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How to Be a Perpetual Student

Three back-to-school tips for students of every age.

Key points

  • Human beings crave stability and novelty, but variety keeps us intrigued, asking, and interested in more.
  • To be a perpetual student, one must ask more how and why questions and cultivate and embrace various skills and experiences.
  • Draw on skills and experience from various sources to create impact and innovation.

It's that time again. The one so many students dread. Maybe we all feel as if we have to sit quietly in our seats, pay attention no matter what's being presented, get back to work, and put away the fun-filled days of summer to do what we're supposed to do: check our creativity at the door.

It doesn't have to be this way. Here are three tips to keep you excited about being a perpetual student, whether you're in school or not.

1. Keep Asking Questions. Children start out curious about everything. They ask questions to learn how and why things and people work the way they do and what new ways you can imagine them otherwise.

In The Hungry Mind, psychologist Susan Engel sheds light on how curiosity and creativity both develop and diminish. In a study of three- and four-year-olds, Tizard and Hughes (1984) found that children asked an average of 26 questions per hour at home with their mothers, 60 percent of which were aimed at learning something new.

But something shifts at school. Those same children asked only two questions per hour in the place where education is supposed to thrive. Lindfors (1987) found that less than a third of kindergarteners' questions were expressions of curiosity. Engel's research confirmed this. She found 2.36 episodes of curiosity in a two-hour period for kindergarteners and only 0.48 in a classroom of fifth-graders.

The other day, I learned that all the mosquitoes that bite us are females, all chirping crickets are males, a Wurlitzer electric piano has hammers just like a real piano, and the Great Red Spot on Jupiter is a storm system larger than Earth. All of this came from engaging the why and how questions we should never stop asking and answering.

To be a perpetual student, we must continually ask these questions as foolish and naive as they might first appear. While we think they will take us off track, they lead to new vistas of understanding, engagement, joy, and motivation to learn more.

The intrinsic motivation, delight, and divergent thinking are what being a student is all about, and we must actively cultivate and embrace them long after kindergarten.

2. Play the Long Game. We are falsely sold the idea that in order to be proficient students, we need to start gaining expertise straight out of the womb; think Tiger Woods learning how to sink 20-foot putts at age three (Epstein, 2019). The truth is it's just as important to cultivate what David Epstein refers to as range, the capacity to draw on skills and experience from various sources to create impact and innovation.

Roger Federer dabbled in soccer and squash before setting his fullest sights on mastering tennis (and you've seen his squash-inspired tennis saves, haven't you?), Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann, and Glenn Gould recommended organ practice to improve their piano performance and composition (Langer, 1997). Ronald Reagan drew on his experience as an actor and president of the Screen Actor's Guild, which surprisingly honed the diplomacy and communication skills needed to end the Cold War.

So many of us, in school and out, presume that experience in one domain or subject has no bearing or relevance to another. But we don't know the full story and how this might help us now or later in our lives. Haven't you looked back and seen how that unexpected side gig in retail, that sports or arts experience, or some other seemingly far-flung stint helped you know in ways you didn't realize?

I've met laboratory chemists who have parlayed their bartending experience to cultivate the emotional intelligence to be outstanding managers and actors who have used their background experience in customer service to polish their dialect skills. Playing the long game allows us to see that collecting a variety of experiences is actually more useful and intriguing for a lifelong connection to being a 'good' student. Don't worry so much about being good. Get excited about the kinds of questions and experiences that allow you to go beyond the good.

3. Mix It Up. Variety isn't just the spice of life, it's the central facet of being a true student. Langer suggests mistakenly presenting data with the wrong labels to have your students work through alternative ways of understanding things. In the classic conformity experiment by Stanley Milgram, she tells student that 35 percent of subjects shocked confederates to the maximum of 450 volts instead of the true 65 percent.

Students often come away from their first attempts at fitting the data with even more intriguing hypotheses, such as people are much more individualistic in America and would never do that, most people these days are much more skeptical and even cynical of authority, or nobody would ever hurt somebody for a silly laboratory memory task.

When pianists practice musical passages, instead of playing every note perfectly, they are better encouraged to play it every wrong way as well. All staccato, all legato, a morse code of alternative articulations, and everything in between so that they will have complete fluidity and possibility with how they are to express it. Similarly, writers are encouraged to try a variety of ways of framing their stories–using different points of view, chronological versus flashback, or even going back between poetry and prose to keep their writing limber.

Imagine how much more interesting and productive your learning and practice would be if you entertained it with such variety. Going back to school and being a student doesn't have to be a drudgery or a mind-numbing obligation; instead it can be a mindful process.

Ellen Langer calls it mindful creativity because we learn to be alert to newness's ever-changing and infinite possibilities. As human beings, we crave stability and novelty, but variety keeps us intrigued and asking and interested in more.

As you get back to school this year–or even if you don't–try on these three tips for size and see if you find that being a student again isn't all half bad. This new way of approaching it might just be the most fun you've ever had.

References

Engel, S. (2015). The hungry mind: The origins of curiosity in childhood. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Engel, S. (2021). The intellectual lives of children. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Epstein, D. (2019). Range: Why generalists triumph in a specialized world. New York: Riverhead.

Langer, E. J. (1997). The power of mindful learning. Cambridge, MA: Perseus

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