The Joy of Painting

I hope you all had an enjoyable and peace-filled Thanksgiving. This has been an unsettling time in our history for many. Having the time to reflect on all the gifts we’ve each been given seemed to come at a great time this year. We had the opportunity to travel to a wedding for one of my grandkids. Not surprisingly, a couple of long plane rides surfaced some thoughts that had been wandering around in my head for a while with no clear sense of direction.

You may recall that I began this writing process as a means of helping to clarify my own thinking. It’s been a real help to me and I hope it’s been useful to you as well. Over the past couple of weeks I’ve been reflecting on several pieces I’ve read recently and how they connect with my experiences. I’m going to use this piece to see if I can organize some connections that I think I see and hope you will be able to offer some thoughts that may add to my understanding.

To help you understand my thinking, here are the topics that I’m seeking to connect:

  • The development of fixed mindsets in adults and the impact on the change process;
  • The ways in which unlearning and learning are connected and how they relate to mindsets;

As you probably have surmised, I’ve been doing a lot of work around the relationship between school cultures and change. Right before I left I had revisited a piece that I had moved (“flipped”) a while back into one of my Flipboard “magazines”. 1 In this piece, “Never Too Late: Creating a Climate for Adults to Learn New Skills”, Deborah Farmer Kris makes the connection between the current interest in the concepts of “fixed” versus “growth” mindsets and how these can affect the learning of students. I highly recommend that you take a look at the complete article here link.

What I found interesting was that she had extended this thinking to adults as well, noting how frequently we encounter colleagues who announce things like “I’ve been doing this for 20 years. I doubt you can tell me anything new” or “I’m just too old to learn this Twitter stuff” or “I already know what works for me”. Extending the concept, she offers suggestions from a school superintendent for helping to move adults to growth mindsets. These are (and I’ve paraphrased here a bit):

  • Remodel Faculty Meetings to move away from informational meetings to times used to respond to teacher identified learning needs – i.e., times devoted to teacher learning;
  • Reach Out to Seasoned Teachers to personally connect to veteran teachers who may be reluctant to adopt new strategies;
  • Model a Growth Mindset by taking a lead in the use of Twitter or exploring learning that takes place beyond the walls of school.

Some time ago, I had encountered a previously unknown (to me) piece of Piaget’s work on child development (see below). Since that time, I have been fascinated by the concept of the relationship between unlearning – i.e., abandoning explanations that no longer work – and learning. So naturally I just had to read an article that I came across from the Harvard Business Review (and no, I don’t regularly read this periodical but I saw it in Flipboard and couldn’t resist). In this article, “Why the Problem with Learning is Unlearning”, Mark Boncheck offers:

“Unlearning is not about forgetting. It’s about the ability to choose an alternative mental model or paradigm. When we learn, we add new skills or knowledge to what we already know. When we unlearn, we step outside the mental model in order to choose a different one.”

In Paiget’s explanation, by the time a youngster reaches school age, he or she has developed explanations (mental models) for almost all of how the world works. What’s interesting about these explanations is that about 90% of them are wrong. This was a real revelation for me as a teacher for the many times when I thought students were having difficulty grasping a new idea. Piaget help me understand that what was really happening was they were having difficulty unlearning an old idea, an explanation (mental model) that they had developed that was contradicted by the new learning and they were struggling to abandon their previous explanations.

But I don’t work with kids so much any more so I found myself looking at how this new learning fit with my work with adults. Can you see it? We are looking at creating cultures which require a growth mindset – a perspective where we are not limited by what we currently know but how we currently perceive ourselves and the world around us. If that view is fixed and based on explanations developed at a time that no longer exists, we need to see (and help one another see) how the old explanations no longer apply.

Here’s a brief personal story that documents my own experiences with “unlearning”.

Earlier this year I asked my wife what she might like for her birthday. Since we both enjoy the same kind of music I kind of assumed that my somewhat subtle suggestion that we might want to go and see Peter Mayer in concert could be well received. Wrong! Not only was she lukewarm to the concert suggestion but she had a pretty definite alternative in mind. “I want you to paint me a picture.” I thought maybe I was losing the hearing in my good ear so I stalled for time. She ended my stalling by continuing, “You know a … You remember that watercolor set I bought you two years ago that you never used.” The old double whammy, fear AND guilt. “But I don’t know how to paint with watercolor,” I countered. “You can learn,” she said. I mumbled something both inaudible and obscene, but in that brief exchange we had captured the essence of the difference between a fixed and a growth mindset… “I can’t” versus “you can learn”.

I used to love to draw as a kid. I drew all kinds of things. Then I tried painting. Bad idea. No clue how to do it. Paintings sucked. Conclusion and explanation of my world… ”I can’t paint.” It became a pretty fixed idea. But, not surprisingly, in 50 years, a few things have changed, including the arrival of YouTube. And so, faced with the prospect openly defying my wife or looking at other options, I turned to YouTube. (I was encouraged to look there knowing that my son-in-law had learned to butcher a deer by watching a YouTube video.)

Lo and behold I found all kinds of instructional videos on watercolor painting for dummies. With the help of my new best friend, The Frugal Crafter from Maine, I was able to unlearn my previous understanding of my “painting world” and , for the record, here is my first public showing of my first attempt ate watercolors without the help of the Frugal Crafter.


Here is my learning from this. My early experiences with painting (1) resulted in an explanation of my painting skills which went unchallenged, (2) discouraged further attempts, and (3) resulted in a fixed mindset.

  • My fixed mindset about painting (you can fill in the blank with your own fixed mindsets) was challenged by a new demand.
  • My new demand provided an incentive for me to re-examine and unlearn my mental model (I can’t paint).
  • My experience has resulted in (1) a realization that old explanations, mental models, paradigms, etc. may not be valid in a new world and (2) a new growth oriented mindset about he possibility of actually enjoying painting with watercolors.


How can we use the concepts of Unlearning and Mindsets to help us help support the students and adults in our learning communities in the creation of cultures we need and to re-assess our explanations of “schooling” and learning?

What can you do intentionally to identify areas for unlearning? To enhance growth mindsets?


1 Flipboard is an app which is available for desktop, laptop and tablet use. It uses a “magazine” metaphor to allow the user to access information, articles, media, etc. either from a library of sources or via user defined search criteria. In addition to allowing the user to indentify sources for reading, Flipboard allows the user to create user defined magazines for curation. Such magazines may be kept private for user organization purposes or made available to the public either via searches or invitation. I currently have a “magazine rack” of over 50 sources and curate several public magazines… EdRethink, Career Readiness Now and for the Future, RT’s Google Tips, Quantum Learning. Going to will get you started.

One thought on “The Joy of Painting

  1. Rich,
    I am going to start with our teachers and challenge them to open up to the possibility of unlearning and shifting their own mindsets. I think those who experiment with success will then challenge their students.

    As for the painting, I am very impressed! Barnegat bay circa 1920s?


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