The Three Ingredients to Successful Learning


Jon McClelland, Harvard Psychologist, has stated that the three ingredients to successful learning are: wanting to learn, knowing how to learn, and having a chance to learn.

Sometimes you don’t even realize that you want to learn something until you have stumbled upon it. I was visiting my old college roommate Nadya when I saw her and her friend Sheree crocheting together.

“Oh,” I gushed. “I’d love to learn.”

“Sheree taught me,” Nadya said.

“Could you teach me too?” I asked Sheree.


I think Jon McClelland summation of the three successful components of learning is accurate and concise. If I had walked into Nadya’s room and never asked, I would not have learned to crochet. The desire or will to learn has to be present in the individual.

Secondly, I needed a teacher to teach me the basics, someone who possessed the knowledge and the ability to communicate. In this case, it was Sheree who was perfect because she adapted to my left-handedness which presented a tricky situation.

And lastly, the opportunity needed to be there. Luckily, there was an extra crochet hook and plenty of yarn to help get me started. Having the chance to learn means having the tools (or the imagination) to get the job done.

When I was six or seven, my mother made me play the piano. I had no desire to learn, but she said it would be good for me and invested in one. Next, she found a teacher who taught me how to sit, place my fingers on the keyboard and how to read music. It took a long time for me to appreciate what I was learning, but since I had to practice, I eventually became proficient at playing the piano. I dare say I even started to enjoy it. I remember on Christmas morning I snuck downstairs while everyone was asleep, opened the keyboard lid and started to play Christmas carols. It seemed rude, but I giggled as it got the job done - everyone woke up!

Unfortunately, we moved from Hawaii during the middle of my sixth grade year to the middle of nowhere, Barstow California or let’s just call it what it really was - the Mojave Desert. Here I had the piano and the desire, but no one to teach me and advance my work. So as a consequence, I stopped playing. If I was meant to be a pianist perhaps I would have pestered my mom relentlessly or taught myself, but as a child I needed the discipline and push that a teacher provides.

What is interesting is how I didn’t have the desire, but at a young age desire can still be taught. “Knowing how” and “having the chance” on the other hand, derive from outside the person. Having a chance to learn means you have to have the materials and in this case, a piano, but I didn’t have the knowledge which as McClelland states is one of the three components to successful learning. The learner is dependent on external factors. And given the fact that we learn by doing and watching (or reading) this makes sense. Learning is a relationship.

 * I originally wrote this as part of my entrance essay for SIT's TESOL or teaching English as a Foreign Language program in Bangkok. Thank you Steve, Bella, and Lyn for being fantastic instructors.

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