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.

4 Replies to “A lesson in perspective”

  1. I really enjoy reading your post! Course design and development in higher education definitely need some rethinking and improvement. Some courses are designed to let students complete several specific goals each semester, and in the end students can happily graduate on time. But the consistency of all the courses are equally important. It would be a great idea to present the freshmen with the full connection of all courses prepared for their following four years and let them know, from the beginning, that all knowledge are actually connected. Hopefully through this way we can help students build a strong bond between new and old knowledge while encouraging them to see the whole world as a big picture and explore more outside the classroom.

    • Shiqiang, I think it’s a great idea to allow the students to see the “big picture” of their academic career. I’ll definitely try doing that when I teach. Thanks!

  2. Interesting post! We all seem to agree on how structured courses and well-established teaching agenda puts a limit on learning. However, sometimes this gets me thinking about time limitations that we are often bound by. I am afraid that if we do not set some well defined boundaries there are chances that we might be all over the place and might never get to where we wanted to go. Nevertheless, I agree, as educators, we need to foster an environment where students can set their mind free and think outside of the box. Maybe instead of telling students “what to do” and “how to do things,” we can instead ask them “what would you do?” or “How would you do things?”.

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