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 ┬áthe “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. ┬áThis 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.

6 Comments

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6 Responses to Automaton Fingers and The Five-Paragraph Essay

  1. Zhanyu (Grace)

    Sorry to hear about your recital experience. My piano teacher made me study the music away from the piano, and helped me learn a piece of music multiple ways, and I think it worked (so far) in avoiding terrifying recital experiences (though recitals will always be terrifying regardless…). I really liked your example of the 5-paragraph essay. It may have worked before in highschool as a starting point for essay writing, but it becomes a confining structure once you have more complex ideas to organize. This “basic” structure can no longer serve its purpose. And like you said, there really is no perfect solution to writing, and it’s up to you on how you would like to organize your ideas that fit your own style of writing. That’s certainly something to be developed over time. Definitely not an expert in writing, but I think as instructors, we may have the responsibility to provide feedback in a way that encourages this aspect of growth and exploration. Thanks again for sharing.

  2. Jyotsana

    Let me say first that the title of your post is awesome Jaclyn. Your post reminded me of my nephew…my brother told me the other day that he has devised an entirely new method of multiplication and even though he gets the correct answer, because he isn’t writing it down the way his teacher wants it, he is not getting his marks…and all the kid wants to do is get the answer correct…not care for how he got there! So him and his teacher are at an impasse now. I always wonder why teachers want students to do things their way…but then all the famous people didn’t learn things the traditional way…makes me think of the Pink Floyd song when you used the term “automaton”…

  3. I had a similar experience in college. A professor had us regurgitate proofs in his exams. Blanked out totally and barely managed to scrape a pass. What our field does not recognize is that not all people are the same. For eg. there are those who have photographic memory and can write down proofs entirely from memory without understanding the details. On the other hand, there are those who live by details and who do not stop until they figure out why an epsilon suddenly appeared in the equation. Unfortunately, in India, the system of education ensures that the latter type are weeded out.

  4. poochy

    Your title is poetic, five fingers and five paragraphs~! And for me or for many foreigners who take TOEFL test, the five paragraph essay would be automaton similar to the high school writing you talked about. When I studied TOEFL, many students used to memorize a template to finish their five paragraph timed writing. So, it was funny that most writings by Korean students tended to start and end with same sentences:) Now, I see English writing is not just a five paragraph essay always start with “these days” and end with “In conclusion, I believe that~.” I would like to get out of the conventional expressions, but also I am afraid of making an error or unclarity if I try to do that, because English is not my first language.

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