Girl with toy airplane watching real plan for will to learn concept

The Will to Learn: Have You Got It?

“Repetition is the mother of learning” was a phrase often repeated back in my days of learning and teaching Russian. I believe it is true, particularly for learning a language. It is also true that immersion or other forms of learning-by-doing are much more effective than rote learning from a textbook (or rote repetition for that matter).

What has really struck me in recent years, though, is how fundamentally important an individual’s will is to true learning.

Neither repetition nor doing culminate in learning if the will to learn is not present.

I may be describing the same thing that typically goes under the heading of “motivation,” by I like will because I feel like it aligns with learning as sort of life force – one about which I’ll make the following three observations:

You’re Born With It

This became crystal clear to me when my wife and I had our first child. I’m old enough at this point to have seen quite a few babies arrive in the world and grow up, but I’ve never been this close to the process before. It was amazing to see the native, internal drive our son – and later, our daughter – had for learning about the world around him.

Nobody told our kids to try things (often with their mouths), or to repeat the same actions again over and over. To the extent they did, it’s unlikely they had a particular goal or outcome in mind.  Learning itself was the outcome, and it was their own will to learn that drove them.

It’s been long enough now that I’ve been able to see my kids grow and change. The way in which they approach the world and learning has, of course, changed, but the will still seems to be there. That’s not true of everyone, of course. Our will can, and often does, wane substantially over time, but that leads to my next observation …

You Can Always Revive It

Toward the other end of the spectrum, my sister graduated from college some 20 years after she took her first college class. In the intervening time, she built a good career for herself. Many, if not most people in her position would not have bothered to go back to complete a degree. But my sister wanted it, and it was clear from watching her go through the process that “it” meant much more than a set of credentials. Her will to learn was strong. She got her credentials, but more importantly, she learned a great deal and was transformed in the process.

Just to be crystal clear, this wasn’t about education per se – we tend to confuse education and learning – a formal degree program was just the backdrop again which the will to learn played out. That’s often the case for a slice of our lives, but even during those periods, it’s really learning, more than education, that produces life’s big rewards.

But, Beware…

I think the biggest challenge faced by institutional learning programs—corporate, governmental, or academic; internally or externally-facing—is that of somehow connecting with the will of individual learners like my sister, my son, and daughter. I can already see them faltering with my kids at this point.

I also think that institutions have dramatically less control over meeting this challenge than has been assumed (or at least desired) traditionally. Attempts at imposing control have a tendency to sap the individual’s will, resulting in rote rather than real learning.

The good news, of course, is that a whole array of new tools have arrived that have the potential to put much more control back in the hands of individual learner. We are at the dawn of an age in which the will to learn has the potential to assert itself in new and powerful ways. I look forward to seeing how things continue to develop in the years and decades ahead.

– Jeff

1 thought on “The Will to Learn: Have You Got It?”

  1. Great blog entry. I appreciate your delving deeper into the learning process, and pull from examples in your life.

    It’s easy for me to not apply what is learned in the classroom to real world scenarios depending on the class, and I would say that I fall into that trap. The typical learning process I take tends to be repetition. But as you mentioned at the beginning, simple repetition is just not enough. The inner will is vital to learning retention.

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