What do good learners believe? What do good learners do?


March 2, 2011 by Willy Cardoso

Following up my last post’s invitation and a dialogic nature of professional development previously discussed here. I’d like to offer another simple idea for teacher training and development.

Make a list of and debate:

  • What good learners believe.
  • What good learners do.

And since David mentioned the fantastic Postman and Weingartner on the same last post. I’ll copy down here what they think about it. Their sagacity seems to trigger very provocative conversations about teaching and learning, always good to have around to jazz up some teacher talk.

Good learners:

have confidence in their ability to learn.

tend to enjoy solving problems.

seem to know what is relevant to their survival and what is not.

prefer to rely on their own judgement. (this is especially interesting, let me quote more: they recognize, as they get older, that an incredible number of people do not know what they are talking about most of the time)

are usually not fearful of being wrong. They can change their minds, in fact, that is what they are most interested in doing.

are emphatically not fast answerers.

are flexible. They understand that answers are relative.

know how to ask meaningful questions.

do not need to have an absolute final, irrevocable resolution to every problem. The sentence, ‘I don’t know’, does not depress them, and they certainly prefer it to the various forms of semantic nonsense that pass for answers. (Teaching as a Subversive Activity, 1969 pp. 41-42)

I don’t know about you, but it seems to me that being a good learner is the first step to become a good teacher. Therefore, teacher training should focus more on learning than it generally does on teaching. Before engaging in teacher training one should engage in learner training. A teacher to be accredited as a qualified teacher (if you think such a thing is important), should also be accredited as a qualified learner. How do you do that? Well, I don’t know. But I don’t know either how can one qualify someone else to teach. It also seems to me that good learners don’t need even need teachers, so why bother?

Anyway, what makes you a good learner?



11 thoughts on “What do good learners believe? What do good learners do?

  1. David Warr says:

    Hi Willy, a very good point about learning when learning how to teach. I never did the CELTA, although I did the DELTA some time after, and I never had the foreign language lesson that CELTA trainees do. Personally, I think much more time could be devoted to this than just one or two example lessons.
    Good learners don’t need a teacher, but I believe a teacher can speed up the process, just by being able to supply answers on demand.
    What type of learners do you like teaching? Ones who don’t need you, but put up with your presence? 😉

    • Hi David, good learners might need teachers too, but I don’t think it is because teachers can supply answers on demana, in fact, I don’t think they can, I don’t even put that ability in my own list of what good teachers do, but anyway, on demand answers nowadays are more easily found on Google than on teachers for sure. There are more important things than answer supply that make anyone need teachers, don’t you think?

      If I feel a student doesn’t need me, there are two things I can do, the first is to rethink my teaching in the light of that person’s needs once I am told what it is s/he needs. The other is to let go, if I can stop teaching this person somehow, I will, if not I’ll let her/him use the time alloted with me to mind his/her business and do whatever. And just for the record, I like to teach “bad” students!

      Thanks for dropping by once again!

  2. Silvana Richardson says:

    Asking what a good learner does is a fascinating question. However, it is a question fraught with difficulties.
    One problem has to do with the meaning of ‘good.’ In other words, what is ‘good’ in ‘a good learner’? And why is ‘good’ good? Why settle for good, and not expert or outstanding? And who says so? A lot of ‘definitions’ of what a good learner believes and does seem to have been written by teachers, and it seems to me that quite often they seem to coincide with how they think they learn. If we asked learners the same question, would they answer in the same way?
    When I read many such definitions, (like ‘good learners are problem-solvers’, etc) they usually strike me as Western European, or western-centric notions, and it worries me that at times the people who have these discussions and come up with these definitions are not aware of their own bias.
    Another (related issue) is that in these discussions people seem to be trying to define a ‘universal good learner’ overlooking the fact that learning is socially situated.
    Yet another concern is how these learner ‘competencies’ can be used. Some teachers may think that if good learners do X, then in order for my learners to be good learners, then they need to adopt X behaviour. And this is how a lot of learner training fails spectacularly – when it imposes other-defined criteria of what good learning is without considering whether it is appropriate or even desirable for the learners in question.

    • David Warr says:

      Very interesting Silvana. Would you say there are universal traits of “good” human learning, regardless of culture (which is dynamic anyway). How close do you think Western thinking is to other thinking? Personally, when I read blogs like Tao Te(a)ching, it seems that this approach is not different from modern, enlightened Western thinking. I’d be interested in hearing your views.

    • Hi Silvana, generally speaking, I agree with you. If there are x people on Earth, there are x notions of ‘good’, granted. But that doesn’t make it irrelevant. Otherwise nothing would be worth talking about.
      What I would like to highlight is that the nature of this post and the previous one is exactly to avoid standardized notions of anything related to teaching and learning, notice that when I suggest those two questions I don’t ask what the right answer is, but what is ‘your answer’.
      The list I provided is not true, if only for its authors. The reason it’s there is because it’s provocative in my opinion.

      It is interesting that you mention bias, though I cannot know how this is exclusively a western thing. Everyone has biases, the canadian and the nepalese and being aware of your bias doesn’t make it disappear. Aren’t you being biased yourself when you say this or that is western-centric?

      One thing that really made me rethink the post is that it would be better to tell teachers to discuss ‘the good learner’ with, well, the learners … obviously. Thanks!!! 🙂

  3. Crazy Kites says:

    I’m most of the things you describe above. What I find was that I always questioned above and beyond the rules, like “What if this..?” or “What if that..?” I sometimes would get answers “wrong” for merely interpreting something one way when the correct answer was the other interpretation. That used to annoy me. And I have always been very slow in a careful sense. I took up all the time in exams (except for some 4-hour exams in France that I simply had to leave after 3 hours so as not to go mad). I liked rules for grammar as they really did help, but I understood that there were things that these rules could not solve, and I sometimes found exam questions enjoyable as they were like puzzles. I can’t remember lists of facts or words to save my life, but rules have aided my “survival” where discrete vocab items have not, since I could always just use a dictionary if I really needed it. I did ask meaningful questions. My secondary school used to say that intelligent pupils could ask as well as answer questions.

    I think a good learner is someone who is keen and wants to be there. I hope my learners want to be there, and I am transparent with them and tell them I’m learning this and is there anything they’d really like? I just end up being too honest sometimes. I’d settle for a student who’d just let me speak when I need to give an instruction. Anyway, we should try our best with what we have rather than the students we would have in an ideal classroom. We are educating people, so I’d like to find a way that makes them tick and exploit that.

    • You’re right. Is there such a thing as an ideal classroom? I mean, in real life? What can you do if your students don’t want to be there?

      I also loved grammar rules, and spent considerable teaching time explaining them, till realized my lessons could be less artificial and more real in terms of language deconstruction and analysis, it turns out I’m now more interested in discovering what is between the lines than what is between the words.

  4. crazykites says:

    It’s always tempting to let them know exactly what you know, isn’t it? But although I know, I get all tongue-tied explaining. Sometimes knowledge just doesn’t have any words, does it? And so maybe guided analysis and discovery is best (although the guided disc type questions seem very leading and artificial. I’d love to see it done a more “real” way. I’m still v celta-minded like Callie but I’ve experimented a lot and watch it go wrong. One day I hope for something to click! I need to do some on-line observations (but not the artificial kind which is more of an advertisement than an aid).

  5. Silvana Richardson says:

    Interestingly, a few teacher trainers I know (well-known EFL authors) have often said to me that being a BAD learner made them good teachers, as it gave them a special kind of empathy with the plight of the learner who struggles…

    In answer to points made previously about my previous post, I’m not saying that asking ourselves what a good learner is is not worth asking. I was merely pointing out how complex the question is, and how difficult to answer it is. I’ve been teaching for 24 years, and I’ve been a teacher trainer for 16, and the more experienced I am, the less I know the answer to anything, and the more I am aware of how problematic questions like these are.

    Am I biased? Of course I am biased! It’s part of the human condition. But what I was trying to say was that we need to be aware of our own socio-cultural/educational programming, and I personally feel that lots of teachers who are not aware of theirs, and I think the first step in trying to answer a question like this is to ask myself where my answer comes from, and which ‘voices’ from my past and present contexts inform my answer.

    Is there a universal good learner? No idea! A good learner for an overworked underpaid secondary school teacher in large class in a country where there is an oppressive regime might be a passive, obedient kid who reproduces what he heard and doesn’t question the status quo. And yet for the teacher next door, in the same school, a good learner might be a kid who thinks critically, because he or she values critical thinking…

    This may sound quite cynical, but sometimes I have the feeling that quite a few teachers actually think that a good learner is really the one that allows them to do their job without a fuss – who learn what they teach and how they teach it. And the not-so-good learners are the ones who don’t learn what their teachers teach, and embrace their resistance to learning, or don’t learn in the way their teachers teach, and hence they’re ‘hard work’. I’m currently much more interested in the learners who struggle to learn. They give me so much more food for thought, they question my practices, my beliefs, what I know about teaching and learning, and they come to teach me.

  6. Willy,

    Yes, the future of teaching is learning! I posted this on twitter awhile ago – A Profile of a Successful learner. Interesting breakdown/thoughts. http://bit.ly/dWNtlh

    A few comments if I may.

    1. I think it the objective of all teachers to “get out of the way”. Meaning, if they are truly effective, they are creating autonomous and independent, self directed learners. The question we are arguing about is HOW. Teachers should always be trying to put themselves out of a job.

    2. I agree with Silvana’s mention about “sympathy”. I think that teachers focus way to much time and energy on capable learners in class. We should be there for those who need us most. Spend our energies there. the great students will learn despite the teacher’s interventions….. This philosophy is why I am committed to public education.

    3. I think we have to do a rethink about the whole idea of a “successful learner”. I think everyone is a successful learner. Let’s define success here. Learning is something we all do – so I think it isn’t the case of some students learning and others not. It is the case of some students learning what the teacher / book / curriculum wants and others learning other things. It is about authority. We all know so many students who’d we say are “successful” learners but really, are they? Or is there success more about understanding what the teacher wants?

    4. I’m always amazed by the “blind” studies that show emphatically that if a teacher thinks their students are smart (ie. successful learners), the students will get high marks all around. I”ll leave this thought out there…..

    But kudos to your post. We need more thought about this notions of “success” and “learning”.


  7. […] Carduso points out in his blog What do Good Learners Believe? What Do Good Learners Do? that to be teachers, we have to first be learners.  What do WE look like when we are learning?  […]

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