All knowledge builds upon knowledge that came before, and new knowledge often requires a change of thought. For example, the status of a scientific theory must change and grow when new data become available from additional tests of that theory. In her article “Learning Means Changing Your Mind,” Katherine Burd argues that, in the classroom, teachers can and should teach, evaluate, and model changing one’s mind, since “the process of learning matters more enduringly than the product it produces.” It’s the essence of the growth mindset.
Changing one’s view based on the presentation of new information or a different perspective demonstrates that a student has listened both carefully and with an open mind to others. It challenges them to articulate two different positions (the previous assertion and the new assertion) and note what separates them from each other.
According to Burd, developing and articulating a well-reasoned opinion, then being able to consider new information seriously enough to allow a change of opinion, is a skill that transcends the classroom to reach the real world, from stimulating workplace creativity to laying the foundation for a democratic society. We must be able and willing to change our views on a given issue when presented with new information and differing perspectives. If we insist that students’ work demonstrates only certainty, “then we reinforce the dangerous, unproductive idea that certainty is what matters. … If we mostly value student work that demonstrates certainty alone, then we reinforce the dangerous, unproductive idea that certainty is what matters.”
Burd goes on to say that if such mind changing is to be effective, teachers must provide instructional opportunities to develop the skill, as well as assess student knowledge in such a way as to reinforce its importance. Assuming that learning is linear or a cumulative narrative (as is currently often the case) only encourages students to parrot back information to the teacher. However, having teachers ask them to use their own words or other media to describe why they changed direction, or implementing well-structured classroom discussions that allow them to process and decide about new information, can convinces them that their teachers, too, are invested in the growth process.
Burd does warn that we shouldn’t reward student writers who start an essay with one opinion and end up with another, since that would undermine the necessary and important skill of argumentation. However, she believes that students should be able to earn significant course credit when they can explain how their interaction with new information shaped their ultimate conclusion, as this demonstrates both critical thinking and an acknowledgment of how learning works.
Taken at face value, this argument is both attractive and sound. We need critical thinking. We need to be flexible in our ideas about the world, the people in it, and our interactions with both. Teaching such a strategy would be a boon to our students and to society as a whole.
But we’d like to mention a comment posted by reader Ed McCarthy: “What this article fails to mention is that all learning begins with facts and routines that we do not want students to change their mind about. Don’t change your mind about what the quadratic formula means, and don’t think that conjunctive adverbs can be changed. This article reminds me of the many I read, those written by folks who, I would contend, have not spent their careers teaching kids the unchangeables.”
When we saw this comment, we had to go back and scrutinize our initial perspective on the article. If we change our instructional method to overwhelmingly reflect opinion-based reasoning and critical thinking, what happens to basic education, facts that can’t and shouldn’t change? 1 + 1 still always equals 2, and we’d be doing our students a grave disservice to suggest that this is open for interpretation. In fact, to inform arguments and perspectives, one must have a foundation of basic, unchangeable knowledge.
It seems, therefore, that education must reflect both sides of the equation, times when students have to absorb strict factual information, and times when they can arrive at a different conclusion based on perspective. As such, instructional methods needs to be tailored toward which of the two sides is being taught at a given time.
Then another thought occurred: didn’t this comment, by offering another perspective, effectively change our minds about the original argument and thereby validate it? Amusingly, yes it did, but only insofar as ideas about educational procedures relate to topics that don’t involve specific factual knowledge and mathematical certainties. There must be room for both in our educational system and our lives.
 Burd, Katherine. (February 8, 2021). “Learning Means Changing Your Mind: Teachers can help students acquire the skill of uncertainty.” Retrieved from https://www.edweek.org/teaching-learning/opinion-learning-means-changing-your-mind/2021/02.