Students: Why You're Smarter Than You Think

One of the biggest challenges I encounter in teaching is seeing students determined to believe that they are poor learners in general or within the particular field of study they are encountering (in my case: literature or history).  It's frustrating because as someone vested in their learning and learning in general, I know that it's not an innate inability to do the work but more often, their mindset that inhibits them.  In fact, too often I see students believing they are not good enough at a subject matter and abandon it without really knowing if they enjoy it or not (nevermind whether they are good at it--whatever that may mean).  
Cast of the 1939 Wizard of Oz

I teach college level students.  They run the gamut from being just released from the imprisoning and often detrimental high school to having been away from school for decades.  Either way, they enter the classroom with some trepidation; even those that believe they are strong learners (whatever that means!).  They often enter the class with the assumption that I (as instructor) am the "expert" and therein have all the right answers (I don't.).  It would be amusing, if it were so problematic for their own learning.  The role of the "instructor" and  our current conception and execution of learner in contemporary education still holds that the instructor is the authoritative known-all, be-all; the Great Oz if you will.  The best of us (and I'm not implying that I am part of the "best") know that we are more human behind the curtain, than giant monstrous projection.  

Teachers, instructors, facilitators, we are more like Dorothy.  We got some advice from strangers one day when we awoke in a fascinating world that we were intrigued by.  Those strangers sent us down a path to get our ultimate answers and though we strayed along the way, we continue to find the answers we're seeking (though ever rarely reach the true end of that path).  That path is the discipline we study, enjoy and find value in.  

Off onto the Yellow Brick Road

So if I could say anything to my students about their learning and get them out of the frame of feeling they are poor learners or incapable of doing great work, I'd tell them something like this:  

What happens when you get interested in something?  Be it a TV Show, a musician, an artistic style, a style of fighting, a local sports team, a new style of cooking, a model of car, a new knitting design, a new phone model, a sequel to your favorite video game, etc, how do you react to this interest?  

You seek out more information about it, you fiddle with it, you ask others for insight on it, you read about it, you tweet about it, you get into arguments about it, you fight for it.  You become invested in it.  And that investment consists of using your power (physical, mental, financial, relational, etc) to get closer to it.  To know it better.  

That energy expended--it's all in the name of learning. Learning is coming to know something or someone.  And you do this constantly in your life.  In fact, you love to learn.  You love to study too; all that time and energy put in trying to understand that interest--is studying.  You love getting one step closer to the object of your attention because learning in itself is rewarding.  In fact, in many ways, you will often pay (in time, money, attention) to get to know your interest better.  You're willing to sacrifice bits and parts of yourself to get to know it better.  

That "aha!" moment when you figure out something new about the object of your attention on your own; it's awesome.  That moment brings you closer to the object of your desire in some abstract way.  Knowing all the stats about your favorite baseball team does not bring you physically closer to the team, but it does bring you intellectually closer and there's an inherent reward in that.  There is reward and benefits in learning.  You are intrinsically rewarded for getting to know it better. 

You sometimes forget that you're a constant learner.  You sometimes forget that the difference between learning in your life is not any different than learning in a classroom.  The major difference is that you may not come to the subject matter with much interest beyond that the course stands as a barrier between you and your end goal (a grade, a degree, a job, etc).  But if you take the time to consider that the same intrinsic rewards that await you in those things you have sought out to study can also be found in these subject matters, you'll find there is value in getting to know it better.  

Some of the most interesting and rewarding experiences await when you find a way to put down your guard about learning and what you can and can't learn.  It opens up a world where the only thing that limits you and your learning is time.  Time to find all the things that you want to get to know better.

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