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.

 

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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.

 

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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 Trudeau plans to bring the Rohingya crisis up as his main point on Tuesday’s United Nations General Assembly 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.

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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.

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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.

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

  1. I really like the parallels you draw in this post between the religious culture of Myanmar and the educational system at large. I think there’s a lot to be learned from religious practice and ideologies, regardless of whether you subscribe to that religion or not.

    On a separate note, while not directly related, the MyME project reminded me of another international project, with one base just down the road from us, in Floyd, VA. Apple Ridge Farm in Floyd is one of very few sites with an “EBase”, or Educational Base, and their mission is to “transform the lives of our community’s underserved children and families through educational, cultural and outdoor experiences.” The foundation of the EBase system in Floyd was in transforming an old railroad boxcar into a revolutionary classroom experience, primarily offering hands-on STEM experiences, for inner-city kids from the region who don’t have the same resources otherwise.

    Like

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