The ‘Don’t Know Mind’ and Teaching

Seven days at a Buddhist temple, forty-one hours of sitting meditation, two personal interviews with Zen Masters, one Dharma talk, and many hours of silence can have a great impact on one’s mind. The greatest impact for me was the realization that I have very little, if any, control over my mind. One of my favorite quotes from my week at Musangsa – International Zen Center, related to the idea of control, comes from one of the monks. As we hid away in the storage room for a chat over coffee on the last day, she shared:

“One of the greatest delusions we have, is the delusion that we think we make decisions.”

What she essentially was saying is that we have no control over the outcome of any event. We may have plans, we may have expectations, but in reality, what happens doesn’t always match up. No matter how often I ask the barista and think I’ve made myself clear, I may decide to have a cappuccino, but may only receive a cafe latte. I may decide to move to Ottawa to continue my French studies but may end up teaching English in Korea instead. I may decide to arrive at work at 8:30am, and I may arrive at 8:30am. Life unravels as it will.

What does this mean for the ultimate control freaks: teachers? We are trained to create SMART objectives, to plan minute-by-minute lesson plans, and to “manage” our students’ behavior. Teachers need control!

Our obsession with control is connected to our attachment to outcomes. We use the textbook, we plan a few speaking activities so students can practice the past tense, and of course, we expect our students to be able to use it. To our surprise, the reality is usually very different. The reality is we don’t really know what our students took away from this experience.

What if we went into the classroom knowing that we just don’t know? What if we entered the classroom with the “don’t know mind” I heard so much about during the retreat?

“Not-knowing means not being limited by what we know, holding what we know lightly so that we are ready for it to be different. Maybe things are this way. But maybe they are not.”

“An expert may know a subject deeply, yet be blinded to new possibilities by his or her preconceived ideas. In contrast, a beginner may see with fresh, unbiased eyes. The practice of beginner’s mind is to cultivate an ability to meet life without preconceived ideas, interpretations, or judgments.”

Gil Fronsdal

If educators could see with unbiased eyes, maybe they would see that Jong Won doesn’t want to talk about what Mary and John did during their summer vacation in Paris. Maybe he wants to talk about the girl he met at the PC room. With a beginner’s mind, maybe Sun Hye’s teacher wouldn’t laugh and tell her she is wrong when she tells the class “I always fly.” In truth, she does fly: each night in her dreams.

I think a teacher with the “don’t know mind” would have lessons such as the ones Scott Thornbury describes in Teaching Unplugged (Or That’s Dogme with an E):

Think about it: how many of your best lessons just happened? For example, a really good discussion cropped up, and you let it run. And run. Or something that had happened to a student in the weekend became the basis of the whole lesson. Or, because you missed the bus, or because the photocopier wasn’t working, you had to go in unprepared. But the lesson really took off.

During my retreat, I realized it’s very hard to let go of my attachments. I realized that I don’t have the “don’t know mind”. Despite this, I’m glad to say I realize the its power. From what I’ve learned and experienced, this mind offers more peace and spaciousness. I think it’s from this space that deep learning can come… or not. I really don’t know.

18 thoughts on “The ‘Don’t Know Mind’ and Teaching

  1. Also just got around to this one and it’s a gem! And it ties in with so much I’ve been reading about and thinking about lately – the role of schools. It is an unfortunate fact that public schools are not designed to create active minds, but to bring them under control, and as teachers we have been through that system as well – no wonder we like control. The saddest thing for me last year was when I had a really great English class, with students participating all the way, and was asked later by my co-teacher to ‘please keep control of the students next time, they disturbed other class.’
    I have lived most of my life flowing where fate takes me rather than planning my life, and have always felt slightly guilty about that – where’s my five year and ten year plan? Now I know I’ve been doing the right thing all along! LOL!


    1. Thank you Leonie! Your story really hit home. I’ve heard this story so many times from my course participants. They are told to teach from a communicative perspective, but they are either quick to want student composure, or they are told to maintain order by the principal or other teachers. What you described was a moment where you had let go, but were quickly encouraged to hold on tight to control.

      Yes! Keep on going with the flow Leonie! I’ll do my best to follow :)


  2. Josette, I’ve just gotten around to reading your post. As with the other Kevin – I love this idea of holding what we know lightly – as well as the “don’t know mind.” Letting go of our treasures that we’ve worked so hard to attain at times seems impossible. I empathize with Gollum here and find myself barking at those that try to come between me and my ring. I wonder how to cultivate “lightness of knowledge” in ourselves and others?


    1. Great Question Kevin. It seems to me that there could be two ways of going about it. One would be going through the reflective cycle. Inherent in the cycle is the questioning, recasting and reshaping of beliefs and knowledge. In this questioning we start realizing that we can no longer hold on to our old way of being. The reflective process asks us to hold on lightly to what we think we know.

      I think another way to cultivate lightness of knowledge that doesn’t requires logical exploration of the reflective cycle, but is no less rigorous, is through quieting the mind. Some may do it by meditating, and others through focused body work. I believe that mindfulness is pivotal to creating space for lightness.

      I’m curious, how would you answer your own question?


  3. You were right, Josette! :) – Among other things, I can see how I could use the quote by Gil Fronsdal in my post and it would fit perfectly there, too :)

    It’s so great to see we touch on the very same things in our posts. I love what you write about teachers having the tendency to be “control freaks” – this is so true! So much can improve by simply letting things happen, having the “I don’t know” mind and focusing on the moment, from time to time…

    And I love how you ended the post! :)


    1. I’m happy you enjoyed Marian! “Control freaks” are in a sense great perfectionists. In perfection we lose the moment. But as you said, “Imperfection is as natural and beautiful in the ideal as it is in a da Vinci painting.” Through imperfection we acknowledge the moment. In imperfection, we let go and realize that we don’t know what will happen. Thank you for continuing the dialogue, and also thank you for subscribing to my blog!

      Anyone reading these comments, please visit the blog Love, life & language learning to read great posts such as this one Wake up, teacher.


  4. This was a great post, Josette. Trying to be less “controlling” is something that I am trying to work on, both in the classroom and outside the classroom. It’s difficult because I used to be such a planner and now I am trying to let things go and let life proceed naturally. It’s difficult at times, but it’s definitely a new adventure and new outlook on life.


    1. I agree Suzanne; it’s a challenge. The classroom almost sets up a paradoxical relationship between the concepts of letting go and control. Ultimately we are in a controlled environment (schedule, number of students, physical space…), but we know that the best learning comes from a space where freedom is felt. Maybe as long as we are aware of the paradox, it’ll be easier to let go of things we think we can.


  5. I am going to respond to your wonderful posting full of wonder-full quotes with some other…


    “As described by Mezirow (1997), transformative learning occurs when individuals change their frames of reference by critically reflecting on their assumptions and beliefs and consciously making and implementing plans that bring about new ways of defining their worlds.”
    (however this has been criticized for being too rationally based – note the word PLANS, so this has been expanded upon to include…)
    “fundamental change in one’s personality involving [together] the resolution of a personal dilemma and the expansion of consciousness resulting in greater personality integration” (Boyd 1989, p. 459, cited in Taylor 1998, p. 13). The process of discernment is central to transformative education (Boyd and Myers 1988). Discernment calls upon such extrarational sources as symbols, images, and archetypes to assist in creating a personal vision or meaning of what it means to be human (ibid.; Cranton 1994).”


    The role of the teacher. The teacher’s role in establishing an environment that builds trust and care and facilitates the development of sensitive relationships among learners is a fundamental principle of fostering transformative learning (Taylor 1998). Loughlin (1993) talks about the responsibility of the teacher to create a “community of knowers,” individuals who are “united in a shared experience of trying to make meaning of their life experience” (pp. 320-321). As a member of that community, the teacher also sets the stage for transformative learning by serving as a role model and demonstrating a willingness to learn and change by expanding and deepening understanding of and perspectives about both subject matter and teaching (Cranton 1994).


    — The role of the learner. Taylor (1998) believes that too much emphasis has been placed on the role of the teacher at the expense of the role of the participant. Although it is difficult for transformative learning to occur without the teacher playing a key role, participants also have a responsibility for creating the learning environment. As a part of a community of knowers, learners share the responsibility for constructing and creating the conditions under which transformative learning can occur.

    All of these quotes come from:
    Love Hailey


    1. Hailey! Thank you again for such a thoughtful and informative comment. Inspiring indeed. This quote really stuck with me: “As described by Mezirow (1997), transformative learning occurs when individuals change their frames of reference by critically reflecting on their assumptions and beliefs and consciously making and implementing plans that bring about new ways of defining their worlds.” Yes! In order to transform ourselves, to learn, it is crucial to ask questions and push our beliefs. The older I get, the more I realize I really know nothing. Although it is hard to let go of my beliefs, I have learned that even the strongest ones I hold still have a place on the chopping block. It’s not easy, but it’s transformative. I think great creativity comes from this place.

      Thank you for the link and the new search term. I haven’t really looked into the concept of ‘transformative learning’ as a term for research, but now I am thoroughly intrigued! Good luck with your class!


  6. Hi Josette,

    So much wisdom in so few words.

    “holding what we know lightly so that we are ready for it to be different”

    “The reality is we don’t really know what our students took away from this experience.”

    I will be carrying (lightly) these around with me for a while I think. Thank you.



    1. I’m happy to know that these words have given you something to hold on to (lightly). Knowing how it affected you, makes having written this that much more valuable. Thank you for reading!


  7. Amen to that. One thing Korea life has taught me is that I cannot control outcomes outside the classroom. Personally, I had to learn to drink my Americano with sugar. Complaining is usually more embarrassing than helpful. It’s harder to accept that I cannot control the outcomes in MY classroom, but I know in my heart that you are right. Thank you for sharing!


    1. So true! There’s nothing like living in another country/culture to learn about how little control we have over outcomes. I guess it’s really about balance. We have to accept that we’ll never really know how things will work out, but do our best to truly care about the moment. Thank you for reading!


  8. beautifully spoken Josette – some of the most amazing things happen when we watch and see what happens instead of trying to control – my best workshops were that way


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