Become a great learner by embracing these seven habits of mind.

What are the attributes and habits of “great” learners? What do their learning lives look like, and what beliefs do they hold about themselves that they might share with the rest of us? How can learners build personal, individual resilience when they’re in academic programs that sometimes seem intent on focusing on their failures, highlighting what they’re not good at, or making judgments based on previous unsuccessful performances? What if no interventions are available to them or the available interventions are ineffective or off the mark?

For 10 years, I’ve been listening to people tell their learning stories, and my latest book describes how the institution of school can sometimes hamper our deepest and most profound desires to learn. Virtuoso learning is a lifelong fascination of mine, not so much because I’m interested in high performance as it’s conventionally defined, but because the learning attributes of extremely engaged, muscular, entrepreneurial learners have seeds of wisdom, based in practical experience and a lot of road miles, that would be helpful for everyone.

In my research over the past decade, documenting the learning biographies of hundreds of people ages 11 to 67, I’ve learned first and perhaps most importantly, that many great learners — research scientists, national-level marketing directors, social media entrepreneurs, writers, professors, community activists — were not necessarily conventionally successful in school. Many impassioned, creative learners said school actually hampered their desire to learn and that they did a lot of their really animated learning far from school grounds and away from the probing eyes of teachers.

As one said, “I might be reading about astrophysics online at home, but forget to turn in my science homework and fail the course.” This is heartening to many of my struggling students. I often tell them that some of the best learners I know were complete screwups in high school.

In the face of setback after setback, how did these great learners keep going in school? In the 1980s and early ’90s, we used to believe that resilience for learners was only for the lucky few, that it was some kind of intangible magic that couldn’t really be defined, and that it was fixed and inborn.

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