Beginner’s mind

childsplayflickrmikmartin.jpg Garr Reynolds writes thought-provokingly on Presentation Zen about the concept of beginner’s mind and how we learn.

Reynolds writes:

The meaning of the beginner’s mind does not mean to retreat to the naiveté of a child. It is not about being simplistic or ignorant, it is about approaching life and its challenges with curiosity and enthusiasm. . . . The point is that we adults should maintain our curiosity and that sense that anything can be done, that sense that anything is possible. A sense that we all had as children but eventually all but lost as people mocked our enthusiasm and optimism. Those who succeed and change things are the ones who do not let the world change their mind. . . .

A child or a beginner says “why not?” An “expert” says “it can’t be done.” Shunryu Suzuki put it best in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind:

‘In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities,
in the expert’s mind there are few.’
—Shunryu Suzuki”

I think this is the very thing that trips all of us up when trying to convince teachers to reenvision their classrooms through the use of technology. Teachers are often accustomed to being considered the “expert mind,” so it is not just that we are asking teachers to see the uses of a particular tool in the classroom–what we are really asking is for is an entire paradigm shift–for teachers to approach their classrooms with a beginner’s mind, a child’s mind.

childflickrmikmartin.jpg Children learn by playing, failing, experimenting. They don’t know what is possible, so they attempt things that we would consider impossible, or unwise. They approach the world differently than we as “expert adults” do.

The question is–what do those habits of mind cause us to miss?

In his post, Reynold’s links for more information to this lecture by Abbess Zenkei Blanche Hartman:, who further explains Suzuki’s work on beginner’s mind:

“When he spoke of ‘beginner’s mind,’ I think Suzuki Roshi was pointing to that kind of mind that’s not already made up. The mind that’s just investigating, open to whatever occurs, curious. Seeking, but not with expectation or grasping. Just being there and observing and seeing what occurs. Being ready for whatever experience arises in this moment. “

And how, if teachers or we ourselves are coming from a paradigm of expert mind, do we invite them to approach their classrooms with beginner’s mind? We can’t necessarily meditate in a workshop, obviously.

I’m thinking of ideas like these:

  • Start a workshop with play. I think the only way this really would work is that the play has to be outside the area of expertise of the workshop participants. Give them a mystery object to explore, pull up a web 2.0 tool in a foreign language, find some way to begin a workshop by invoking a sense of play. This is risky and I think of all sorts of reactions teachers/librarians would have, but, it could lead to a discussion of the idea of openness and play and the barriers to that.
  • Start a workshop talking or writing in journals about children and play. Have teachers recall a moment in their childhood that involved play. What did that feel like? What feelings does it evoke even thinking about it. Share a story about your own children and observations of them at play.
  • Talk about learning and frustration. When do we learn by play and when does it become frustrating? What are the habits that frustrate us, like comparing ourselves to others, thinking we should get it faster, not understanding something, perceived lack of time, etc.? Then talk about that in terms of learning as children through play.
  • Be invitational. Let workshop participants be independent and move at their own pace. Provide the opportunity for them to work together to problem solve.
  • Dialog with people outside the field and create ways for teachers to do this. It moves the teacher out of the expert role, but opens up new and playful possibilities.
  • Be open-minded as a presenter. But–think less is more. Ever watch a child at Christmas or on a birthday open up the first toy and start playing with it, while the adults encourage them to open the rest of the gifts? Maybe it’s overwhelming to have that huge amount of “input.” Slowing down and seeing one thing at a time has value. Sometimes we try to get teachers to open all the ‘gifts’ at once, and it’s overwhelming. Sometimes you have to share the whole toy catalog, but sometimes, you need to explore one gift and all it’s possibilities.
  • In daily practice, when approaching teachers, keep a beginner’s mind. Sometimes perhaps because they don’t know the tools or research process as well, they may propose things that an”expert’s mind” might think are unworkable. But….can we let that beginner’s mind they may be approaching the problem with push our own thinking forward? Can we listen carefully to their perception of it and find a way?
  • On a school-wide scale, principals can support play and innovation and learning. But in some schools more than others (and I would guess this gets more difficult as you move to high school and college level teachers), the culture of play and beginner’s mind is almost completely lacking. Being invitational can create a culture where change is possible.

childfaceflickrmikmartin.jpgIn the conclusion to her lecture, the Abbess writes of a wonderful poem by Mary Oliver:

“In her poem ‘When Death Comes,’ Mary Oliver has a few lines that say, ‘When it’s over, I want to say I have been a bride married to amazement, I’ve been a bridegroom taking the world into my arms.’ This is beginner’s mind. . . .Just how amazing the world is, how amazing our life is. . . . Can you live your life with that kind of wholeheartedness, with that kind of thoroughness?

This is the beginner’s mind that Suzuki Roshi is pointing to, is encouraging us to cultivate. He is encouraging us to see where we are stuck with fixed views, and see if we can, as Uchiyama Roshi says, “open the hand of thought” and let the fixed view go. This is our effort. This is our work. Just to be here, ready to meet whatever is next without expectation or prejudice or preconceptions. Just “What is it?” “What is this, I wonder?”

So please, cultivate your beginner’s mind. Be willing to not be an expert. Be willing to not know.”

How can we all be “willing to not know?” and to approach how we learn and teach with a beginner’s mind. This, I believe, is the truest challenge.

Image credits:

Child's Play

4 thoughts on “Beginner’s mind

  1. Carolyn,

    What a wonderful posting for the day after Thanksgiving! One of the things I have been giving thanks for is the whole new world that blogging and my continuously-expanding community of learners/colleagues has opened up for me.

    I like your concept of introducing an element of play into lessons and professional development workshops. My own technology knowledge has been and will always be piecemeal and, to a certain extent, serendipitous. I need to remember to convey this to my students and peers: I am not an expert, nor do I claim to be…this is what I’ve discovered – come explore with me!


  2. Interesting. I love the idea, but think the main pressure is (as always!) time. It’s hard to convince either managers or indeed adult learners that there’s *time* to do anything other than the core syllabus.

    Anyone had any success at convincing people that this is important and valuable?

  3. I like this idea too. I have not had any success convincing any change is important and valuable. Even though the principal is open to all these ideas but does not understand them yet, there are roadblocks along the way. The resistance to change here is great.

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