Thursday, October 4, 2012

Willing to Learn

Over the past few years, I have come to see and believe, time and time again, that willingness is one, if not the most, important quality that one can have. Willingness to take action, willingness to be accountable, and willingness to take risks are essential in any full and meaningful life. In many different areas of my life I have seen firsthand that the willingness to learn and to grow are of paramount importance for any human being, and doubly important for any teacher.

I started thinking about willingness last week in a MATESOL class, when a fellow student gave a materials analysis presentation on CALL (Computer Assisted Language Learning). The assignment asked presenters to consider a particular material used in language learning classrooms in order to evaluate its usefulness in certain settings, advantages and disadvantages of its use, and possibilities for adaptation in other contexts. The presentation moved away from this guideline and their topic of CALL into a more general discussion of the usefulness of technology in the classroom, and one of the presenters struggled (actually, didn’t even attempt) to contain her bias against the use of technology in the classroom. Her feelings seemed to be that since it is difficult to learn how to use new technology, we shouldn’t use it in the classroom because we can’t be sure of its effectiveness. At one point
she said, “I don’t have the time or the patience to try and learn this.”

Now, I have a bias of my own when it comes to the use of technology in education, and was obviously having a hard time relating to this woman and her presentation. However, if I remove my own personal feelings about her opinion in the technology debate, that final statement looms in my mind. Regardless of personal opinion, at the end of the day she was unwilling to try and learn something new, and I believe that this is a dangerous place for any teacher to be.

Our job as educators is to encourage and inspire students to learn and to grow. If we ourselves are unwilling to do this, then what message are we sending to our students? How can they trust in their own learning process if we do not model this for them? I find it hard to imagine that any teacher who is unwilling to learn will be effective in cultivating this willingness in his or her students. In order to continue to grow as educators, we must be willing to learn; for at the moment we cease to learn, we cease to grow.

In meditating on the importance of being willing to learn, I have come up with three main reasons why this willingness is indispensable to human beings, and teachers in particular:

1. Being willing to learn allows us to empathize and connect with students
Learning in itself is a skill, a process, an undertaking. If we expect our students to take on the challenge of learning, shouldn’t we be willing to do the same? Being willing to learn gives us as educators an opportunity to remember what it is like to feel humbled, intimidated, and challenged by the task of learning something new; this experience helps us to empathize with what our students are going through daily in our classrooms.
Additionally, by demonstrating to students that we, as teachers, are still learners just like them helps to build confidence and put students at ease by removing that separation between teacher and student as”distributor” and “recipient” of knowledge. My students love to hear stories about my academic escapades in my MATESOL classes; my experience as a student creates a common ground in which my students are able to relate, connect, and build trust with me.

2. Being willing to learn allows us to observe, reflect on, and improve ourselves and our work
One of my favorite things about this experience of starting to blog, tweet, and connect with other educators around the world is the learning opportunity it has afforded me. Every day I am learning new ideas, methods, and approaches which inspire me to reflect on my own teaching and make changes in order to grow in effectiveness. My thinking and my teaching have been elevated to another level since I have made this process of learning, reflection, and growth a part of my life.

3. Being willing to learn reminds us that we do not know everything.
After teaching the same lesson multiple times, it can be all too easy to fall into a routine, assuming that I know how things should be done and just going through the motions to complete them as I have done before. However, one of the things I love most about teaching is that you never know exactly what will happen in a classroom. Being willing to learn and remaining adaptable as a result helps me to stay humble and remember that there is always room to grow.

So, just for today, rather than trying to be a better teacher, I am going to try to be a better learner. I think that, in doing so, I will help myself and my students to remain open-minded, willing, and teachable, and our classroom will be a better place for all to learn as a result. 


  1. I love your post.. and agree with it all. One of those posts where I found myself saying, 'Yes!' all the way through.
    If I may add a (I think) pertinent quote:
    'Every act of conscious learning requires the willingness to suffer an injury to one's self-esteem. That is why young children, before they are aware of their own self-importance, learn so easily.'
    Thomas Szasz
    I think we have to also be willing to set aside these possible threats to our self-esteem, and as teachers, to help learners to feel confident enough to do so.

    1. Rachael, Thank you so much for your comment! And thank you for the excellent and perfectly fitting quotation, I could not have said it better myself! And couldn't agree more about sacrificing our own self-esteem to help build that of our students.
      Thanks for your insight and thoughtfulness (and for reading!)