UMBC logo

Faculty Development Center

November 2009 Archives

Beginner's Mind

It comes as a shock to realize, well into a teaching career, that the more you know about your discipline the harder it is to teach it well. So says Dr. Eric Mazur, physicist, Harvard professor, and an educational innovator who developed peer instruction in the early 1990s. And though the inverse may not be true (the less we know the easier it is to teach), the truth of what Mazur says should stop us in our tracks. Long after we take a deep breath, walk into a classroom for the first time, and realize that we’re flying on a trapeze without a net, we find out that knowing our stuff may have rendered us incomprehensible to our students.

Another truth is that we teach as we were taught, replicating the best of the teachers we had and avoiding the teaching methods that discouraged, enraged, or simply bored us cross-eyed. And so the practices of generations now gone sift down to our students, most of whom were born after the Berlin Wall toppled. Why is it that the very profession responsible for opening minds, challenging the status quo, and pushing the limits of what is known, is one of the last to welcome change?

To be sure, education as a profession is a perennial whipping-boy—whipping-person?—these days. Reports, commission findings, and investigative articles on the dire state of American education cascade through the media and pile up on our desks. Most of these conclude that somewhere along the trail from the 19th century we lost our edge in the teaching game, that Chinese and Indian students are hard on our heels in engineering and science fields, and the country that put a man on the moon can’t seem to locate Iran on a map.

A recent Newsweek/Intel international poll finds that more Chinese think Americans are still innovators than Americans do. And the poll confirms that Western and Eastern ways of teaching produce different results. To wit: Americans are great at conceptual thinking but apparently tank when it comes to math and science. And now the Chinese, having aced the facts and figures, want to learn how we teach independent and creative thinking to our students.

When we hear students ask, “What do you want in this paper?” we think we know what they mean, but the impulse to whack them lightly on the ear with a rolled-up term paper is sometimes almost overwhelming. It’s that alert passivity, the talent for doing exactly the minimum and no more, that can be discouraging to the teacher for whom critical thinking is the Holy Grail. How do you get across to a student the joy of discovery when he or she is bent on mimicry? How to pry them loose from the notion that if an idea doesn’t have immediate application to an assignment or a job situation then it’s probably not worth considering?

Something is not working in the castle that is American education. But before we leap into the moat or pull up the drawbridge, let’s return to Mazur’s idea about the expert who can’t teach. Peter Senge, in his masterful book, The Fifth Discipline, spends several chapters exploring the idea of mental models. Mental models are what help us perceive the world and interpret it, says Senge. As the models go, so go our perceived realities. We build these models, inhabit them, pass them on to our children, until they become Reality instead of a way to depict a slice of reality. Nothing wrong with mental models, says Senge, unless we forget that they are models. We work inside our disciplines, crossing the threshold daily in from the outside, and knowing, even in the dark, where all the furniture is. Such familiarity can breed contempt for those who struggle to grasp even the floor plan. So the expert who would teach well, says Mazur and others, must learn to think like a beginner as well as an expert. How can we help our students if we can’t regard our disciplines from the perspective of a first-learner? How can our students tell us what they do not understand if they feel intimidated in doing so?

We must become as little children, said Jesus; we must cultivate beginner’s mind said the Buddha. In this context we could imagine what they meant was to see the world anew with fresh eyes, to ask questions both simple and profound, and to do so with the joy of discovery in our minds and hearts.