NCI Blog

Becoming a Better Learner

Posted by Emma Henderson on 05 August 2014

Dr. Leo Casey, Director of NCI's Centre for Research and Innovation in Learning and Teaching, shares his thoughts on living and learning.

There are many good reasons why people take up college courses such as the pursuit of a new career or to improve one’s knowledge and skills. However, we often neglect to emphasise the biggest advantage of them all – we become better learners! Success at third level always involves a journey of growth so that you become more mindful, positive and self-directed in your own learning.

Put simply, our highly developed ability to learn is the single most important characteristic of what it means to be human. Sure, we all need good health and good fortune but it is through our ability to learn that we make the most of all the gifts of our existence. The extent to which we learn largely determines the effectiveness of all that we do; it influences the quality of our lives and our contributions to the well-being of others. Our lifelong journey is marked by a constant quest for improvement. Throughout our lives we learn to ‘be’ better.

There is a big premium for improving your ability to learn. Put simply, better learners achieve more and live life to its fullest extent. Better learning is not the same as intelligence or even being clever or smart. Everyone can improve their learning and the rewards are immediate and sustainable. The point you are at now does not matter; you may wish to improve your formal qualifications, enhance your job prospects, learn a language, improve your skills or just pursue an interest that you have; regardless, you will benefit from becoming a better learner.

There is no one single process that defines learning. We use the same word for a collection of processes and we still do not entirely understand all that happens when we learn. However, there is much that we know and can usefully apply. Many of these insights emerged in recent years while others are found classical writings and philosophy. Often these insights challenge and sit uneasily with our traditional expectations of schools or colleges.

Growing your mind through better learning does not mean adding extra bits of information to make you more knowledgeable. It doesn’t work like that. It’s more useful to think about the way a plant grows. It grows all the way through itself and eventually it transforms to become a flower. Better learning is a transformational process that involves literally changing the structures in your brain and thereby the way you think, process information and manage the assumptions you draw upon in your daily life.

Everyone can benefit from learning about learning. For parents the big task is educating children. For students it’s being successful in college. For adults returning-to-learning it’s managing this transition. For people at work the challenge may be to acquire new skills or learn how to manage others. It’s never too late to learn and we do not always need to have a specific purpose for learning; we can do it all our lives and enjoy the pleasures of skills and knowledge.

There is a saying often attributed to Ghandi that you should ‘live everyday as if it were the last day of your life and you should learn everyday as if you will live forever’. Learning and living are intertwined and as we experience each moment of our life we are learning for the future.

It is possible for learning to be enjoyable and fulfilling for everyone. Yes it does require effort and we often need to defer satisfaction for the future. However, we are all lifelong learners and perhaps the greatest gift you can give to your future-self is the knowledge and skills that you are capable of.

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