Beginner’s Mind: Expanding Possibilities Through Elearning

“If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything, it is open to everything. In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few.”Shunryu Suzuki

I’d like to begin with an invitation. I invite you to imagine a glass in front of you on your desk or table. Is it full, or is it empty? How full, or how empty? What perceptions do you have about how much liquid is in the glass? We’ll come back to this later, but keep the image of this glass in your mind’s eye.

Shoshin is a Japanese concept that means ‘beginner’s mind’. It’s about adopting a mindset that puts aside preconceived ideas and perceptions, and embraces the exercise or experience in front of you with receptivity, fresh eyes, and a willingness to learn. This is believed to open up more possibilities, rather than entering an experience having already decided that there is only one way forward.

The art of attaining, maintaining, and retaining an attitude of openness and fresh perspective in whatever you do is the key to unlocking possibility. It’s about keeping your mind fresh, clear, and open in order to learn and grow.

What can we learn from Suzuki’s wise words and the concept of shoshin?

As we design learning experiences, there is great benefit in adopting a beginner’s mind. Even if we’ve had significant experience in our field of specialization, we can intentionally choose to see each project as a learning experience, to remain receptive, and to be willing to see things in new ways. It means that we won’t be limited by what we know, nor by what we don’t yet know.

Traditional training has been a forum where an ‘expert’ structures and delivers information to participants, having decided what the key information is, how it should be learned, and how it should be applied. Taking inspiration from Suzuki and the idea of emptiness and openness being the source of possibility, how can we invite the beginner’s mind into our elearning experiences?

3 ways to invite the beginner’s mind into your elearning

There are three key elements that can be used to invite learners to adopt a beginner’s mind, regardless of their position and background, and without being patronizing.

1. Ask questions

Asking powerful questions invites learners to engage and reflect as deeply as they would like or are able to. Finding a way to convert content into questions, without prescribing what the learner should be learning, is a fine art.

As designers of learning programs, our responsibility is less about defining exactly what conclusions the learner should arrive at, but rather about facilitating a process where they make up their own minds about the subject, and how to apply it in their own lives. We aim to ask succinct, powerful, reflective questions that will help learners to generate their own ideas about these concepts; ideas that can lead to sustained behavior change.

2. Create space

Imagine being at the center of a large crowd of people all pressing in on you, with no room to move. You may have actually had this experience. How does it make you feel?

Similarly, if content in elearning programs is information-heavy, there isn’t enough ‘space’ for the learner to make up their own mind and to creatively engage with the content. In much of the currently available online learning, the trend is to offload an overwhelming amount of information on learners, rather than inviting them to engage with less content, but at a deeper level. In Cognician’s digital coaching programs, we distill information into its most abstract concepts, and present bite-sized pieces of highly engaging content that can inspire and stimulate ideas, before inviting reflection.

We embrace ‘less is more’ when it comes to information. Learning experiences are succinct and give users the freedom to choose whether or not they respond, whether or not they share their insights with others, how deeply they want to reflect or how actively they want to engage with the platform.

3. Initiate exercises

The learning experience itself, whether in person, online or blended, can only take the learner so far. Even if they’ve had an ‘aha’ moment during an elearning program, their lives are the lab in which they need to experiment and bring their learning to life. This honors the learner, their experiences and their lives, and it invites them to be a beginner once again, and to explore what that feels like. As you develop exercises, consider how you can shape them to appeal to the beginner’s mind.

These are just three ideas that we’ve found to be useful. Consider your own organization, teams, learning programs and how you yourself could adopt a beginner’s mind about learning … and life in general.

I invite you to imagine your glass of water again. Choose to think about it as a beginner would. Does the possibility lie in how full the glass is – in the liquid – or does it rather lie in how empty the glass is? How could you start to look at elearning in particular and life in general in this way, where you begin to see infinite possibility in spaces?

• Where do you see opportunities to adopt a beginner’s mind in your own life?
• How could you invite the beginner’s mind into your learning programs?
• How does your learning content encourage learners to generate their own ideas?
• Who would it be useful to have a conversation about this with at your organization?