Summer Series: Wilderness Maxims for Learning; Part 6

person waking on hill

Maxim 6: –Don’t cut switchbacks and avoid venturing off the beaten path.

As we continue with our sixth Wilderness Maxim for Learning, we may be feeling sophomoric, restless, and yearning for a cross-country shortcut, but let us not rush through the second half of this list! There are no shortcuts in life and learning. If enough hikers cut switchbacks, then the hillside collapses. Anyone on their learning path can also face the threat of instability when students or instructors attempt to shortcut the process. The importance of learning maps was discussed in a previous post, but there is still more to say about veering from the learning path that applies to both teachers and students. What does a learning shortcut look like, and why should learners and teachers bother to stay on paths?

Connection to Learning:

In this metaphor, a learning path is about knowing where you are, how you got there, and where you might go next. It’s about guided self-awareness. Staying on the path, then, doesn’t refer to obeying a syllabus without question, but instead speaks more to personal engagement and how a teacher can help students foster this. It’s about whether or not a student leaves their path of learning to wander through the overgrowth of apathy, the bushes of burnout, or the thickets of self-doubt. Leaving their learning path, students learn to hide in plain sight, fake their way through without really learning, cheat, plagiarize, or quit altogether.  

brown rock formation
Photo by Robert Schrader on

In Quora, I replied to a question about whether teachers can spot a ghostwritten essay, and my answer gained more than 2,000 views. Also in Quora, I often see questions asked about shortcuts to completing assignments up to and including outright cheating and plagiarism. Unfortunately, many students (at least those who use Quora) want to know how to be finished more easily with assignments. That may say more about burnout than it does about their inherent grit or interest in learning since there are also plenty of posts exploring how to enjoy learning more. What happens when a student seeks out shortcuts, and how much can a teacher impact those choices

There are no easy answers to these questions. Preferably, the desired outcome, however, would be corrective rather than punitive. It may be unpopular to say or hear, but learning, much like going out on a trail, requires effort. Lots of it, in fact, and likely for long periods. Hiking poles and a good pair of shoes help on a trail, but gravity is relentless no matter the gear. Similarly, studying tips and tricks help students by making the material more engaging and memorable, but not by making learning any easier (even if it ‘feels’ easier). They help students put in more active effort over time! If that sounds like bad news, consider the secret of life according to Alan Watts: “To be completely engaged with what you are doing in the here and now. And instead of calling it work, realize it is play.” Studying tips, tricks, and resources offer a way to be more present and engaged in learning, and it’s up to both teachers and students to demand that they be incorporated into lessons. 

Teachers and caregivers can help support self-regulation in students rather than foster an atmosphere of compliance. Talk with students about cheating and plagiarism, ask questions about their process, and listen. Students care about fairness, equal access to knowledge, and helpful resources. Discuss these topics, model splitting tasks apart, build in and reinforce supports, and explore strategies for success. With a little planning, steady tracking, and other mindfulness and reflective techniques, learners can learn to stay on their paths even through significant effort, increasing challenges, and moments of doubt when a ‘shortcut’ may at first appear attractive. 

aerial view of swartberg pass in swartberg south africa
Photo by Frans van Heerden on

Discussion/Journaling Prompt:

What does it take to make a ‘boring’ task or activity more fun, and what are some of the pros and cons of attempting to do this? You can either “free write” about anything that comes to mind when you think of this perspective shift, or you can consider any of the following guided questions and prompts to explore this more closely:

  • Does getting better at a task or activity increase its enjoyment or value?
  • What kinds of character traits are needed to be more flexible with certain tasks?
  • What’s a task you wish you enjoyed more, or one you have already taught yourself to enjoy more, and why is it important enough to reconsider?
  • Is there an activity you have lost enjoyment in doing, and how has this changed your experience of performing the task or activity?
  • What does ‘hating’ (or ‘loving’) an activity cause you to miss about that activity?
  • In what ways can someone else help or hinder you with a task or activity like this?

More is to come in Part 7 of this Summer Series on Wilderness Maxims for Learning. Like, share, subscribe, or comment if these ideas resonate with you.

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