A Safe Haven for Learning

“The most important thing you can learn in this era of heightened global competition,” writes Thomas Friedman, author of the The World is Flat and an expert on globalization, “is how to learn.”

Being good at learning, Bill Brody, president of Johns Hopkins University tells me, is sure to be an enormous asset in this age of incessant change and innovation, and an era when jobs will become outmoded and new jobs invented more quickly than ever.

But how do you learn to learn? Friedman remembers his own favorite teachers. No matter the subject, they excited him about learning itself. In fact, he has long forgotten exactly what they taught him – but he remembers being excited about learning whatever it was. His point: “To learn how to learn, you have to love learning.”

That’s the key: how a teacher can help students learn to love learning – or, more generally, how one person can help another excel at whatever they do.

One way is by providing what the psychoanalyst John Bowlby called a “safe haven,” a psychological enclave within a relationship where they can recharge and feel secure. By providing a safe haven, we encourage another to go out into the world in some way, to explore widely, to master something new, to achieve a major life goal. And we complement that encouragement with patience, simply waiting with the faith that he or she has the competence to do well – whether in taking a tough exam, preparing a report for work, or finishing school in a distant city. We give them our vote of confidence that they can succeed, and stand back to let them. We remain ready to help (though only when clearly necessary), offering encouragement and, if needed, comfort and reassurance. By taking care of someone else in these ways we offer a secure base from which they can grow and develop themselves – or just go out for another day taking on a cold, indifferent world.

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