I have two loves: teaching and learning. Although I love them for different reasons, I’ve been passionate about both for all my career. I teach less now, but what I love about learning should keep me learning.
Learning keeps me humble. It never gets easy. You’d think after all these years it would require less effort, but it’s still a taxing endeavor, at for least me. Even the subjects I love the most and study the hardest remain difficult, defy exploration, and yield messy results. Evidence-based learning strategies do help, but I still don’t slip into understanding smoothly.
It’s particularly humbling when the learning tasks require approaches other than the ones I prefer. I don’t have the observational acuity I need to correctly identify the trees on my property. I don’t learn well by watching someone, and so I’m still not knitting easily with two hands. Does anyone enjoy being a beginner or failing at something others do with ease?
Learning humbles me because what’s been difficult to learn can be easy to forget. More than once folks have asked me for permission to reprint a piece of writing that I promptly replied was not mine, only to receive publication evidence confirming authorship. In the most memorable case, I read the piece and told myself it couldn’t possibly be mine. It was so poorly written. Humble pie—isn’t that what we call the bitter taste of forgetting what we once devoted time to learn?
Learning makes me proud. After carrying a question around for years, circling in a fog of confusion, and fumbling to fix what’s broken, to finally arrive at an answer, find a way out, and repair what isn’t working brings such a sense of accomplishment. I get it! I’ve found the way! I got it to work! I can be so damn proud of myself, so relieved, so happy to be rid of the frustration, and so glad that I didn’t fail. I even puff up when I see myself making progress. Learning reveals my potential and motivates me to master more.
If I sound overconfident, rest assured what I don’t know cuts through overconfidence like a sharp knife, takes me down to size with one or two quick slices. In The Teaching Professor’s early days, I used criteria when I should have written criterion. I still remember dialing up for my email and seeing note after note roll onto the screen. Sixty-four readers pointed out that error. But I am proud to say that’s one mistake I haven’t made since.
Learning preserves my mental health. Learning works mind muscles, often until they sweat and the head spins. Regular mental workouts build the thinking strength needed to confront more challenging learning tasks. Moreover, the mental benefits accrue even if you’re learning something esoteric. My brother studies airline schedules. Want to know whether there’s a commercial airport in Kamloops and what US carriers fly there? Chas. can tell you off the top of his head.
Learning happens better with help. And helping brings teachers great rewards. A student understands, finally gets it; the light goes on, the sun come up, the embers flame; to see it happen is almost as good as having it happen. Other times learners have trouble seeing the progress. Understanding evolves slowly. Skills develop, but never-ending practice makes what’s changed feel normal. A teacher sees from a different perspective and can offer encouragement. I love to give it. Add some tailor-made advice, and watch learning pick up speed.
Learning has no end. At this point I’ve realized that some of what I’m learning I likely won’t use at all or for very long. But I’ve also figured out that it doesn’t matter. The joy of learning resides in the process: asking the question, looking for the answer, finding more questions, fielding other answers, and discovering still more avenues to explore.
I wish I’d understood earlier that the joy in the process can be as good as the learning itself. When I was young, I worried about much I needed to know and how future success depended on acquiring that knowledge. I carried that content concern into courses, lecturing students about the importance of knowing this or that. I don’t remember talking much about the joy of learning.
I have learned a lot but still only know a little. Learning leads to more learning in an infinite cycle of discovery. The possibilities are endless, even though the time for learning eventually runs out.