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Become a Beginner

The mind of a wide-eyed amateur often embraces learning faster and more enthusiastically than that of a master.

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

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We often feel apprehensive about learning because we are afraid of failure. As a result, we tend to seek out comfortable learning experiences that reinforce what we already know. Unfortunately, following a safe learning path stifles our ability to acquire new knowledge and limits the possibilities for growth.

Some of the world’s greatest thinkers — Plato, Saint Ignatius of Loyola, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, John Dewey, Kurt Hahn, Parker Palmer, and others — have written about how people learn. Shunryu Suzuki, founder of the San Francisco Zen Center, postulated that learning requires a readiness to embrace new ways of thinking. Suzuki believes that this readiness can be attained through developing what he calls a “beginner’s mind,” which is more receptive to new ideas than an expert’s mind. A beginner’s mind teaches us not only how to reflect on a wide range of possibilities, but also how to make unbiased decisions. The most effective classrooms are led by instructors who encourage participants to reawaken and cultivate their beginner’s minds. Here are some principles that, when followed, will create a stimulating classroom environment and will legitimize the power of a beginner’s mind.

Engage in experiential learning. Long, didactic lectures are unappealing, unsatisfying, and outdated. When participants share their own knowledge — describing what challenges they have faced, what lessons they have learned, and what they would do differently if given another opportunity — two things happen: They realize what tremendous resources they can be for each other, and they begin to create knowledge networks that last long after the class has adjourned.

Address the tough stuff head-on. For an experiential-learning classroom to work, participants must address some tough questions up front. Participants must understand that their role is to take an active part in the dialogue and to express their feelings and personal values openly. In turn, other members of the class must be prepared to grapple with alternative points of view and cultural perspectives that may be different from their own.

Balance action with reflection. Action learning is a popular approach to teaching that brings real business challenges into the classroom. It’s a useful but limited exercise, because action must be balanced with reflection. Reflective learning teaches people to pause in the midst of action and ask questions like these: What is really going on here?, Am I addressing the right problem?, and Is there a new approach that I should consider? In today’s fast-paced work environment, the bias for action often leads people to rely too much on past experience or current expertise to solve problems. Action should not occur at the expense of reflection.

Indulge the “teachable moments.” Learning agendas should be designed to balance experiential learning, real-time problem solving, dialogue, and reflective learning. They should also be flexible enough to indulge the “teachable moments.” Teachable moments are spontaneous, substantive dialogues that emerge when a discussion turns up a challenging problem. Interactions of this kind should not be cut short; they are the heart of learning.

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Make learning meaningful. Healthy classrooms should focus on work and life. We all learn from both professional and personal experiences. Sharing those lessons encourages participants to think about how they can make a difference at work, at home, and in their community. After all, meaningful learning should be about making a contribution to society and improving the lives of others.

Maryann Hedaa (mghedaa@hildebrandt.com) and Charlie Douglas (cgdouglas@hildebrandt.com) recently created the Professional Development Practice group at Hildebrandt International, a management-consulting firm that serves clients in the legal and investment-banking industries.