What makes a learner?

Sumana Kasturi

In preparation for this article, I was thinking about the theme – what makes a teacher – and it led me down various paths. As I pondered the many possibilities, I thought perhaps we ask too much of our teachers? Not only do we need them to be committed, passionate, encouraging, and affectionate; we also want them to achieve learning objectives, follow curriculum guidelines, and use innovative methods of teaching. The teacher is also expected to mould our rambunctious, often entitled children into obedient, high-achieving model students! That is a tall order by any count. So instead, dear teachers, I turned the question around to explore the qualities of a good learner; guidelines and suggestions that would help the young people in our lives explore the world around them and learn from it. I’ve addressed my list to the children in my life, and I hope you will share this list with those in your classroom as well. And if we could turn this into a longer/larger conversation about learning, with inputs from all of you, perhaps we can make a difference to the learning and teaching experience.

As someone who has been associated with education in one way or another most of my life, I would assume, I am a natural teacher. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Yes, I’ve given the odd lecture, but I’ve never been a consistent teacher, except to my children. With them, lecturing is a regular thing, and the resultant rolling eyes on their part, also a regular thing! So, as a parent, what could I say to my children – that I hadn’t said a hundred times before – about teaching and learning? What could I convey to them – and other young learners – that would help the teacher do her job better? A good learner would be a pleasure to teach, but more importantly, a good learner would be able to learn in any situation.

As my older child prepares to finish high school next year and enter a new world of college and career choices, and my younger one enters the higher grades, I thought this would be an appropriate time to share with them my own experience of, and suggestions for learning. As a first step to preparing my list, I did what most people would do. I googled it.

The results were varied. 3 ways to be a successful learner. 5 things that smart learners do. 7 characteristics of good learners. 17 tips to motivate learners! I then took an informal survey of the members of my household, pondered the subject some more, and came up with my own list. In time-honoured tradition, my list is addressed as a letter to my progeny, but I hope that those of you who do the important job of teaching our children, will find it useful as well.

Dear children,

As you grow up and begin to explore the world on your own, you will meet many teachers. You will encounter them both inside and outside the classroom. The phrases ‘University of Life’ or ‘The School of Hard Knocks’ refer to the idea that learning takes place everywhere, whether or not you go to school. Since you will both be going to college (sorry, that’s not negotiable even if you want to be the next Sachin Tendulkar/bestseller novelist), cultivating the habits or traits of a good learner will hold you in good stead, in school, college and beyond. Here are my top six:

Be curious
Be enquiring, be interested, be alive to possibilities. Some of the most unusual, innovative and successful people I have met (and read about) have been curious people. Look beyond what you are normally interested in. Expand your intellectual horizons. Talk to people about their lives, read different kinds of books, attempt new things. Explore art, music, travel, and science fiction. Or if those are things you already do, then discover architecture and astrophysics, biology and the mythologies of the world. Look at the world around you with interest and curiosity. Being curious will help you wander down unusual paths and discover new ideas. Staying curious will keep you motivated, and make the world an exciting place to live in.

Be open
As you explore the world with curiosity and interest, stay open-minded to new ways of thinking, being, doing. Be open to the possibility of learning in every situation. Broaden your horizons. Learn a new language, study about different societies and religions, travel, try new foods. Talk to people you may not normally talk to – a fruit seller, a scientist, a dancer, a lift operator. Ask questions and be open to what you might learn from them. Be respectful: everyone has something valuable to share. Be open with yourself too. Give yourself room to make mistakes, change course, find new paths. Admit when you’re wrong, pick yourself up and start again. Great things are achieved when you think outside the box.

I’ll admit, I’m biased. Reading is one of my greatest pleasures and I have worked hard to make that true for both of you as well. Some of the most intelligent people I know are avid readers, and while the reverse may not be true, it’s a great habit to cultivate. A book may be low-tech and old fashioned. But within its pages, you will discover a world of possibility. There are books on every subject under the sun, whether you like fiction or non-fiction, prose or poetry. Stories of adventure, innovation, history, and science. Of course, you can use an e-reader, read articles online, listen to audio books. And you will do all of these based on what you’re looking for. But here’s my advice: Read for pleasure. Read for learning. And before you realize it, the two will merge and you will be the richer for it.

This is harder. We all like to talk. We spend a good amount of time each day talking to people around us. As young people, as students, you also spend a lot of time listening to your parents and teachers talk to you, at you, about you! But are you really ‘listening’, or simply ‘hearing’? When you ‘hear’, the sounds merely pass through your head and disappear into the ether. If you can listen, ah…then you will learn! Classroom lessons, parental advice, friendly banter with your friends. Listen carefully, and you will not only learn what they are saying, but also other things – the tone of their voice, the words they use, the facts or situations they are talking about – all will give you valuable information. Learning between the lines – it’s not hard to do if you just listen.

Be aware of the difference between knowing and learning
You’ve heard this before, but bear with me. What’s the difference between knowing how basketball is played and actually learning how to play it? Probably several hundred hours. For that ball to fall in the basket at the perfect moment in the game, requires you not only to ‘know’ how it’s done, but also to ‘learn’ how to do it. My father used this example to convey to me the importance of practicing my math problems when I was a reluctant (and lazy) student. But the analogy holds true for most things. ‘Knowing’ a recipe is very different from actually learning to make a dish. You need to actually ‘do’ things to learn. So, be bold. Step into the arena. And Do. For it’s in the doing, that you will learn.

That winning ace that Federer hits on the court? That bestselling series that Rowling wrote? That path-breaking discovery those CERN scientists made? Probably a thousand hours of work behind those things. The difference between success and mediocrity – regardless of your goal – is perseverance. Be consistent. Show up no matter what. If you fail, start over. If you believe in something, if you have a goal, then keep at it. Keep doing it over and over again, each time you’ll learn something new. And you’ll be the better for it. Good luck!

And so I conclude this list, and hope that it may help you to explore and grow, do and discover, enjoy and innovate. I wish you many good teachers, and many, many…many hours of good learning.


Sumana lives in Mumbai and works in the field of international education. She can be reached at sumanakasturi@yahoo.com.

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