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A “beginner’s mind” for thinking about schools

4 min read


A couple of days ago, I got into one of those short-ish yet interesting Twitter back and forths with a few folks in my network. In a nutshell, it revolved around the mindset we need to bring to our discussions about change in schools. Here it is Storyfied if you want to check it out.

It got me wondering (once again) how stuck we are in effecting real change because of our inability to get out of our own experience, to leave history behind and really think with “a beginner’s mind” about where we go next. And how hard it is to approach those discussions with the humility of not knowing.

We may be in the midst of the most rapid, radical change in education history. Learning is exploding outside classroom walls as the world becomes more connected and networked. The shift is real; we see it playing out in just about every long-standing institution in our lives, in media, business, politics and more. And we are fooling ourselves if we think we can predict with any certainty what the world will look like 50, much less five, years from now in terms of the tools, technologies and techniques that we will use to connect and create and learn.

Yet the reaction from most “reformers,” especially those with the most money, is to pretty much stay the course, to treat education as something that schools define, deliver, assess and confirm. Technology allows us to do that “better” than we have in the past, in some conversations “better” than teachers can. It allows us to “achieve” at higher levels, to compete more effectively with the world, and to stoke the push to make every child “college ready.”

This is not “beginner’s mind”-type thinking.

Let’s not forget, schools are our construct. They didn’t always exist. Similarly, age-groupings, disciplines, common tests and assessments, bell schedules, year-long calendars, standardized curricula, administrative hierarchies and more were at one time new, out-of-the-box creations that we put in place to address the challenges of a certain era. They’ve not been around since time immemorial. And, just as all paradigms change, there will be a time when they will no longer define what we call “education.”

Only learning is fixed. And that has to be the starting point for our edu-discussions. That is what the “beginner’s mind” grapples with: Given the opportunities and challenges of this era, how do we now best support learning, not just for our kids, but for all of us? The answer may or may not look anything like our current practice … but so what? If learning is the goal, we need to set aside our own experiences, the familiar structures and systems that defined our own educations and seek answers from the blank slate where anything is possible.

We need to ask “What if?” And the answers, as Grant Lichtman writes, can be powerful … especially from kids:

  • What if there weren’t any teachers and children were just given a schedule to work off of and goals to reach?
  • What if kids controlled what they learn about?
  • What if we got to choose anything we learned about, any subject and anything within that subject?
  • What if instead of homework during the year, we had a week or two more of school?
  • What if students created their own schedule?
  • What if you could learn what you wanted to learn, without curriculum structures from a school?
  • What if school was about what people really need in the world?
  • What if students were allowed to follow their curiosities, with time allotted and teacher support during the regular school day?
  • What if classes were grouped and regrouped multiple times to match how knowledgeable (this was originally “smart” but they changed their wording when they clarified it to me in the morning) people are?
  • What if there were more than one teacher in a classroom?

There are other, even more basic questions to consider, but should we be surprised that fourth- and fifth-graders can bring more of a beginner’s mind to these discussions?

So, clear your mind. Take a deep breath. Ask only this: “Given the world as it now exists, how do we best help meaningful, relevant, sticky learning happen for our kids?”

And begin.

Will Richardson is a parent, author, speaker and educator who has been writing about the intersection of social networks and learning for the past decade, most recently at His award-winning books and presentations worldwide have ignited rich conversations around relevant school reform in the context of the huge impact the Web and other technologies are having on our ability to connect and learn with one another.