Anyone can learn anything


One of the reasons I started this blog was that a lot of my friends are reaching a stage in their lives where their families are entering my workplace. A recent conversation with some of these friends makes me feel there is probably value in posting some of my basic teaching and learning principles. Here’s one that has proved to be valuable to me over the years and I offer it now as food for thought.

It has been more years than I care to remember since I completed my Diploma of Education but I do remember one question being posed by my tutor to the class.“Can anyone learn anything?” Having chalked it up on the blackboard (told you it was a long time ago) she sat down and waited for us to debate the idea. Initially there was no debate. Not because we were, shy it was just that everyone seemed to be in complete agreement. ‘No’. The idea is absurd. So for the sake of passing the hour immersed in a good argument I decided to argue ‘yes’. Just to be contradictory.

I know…me…who’d have thought it right?

By the end of the lesson even I remained a little doubtful about my stance but we had predictably been given the topic as an open project and I was committed to it now so I went off to try and prove it. As it turns out this is something I never stopped doing. The idea has become the underlying principle of my professional career.

Can anyone learn anything? The simple answer is ‘yes’, absolutely, it’s just a matter of degree. Of course nothing in life is ever simple so I’ll elaborate. Here’s the basic argument I laid out all those years ago with some quite recent examples to substantiate the point.

Each of us is born into this world with nothing more than base human instinct. Yet, in the space of say three years, we are all able to stand, walk, communicate and manipulate (although I bet none of you did that last one as well as my little girl does now and she’s only 2). We crave knowledge and annoy the heck out of anyone who’ll listen (again, I refer you to my little girl as exhibit A). We are fascinated by colours, shapes, music, dance, games, numbers, words and basically everything.

For mine, the beginning of life is not a question of ‘can anyone learn anything?’, it’s ‘does everyone learn everything?’ and the answer to that is quite demonstrably yes.

Now I don’t want to be silly about this because as we all grow up this extraordinary level of learning diminishes quickly. So what changes?

My theory (lacking as it does any statistical research and peer review scrutiny) is that we progressively lose the thrill of learning new things and with it the motivation to persist. For example my two year old takes enormous delight in putting her clothes in a box and then telling us all about it whereas my 10 year old leaves his clothes lying everywhere and has an increasingly alarming tendency to grunt. I’m pretty sure that’s common.

We also learn to fear failure and inferiority and prefer to withdraw. Last week a six year old visitor to our house demanded his dad and I watch him shoot hoops. He struggled to reach the ring and sunk about 1 in 10 shots but he reveled in the attention. That is NOT happening in 10 years time. When that boy is 16 he will either shoot for 80% or he’s not playing B-ball (and he certainly isn’t asking his dad and I to watch).

So basically little kids love to learn but don’t stay little for long. As kids get older the things they are asked to learn get harder and more laborious. They feel less motivated and fear a loss of status if (or probably when) others are better than them. Some will prefer not to compete rather than risk that.

For some students this mindset is toxic. If it dominates a student’s thinking they might end up like my tutorial group; doing nothing for 5 minutes and dreading the 55 minutes coming up. Trapped and bored. Disaffected. At this point I’m treading quite close to behaviour management theory but that’s a post for another day.

Suffice it to say for now that I feel very sure that most people (adults included) find learning some things quite hard and consider their achievements mediocre or possibly meaningless. It is at this point I think we dismiss the whole exercise as a bad experience and convince ourselves that we can’t do it. When adults do this they usually have an ability to walk away from the experience. Students however, may find they have less manouverability.

But that might be a blessing in disguise. I really think education policies world wide are getting better at addressing the sense some students have that they are wasting their time in class. All over the world education systems are determined to cut drop out rates to less than 10% (no ones there yet by the way) by attempting to set curriculum that is stimulating, promote teaching methods that maximize individual learning skill sets and provide educational pathways that allow the . I think the greatest lesson anyone can teach them is that they will get there in time so long as they persist. That, and the fact that learning is not about being better then everyone else but to being competent.

Anyone can learn anything. Yes. It’s a principle that needs to be worked at to maintain its integrity but the alternative is pretty boring.

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2 thoughts on “Anyone can learn anything

  1. I just could’t resist again in commenting. Sometime this year I was left speechless when a colleague made this comment of a year 7 girl in her maths class: “I told her mother that I had taught it 3 times and if she didn’t get it it was her fault. I’m not re-teaching it.” If we as teachers operate on this premise, every child is doomed to not learning and being totally disengaged. The examples of the 2 and 10 year olds are perfect. They thrive when there is someone there quietly challenging and watching, guiding. If teachers don’t have as a basic philosophy “every child can learn, and I am here to guide that process” then what are we there for? And yes they can learn anything!

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