The Power to Learn

People often tell me that I am a good teacher (which I love to hear), but lately I have come to realize that the teacher is only part of the equation when you want to be a successful adult learner.

Being a good student is actually much more important than having a good teacher. And although that sounds simple enough, possessing the ability to learn (especially in adults) is not a given. There are 5 characteristics a person must already have or be willing to develop if they are going to be a successful adult learner.
Curiosity Is A Good Thing

The old adage “curiosity killed the cat” gives curiosity a bad name. But a healthy curiosity is critical for learning to take place. If you are not actually interested in the “how” or “why,” at best the information shared is difficult to apply and at worst just goes in one ear and out the other.

Curiosity in adults causes us to seek answers. The search for answers is one of the first steps in learning. If we already understand “everything” there is a belief that there is nothing more to learn. Even on topics that I have deep knowledge, like knitting, I know there is still plenty for me to learn.

Channel Your Inner 3-Year Old

Little ones are great about asking LOTS of questions. They are trying to figure out the world around them and the only way to get answers is to ask questions. Learning how to be a successful adult learner is often about formulating lots of questions. Even if you don’t give them all voice, forming them in your mind helps you enter the world of the student.

That said, raising questions in class engages you as a student in a way that passively listening rarely will. Even if the venue is not conducive to asking questions, writing a list of questions gives you something to explore once the class is complete, creating an extended learning opportunity.

Be Willing to Fail

As adults we often forget the skill of failure. There is no reason to expect complete knowledge or perfect skills when we are first learning something new. Even so, I regularly see adult learners berate themselves when the new information or skills does not come easily or quickly.

We forget the important step of giving ourselves time and space to not only figure out what works, but as importantly what does not work. It is one of the reasons Kellie and I focus on providing multiple options: rarely is there a single answer that works for everyone. You have to give yourself permission to try various options, knowing that some may not result in success.

Try, Try Again

A strong cousin of willingness to fail is persistence. It is rare when someone is able to apply new knowledge or skills perfectly upon their first introduction. For most of us mere humans, we have to learn, practice, fall-short of the goal, and repeat multiple times until the goal is finally met.

In my knitting classes I rarely provide demos or involved samples because I don’t want my students to be disappointed when they aren’t as <fast, efficient, smooth, skilled, proficient> (you pick the word) as I am. Even though I do this for a living, many students have unrealistic expectations for themselves and can’t imagine the hours I have invested in learning, practicing, failing and repeating the process.

Open Your Mind

Ultimately all of these lead to a similar requirement of the ability to open your mind to “other” possibilities. Open mindedness manifests itself in a variety of ways. Often it is learning something new and adding to your existing toolbox. Just as importantly but much more difficult, open mindedness can be “unlearning” an old piece of knowledge.

When I teach skiing to adults who haven’t skied in a number of years they often use techniques that were appropriate at the time they first learned but may no longer be due to the improvements in equipment. Just because we knew “the answer” in one environment, doesn’t mean that it applies to this new situation. If you want to be a successful adult learner, sometimes you have to let go of the things you think you already know.

Why Learning Matters

Although I am probably preaching to the choir here (you all historically are very good learners), being an excellent learner is possibly one of the most important skills an adult can possess. Adults who have the power to learn are more likely to be able to adapt to changing environments, try new things and in my experience are much more interesting people. So the next time someone asks why you are going to that knitting class since, “you already know how to knit,” tell them you are building life skills by practicing being a student!