On Learning

Do you recall when you first learned how to read? Can you remember how you how letters began to mean something or when they became more than just a series of sounds into something more? I don’t. I cannot for the life of me remember when or how I first began to read. Or when I obtained the capacity to learn. I cannot recollect when that spark of understanding went off in my head and my lifelong passion for books, art, science, and learning began.

I remember the joy of reading a book. Not the simple single sentence stories found in Shel Silverstein or Dr. Seuss (though those are enjoyable even now), but an honest to God actual book with developed characters and a full story. I wasn’t reading Shakespeare by any means (unless you count the Wishbone adaptations), but I was beginning to explore the offerings of my school and local libraries beyond the children’s sections.

Of course, this early instance led to development of math skills, scientific inquiry, and basic overall academic interest. However, I do not know the original impetus for this evolution and for some reason that bugs me. Considering I am currently a teacher, I am fascinated by the process of learning exhibited by my students. As well, in my former life as a graduate student, the methods in which my peers consumed, debated, and eventually internalized information was astounding in its diversity, efficacy, and, at times, sheer lunacy.

Look at that smug bastard with his books.

Look at that smug bastard with his books.

I try to remember if and how I struggled with learning. I try to remember what feelings were going  on during the process. Was I frustrated? Overburdened? Angry? What tricks did I use to overcome any obstacles or difficulties? I ponder this in the vain hope that drilling into my past will provide some insight into my current students’ struggle.

Unfortunately, I feel this is proving fruitless. How can I engage and teach someone when I do not really know how I myself learn or was taught? Not really a rhetorical question. I am genuinely unsure as to how to accomplish such a thing.

How do we learn? How are we taught? Is it the responsibility of the teacher to educate? The student to learn? Or some unclear alchemic mixture of both? For something we seem to value so much in society and tout as a major component of a successful life, very little information, outside of a few specific fields, exists on how to learn and teach successfully.

Maybe it’s not so much the process we consider significant, but simply the final product of education that society desires. You know, the whole good, productive citizens part, but what does it take to get there? And how can we ensure that said criteria is met while still giving a capacity for ingenuity, creativity, and something beyond rote learning?

I suppose at the core of my query is how can we dispense a desire to learn and not just basic instruction of material? Because one is far better than the other and ultimately more useful.

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4 thoughts on “On Learning

  1. There may be a divorce between teachers/professors and learning. After all, we learn how to walk but we did so before we could even form a sentence. We learned a language (or two) without any formal training.

    When you talk about the responsibility to learn, you divided it between teachers and students. A teacher is a profession; it is the title we give to people we pay to convey a particular set of knowledge. A student is more of an apprenticeship; the student’s “job” is to study, to learn what the teacher is paid to convey.

    Given the first premise, that we learn instinctually, then perhaps the question isn’t who is burdened with the duty of teaching/learning but instead how can we enhance the student/teacher relationship. To help the student take his first step, read his first word.

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