Posted in Miscellaneous

Obliged to Learn

My job is not to teach.

It is to inspire learning.

And the two can be very different indeed.

-The Arbinger Institute

The book I mentioned in my last post is The Choice in Teaching and Education, published by The Arbinger Institute. It reads almost like poetry, a coherent, progressive presentation of logical ideas in very profound successive one-liners. I had to keep my highlighter in check while I read so as not to inadvertently fail to mark anything by actually marking everything. So here are a few of my favorite lines and my accompanying two cents.


“My obligation is to learn.”  

The author explains that to inspire learning in others, they must see you inspired by learning. It sounds cliché, but I honestly love learning. My mom is a vocabulary fire hydrant and frequently in our conversations I stop her to inquire about the word she just dropped. For me, learning new words is like tasting new recipes or putting new skylights into the ceiling—satisfying and refreshing. I’m trying to pick up a few new instruments this semester and it’s an adventure on the struggle bus at times, but mostly it’s exhilarating. I can do things I never could before! I know how to play Twinkle Twinkle Little Star on the violin and the bass. It’s not Mozart, but it’s more than I’ve ever been able to play on either of those instruments before.


Realizing that my love for learning is enough to sustain my potential to be a great teacher has been a very comforting epiphany for me. Of course, mastery of one’s subject is the goal, but total and complete mastery is not a prerequisite for beginning to teach. To quote The Choice again, “What I pity if what I would teach is so shallow and thin that I have been able to master the whole of it?” I like to think I have more respect for both the English language and the art of music than to think I could have either one entirely within my grasp before I graduate from life. Perhaps I’ll have a decent handle both, but with as much to discover as already has been.

“It is neither enough, nor, paradoxically, even necessary to know more than those I would teach.”

This idea takes a lot of the self-consciousness out of teaching for me. Echoing the previous thought, the idea is that we, as teachers, can and ought to be learning alongside our students. It’s ok that we aren’t omniscient. If I do know heaps more than my students, but I’ve lost my zeal for learning, then all that knowledge is about as useful to them as moldy cheese.

“Students learn best by watching others learn, not by watching others teach.”

Perhaps this is the least understood idea in all our talk about modeling and leading by example. Students will learn better watching us learn than watching us teach. Jerome Bruner, an American educational psychologist, asserted that, “any subject can be taught effectively in some intellectually honest form to any child at any stage of development.” Authentic learning will happen where there is authentic enthusiasm. With that kind of learning, the learners will be engaged and get what they need from the lesson.  

Jerome Bruner, b. 1915
Jerome Bruner, b. 1915

“The master teacher is nothing more than a master learner who has remembered the art of childhood—the art of learning in the presence of others. Or more precisely: the art of learning because of the presence of others.”

The author goes on to explain that learning happens in a conversation and since insightful conversations don’t often happen in isolation, learning is a community effort. The idea of collective, cooperative, group-centric learning is very attractive to me. I understand why competition is healthy and necessary for a vibrant society, but I prefer the win-win situations where it doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game. Call me a starry-eyed dreamer, but I like it when we all get along and make learning fun and non-threatening for each other.  

Another musing on this quote is the idea of humility.  “Every sincere question is humility expressed.” (That one is also from The Choice.) Learning with other people around requires a degree of trust and willingness to be observably imperfect. If you learn, the inherent admission is that you did not know or understand something previously. While that’s obvious, it’s still hard to come to grips with it, especially under the scrutiny of our peers, which we often perceive as judgement even when it isn’t intended as such.  


Pondering my role as a teacher primarily as that of a learner is empowering and relieving. Last semester, one of my professors wrote me an email that said in part, “You are a terrific student, Hannah. I predict that you will be a terrific teacher, too.” I keep that on a sticky note where I see it often to remind me that the first part of being a great teacher is being a great learner. Sometimes my self-doubt throws a shadow on my perception of my teacher chops, but I’m very secure in my learner status and that anchors me.

Thoughts, comments, and questions are always welcome here! After all, learning is a collaborative effort, right? Thanks for joining the conversation.



I love to write. I love to teach. I get to write about teaching. Lucky me.

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