Lifelong Learning and a Beginner’s Mind

Lifelong learning is the practice of continuing to learn throughout one’s entire life, especially outside of or after the completion of formal schooling. It is the ongoing, voluntary, and self-motivated pursuit of knowledge for either personal or professional reasons.

Image by Gyae Min

Lifelong learning can be informal or happen in more formal settings and courses. There is a wide range of experiences that fall under this large umbrella. Internships and apprenticeships and taking actual courses in a school setting but not pursuing credits or a degree qualify as lifelong learning. Teaching yourself a new language or how to play an instrument also qualifies. Sometimes the formal and informal mix. You start playing tennis with a friend and then take some lessons to improve your game. Maybe you’re learning a computer language to advance your career. Maybe you’re learning French so you’ll be better prepared to travel to France.

I have written a lot about online learning on other sites. Back in 2012 – which was called “the year of the MOOC” – I was very involved in this new form of online learning. These Massive Open Online Courses were seen as a way for learners to take courses free of cost online along with thousands of other learners. The courses were being offered by the top universities worldwide. This idea of “open education” was not completely new but was still considered a radical shift.

I taught (or perhaps facilitated) an early MOOC about MOOCs in education. I took dozens of courses for free. I gave talks about them. My wife and I wrote a chapter for a book about them.

The hype and buzz of MOOCs have cooled down but they still exist. Some evolved with a business model, so the “open” part is gone. I taught graduate students at a university where we offered certificate programs that packaged several courses together for people looking to add to their skillset while employed or to upgrade skills in order to move up or move on to other careers. during employment. This is quite formalized lifelong learning.

I have also done much more informal lifelong learning both as a student and teacher. I have facilitated classes in writing, art, and technology topics for libraries, galleries, and adult learning schools.

I am currently working with a local lifelong learning organization in New Jersey. They offer opportunities for in-depth, high-level learning and socialization for 55+ adults. These classes are free of charge, but registration is required.

During the pandemic, almost all the courses offered went virtual and for two years I was teaching online. We are just emerging from that and offering in-person classes again.

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All of this had me thinking of the concept of a “beginner’s mind.” Originating from Japanese Zen Buddhism, the term (also known as shoshin) refers to a paradox: the more you know about a topic, the more likely you are to close your mind to further learning.

To have a beginner’s mind it means dropping expectations and preconceived ideas about something. It means seeing things with fresh eyes and an open mind, like a beginner. When you learn something new, you can be confused, because you don’t know how to do whatever you’re learning. But a beginner’s look is also curious and can be filled with wonder.

Lifelong learners are best approaching new learning with a beginner’s mind which means an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions. That is true even when you are an adult and studying a subject at an advanced level.

This is not an easy thing to do. Preconceptions and closed-mindedness is probably as much or more likely the older or more experienced a learner has become.

I first learned about beginner’s mind (not surprisingly) in a class on Buddhism. The book I was assigned to read was the classic Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen Mind Beginner’s Mind,

There are lots of places online for lifelong learning. MOOC platforms such as Coursera, Khan Academy, Udemy, Canvas, FutureLearn, Udacity, P2PU, and The Open University, as well as other sites like Skillshare and Duolingo offer thousands of classes and most are available for free. I don’t know about you but my wife and I have learned how to do any number of things from YouTube how-to videos. Yes, all that is lifelong learning.

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A lifelong educator on and off the Internet. Random by design and predictably irrational. It's turtles all the way down. Dolce far niente.

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