How To Be a Learner

I recently was starting to help some people who have migrated to Boston with their language. I always begin telling them about my own mistakes in learning another language. Then, I start to tell them about knots.

What are knots? Knots are the leftover after you have a confusing experience. You hear something announced on the train and you couldn’t quite understand a word that was said. Now, you have a knot. You order food at a restaurant and the person says, “fahearadago”, and you have no idea that they’re saying, “For here or to go?” in a Boston accent. You have another knot inside. You had tried to ask someone, “Where is the beach?” and they gave you a strange look and laughed. You didn’t know you actually said, “Where is the (bad word)?” You have another knot.

Those are knots, and so I try to explain to people who are learning English, that this classroom is a place to bring their knots, and we will untie them. Knots happen because your language class isn’t inside this classroom with me. Your class is the whole culture around you, and you have a Teacher. My role in the classroom is to help you to find ways to participate in that real class that is all around the culture, let it teach you, and how to get your knots untied and take advantage of your growing edge. So you can do it yourself.

My job isn’t to teach you English. It’s to teach you how to be a language learner.

I get a lot of puzzled looks. It takes a while, sometimes many weeks, for a person to start to understand that. See, we don’t teach learning in our societies, including in the church. Instead, we teach subjects. There’s a difference. And so, because we are not taught to be learners, we are completely dependent on someone else to teach us, even as adults. People are dependent on classes and degrees from institutions, who enjoy the dependency, because it means they are constantly in demand and so can charge a lot of money and always have a job. But then heavy expectations are placed on teachers and education programs as if they themselves can actually transmit the subject into others, and so now we have stressed out schools and standardized programs and tests. That is the picture of ESL programs. But life isn’t that way. The real goal of education that frees and lifts up is to make learners.

You may have heard of the Montessori schools. One of the basics behind their pedagogy is that the teacher doesn’t teach and instruct like you normally think of a schoolteacher. The classroom teacher gives the kickoff explanation and basis to the lessons. But what they do is they setup a hands-on environment all around the students with resources geared toward learning the lesson – and then they just let the kids discover. The teachers are available to help kids untie their knots when they can’t do it all by themselves – so that eventually they *can* do it themselves. What they are doing is more than teaching kids subjects. They are teaching kids to be learners.

In his Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius of Loyola’s has a very important instruction for any spiritual guide who is accompanying a person trying to understand God’s voice. He says, stay out of the way. You are not the teacher. You are there to help the person make sense of God’s voice in their life, teaching them how to untie the knots they don’t understand. You are there not to teach them about God, or the Catholic Faith, or the Bible, or how to live or what to do with life, or any of that. Everyone has one Teacher to learn the language of God, and the circumstances of life are the class. You are there to teach them how to be a learner.

When Jesus sends out his disciples at the end of Matthew’s Gospel, he has an instruction: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations.” (Mt 28:19) The Greek word for disciple is “learner”. That means that the disciples aren’t going to teach everyone about God, or the Bible, or the Catholic Faith. They are not going to be the experts who transmit theology and all about God and the church and the Bible to others, and guarantee they are always needed. No, the disciples are going to be able to show others how to start to make sense of the circumstances of life themselves, to make sense of what God is speaking to them in the happenings of life themselves. They are going to show them how to get untied the knots on the inside of our hearts that come from circumstances that we couldn’t reconcile or understand.

They are going to teach others how to be learners.

We are each invited to be disciples of Jesus. Not to go into just a church service or classroom and learn from a person. But to follow Jesus in the way of learning God’s language in our lives, discovering for ourselves and learning to recognize His voice that shows up in the circumstances of our lives, the lives that God Himself has laid out for each of us. Untying the knots inside us that bind us from being free to live and love to the full.

We are invited to be learners.

And then?

To teach the same to others.

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