Can an old dog learn new tricks? Absolutely. As I sit in the third day of a class that was recommended by my program coordinator, I reflect that I have been exposed to a boatload of information on a brand new set of topics. Is it going to stick in my brain and be useful in my future? I doubt it. I have no background knowledge to refer to and I do not speak in the plethora of acronyms used in the manual. This was a bad match.
Does this mean adult learners should NOT try to learn novel ideas and processes? Absolutely, not. Any effective learning environment needs to make connections to prior knowledge. It is the role of the teacher to find those connections, even if they seem to be remote connections. For example, in the study of motion and forces, we can discuss inertia, Newton’s Laws, Bernoulli’s Principle, acceleration, or velocity. These words are meaningless unless I also talk about the experiences like going around a sharp corner in a car, the feelings at the bottom of the first drop on a roller coaster, or slipping on ice.
In a New York Times article, Kathleen Taylor, a professor at St. Mary’s College of California states that, “As adults we may not always learn quite as fast, but we are set up for this next developmental step.” The Times’s health editor Barbara Strauch discusses how scientists have looked into how brains age. “Older brains continue to develop through and beyond middle age…It gets better at recognizing the central idea, the big picture. It can continue to build pathways that help its owner recognize patterns and, as a consequence, see significance and even solutions much faster than a young person can.” (Strauch)
So what does this all mean for the older adult in the midst of a career change seeking retraining? I guess, rule number one is that my new training must somehow be connected to something I already know. I don’t need to be in the same field, but the macro skills I have need to be transferrable. Older learners need to seek meaning at a deep level in order to build the new those new pathways through the old grey matter.
Strauch, B. (n.d.). How to Train the Aging Brain. The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/03/education/edlife/03adult-t.html?_r=0 October 10, 2014.