Learn. Happy father and daughter learning from each other.

The Perpetual Student—Developing a Lifelong Culture of Learning

Learn everything you can, anytime you can, from anyone you can.

~Sarah Caldwell

You can’t teach an old dog new tricks. Hmm . . . How unfortunate for the dog.

This adage implies that as we become older, we become more set in our ways. We become less inclined to learn new things. And we become less likely to put ourselves in the position of being the “student.”

Is it because we know more than most people? Is it because we’re afraid of things we might not be able to understand?

Or is it because maybe we’re just a little bit arrogant? We think because we’re older that we’re wiser.

It is true that as people get older, they pick up life experiences and learn a lot about many things. But it is also true that there will always be things that we can learn, even about those things we know very well.

Learning as an expert

Have you ever been in a situation where you feel like you know more than your teacher? This could be a college professor, a music instructor, a coach—any teacher. Each of us eventually gets to the point at which we may know more about a certain topic than a teacher, or we may question what is being taught.

When my son started taking guitar lessons, I was so impressed with his teacher that I started lessons too. I was very excited to learn something new or expand my technique. But then I found myself periodically questioning what he was teaching me or disagreeing with him. I’ve been playing guitar since 1974, and I was thinking things like, “You don’t have to show me that. I know that!” But then I thought, why limit what he is teaching me? I should listen to everything he says and everything he shows me. He will almost certainly give me something I haven’t considered—even on things I already “know.” As it turns out, he has a lot to teach me. It has turned into a very rewarding experience, and I have learned way more than I would have had I stuck to my original attitude.

Our life experiences provide both knowledge and wisdom and make us more discerning about new information. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it may lead to a closed mind or a struggle to learn about things that conflict with what we already know.

When we are young, everything is new to us. Progressing through school, we are sponges, soaking up new information and skills to store in our own mental encyclopedias. But we are also learning how to learn, and that evolution eventually brings us to a point at which we not only take on new information but assess it for relevance to our lives and consistency with our values.

Learning based on critical thinking

Thinking critically about new information has several benefits. It teaches us a pattern of thinking with which we don’t blindly acquire information (i.e., believe everything that we hear) but think about it in the context of what we already know, of our world view, and if it matters to us in our path through life.

Critical thinking doesn’t, however, have to make us cynical or negative. We don’t want to go to either extreme of gullibility or knee-jerk suspicion. But even as we get to the point at which we are both comfortable in our knowledge of certain topics and confident in our ability discern what is important, it is necessary to realize that there is potential to learn from any teacher.

Even if you already know, or disagree with, what is being taught, it does not mean you can’t learn something. All of us think differently. Someone teaching you a topic, even one about which you are knowledgeable, will put a slightly different twist on it. There will be nuances that you may not have considered.

A teacher with whom you disagree might provide a better insight into your own opinion. It may serve to strengthen your opinion, or it may result in you questioning your opinion (see Knowing). If you keep an open mind, there is something to be gained from any teacher.

Armed with an open mind, anyone we come across can be a teacher, and all of our interactions can be opportunities to enrich our lives.

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