Beginner’s mind in teaching

I’m not a beginner at math. I’ve used it for decades (yikes!) for a wide range of things, from modeling flow in the earth’s mantle, to calculating drilling-mud weights in an oil well, to building the roof for a bay window, to calculating how big a load of goat manure my truck’s suspension can handle. I have known and forgotten more math than most of my students will ever see in their lifetimes.

I am, however, a beginner at teaching. I have very little formal training in pedagogy and child development. My file of teaching tricks is still very slim.  I don’t know most of the jargon that gives entry into the teacher clubhouse, and I make newbie mistakes in the classroom every day.  I am constantly amazed when a group of students will blindly follow my directions—as if I were an expert or something—and I live in fear of the moments of student revolt that inevitably happen, when a planned lesson goes all pear-shaped in the blink of an eye.

I am also a beginner at meditation.  I am a haphazard student of Zen Buddhist philosophy, mainly because my neighbor is a Buddhist priest. (She also danced to the Rolling Stones in a miniskirt and stiletto boots at her 50th birthday party this year, so she’s probably not what you were picturing.) In the best Zen tradition, I take what is useful to me from the practice, and what has most transformed me so far is the idea of beginner’s mind.

Beginner’s mind, or Shoshin, is a concept from Zen Buddhism, also known as “don’t-know mind.” It isn’t the same as ignorance. It’s an idealized state of being without preconceptions, open to what is really happening, and eager to learn and understand. A teacher with beginner’s mind doesn’t assume she knows the answers to questions.  She doesn’t assume that she knows the causes of student errors, even when they appear to be the same errors students have made in previous years. The teacher with beginner’s mind constantly asks, “What is really happening here?”

I’m kind of cheating, but not really. In a way, it’s easy to achieve beginner’s mind when you are new to something. As a new teacher, literally not knowing what I’m doing, I’m more likely to question my own methods and assumptions, and to listen to advice from more experienced teachers. But this constant questioning can be exhausting, particularly if I let myself feel that I should know, that I ought to be better at this by now.   True inexperience can actually be an impediment to achieving beginner’s mind.  Fear, defensiveness, pretending confidence—these are all reactions I’ve had to my lack of experience, both in the classroom and in meetings with my colleagues. These reactions are enemies of the “attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions” that I want to maintain.*  They also tempt me to fall back on the areas where I have confidence: applied math and science research.  They tempt me be to be an insufferable know-it-all in those areas in fact.

Instead, I try to embrace what I don’t know, and learn about it. I try to notice, not assume. I try to think not “This is an angry student,” but “This student has acted angry in class every day so far.” Not “This student can’t learn this stuff,” but “This student doesn’t understand what I just said.” Not, “This student is lazy,” but “This student doesn’t appear to be making any effort.” or even better, “This student is sitting without picking up his pencil, and he’s not watching what I am writing on the board.”

There’s a balance to strike, though.  As teachers, we have to plan, try to anticipate the errors that students can make, so that we can have resources at hand to help them recognize and correct their misunderstandings. We have to predict what students will find interesting, or funny, or boring, and we have to plan how long activities may take.  However, being willing to be wrong can lead to a better lesson. When I explicitly try not to assume the causes behind what I see happening, I’m more likely to find a way to solve the problem at hand.  The intentional cultivation of beginner’s mind also pays other, unexpected dividends in my life: better personal and professional relationships, better parenting, and renewed delight in simple mathematics that I thought I thoroughly understood.

For as long as I can call myself a beginner, I will try to use my lack of experience as an asset.  As I get better at this teaching thing, I hope I will also get better at the practice of beginner’s mind, so I can continue to see each student, each problem, each colleague with fresh eyes.  So please help me here, in the comments.  How do you keep things fresh for yourself and your students?  What benefits have you seen?


*I lifted those words directly from the Wikipedia page on Shoshin or Beginner’s Mind.  The full sentence is as follows: “It refers to having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject, even when studying at an advanced level, just as a beginner in that subject would.” I smiled when I read it.