Beginner Mind

by Tina Blue

          NOTE:  This article was originally posted on Themestream, a writers' site that no longer exists.  Although it contains a number of Themestream references, its point is, I believe, both important and generally applicable to the issues of teaching and learning.

          I don't know whether the phrase "beginner mind" is original with me or whether I encountered it somewhere in my reading.  It seems like an image that might be found in the study of martial arts or in Eastern philosophy, and though I don't study martial arts, I do read a lot of Eastern philosophy, so I would not be surprised to discover that I did not really make the phrase up, even though I don't remember seeing it in any of my readings.

          No matter.  Even if I did pick it up from such a source, what I mean by "beginner mind" is not what a philosopher would mean.  I use the term to refer to an essential element of a teacher's approach to his students.

          I was reminded yesterday of how important my notion of beginner mind is to my own teaching style.  What reminded me was that as a complete computer novice I was attempting to learn a number of things from books and people who were offering explanations and directions that I simply could not understand.

          I spent $30 yesterday to buy HTML for Dummies (3rd ed.), by Ed Tittel and Stephen N. James.  The Dummies series is supposed to be for people who are at or near the starting line in a given subject.  But a better title for this book would be HTML for Dummies Who Already Know Quite a Lot About Computers and How to Do All Sorts of Clever Things with Them, and Who Want to Become Webmasters.

          What I, as a true HTML dummy, wanted was a list of common HTML tags, explanations of what each one did, and a lot of clear examples of how a specific tag would produce a specific effect on a screen.  I would also have liked a nice list of font and background colors, plus their names and numbers, and a sample of what the color would look like on the computer monitor.

          I would have liked to know how to create a tab space to indent my paragraphs in an HTML text editor, since I have found out that the string of code that I normally use to indent a paragraph won't work with any of the text editors I have managed to download.  I would have liked a simple explanation of how to create columns that are not all crowded together, but actually have spaces between them.  Examples would help more than pages of explanation.

          Oh, the book offers lots of examples--or so it says--but none of them are actually in the book.  To access those examples, you have to use the CD that came with the book, along with a page's worth of complex and technical  "CD-ROM Installation Instructions."  For some of us, instructions like this might as well be in hieroglyphics:

          To view the examples and templates on the CD, including the HTML for Dummies Web Page, open your browser, and with its Open or Open File Command,open this file on the CD:  HTML4Dum.HTM.  This file is in the H4D3E folder, which is in the HTML4DUM folder at the root level of the CD (HTML4DUM/H4D3E/HTML4DUM.HTM).

          Now, to some of you, these seem like perfectly simple and obvious directions.  But I don't even know how to use a CD with a computer!  I don't know what "the root level of the CD" means.  Nor am I quite sure how to "open folders."  And I am not alone.  One comment on an article I posted on Themestream asking for help even said the person didn't understand the article itself.  I sure can understand that feeling.

          A true beginners' guide would have an index that would make it easy to locate the tag you need for a particular purpose, and to follow the instructions for using the tag.  For example, I know I need another way to create an indentation at the beginning of my paragraphs.  Since that indentation is produced on the keyboard by the "tab" key, a usable index would reference "tab" for me.  It doesn't.

     And if I want to properly space rows in columns, how do I, a rank beginner, know to look under "tables/cell padding/cell spacing"?  The word "cell" doesn't even occur to me when I think of spacing columns, and to me the word "table" has a certain specific meaning, and that meaning does not include a set of columns not enclosed within a border and captioned.  If I don't know what esoteric term is used to refer to things I am familiar with in the mundane world, how can I possibly find them in the index?

          An HTML beginner, a "dummy," if you will, is looking for basic information about HTML tags and their effects, about how to make certain things happen in her text.  She probably also wants information about the various text editors and how to get them and use them.  In fact, that's part of what I was asking in my article that I posted on Themestream.

          She is not looking for information about how to set up a complex web page with all sorts of bells and whistles.  I am not yet at a point where I need "HTML validation checkers, links testers, forms testers, syntax testers, anchor checkers, and more" (283).  I just want to, for heaven's sake, learn how to indent my stupid paragraph, make my columns look nice and readable, or offset an extended quotation! 

          Yet about 90% of the book HTML for Dummies is about setting up and launching a website, with the emphasis on commercial websites.  It is not about teaching basic HTML to beginners!

          I could go on and on with examples of the indecipherable gibberish that fills the pages of this book.  Yes, yes, I'm sure it is not gibberish for people who know HTML at a certain level--but why would those people even buy a book entitled
HTML for Dummies

          What have I learned from this book?  Well, I think I may have learned a tag that will allow me to refer to a line of HTML code without activating that code in my documents.  So, for example, if I want to describe the string of code needed to make a link, I can do so without creating the link itself, rather than the code.  At least I hope I have learned that.  But the description of what is done by the tag I'm using is all in technojargon, so I am not at all sure that I have properly understood the tag's purpose.

          I also would have learned how to indent my extended quotations, except that I had already learned how by checking the code used by HTML Builder to do it, after I had achieved the effect by clicking on an icon.   Also, I got an e-mail from Peter May with that helpful information--without having to wade through 99 pages of gibberish to find it, which is how I ran across it in the book.

          When I was trying to learn how to put my author-link into the talk-back boxes on Themestream (when that was still possible), Jae Malone sent me the code for the link, with instructions: 

          I have replaced the pointy parentheses with rounded ones, because if I send this with the pointy ones, the e-mail will convert it and you'll just get the link.  But be sure to go back and change all the rounded parens to pointy ones, or your link won't work. 

          Clear and simple, yes?  Not to me it wasn't. I had no idea what she was talking about!  My problem, you see, was that I did not know that those pointy parentheses (which, by the way, I learned from the book are called "angle brackets," so at least I got something for my $30) are used to enclose HTML tags, so the browser will read them as tags instead of as text.  And Jae had no idea that I did not know that essential bit of information.

          I also did not know that if the angle brackets were included, the e-mail program would just go ahead and create the link, and then I would never see the string of code.  (Of course, if the code tag I have learned works as I think it's supposed to, then I can work around that problem.)

          By the way, almost all of my previous two paragraphs would also be perfect gibberish to anyone who is at the stage I was at when Jae sent me directions for creating my  link.  In fact, I bet there are readers who have no idea what I just said--I would not have understood a few weeks ago!

          When popular Themestream author Sheri Huttner created a linked index for me while I was still in the zero-HTML wilderness, she sent it to me as an attachment and instructed me to "download" it and "save" it to wherever I would normally save something, and then "upload " it to Themestream.


          I did not know how to download something. I do now, but I still have to be careful about how I save stuff, because I only know how to get into "My Documents."  If I accidentally save to some other place, I have no idea of how to retrieve what I've saved.  I don't even know how to name files.  Usually the names I give them work, but a lot of times I'm told it's an "invalid file name," but I don't know why.  (I assume I'm using a character that the computer wants used for other things, but I'm not sure.) 

          If I do something slightly different with a file, I can never find it again.  I don't know how to give the full file name to locate a file.  In fact, if I have to do that, the file might as well be located in Reykjavik, because I'm never going to find it again.

          In other words, I can only find a file if it's in "My Documents," so that I can see its name to click on it.  I can't give its drive path (is that even the right term?) in order to search for it.

          Now, some of you may feel your lips curling in disgust at such benighted ignorance, though I don't think there is much of that sort of attitude on Themestream, thank goodness.   I am honestly touched by the kindness and patience the computer-savvy on Themestream show toward the rest of us, especially since I know that a lot of Net-experts can get quite nasty when some newcomer makes a mistake.

          Saturday Night Live has a recurring bit about "Nick Burns," computer tech support for some company.  Nick and his "computer-geek" friends hang out in their basement office, where they snort and sneer at the problems the company's computer dunces face with their computers.  They speak in incomprehensible technojargon, and they even mock other computer experts if they are not right on top of the newest technologies--like the one that was unveiled at 9:00 that very morning.

          But even the kind, well-meaning computer-clever people here on Themestream sometimes don't understand what people like me don't understand.  ( I suspect you are also at least a bit taken aback when one of us reveals the true extent of our ignorance.)

          I am posting this article in both the 'Themestream" category and the "Teaching" category.  I pulled the article I posted yesterday asking for help, because so many people responded with so much helpful information that I did not feel it needed to stay up any longer, even though it was still getting a lot of hits.

          But I think this article is also relevant to the "Themestream" category, simply because so many of us Themestream contributors come asking for help from those of you who know what's what, and it might help you to understand how truly uninformed some of us actually are.  You are so good about trying to help us, but you keep running up against the brick wall of our near-perfect ignorance.

          I'm posting it in "Teaching," because I believe that much of what turns students off in the classroom is that the teacher starts so far beyond where the student is that the student has no idea what the teacher is talking about.

          It's a humbling and informative experience for a teacher to try to learn something genuinely new, something that is not just a more advanced or distantly related form of what she already knows.  The way some of us feel when a clever eighteen-year-old tries to explain computer tricks to us must be very much like the feeling students get when teachers don't understand what the students don't understand. 

          I think it is significant that a lot of the expensive computer technology in public schools goes to waste because the teachers can't learn how to use it or to integrate it into the classroom.  (You might want to check out Beverly Lucey's excellent article,"Teacher Rabbits," on this point.  It can be found on her
"Language Wrangler"

          Partly, it's because teachers are already too busy to learn a whole lot of new stuff, but I also think it is partly because it feels really lousy to try hard to learn something, but to be overwhelmed by confusing jargon at every step of the way.   We aren't stupid, and we don't like how stupid we feel when we try to learn how to use computers.

          That should help teachers to understand why their students are sometimes so recalcitrant in class.  No one likes to be made to feel stupid just because he can't understand something that is being badly explained. 

          And just as we don't want to be belittled by the Nick Burnses of the world for not already knowing all about computers, we should never belittle one of our own students for not "getting" what we are trying to teach. 

          We must start where the student is if we want to teach him.  We cannot expect him to already know what he does not know.