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The Will to Learn: Have You Got It?

Athlete Doing Push-Up

“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. What has really struck me during the past year, however, 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 say this in response to the Big Question for December posed by Tony Karrer on the Learning Circuits blog: What did you learn about learning in 2007? I can’t say I have not considered and valued the role of the individual will in learning prior to the past year, but certain events in 2007 caused me to grasp its importance at a deeper level than ever before.

You’re Born With It

To start with, 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. Cy is now nine months old, and it is amazing to see the native, internal drive he has for learning about the world around him. Nobody is telling him to try things (usually with his mouth), or to repeat the same actions again over and over. To the extent they are, he doesn’t really understand them at this point anyway. It is his own will that is driving him to learn.

And You Can Always Revive It

Toward the other end of the spectrum, my sister graduated from college this year, 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 is clear from watching her over the past few years 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.

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, and eventually, my son. 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 to learn, 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 2008 and beyond.

– Jeff

About the Author Jeff Cobb

I am an avid lifelong learner who writes and speaks frequently on the critical role of learning in our fast-changing world.

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1 comment
Meke says

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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