What do all beginners have in common aside from the theme that they are novices? As intuitive as it may seem, beginners are often owners of beginner’s mind, a concept in Zen Buddhism called shoshin. Shoshin refers to an attitude of eagerness and openness towards and with no preconceptions of what is being studied. As such, beginners have a freedom and an ease to ask questions, decode what is unknown to them while evolving their clear slate of mind to absorb that which is new. Experts or even intermediate learners often lack this attitude imprisoned by what they think they know or what they think they should already know and, as a result, fail to ask the right questions--the ones that would stimulate deeper understanding or a new way of approaching the concept. Their rate of growth the moment they lose shoshin diminishes drastically, almost exponentially. But are these students also the best teachers?
We’ve been there - sitting in a classroom or a lecture hall or a conference and truly learning. Whether self taught by observation or listening and seeing as others do as they dispel their knowledge, you’re picking up what is being put down; you see all the nodes on the color map click into place and first sense and then finally see the big picture. That’s what learning’s all about, right? That a-ha! moment--being enthralled by this new discovery, new understanding and having inspiration sparked. But what led to that? Was it our curiosity or inquisitive nature, our openness? It was a willingness to learn, to open the mind and accept and tinker with food for thought. That’s what makes for the best learners, but they happen to be traits innate in the best teachers.
Learning to Teach
According to Gallup, “Learning, and then sharing what they've learned, is key for [highly effective] teachers.” As one teacher explained, "When something doesn't work, you just go back and try something else. That's why you have to be a learner." To be an effective learner and consequently a better teacher, you must have empathy and an openness to understanding the subject and understanding what the students do not understand. You must be curious, inquisitive, and evolving as with beginner’s mind; you must learn to teach. That seems fundamental, yet why do so many educators fail to do so?
Curse of Knowledge
Experts often make the worst educators because they are so far removed from the novelty of the topic. They suffer from the curse of knowledge which Dan and Chip Heath capture in their book, Made to Stick. They explain the “great cruelty of the Curse of Knowledge” as conveyed, “The better we get at generating great ideas--new insights and novel solutions--in our field of expertise, the more unnatural it becomes for us to communicate those ideas clearly. That's why knowledge is a curse.” This curse is not just limited to ideas, insights, or solutions, it’s with all concepts, all subject matter. A Latin teacher explains this phenomenon amongst a collection of similar short stories, “Latin always seemed like an eminently sensible language to me, and while I could sort of grasp the mindset of students who didn’t get it, my brain had been doing it for nigh on twenty years by the end.” She continues, “I knew I wasn’t speaking the language of the students, but I had no idea how to get back to a point where I could.” Her experience as an educator is not uncommon. In fact, it’s prevalent. How can one effectively communicate and teach ideas to those brand new to the topic when they’ve long become ingrained in one’s understanding? It’s hard to put oneself in shoes of those just learning the subject unless you yourself are a novice. However, armed with the characteristics of beginner’s mind matched with a foundation of empathy and an ability to tinker with that which we think we know to see what other do not, not only can we become good students, we can become even better teachers.
It is never too late to learn as it is never too late to teach. Don’t be afraid to learn from the novices. More importantly, don’t be afraid to be a novice--especially if you are an expert.
Community engagement platforms like Breezio are making this type of knowledge exchange--the learning exchange from novice to expert and from expert turned novice and everything in between--possible. Breezio is changing the way we learn, harness knowledge, and think about education; they’re turning experts into fearless beginners.