FREE YOUR MIND AND THE REST WILL FOLLOW
Let’s talk today about open-mindedness and its sexy relationship with education.
Notable researchers Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman explained open-mindedness as “the willingness to search actively for evidence against one’s favoured beliefs, plans, or goals, and to weigh such evidence fairly”.
Malcolm Forbes said, “Education’s purpose is to replace an empty mind with an open one.”
Poet Anthem Fox said it a little differently, “There are no empty minds, just closed ones. Therefore, education is not for the filling of empty minds but for the creation of and expansion of open ones.”
However you want to illustrate it in your mind, it is pretty obvious that true education, that which aims to increase a person’s growth and see them understand the world and those who occupy it, promotes open-mindedness.
Before I go on to extol the virtues of an open-mind I should quickly throw in a quick caveat. That is that good open-mindedness is not about having your brain exposed to the elements and having your mind blown about here there and everywhere with every change in the wind. It comes with the responsibility to judge wisely and act quickly when occasion calls. While generally speaking open-mindedness is avoiding black and white, cut and dry answers, and searching for understanding of different perspectives I believe that there are things in this world that we can honestly see through historical lenses and common human values to be wrong and not worthy of our time. Professor Walter Kotschnig said, “By all means let’s be open-minded, but not so open-minded that our brains drop out.” In other words, an open mind is like a door that you can open and shut. You can invite what you want and need to invite in and keep out nefarious or ridiculous party-crashers. A closed mind is one that closes the door to any ideas that challenge a preferred narrative.
We all like to consider ourselves to be open-minded, ask 10 people if they are open-minded and I’m sure most if not all will say “yeah bro!” But how close to the truth is that really? It is often the opposite of how we approach anything that disrupts our preferred narrative. “I’m a pretty open-minded person but…” How often have you heard that?
The truth is that we humans prefer searching out and finding info that helps to support our beliefs. Even if we are doing it subconsciously. We do that consistently enough and those beliefs become what we consider to be facts. We keep accruing these so-called facts to bolster our preferred position. This is called myside bias and the counter is open-mindedness and an ability to think critically.
Myside bias isn’t a reflection of education level, and it affects anyone and everyone from all grades of intelligence so how can education be used to promote open-mindedness? Is there reciprocation? Can open-mindedness make us smarter?
Let’s start with answering that second question. Can open-mindedness make us smarter? The short answer is yes. And arguably more importantly, wiser.
I’ll share more benefits soon but to get us excited, studies show that open-minded people are:
- more objective in the judging of other people
- less prideful as they seek not to be right, but to understand better
- better performers on ability tests.
- better at resisting manipulation than close-minded or myside bias affected people.
- better able to identify misleading information
- more able to avoid assumptions
- better able to understand context and nuances and so avoid “binary” or “black and white” thinking.
- better able to find empathy for people not of their inner demographic and so better understand the world and the varying economic situations, cultural differences and commonalities, geographical challenges, religious dispositions, ethnicities etc.
The importance of open-mindedness can’t be overstated.
So how do educators introduce, teach, and enhance open-mindedness in students?
1. Start with ourselves
Here are 3 suggestions to improve our own open-mindedness.
- Do the exact opposite of what we are inclined to do. Instead of only searching for information that supports our beliefs, look for the counterarguments, the contradictions to our beliefs.
- When we form an opinion, and this is best done when that bud is still coming in but can be done even when the opinion is in full bloom, we could write down any arguments that challenge our opinion.
- From the Mary T Lathrap 1895 poem “Judge Softly” we find the now famous idiom, Before you judge a man, walk a mile in his shoes. We can use that idea to enhance our ability to be open-minded. We can try walking someone else’s path, someone who has different beliefs than ourselves, and seeing things from their perspective.
Here are 4 ways that we can help promote open-mindedness in our students, clients mentees etc.
1. Promote Cultural Diversity
Encourage the hearing of different accents and languages. Encourage seeing, walking with, and interacting with people who, whether it’s because of culture or even say artistic individuality, dress, think, or act differently to what someone is used to being around in their own community. Among other benefits, such as simply learning about other cultures, being around a variety of people helps a person avoid presupposing their ingrained values trump all others. The great philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said “The surest way to corrupt a youth is to instruct him to hold in higher esteem those who think alike than those who think differently.”
2. Challenge Stereotypes
Differences are too often used as an excuse for discrimination. Differences can be encouraged to be placed ahead of commonalities when stereotypes and generalisation go beyond self-effacing fun.
3. Pursue Collaborative Learning
When we engage in conversation and work with people of different cultures, with different ideologies, from different backgrounds to us, we can learn to value other perspectives which is a vital step to learning from other perspectives.
4. Promote Constructive Criticism
This is the one I’m most excited to talk about, so I’ll spend the most time with it. This is really important. This is the greatest ally to open-mindedness.
WHAT CONSTRUCTIVE CRITICISM IS NOT
It is not an attack on the person.
It is not an opportunity to one-up
It is not pushing someone away
It is not creating greater divides
It is not calling someone a failure
WHAT CONSTRUCTIVE CRITICISM IS
The opposite of what I just listed.
It is encouragement of the person
It is sharing space and levels
It is drawing someone closer
It is healing divides
It is helping someone to overcome failures and succeed
I have a saying that I try to live by. Admittedly, I don’t always follow my own advice, but I try my best. It is “Take it to mind, not to heart.” I have always been determined to avoid “tick and flick” training and assessment as I want my students to feel confident stepping into the field after graduating. So, at the beginning of any course, when I have fresh new faces and eager minds raring to go, I start by telling my students that we will be a class that isn’t shy of constructive criticism. I say I will give it and we will actively encourage peer-review. I will even have the students give me constructive feedback. At first it hurts. Of course it does. We are only human. We have feelings. But if we are prepared for it, it gets easier and then eventually welcomed enthusiastically. So, for example, after a student would lead a group exercise class as part of an assessment, we would then sit on the floor in a circle and everyone would give their thoughts, tips, criticisms, ideas for improvements, what they liked and might themselves employ etc. The student being assessed was given instruction not to defend themselves. They were allowed to explain their thoughts behind doing something a certain way but for the most part all they could do was listen – taking it to mind, not to heart. I would say, by doing that, they could then go away, think about things, throw off any critique they didn’t want to utilise and use what they considered could help them improve.
Benefits? Here are just 3.
Benefit 1 – Makes You Better
I’ve heard it said that constructive criticism shines a spotlight on fixable issues and concerns. That’s one way of looking at it. In other words it helps you to see things more clearly which is great for the intrepid, eager to learn mind. I would say it’s more like putting the concerns out in the sun. Some people react very negatively to spotlights and immediately run back into the wings of the stage. The sun feels natural and so should constructive criticism. The sun not only sheds light but it feels good and is a great detoxification tool.
Benefit 2 – Strengthens Connections
Constructive criticism done right shows a high level of care. When you feel that someone cares it is easier to make connection. This can be of great benefit to a workplace, a school, a club, a home etc. Constructive criticism should be given only because you want someone to succeed. It feels right when it is given in a way that the criticiser is declaring “I don’t want you to fail,” rather than “You are a failure!” So, if this is felt by the receiver, a union, a bond and stronger, trusting relationship is formed.
Speaking of trust;
Benefit 3 – Improves Trustworthiness
In whatever space constructive criticism is accepted and is felt to be a natural and productive part of the environment, the people feel that they can be more open and honest and that those around them are being open and honest with them. I remember when my now wife and I first decided to get married, we asked each other what we thought would be important in our marriage. We made a list and near the top was an ability to give and accept constructive criticism. The first time I took that to task and answered honestly the question “Does this look good on me?” it didn’t go as smoothly as I had hoped. And of course, it worked both ways as criticism was directed towards me. However, over time we have accepted and really found value in constructive criticism. We value each other’s opinions and then make our own decisions after consideration.
Compare that with recent constructive criticism that I directed towards a certain politician. I questioned aspects of a “system” not the person involved. By their reaction you would have thought that I had just stolen his dalmatian puppies to make a fur coat. Constructive criticism accepted stops people keeping their mouths shut for fear of hurting someone’s feelings. Constructive criticism accepted leads to transparency. In a classroom that helps students to really understand the “whys” of questions, assignments etc. In a workplace it builds trust between peers and management. In general society it helps build community and a sense of belonging which in turn leads to more proactivity in sharing ideas, thoughts, concerns and more and in what world is that a bad thing?
I’ll finish with a quote attributed to ancient playwright “Open your mind before your mouth“ – Aristophanés