Sunday, January 03, 2010

The Old Brain

There has been a lot of information published about how students in their teens and twenties learn as well as strategies that instructors can adopt to increase their pedagogical effectiveness. Certainly this is important information--I know how much I have benefited as a teacher from these insights. Nonetheless, it was interesting for me to read this article from today's New York Times Education Life section on how older people learn. I must confess that I have a personal interest in this subject, not only because I occasionally have students who are not of traditional law-school age, but also because I often need to learn new things and sometimes find that to be a bit of a challenge. Is it fair to blame this difficulty on the fact that I am getting older?

According to the article,

Brains in middle age, which, with increased life spans, now stretches from the 40s to the late 60s, [...] get more easily distracted. ...

[C]an an old brain learn, and then remember what it learns? Put another way, is this a brain that should be in school?

As it happens, yes. While it's tempting to focus on the flaws in older brains, that inducement overlooks how capable they've become. Over the past several years, scientists have looked deeper into how brains age and confirmed that they continue to develop through and beyond middle age.

Many longheld views, including the one that 40 percent of brain cells are lost, have been overturned. What is stuffed into your head may not have vanished but has simply been squirreled away in the folds of your neurons.

[This can make it difficult to retrieve information because] neural connections, which receive, process and transmit information, can weaken with disuse or age.

The article offers some specific recommendations for adults to employ to make it easier to retrieve information, connect new information with what is already known, and keep our brains in shape. For one thing, we can actively seek out ideas and thoughts that are contrary to what we believe.

Teaching new facts should not be the focus of adult education ... Instead, continued brain development and a richer form of learning may require that you 'bump up against people and ideas' that are different. In a history class, that might mean reading multiple viewpoints, and then prying open brain networks by reflecting on how what was learned has changed your view of the world.

Learning a foreign language, taking a different route to work, doing anything that causes the brain to stretch is how we nourish our brains and keep them young.

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