Learning

Today I’d like to write about one of my favorite topics: learning.  I would have to say my favorite part about teaching is watching people learn.  When we learn, we grow.  When we grow, we become more mature, more autonomous, more confident.  We can take care of ourselves better and do things we couldn’t do before.  And I’m not just talking about language learning, I’m talking about learning anything.  If you can learn English, what other languages can you learn?  What other things can you do?  Where can you go?  It’s exciting to think about all the possibilities.

But sadly, I think so many people have so many deeply ingrained misconceptions about what learning is.  I think this is very important to address, so I’d like to create this post, maybe a series of posts, about what learning actually is.

First, let’s start with what learning is NOT:

  • Learning is NOT simply memorizing information or facts.
  • Learning is NOT the ability to provide correct answers to narrow questions.
  • Learning is NOT a passive process.
  • Learning is NOT a straight, linear process.

So what is learning?  Well, it’s basically the opposite of all those things!

It is not enough to remember information.  Learning requires understanding that information.  What does it mean?  How can I use it?  Why is it true?  Learning requires more than just putting data in your head; you have to be able to apply it, too!  If I tell you how to swing a golf club, does that mean you can actually do it?  Of course not!  Learning requires experience AND understanding.

Learning requires making mistakes, especially when learning language.  Remember, the point of language is not to construct sentences accurately, it’s just to communicate!  If someone is about to get hit by a car, which would be better, to take the time to perfectly make a sentence or to just shout “Car!”?  We cannot learn without making mistakes; it is the mistakes that identify what we need to learn!

Learning requires activity.  It requires us to be involved in whatever activity we are doing in order to get as much as possible out of it.  This includes listening and reading.  We need to actively be inquiring – what does that mean?  when can I use that?  how else can I apply that?  why is that the case? – while we are learning, in order to glean as much as possible from it.

Learning proceeds on a curve.  Sometimes it goes up, sometimes it goes down.  Setbacks, challenges, obstacles and frustration are NORMAL.  We should not expect to be getting incrementally better consistently, we are not machines.  We are human beings, and we get tired sometimes.

If you’re thinking learning is hard… you’re right!  Being active, experimenting, taking chances, making mistakes and having setbacks is hard… but that’s exactly why it is worth it.  When such things happen, most people give up.  This is why most people never manage to master many skills.  But when you accept that such things are a normal part of the learning process, they actually become easier and easier to deal with.

So why do we have these misconceptions in the first place?  Well, I think traditional education has a lot to do with it.  Throughout our childhoods we learn that if we make fewer mistakes, we get better results.  We learn that if we can just retain certain information until a certain date (the test date), we can get good results.  We learn that if we keep quiet and just listen to the teacher, we will get good results.  But in the real world, learning doesn’t work like this.  Learning is a complex and sometimes frustrating process.

But learning is vital.  It changes us in so many ways.  It forces us to integrate new information into our current knowledge.  It forces us to see the world differently.  It forces us to make different choices, and so to behave differently.  It forces us to work harder and be more involved.  It may force us to change our values.  But all of this is part of life, it necessary to take control of our lives.

But above all, learning is an extremely rewarding process.  The cognitive ability to understand what we couldn’t understand before is liberating.  The physical ability to do things you couldn’t do before is thrilling.  Maybe most importantly, the joy that develops in your heart from the self-confidence and the self-reliance you’ve earned… is beyond words.  Learning is one of the most emotionally and mentally broadening experiences you will ever have, whether it’s a sport, a dance, a language, an instrument or even just travelling abroad and experiencing things you’ve never experienced.  I honestly cannot think of any reason NOT to learn.

In the future I hope to elaborate on some of the points I brought up here: how to learn more actively, how to deal with frustration, how best to spend time studying, etc.  In the mean time, I hope you consider YOUR paradigm on learning, and I hope you feel more inspired now.  Please feel free to leave comments or contact me directly, either through my website or on twitter.  Take care, and have a great day, and study hard!

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