Seven Qualities of Great Learners

Great music teachers are often great learners—and foster these qualities in their students.

In a recent article in Phi Delta Kappan magazine, researcher and author Kirsten Olson noted that many successful and creative people were not conventionally successful (or were even what she terms “complete screw-ups’) in school. Her article, “I Learned to Believe in Me,” offers numerous real-life examples and lists seven critical orientations toward learning, distilled below:

  1. Great learners see learning as pleasurable. Develop your passion through intensive learning that involves focused concentration and a sense of challenge. Recognize that “failure is a huge part of the enterprise.”
  2. Great learners have learned that effort is more important than inborn ability. Kids with disabilities sometimes can deal with these through their other abilities and through persistence. In Olson’s words, “Thinking of yourself as an entity always ripe for development is a mark of learners who go boldly forward.”
  3. Great learners tend to have a strengths-based view of themselves and others. “This attitude,” says Olson, “is at the heart of learning resilience.” Figuring out what you excel at and practicing being satisfied with these traits can help you learn.
  4. Great learners practice letting go of negative emotions, of flipping the script on what might be regarded as a failure.  Let failure go—don’t brood on it. Pick up where you fell and move on.
  5. Great learners are unusual problem-solvers who know how to ask for help. These people are both supported and supporters of others in their quests.
  6. Great learners don’t let the institution define them. Although they take their educations seriously, they question labels and define their own paths.
  7. Great learners have passions. According to Olson, “research literature describes the importance of passion, curiosity, and deep interests” in dealing with challenges.

Educators and administrators could learn a lot by reading Olson’s complete article.  Michael A. Butera, NAfME’s executive director, sums things up for music teachers: “These seven qualities described by Kirsten Olson in the Kappan article are deep in the belief system of NAfME music educators; pleasurable learning, personal effort, focusing on good, learning from failure, reworking the learning experience, owning one’s work, and being passionate about the student’s learning experiences. It’s what makes music programs a central, lifelong learning experience for all students.”

This piece was adapted with permission of the publisher from “I Learned to Believe in Me” by Kirsten Olson, Phi Delta Kappan magazine, Vol. 93, no. 1 (September 2011), pp. 49–53. More information about the magazine is available at

Ella Wilcox, October 13, 2011, © National Association for Music Education (