4 Essential Attitudes for Successful Lifelong Learners

A guest post by John Dewey

Image of book Democracy and Education

In this “guest post” from famous philosopher and educator John Dewey (lifted from his Democracy and Education) the importance of learning attitude shines through.


Some attitudes may be named…which are central in effective intellectual ways of dealing with subject matter. Among the most important are directness, open-mindedness, single-mindedness (or whole-heartedness), and responsibility.


Confidence is a good name for what is intended by the term directness. Confidence is not a name for what one thinks or feels about his attitude; it is not reflex. It denotes the straightforwardness with which one goes at what he has to do.

Whatever methods of a teacher call a pupil’s attention off from what he has to do and transfer it to his own attitude towards what he is doing impair directness of concern and action. Persisted in, the pupil acquires a permanent tendency to fumble, to gaze about aimlessly, to look for some clew of action beside that which the subject matter supplies.

Dependence upon extraneous suggestions and directions, a state of foggy confusion, take the place of that sureness with which children (and grown-up people who have not been sophisticated by “education”) confront the situations of life.


[A]n attitude of mind which actively welcomes suggestions and relevant information from all sides. Openness of mind means accessibility of mind to any and every consideration that will throw light upon the situation that needs to be cleared up, and that will help determine the consequences of acting this way or that.

[I]ntellectual growth means constant expansion of horizons and consequent formation of new purposes and new responses. These are impossible without an active disposition to welcome points of view hitherto alien; an active desire to entertain considerations which modify existing purposes. Retention of capacity to grow is the reward of such intellectual hospitality.

The worst thing about stubbornness of mind, about prejudices, is that they arrest development; they shut the mind off from new stimuli. Open-mindedness means retention of the childlike attitude; closed-mindedness means premature intellectual old age.

Exorbitant desire for uniformity of procedure and for prompt external results are the chief foes which the open-minded attitude meets in school. The teacher who does not permit and encourage diversity of operation in dealing with questions is imposing intellectual blinders upon pupils — restricting their vision to the one path the teacher’s mind happens to approve.

Were all instructors to realize that the quality of mental process, not the production of correct answers, is the measure of educative growth something hardly less than a revolution in teaching would be worked.


[W]hat the word is here intended to convey is completeness of interest, unity of purpose; the absence of suppressed but effectual ulterior aims for which the professed aim is but a mask. It is equivalent to mental integrity. Absorption, engrossment, full concern with subject matter for its own sake, nurture it. Divided interest and evasion destroy it.

Social instincts, the strong desire to please others and get their approval, social training, the general sense of duty and of authority, apprehension of penalty, all lead to a half-hearted effort to conform, to “pay attention to the lesson,” or whatever the requirement is. Amiable individuals want to do what they are expected to do.

One has only to recall his own experiences in school or at the present time when outwardly employed in actions which do not engage one’s desires and purposes, to realize how prevalent is this attitude of divided attention — double-mindedness. We are so used to it that we take it for granted that a considerable amount of it is necessary. It may be; if so, it is the more important to face its bad intellectual effects.


By responsibility as an element in intellectual attitude is meant the disposition to consider in advance the probable consequences of any projected step and deliberately to accept them: to accept them in the sense of taking them into account, acknowledging them in action, not yielding a mere verbal assent.

It is only too easy to think that one accepts a statement or believes a suggested truth when one has not considered its implications; when one has made but a cursory and superficial survey of what further things one is committed to by acceptance. Observation and recognition, belief and assent, then become names for lazy acquiescence in what is externally presented.

It would be much better to have fewer facts and truths in instruction — that is, fewer things supposedly accepted, — if a smaller number of situations could be intellectually worked out to the point where conviction meant something real — some identification of the self with the type of conduct demanded by facts and foresight of results.

The most permanent bad results of undue complication of school subjects and congestion of school studies and lessons are not the worry, nervous strain, and superficial acquaintance that follow (serious as these are), but the failure to make clear what is involved in really knowing and believing a thing.


John Dewey was one of the great philosophers of the last century, and regardless of whether you have ever read a word he wrote, you have almost certainly been impacted in one way or another by his thinking about education.  The above post was assembled from passages extracted from Chapter 13 of Dewey’s Democracy and Education.

Democracy and Education is available in its entirety through Wikisource. I think it is a book that should be read by anyone who takes their role as a citizen in a democracy seriously – not just those who work in the field of education. Depending on your background and reading habits, you may find it somewhat tough going, but Dewey is much easier to read than many philosophers, and you will be rewarded for your efforts many times over. In any event, it is worth reflecting on the advice here and considering your own learning attitude.

As always, I welcome you thoughts.


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1 thought on “4 Essential Attitudes for Successful Lifelong Learners”

  1. I think this is a great post, provoking awareness of the attitudes of a successful learner.

    I think it is really worthwhile recognising the value of being an effective learner and trying to understand how we develop as learners. I recently watched this video, about effective lifelong learning https://www.youtube.com/watch?gl=GB&v=Y1sucsPNnp8 which seems to offer a different perspective on attitudes and attributes with some common ground(i.e. open-mindedness = critical curiosity?)

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