Beginner’s Mind

This post is part of a series related to using Learning Sprints as described by Agile Schools and Dr. Simon Breakspear. The purpose of sharing these experiences is to help other school leaders in putting in place Learning Sprints by sharing triumphs and lessons learned throughout our experiment.

The concept of “Beginner’s Mind” comes from Zen Buddhism. According to Shunryu Suzuki it describes the feeling of openness to all possibilities, the innocence of first inquiry, acceptance, and freeness from habit. It was with this approach that I was participated in a session on the introduction of Learning Sprints with Agile Schools and Dr. Simon Breakspear this past week.

Why the need for a beginner’s mind? I had recently spent a week-long course on this practice and had launched the Learning Sprints model in my school. I was feeling confident in my understanding of the concept, but this also made me wary. What was I missing? What did I still need to learn? The beginner’s mind approach made seeing things as they were and forgetting what I wished them to be more evident.

The beginner’s mind approach is also a useful way of confronting many problems that we have as teachers. At times, the master teacher does not see all the possibilities in a solution and gets caught up in a single-minded approach. This leads to less innovation and similar results being reproduced. The beginner sees the possibilities of the ways to intervene. The beginner is open to new ways and makes a choice to start.

The first lesson that my beginner’s mind received was the fact that Learning Sprints gives teachers the structure for effective collaboration. I have seen too many collaboration sessions where teaching professionals waste their most important resource, time, with conversations that do not ultimately lead to impact on learning. This usually happens innocently, they simply do not know how to structure a conversation to focus on what is important and what needs to be done. Learning sprints give a structure and keeps the conversation oriented on the intervention and the result. Let’s not waste the precious time we have with our colleagues on unimportant banter any longer.

Lesson 2, learning sprints seek to create clinical practitioners. This does not mean that we are looking to create a bunch of doctors, but rather we are seeking to create professionals that use the scientific method to analyse data and use it to inform decisions. The Learning Sprints model gives the foundations for changing how teachers think and act in regards to their students. It teaches to analyse data, survey options that are based in research, make an informed choice of intervention, and collect data to verify impact. One would take for granted that their doctor follows this practice, but it is at times missing from the world of education.

The adaptability of Learning Sprints is another interesting observation that my beginner’s mind made. Regardless of how research changes, what the school/divisional/state/provincial goals are, what the needs of the population you serve are, this approach gives you the structure to enact change. It is adaptable to the future needs of the student population and to the future information that we will get about learning. It also make change incremental and iterative, so that it does not feel overwhelming. Small changes, over time, lead to big changes.

The focus of the approach to implementation in Alberta (and perhaps other places) has been that the 3 levels of leadership of a school need to be involved and are active participants. The teacher leaders, the school administrators and the divisional/district leaders should all be present and implicated in the learning sprint. I had a personal example of the efficacy of this at our last meeting. In the course of a conversation between our team, a question came up about creating a report to give teachers data to target their interventions. Our divisional representative was able to give an answer right away and offer to work with our software developer to make the report widely available. In the course of 2 minutes, we were able to make important data easily available to all teachers in our school division because of the fact that we were all around the table.

The last point that I will touch on with my “openness to new ideas” is the possibility that this approach could lead to joy. The concept of craftwork, detailed in the book “The Craftman” by Richard Sennett, proposes that we can all feel a deep inner satisfaction when we perfect our work. That in process of making something better and producing something of quality, we may increase our joy. We need more of this kind of joy in education, as the stakes are high. Instead of making beautiful furniture or playing a beautiful piece of music, teachers are contributing to another human’s life. We are creating learning that ultimately helps people and a communities. What a joy it is when we do that well.

A special thanks to Agile Schools and to the Alberta Teachers’ Association Council for School Leaders for organizing an incredible learning opportunity.

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