Can Older Students Learn New Things? How Age Helps Learning

It’s no secret that children are information sponges. They seem to soak up every little bit of knowledge we throw at them with ease. It’s fun to watch, and wonderful for a teacher to experience. But adults have their own advantages when learning new skills, a secret superpower which only becomes available as we get older.

So let’s start by taking a look at where this myth that “adults can’t learn new things” comes from…

Windows of Opportunity

If you ask why children are supposedly so much better at learning, you’ll probably hear about “windows of opportunity.”

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It’s true: linguists in particular have discovered that there are particular age ranges where the young brain absorbs certain information extremely adeptly. However, the “information sponge” is not always a good thing, as we will see. It picks up the correct and the incorrect information together without knowing which is which. It vacuums up everything indiscriminately, meaning the quality of the learning may be very low!

There are also many lingering myths that the brain loses power as it ages. The false belief that brain cells are lost or that the brain stops changing as it ages has been repeatedly and solidly debunked. Though adults are past their windows of opportunity, there is nothing inherently limiting the adult brain from learning new things. In fact, the brain is quite good at it.

If only we could stop making certain mistakes.

The Mistake we Make as Adults

Given how effectively children learn, we should model our strategies off of them… right?

Wrong. Windows of opportunity are special times in a child’s development. The brain is uniquely primed to make new connections. A child will naturally begin to group information together during these times, just by virtue of being exposed to it.

When we try to teach adults without instruction, it doesn’t go so well. Babies can learn a language without instruction because their brains are at the right spot to learn in that way. Attempting to simply show an adult pictures and hope that (s)he learns is going to be nowhere near as effective. In fact, when you learn additional languages after childhood, the information is actually stored in a different part of the brain from your primary language.

It’s not that the adult is not smart. In fact, the adult is too smart.

Our Superpowers

By the time we’re in our mid-20s, our executive function has come to full bloom.

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Suddenly, we need reasons for things. The prefrontal cortex wants there to be stories and causal linkages. It wants to analyze and ponder. It wants the world to make sense. It is critical and analytical. It rejects bad stories which don’t make sense. It discusses and deliberates. It cares about all of the things a child doesn’t care about.

Recent research has shown that even older brains (past middle age) become even better at recognizing the central idea. It can connect the dots and understand the big picture better than the young brain.

The big difference between a young student and an older one is that the young student’s brain is less full with stuff. So when a young student studies, he’s soaking up anything and everything: mistakes and all. But when an older student studies, she’s reconnecting mostly existing ideas in new ways. She actually has less to learn! A child needs to learn not just the word for “dog” in English, but the entire concept of a “dog.” An adult already has all these nuances available, and just needs to learn the word in a foreign language.

Simply put, the adult has more information available to her, more attention to spend, and less work that she needs to do in order to learn.

Using the Powers

Recently I wrote about a common mistake amongst students which I dubbed the dictionary problem. More broadly, it’s very easy to make mistakes when learning. Or to learn something within just a single context, so it doesn’t transfer. This is why children will sometimes use words which are comically incorrect, or miss the nuance with a word. These more subtle aspects of any material are only available to adults and can be learned through perfect practice.

Only adults can engage in deliberate practice because it requires so much metacognition. And the perfect practice session only works if you’re focused enough to spend 30 minutes working hard. Spending 2 hours “kind of studying,” as children tend to, simply does not work well. All of this points to the idea that the best, most effective forms of learning and practice require analysis and attention.

We should really say that children learn despite their lack of attention. The windows of opportunity compensate for this total inability to use good learning techniques by causing children to retain just about everything. But because they retain so much, it’s a total mess inside their brains. They spend the rest of their lives trying to sort out this information, correcting the mistakes they made when they learned it for the first time.

An adult can avoid these mistakes. The older we get, the more deliberate we can be: we can slow down and truly understand a subject before moving on.

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