Feel that nothing new could possibly be said about ‘Learning’—a word synonymous with ‘school’? Please consider this: there is a way of thinking about learning that transforms it from something one does to something one is.

The idea of being a ‘lifelong learner’ is not some expectation of spending the rest of your life in a university or school—although this may be a great path for some.

Learning is not just about what is read in books. It’s not just about passing exams. Having a ‘knack’ or natural aptitude for something like woodwork or matching colours or calculating numbers is just the beginning of the ‘learning’ that can take that aptitude and turn it into a spectacular skill, or rewarding career, or source of deep satisfaction. Being open, curious, imaginative and even hungry to expand understanding—to learn—is a kind of passion that can be the foundation for a rich and interesting life.

It’s a no-brainer to conclude that those who value learning will be concerned for the people and things that bring the best opportunities to expand their knowledge or experiences.

But how can we really do that? How can we learn to want to learn?

Interestingly, Professor Michael Puett from Harvard describes the impact of an ancient Chinese ritual where a son takes on the role of the father and the father, that of the son. It is an experience of orchestrated empathy. Prof. Puett argues that this and similar practices, helped people to question their assumptions and break out of ruts and habitual ways of thinking. It also allowed them to come back into their everyday life with new insight about both themselves and others. Reading about such an experience—as you are right now—can never have the same impact as such a simulation.

It seems the critical ability needed to benefit from such rituals—and probably any experience where there is something new on offer—is imagination.

Have you ever considered what it’s like to be your teacher? Or your dog? Or a tree? (Or even a neglected textbook!) What about what it’s like to start at a school where everyone speaks an unfamiliar language? Teachers can probably recall many experiences of being a student, but can students imagine themselves at the front of the class? At their desk—or kitchen table—marking a huge pile of homework? Or dealing with kids who don’t recognise how incredible it is to even be able to go to school?

At a more personal level, can you imagine yourself not taking seriously the old doubt in your head that says you’re ‘never going to get it’?

Teaching is not necessarily the same as what a student takes away from a class. Nor is being a student necessarily the same as being a learner. Perhaps great learners see value in hearing and understanding another’s point of view—so they perceive teachers as one of their resources (rather than someone who makes them do stuff that’s boring?).

But perhaps the best learners are those who are willing to examine their own points of view, habits and assumptions and seek to really understand how everything, from the cosmos to other people—and even to their own mind—actually operates.