Willful ignorance or mindful intelligence? Part 2: Developing beginner’s mind

Paul Raymond Doyon, Utsunomiya University


In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few. Suzuki Roshi

Helgesen (2010) remarked that when people ask him what he teaches, he replies he teaches human beings.

Though some may prematurely argue that bringing other subjects into the language classroom is non-conducive to language learning, nothing could be further from the truth. Maley (2008) talked about bringing in knowledge from other subjects in what he calls feeder fields. Educational Holism asserts that the learning of one subject transfers to the learning of other subjects and vice versa (Nunn, 2010). Lakoff and Johnson (1980) have proposed that all cognition (and hence learning) is based on metaphors. If this is true, the more metaphors—and hence, perspectives—we have for learning, the better learners we will become. The learning in one subject can act as cognitive metaphors to enhance learning in other subjects. Collateral learning was described by Dewey as far back as 1938:

Perhaps the greatest of all pedagogical fallacies is the notion that a person learns only the particular thing he is studying at the time. Collateral learning in the way of formation of enduring attitudes, of likes and dislikes, may be and often is much more important than the spelling lesson or lesson in geography or history that is learned. (p. 48)

As Borg (2010) pointed out in his plenary address at the 49th JACET Convention last year, greater awareness of pedagogical options leads to an increased repertoire of choices and more informed decision-making. Most would agree that an informed decision is naturally better than an uninformed—or even a misinformed—decision.

Too many people these days make the mistaken assumption that being skeptical is equivalent to exercising their critical thinking skills. In their skepticism they are often too quick to dismiss, and hence ignore, certain possibilities. Elbow (as cited in Brown, 1993) has postulated that people in Western society have been overly and myopically conditioned to play the doubting game:

The doubting game seeks truth ... by seeking error ... You must assume [an assertion] is untrue ... You make special effort to extricate yourself from the assertions in question ... You must hold off to one side the self, its wishes, preconceptions, experiences, and commitments. (1993, pp. 288-289)

Perhaps they have also been overly and myopically conditioned to play the war game since often it seems that a conversation turns into becoming more about winning the argument than actually finding truth. Paul (2007) describes a course he taught where he gave the students an essay by John Austin at Oxford and asked them to 

“State the purpose of the essay, state the main question that Austin considers, state the information he uses in answering these questions, give us his basic conclusion, identify his assumptions, then characterize his point of view.” Then I read the student papers. What did they do? They argued with John Austin, disagreeing with him, before they understood what he was saying. (Para. 36).

On the other hand, naturally, when one lacks information about a given topic, then certain propositions related to it may, at face value, initially seem absurd. However, when more information is gathered and looked at—rather than willfully ignored (which is too often the case)—then possibilities open up and one is better able to make an informed judgment. Paul (2007) has actually described critical thinking as “a system for opening every system (that exists)”. Hence, what too many people are exercising these days seems to be uninformed (or misinformed) skepticism rather than a more informed partial skepticism (Kolb, 1984). As Kolb concludes, 

the proper attitude for the creation of knowledge is neither a dogmatism of apprehension or comprehension nor an utter skepticism, but an attitude of partial skepticism in which the knowledge of comprehension is held provisionally to be tested against apprehensions, and vice versa. (pp. 107-109).

Rather than jumping to conclusions when we don’t have enough information or dismissing information based on a position of utter skepticism, perhaps more of us should adopt the Zen position of beginner’s mind or what Elbow calls the “believing game”, where one looks for truths and remains open-minded to possibilities—by making “acts of self-insertion and self-involvement, not self-extrication” (Brown, 1994, p. 289). In this way we can avoid the risk of stymieing the development of our own critical intellect.


Borg, S. (2010, August). Teacher cognition and teacher autonomy. Paper presented at the 49th JACET Annual Convention, Miyagi City, Japan.

Brown, H. D. (1994). Principles of language learning and teaching. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall Regents.

Dewey. J. (1938). Experience and education. New York: Touchstone.

Helgesen. M. (2010, August). ELT and the science of happiness: Positive psychology in the classroom. Paper presented at The 1st Cebu International TESOL Conference, Cebu City, The Philippines.

Kolb, D. A. (1984). Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

Lakoff, G. & Johnson, M. (1980). Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Maley, A. (2008, August). Art and artistry in ELT. Humanising Language Teaching. 10(4). Retrieved February 28, 2011, from <hltmag.co.uk/aug08/mart05.htm>.

Nunn. R. (2010, August). Holism and applied language study. Paper presented at The 1st Cebu International TESOL Conference, Cebu City, The Philippines.

Paul, R. (2007, July). Critical thinking in every domain of knowledge and belief. Paper presented at the 27th Annual International Conference on Critical Thinking, Berkeley City, CA. Retrieved February 28, 2011 from <criticalthinking.org/articles/27thconf-keynote.cfm>.

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