Posts Tagged 'Practice'

Confessions of an informal learner who’s learning in school

I have a confession to make. I’m learning. In school. No joke. I frame this as a confession because I’m someone who’s generally pretty hard on institutionalized education, and especially schools, and now I might have to go and revisit my stance a bit.

First, some background. I’m not one of those people that looks back on their school experiences, even those in higher ed, and feels like I was inspired, or particularly well equipped, to scale new intellectual, personal or professional heights. There are some small exceptions of course and probably some very positive aggregate effects, but looking back there are no teachers that really stand out as changing my trajectory, no courses that shook the foundations of what I thought my place was in the world. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t have any “bad” experiences in school beyond feeling like high school sucked on a social level (but hey, who didn’t have that experience?), but I when I look at the other places that I’ve really learned in my life, it doesn’t really stack up in comparison.

When I think about the kind of learning in my life that was foundational and life changing on the intellectual, personal and professional level, I look outside of school. I look to life experiences of the informal variety. As I look back on my adult life, three places in particular strike me as the ones where I’ve learned the most: my meditation practice, my time living abroad in India, and my time working at the youth development organization Global Kids. And as I reflect on these experiences, I can see why I’m in a situation here in graduate school where I’m learning – in each of these areas I can see some quality that I’m now finding in my current experience.

I starting meditating when I was about 18. For me this has been part of a spiritual journey that I won’t go deeply into here (feel free to explore some other writings if you’re curious), but one that I will say has been meaningful and important for my development as a (at least somewhat) reflective, mindful and conscientious adult. This development has been grounded in the exploration of a practice; a continual refinement and commitment to a particular technique that has stayed with me through most of my adult life, evolving with me. Directly engaging in a practice, learning from others about how they practice, paying close attention to the contours of this particular practice, and, importantly, persistently applying the practice in new contexts and integrating new insights into it has unquestionably been one of the deepest (and at ten years, most ongoing) learning experiences I’ve had in my life.

I lived in India twice over the course of about two years, the first time more related to some of the interests I just mentioned, the second more related to my professional life (again, if curious, you can read the old blog I kept while living in Bombay). Beyond the particulars of first the study abroad program and then the NGO-based fellowship that I participated in, the big learning experience for me here was about cultural immersion. One of the unique things about living abroad is that it makes visible the taken for granted mechanisms of culture by exposing you to mechanisms wholly different from your own. In immersing myself in the drastically different culture of India, I came to see more clearly the contours of my own culture back home in the US. More generally, I learned how to experience and interpret the world through the lens of culture and see the critical role it plays in the learning process – how a given culture both structures our lives but also provides the basis for our own agency.

As my first extended professional experience, my time working at Global Kids has so many things that I can say about it in terms of my own learning to be a professional (and I have, if you’re again curious), but I’ll limit myself here. What I’d really like to focus on in terms of that experience is my immersion in work and a field that I feel passionately about. I came to Global Kids coming off of my second trip to India, with a deep commitment to working on issues related to human rights, though not really knowing very much about that area as a field. And Global Kids was an interesting place in terms of that – it isn’t a classic human rights organization like Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch. It’s a youth development organization that does education about human rights, and works with teens to foster their own identities as global citizens. Even more than that, my place within the organization, in it’s Online Leadership Program, put me in a position where I was exploring the question of how youth can be civically engaged through the lens of new media. This led me to become deeply engaged in the emerging field of Digital Media & Learning, and over the course of my time at Global Kids I became more immersed in that space through work on collaborative projects, presentation at conferences and development of a network of colleagues whose worked I respected. In this experience I came to understand what an impact working in a field that I’m passionate about has one my own learning, motivation and development.

Circling back – here I am in graduate school, and looking around me, I see practices, I see culture, and I see a field that I’m passionate about. And I see how these three components are intertwined in a way that supports my learning. I’m developing a set of distinct practices related to the investigation of questions of learning – they involve the application of theory, utilization of research methodologies, and development of analytic and argumentation techniques all used to produce new knowledge about the world. I’m surrounded by a productive culture that’s supportive of my development – one that’s inquisitive, innovative, experimental and rigorous in the ways that it engages with the questions it cares about. And I’m able to work on the things that I’m passionate about through the work I do in my courses, through the work I do in my lab, and through the interactions I have with the community around me.

I share all of this because I’m surprised. I’m surprised at the ways that I’m developing and learning in a formal education context and how different it feels from all of my other encounters with the formal educational system. I’m sharing my own experience as a learning scientist who’s researching informal learning spaces and technologies because he believes in their potential to help inspire new educational innovations, but finding, suddenly and surprisingly, that it’s wholly possible to have a robust learning experience in formal learning context that contains all the markers of the most effective informal learning I’ve experienced. The irony is not lost on me here.

In one sense the implications of this realization feel daunting – how can I look to my own positive experience with school and integrate that into my work as someone looking to transform education? Is it even possible to have a learning experience like this in an educational space that currently looks so drastically different, with classrooms that are increasingly under pressure from standardized tests, schools that look increasingly like prisons, and students who haven’t been encouraged to pursue their passions? In another sense, this insight it feels validating and empowering – it is possible to have a schooling experience that’s personally meaningful and robust in terms of learning. And I’ll just have to do the work to figure out what it means for my work as someone dedicated to good learning for all youth.

Swinging the Pendulum Too Far on Teacher Training

Photo by Pseudopam. Licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC

While it’s generally not my area of research, I’ve started to pay more attention to current debates about teacher quality and training that one inevitably encounters when in the education field. Even outside of taking any policy or curriculum courses, Learning Sciences students and professors at my University teach courses, mostly educational psychology, to undergraduate pre-service teachers and so invariably have to grapple with the questions about what it means to prepare those students well for their roles in the classroom. And so this article in the New York Times about teacher education programs caught my eye.

The article reports, mostly positively, on a new movement in teacher education that’s focused almost exclusively on in-field placements and instructional practice and technique. The movement builds off of, in my opinion, valid critiques of traditional teacher education programs in which students mostly spend their time in courses, with some field placements that are often largely observational. I know of at least one undergraduate teacher education program where the students don’t actually get into any sort of direct instructional role until their third semester spent in the field. That there are enormous retention problems for teachers in their first three years in the classroom is no surprise – they’ve been ill-prepared by a broken teacher education system.

Both personally and as student of learning, I’m not a huge fan of the model of education we find in higher education courses (with some recent exceptions). The best learning experiences I’ve had were after I left college and were a result of diving deeply into real problems, grappling with solutions, and watching others. The best learning theory agrees with my experiences here too. And yet I’m deeply disturbed by this new, entirely practice oriented teacher education movement’s apparent disregard for theory. Take a look at this quote from the article:

“I can study Vygotsky later,” said Tayo Adeeko, a 24-year-old third-grade teacher at Empower Charter School in Crown Heights. She was referring to another education school staple — Lev Vygotsky, a Soviet theorist of cognitive development who died in 1934. “Right now,” she added, “my kids need to learn how to read.”

Ok, never mind that I happen to be a huge fan of Vygotsky and have never read anybody that articulates how learning happens as well as he does. Never mind that the article also takes some pots shots at John Dewey, Howard Gardner and Paulo Freire, all people whose ideas, if they were actually well heeded, would result in a radically different, more creative and more equitable society. Never mind that. This comes down to a basic truth about the relationship between theory and practice.

Kant, among many others, put forth that theory without practice is empty, and practice without theory is blind (and yes, the irony of quoting a philosopher’s theory on this point is not lost on me). But I truly believe that any good teacher, and really any good practitioner or designer, will have balance between these two realms. In most of the tech world, for instance, companies both large and small engage in iterative design processes that lead to the emergence of design principles (aka, theory), which lay the groundwork for more effective design processes (aka, practice) down the line. Learning Sciences’ core methodology, design-based research, does the same.

I understand and empathize with the desire to be more practical and hands on in our approaches to education. Hell, this is everything that I study and advocate for and that I think young people’s learning environments, including but not limited to school, should be based on. But if we swing the pendulum too far on this one, if we cut out spaces that allow teachers in training to pull out patterns in their experiences working with kids, we do just as much a disservice to them as we’re doing now by not giving them enough direct experience.

On Sitting Intensive Meditation Retreats (Part 5) – Not Therapy, Not Self Improvement

This is the 5th installment in a six part series about what it means to go on intensive meditation retreats, something I’ve been doing for a number of years. This the last of four posts in the series that explore what an intensive meditation retreat isn’t. Tomorrow’s final post in the series will delve into what, in my opinion, doing these retreats is actually about.

The fourth and final misconception is probably the most complex given how many grains of truth there are in it, but I’ll aim to keep things simple.  It’s this: meditation and meditation retreats are not psychotherapy or self improvement.  I repeat: meditation is not psychotherapy, intensive meditation retreats are not some form of intensive psychotherapy, and the whole project of meditation is not one of self improvement.

If I wanted intensive psychotherapy, I’d find myself a good therapist and book multiple sessions per week (though I have no idea where I’d find the money to do such a thing). If I wanted self improvement (something I’d say a qualified yes too, more on that later), I’d engage in practices in my daily life resulted in more considerate, more organized, healthier, more skilled, more compassionate, and a dozen other “better” behaviors (and I do, or, at least, try to).  But that’s not what my meditation practice is about and it’s definitely not why I go on retreat. I think this is a really important point to hammer home because there are so many people within my tradition and others that do actually treat their meditation practice in these ways. I’ll try to explain why.

Especially when doing insight meditation, a practice of watching the mind in action, it’s quite common and admittedly very exciting to start to see big patterns of mind that previously went unnoticed. The way we react to certain people, what comes up when we get into conflict, the relationship we have to our blackberry, these and literally thousands of other ways that we relate to the world become much more clear. For many though, there can then follow a tendency to “figure out” how those patterns came to be, where they originated and why, and through analyzing these things come to better understand the chain of conditionality and history that led to these behaviors and perhaps puts them in context.

This “figuring out” part is not what insight practice is about, it’s what various forms of therapy are about.  Engaging in a “figuring out” process while “on the cushion” (ie – in meditation) detracts from actually being present and aware of what’s happening in the moment. While it might seem like a good and useful thing to do, from the perspective of the practice, it’s basically discursive thought that if you’re anything like me is quite easy to get lost in. Thus, not the practice.

The self improvement part is where things get somewhat trickier. These patterns of mind that we begin to notice are often followed by one of two common reactions. The first, discussed above, is to engage in “figuring out” with regards to the pattern.  The second is to decide to either drop or continue the pattern.

Let’s say I notice a pattern in which I’m beating myself up for looking at my watch in impatience while waiting in line, judging the pattern of being impatient as “Bad”, then identifying as a ” Bad Person”, which the mind certainly thinks is a “Bad Thing”. I might want to drop that whole process. It’s not particularly productive, there’s implicit self deprecation in the pattern, I don’t particularly need it in my life if I want to be a happy person, and it could likely result in me being a jerk to someone else in line. In contrast, if I notice a pattern of helping old women cross the street (to use a trite example), I might decide that that’s a pretty good thing to do for both them and for me, and I’d want to continue to engage with that pattern.

This whole process is both generally good from a human standpoint, and also completely in line with the practice.  It’s actually referred to as “Right Effort“, defined as letting go of or “abandoning” thoughts, speech and action harmful to oneself or others and cultivating ones that benefit oneself and others. Generally, this lines up fairly well with broadly accepted notions of self improvement. Where it diverges though is again in intention.

Buddhist practice on the whole is oriented towards less self obsession, narcissism and solipsism, and more selflessness, both figuratively and literally. The process described in Right Effort of dropping bad habits and cultivating good ones is not about improving some self, but rather about promoting a selflessness that is a natural response to the suffering in the world and that will allow, again, for the clear seeing of experience in the moment. This may seem like a small semantic detail, but read through the self help section of a bookstore and I imagine you’ll find a lot of orientation towards “gaining” or “having” better habits, a premise which is subtly though clearly not about selflessness but rather about narcissism.

Tomorrow, I’ll finish off the series picking up with this idea of watching experience clearly as it unfolds, and do my best to describe what I think retreat is actually all about.

On Sitting Intensive Meditation Retreats (Part 4) – Not a High

This is the 4th installment in a six part series about what it means to go on intensive meditation retreats, something I’ve been doing for a number of years. This the third of four posts of the series that explore what an intensive meditation retreat isn’t. The final post in the series will delve into what, in my opinion, doing these retreats is actually about.

Third misconception: you don’t go on retreat to get high. No, I don’t mean to imply that people think that meditators are smoking pot as they sit for weeks on end (yogis on retreat follow the Five Precepts that constitute basic Buddhist ethics), but rather that meditation has long been associated with getting “blissed out”, or entering sometimes spectacular meditative states that are characterized by calm, tranquility, pleasure, or equanimity. Things get somewhat complicated here, as there are in fact in almost every meditative tradition including the one that I practice in (which, for you meditation geeks out there is the Theravada Buddhist tradition) practices explicitly meant bring you to such states, not to mention that even when a person is not engaged in those specific practices, other practices often involve chancing into those states unintentionally.

Some brief delving into the details of meditative practice here is useful.  As Daniel Goleman states in Varieties of Meditative Experience, and I fully agree with, all meditation practices can basically be broken down into two categories: concentration practices and awareness practices. Concentration practices involve taking an object of meditation, such as the breath, a colored disk, a mantra or a visualization and focusing the mind clearly and consistently on that object for extended periods. In contrast, awareness practices involve either using a subset, like sound or the breath, or the entirety of sensory experience to serve as the object of meditation. Awareness practices differ from concentration practices in that the meditator is not attempting to become completely focused on or absorbed in the object as it were, but rather aims to watch very closely the process of experience itself unfolding so as to learn something about the nature of sensory reality and the human mind.

Aside from anything else about meditative concentration practices, which include a plethora of permutations each with their own underlying logic, engaging in concentration practices intensively can result in states of mind that are just straight-up other-worldly. Some might be on the mild side, just resulting in general pleasant and consistently peaceful experience (which is actually mind blowing, come to think of it), others can result in levels of bliss that are pretty much entirely unknown to ordinary experience (depending on how powerful the mind gets), some even bring the practitioner to a place where the entirety of sensory reality drops away.

If this sounds pretty incredible, that’s because it is.  But it’s not why I and most meditation practitioners are involved in this whole thing.  That’s not to say that there aren’t or haven’t been points when I’ve cultivated concentration or engaged in practices that can lead to these sorts of states of mind, but they’re only a means to an end, like the aforementioned disconnecting from email. The point is to create the conditions under which what’s going on in the mind and experience can be clearly seen, as my primary meditation practice falls into that second category I mentioned, awareness practice.

Called Vipassana which means “clear seeing” in Pali, the ancient language of Theravada Buddhism, it is often referred to as Insight Meditation. In technique it’s very simple, though can often be quite challenging in practice. As the Buddha said, “In reference to the seen, there will be only the seen. In reference to the heard, only the heard. In reference to the sensed, only the sensed. In reference to the cognized, only the cognized.” Basically, the practice entails having a bare awareness of experience from one moment to the next, without grasping at it or pushing it away. Concentration is a means to an end in that it helps with the “one moment to the next” part, as one might be aware in one moment, but unless there’s concentration, the next one will go by unseen. So, concentration is a necessary part of the practice, and hence some of these blissful and otherwise altered states of mind might come about, but they’re not the heart of the practice or why it’s done. You might get a little high in the course of a retreat, but that’s not what it’s about.

Tomorrow I share the final and most complex misconception – Not Therapy, Not Self Improvement. Stay tuned!

On Sitting Intensive Meditation Retreats (Part 3) – Not an Escape

This is the 3rd installment in a six part series about what it means to go on intensive meditation retreats, something I’ve been doing for a number of years. This post, and the next two, continues an exploration that started with yesterday’s installment about what an intensive meditation retreat isn’t. The final post in the series will delve into what, in my opinion, doing these retreats is actually about.

Point #2: Meditation retreats are not about escaping from an increasingly busy, fast, and full on life that’s defined by a person’s calendar, to do list and smartphone. Anybody who knows me knows that I love my to do list, delight in scheduling things, and generally prefer to have a chocked full life lived with smartphone in hand, thank you very much. Retreats are not an escape from a crazy world of financial meltdowns, global conflicts, and environmental woes – you still have your mind when you go and sit, and believe me, it’s a crazy world in there too (and if you don’t think that’s true for you, go ahead and sit down for 45 minutes, close your eyes, and watch your mind. You might be shocked by what you see).  In short, going and sitting is not an escape or retreat from life or the world, though the term “meditation retreat” does this misconception no favors.

Caveat time: this idea of retreat as escape might have such incredible sticking power because many of the external conditions the notion is based upon are, in fact, accurate. On retreat, a person cuts themself off from the world at large, they don’t have responsibilities in the conventional sense save an hour a day doing a “yogi job” (washing dishes, chopping veggies, sweeping leaves, etc.), they aren’t on email or using the phone, they’re not even engaging in conversation. So yes, it is a retreat in those senses. And people that often go on retreat even talk about how much they enjoy these aspects of them.  Heck, I love turning off my iPhone, not having to worry about meeting a deadline or being enslaved to a news cycle that both endlessly fascinates and depresses me.

The key factor though in why escape isn’t what a retreat is about is intention. The silence, the lack of work, the not reading the news or constantly having meetings, none of those are an end in themselves. Rather, they’re conditions set up to allow the mind to settle, to come to a level of stillness so that it’s actually able to see clearly what’s happening during the process of experience, so often taken for granted. It’s an act of renunciation from the sensory overload that often defines our world, and the renunciation is in service of a desire to actually arrive in the present, so rare in daily life.

In fact, it’s when we are out in the world, rather than when we go on retreat, that we are more often playing a game of escape. Whether it’s through consuming media, keeping busy, or even just shooting the shit, we find a million and a half ways of not actually encountering and paying attention to our lived experience.  After all, why would anyone want to just sit around and watch what’s going on inside their heads? That must be so boring! Well, generally no, though boredom is sometimes there.  Ever tried to stay with boredom though? It can paradoxically be quite interesting to watch if you’re not wrapped up in it. Anyhow…   On retreat, you’re not escaping from the world, you’re opening up to it, paying attention to it in a way that is unique and wonderful and I think quite rare. So, to retreat is not to escape.

Tomorrow – Not a High.

On Sitting Intensive Meditation Retreats (Part 2) – Not a Spa

For those that missed the introductory post, this is the 2nd installment in a six part series about what it means to go on an intensive meditation retreat, something I’ve been doing for a number of years. This and the next three posts will outline what a retreat is not about, and the final post will attempt to put out what it is about.

First off, going on retreat is not going to a spa.  If I wanted a spa, I’d go to canyon ranch.  There are no massages, facials, pools or gyms, and I don’t go on retreat to relax, though it’s a welcome byproduct that occasionally presents itself. In general actually, retreats can involve a high level of rigor, hence the “intensive” bit in “intensive meditation retreat”. Pretty much the entire day is spent in formal meditation outside of meals, and even during meals and other non-formal practice periods one is aiming to maintain continuity in the meditative practice. That’s anywhere from 15-20 hours a day spent in meditation, and trust me, these hours are just as often painful, exhilarating, disconcerting or a million other mind states both pleasant and unpleasant as they are relaxing.

In terms of external forms of relaxation, the facilities and level of comfort they come with can depend on where you go on retreat. I’ve sat retreats in Asia (Burma, Thailand and India, specifically), as well as in the States, mostly in New England.  While there are certainly differences between those in the East and those in the West, there are some general things that characterize retreat centers that make them quite different from spas.

Lodging is usually sparse, with single though occasionally double occupancy simple, small rooms, and in Asia it’s common to be in a single room hut.  Food in the West is usually vegetarian and at the places I’ve been to quite good though nothing gourmet, and in Asia will be fare of whatever country you find yourself in, which can sometimes be a delight (as it was in Thailand) and sometimes not (I’m looking at you, Burma). Meals are usually twice a day, breakfast and lunch, and in the West I’ve usually been at places that have a very light tea, crackers, peanut butter, fruit and the like, in the late afternoon.  When I was sitting in Thailand there was actually only one meal a day, a huge breakfast at about 8 am that was chocked full of the sort of things you might have for dinner (curries, meats, rice, with plenty of delicious fresh fruit). I’ve almost always enjoyed the food on retreats, but in-house five star restaurants this is not.

Centers are often located in rural areas (the place I just came from is called the Forest Refuge) as it’s helpful to have a good bit of quiet, though I’ve also been to centers in Asia that have been in the middle of cities and are quite loud.  Shared bathrooms and showers are the norm (no hot tubs!), and in long term retreats there will usually be a washing machine in Western centers, and handwash in Asia. Sorry, no dry cleaning available.

Overall, these places are comfortable enough for a person to not get distracted by not having basic needs of food, shelter and clothing met but not get obsessed with these things to the point that a retreatant (or yogi, as they’re called) is luxuriating instead of meditating. This, of course, exists on a spectrum depending on where you are, but, as I said – not a spa.

Stay tuned for part 3 tomorrow, Not An Escape.

Photo Credit to the Forest Refuge

On Sitting Intensive Meditation Retreats – A Series (Part 1)

I recently returned from spending a month on a silent retreat practicing a style of Buddhist meditation that originated in India about 2,500 years ago. It’s a practice that I’ve been doing for almost ten years and that has become an important part of my life, and while I don’t always go on retreat for such an extended length of time, I usually set aside anywhere from a week to a month each year to enter a space that’s in many ways counter-cultural and often, I think, misunderstood.

It occurred to me this year as I was sitting, as doing such retreats or just meditating is colloquially called, that many people might not have an accurate sense of what it’s like to go on retreat or an understanding of why anyone would choose to do something like it when time, and especially time spent with those we care about, is often such a scarcity. So this six part series, which I’ll post over the course of this week, is basically a primer for those that have ever wondered what the heck I’m doing when I disappear for a couple of weeks a year and don’t answer my emails.

As a warning, while this series of posts is not solely dedicated to issues of philosophy, existentialism, religion and the like, some of my personal views on such topics are discussed. If this kind of thing makes you uncomfortable, well, that’s healthy.  They make most people uncomfortable. They hit pretty close to home in terms of our experience of life, something that basically everyone is attempting to understand one way or another. If these things in no way make you think twice, please email me and let me know what you’ve figured out that I haven’t.  Final caveat: the views shared here are mine and constrained entirely by my own experience, others that go on these sorts of retreats very well may think about them differently or sit at retreats of different styles or traditions that my descriptions don’t represent.

For this project I also decided to take a somewhat nontraditional discursive style. I figured rather than directly tackling the large and complicated question of what these retreats are about, I’d take a classic Buddhist approach of describing an experience in terms of what it’s not. So, the following posts, save the last one, will describe the retreat experience for the most part in the negative. I thought this might be useful, as articulating some common misconceptions about something that is fraught with them is often a good way of getting people’s heads around what the experience actually is. However, there is often a grain of truth upon which misconceptions are based, and I’ll do my best to give each half truth its due as I write. In the final post, I’m going foolishly attempt to explain what this whole enterprise of going on retreats and not talking and not emailing and going through both horrible and wonderful mindstates is all about (at least for me). I hope you follow, comment and enjoy!

Tomorrow – Not a Spa.


Hi there.

Rafi in thailand, smiling

If you're reading this, then you've reached the web log of Rafi Santo. This is my little slice of the internet where I can share my passion (or whatever) with the world.

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