Opinion
Teaching Opinion

Learning Means Changing Your Mind

Teachers can help students acquire the skill of uncertainty
By Katherine Burd — February 08, 2021 5 min read
Gears floating away from the inner works of a silhouetted young woman

We can and should teach, evaluate, and model changing one’s mind in classrooms.

Most adults and educators understand that the process of learning matters more enduringly than the product it produces. Psychologists Carol Dweck and Angela Duckworth have popularized this idea; it’s become so deeply ingrained in teacher-training programs that lessons on growth mindsets and grit appear in elementary school curricula. Theoretical lessons about the value of the process can’t work, though, if the facts of assessment undermine them: Though the process of learning requires a student to change her mind, our classrooms still mostly assess a student based on her ability to demonstrate a single concrete view.

I’m a writer as well as a teacher, and I frequently interview other classroom teachers and professors. The question, “What’s your favorite moment in a class discussion?,” often gets the same answer: I love when a student states an opinion, listens to her classmates, and then, based on that information, changes or shifts her opinion in some way. Changing one’s view in that fashion shows that the student has listened carefully and with an open mind to others around her. It challenges her to articulate two different positions (the before and the after) and what separates them. It incorporates an authentic human process into the classroom space, the process of responding to stimuli with adjustment and change.

This skill of changing one’s mind endures to benefit learners, workplaces, and society as a whole. Developing and articulating an informed opinion, then considering new information seriously enough to change that opinion can stimulate new creativity in adult workplaces. This same process is also vital to democracy, where we must always be ready to change the way that we view issues as we learn more about them. Anti-racist work requires teachers and school leaders themselves to acknowledge shortcomings and pursue evolving understandings of the world around them. If we mostly value student work that demonstrates certainty alone, then we reinforce the dangerous, unproductive idea that certainty is what matters.

If changing one’s mind is a critical skill for the workplace and for democratic society, then it falls to educators and educational systems to teach students how. What we evaluate, even more than what we teach, reflects what we value. Many schools and school systems are working now, belatedly, to overhaul curricula to pursue more accurate depictions of history and to more fully represent the backgrounds of all students. At the same time, schools need to focus as much or more on the ways that course design and student assessment is also a curriculum, one that teaches students what matters through the shape and scope of the skills that it includes.

Both familiar and less-familiar student tasks can make a significant difference. Well-structured classroom discussions, which teach and assess students’ ability to consider one another’s perspectives, can help us shift the focus from argumentation to idea evolution. Templates for thinking about one’s own thinking already exist: structured “process-writing” assignments and problem sets and lab reports that ask students to submit, alongside final drafts, logic maps and thinking narratives that flag moments of idea development.

If we mostly value student work that demonstrates certainty, then we reinforce the dangerous idea that certainty is what matters.

Such assignments can build metacognitive skills and teach students how to more specifically develop and change their opinions. Remediation projects, which ask students to translate core understandings of course material to new media forms, stimulate students to think through concepts from different angles. The change in tasks can come incrementally, too: A teacher might begin with a standard analytical essay and add to it a process analysis, prompting students to highlight and describe moments where new knowledge deepened, challenged, or redirected their thinking.

Such curricular changes also require structured, intentional assessment. We should not reward student writers who start an essay with one opinion and end up with another. That would undermine the skill of argumentation, which is rightly a pillar of writing instruction. But to teach mind-changing effectively, students should also be able to earn significant course credit when they can explain how interacting with new information shaped their ultimate conclusion. These descriptions both constitute critical thinking and prompt students to acknowledge how learning works.

Clear, specific evaluation of such processes can also bring substance to the notoriously subjective evaluation measures of “building new understanding” or “deepening knowledge.” Students’ lived experiences are more complex than construction and digging metaphors because learning processes are rarely linear and logical. Nonetheless, even schools that prioritize metacognition often ask students to describe learning as a linear or cumulative narrative. As a result, students simply learn to parrot the words “built” and “deepened” to please the teacher. Asking students to use their own words (or pictures or structures) to specifically describe how they rethink, change direction, and start over can convince them that teachers are invested in that process. And ultimately, this process creates more transparent, equitable assessments for hard-to-quantify reasoning skills.

There is a final step in the process of teaching students to change their minds: We—not just educators, but also school leaders, politicians, parents, and citizens—need to abandon our own desires to present certainty in our opinions and start revealing just how often we, too, change. Many students believe that their teachers should show absolute mastery of and certainty about material. When a teacher admits to a deficit in knowledge or understanding, though, she opens up space for students to explore and understand on their own. Exhibiting certainty may make us more comfortable, but it undermines our effort to teach students that learning is a lifelong endeavor.

When schools usher children toward unwavering conclusions, they reinforce a vision of reality that, when extended to the world beyond, is dangerous. It’s time to stop talking about what it means to learn and start teaching our students—and ourselves—how.

A version of this article appeared in the February 10, 2021 edition of Education Week as Changing Your Mind Is a Skill. Let’s Teach It

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