, rescue our first dog.  As you can see, both dogs were also skeptical of the idea but again, it was not a plan I came up with.

If there are any Dr. Who aficionados in the audience, Stormy is short for Stormageddon (Clip provided by Youtube).  I am not a Dr. Who fan, but I wasn’t consulted on the name.  I digress.  So on that fateful August afternoon, Stormy became the fourth member of our family.  Since he was adopted so young, he was essentially a blank slate with only room to learn.  Like most puppies, it became evident early on that he was a curious, but overwhelmingly happy dog.  This was despite the fact that we determined (through multiple trips to the vet in the first month) that he acquired multiple parasites and other lingering ailments from the less than ideal conditions of the shelter where we first met.  Because everything was new, he was eager to learn.  He already had a big brother, and he picked up social cues from him along the way.  Every car ride was an adventure.  Every mailbox in the neighborhood to mark, a new milestone.

Yes, Stormy is a dog.  This is well established.  But there is a lesson of perspective that we can learn from him.  In her writings on “mindful learning,” Ellen Langer reminds us that when we sleep walk through the motions of learning, we place limits on ourselves.  There is no fostering of enthusiasm and imagination when you approach learning in such a structured method.  Students of higher education are subject to many of these restrictions.  There are lectures, and planned assignments, and various reading materials to navigate through and comprehend.  Then the semester ends, and they move on to a new set of classes.  A few semesters in, and the student becomes well versed on what is expected of them to successfully pass a course.  But in doing so, they are also setting limits on themselves in how much they actually learn.  I’m not naive. As an undergraduate, I did the same thing.  I attended lectures, I read the assigned texts, I regurgitated the material for an exam, and I learned enough to push me through to another semester.  I can’t say how much more I would have learned had I not fallen victim to some of the myths that Dr. Langer described.  While this isn’t meant to be a condemnation of current academia, it is something to think about.  Stormy isn’t placing limits on what he can learn, he just wants to experience it.  In doing so, he’s learning as he goes.  I think this is a perspective we can all appreciate as continue our own academic endeavors.

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