October 15, 2010

You Can’t Teach an Old Dog New Tricks. Or Can You?

by Brian Timberlake, Doctor of Pharmacy Candidate, University of Maryland School of Pharmacy
We all know the age old adage “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”  You’ve probably heard this phrase so often you might think its true.  However, research today shows that this is an outdated notion.  Until recently, many people, including scientists, believed that the brain deteriorated over time through loss of neurotransmitters, decreased blood flow, and a diminishing oxygen supply.  However, now, it seems these “facts” are not true, and that learning occurs throughout one’s life.
People can learn at any age.  Prior to the 1960's, it was considered nonsensical for people to seek education in midlife.  Not only was the brain slowly starting to “shut down,” but the working years left in one’s life were slowly coming to an end.  With the baby boomer generation and longer life spans, middle aged people seeking education has gained wide spread acceptance. 
Even though acceptance has been gained for adult education, there is still that small problem of the deteriorating brain.  Science has come to show that as we age, the possibility of learning does not deteriorate.  While the middle-aged brain is slower at recalling facts, it gets much better at other tasks.  As people age, their brain actually gets sharper, due to myelination.  Myelination basically protects brain cells and increases conductivity in the brain.  Improved interconnections in the brain leads to improved reasoning skills.  Science has shown us that “life and learning doesn’t end at 50.”
Of course, disease is more prevalent in older people and diseases of the brain can change the brain drastically.  The most notable brain disease is Alzheimer’s, which is a form of dementia.  It is estimated that by 2050, 1 in 85 persons will suffer from Alzheimer’s Disease. The disease causes a significant loss of memory and the ability to learn.  Alzheimer’s disease usually presents around sixty-five, but can have early onset in some people.  It usually presents as difficulty in acquiring new memory or trouble recalling facts.  Since these symptoms are common as we age, it is hard to diagnose, and can lead into intense mood swings, extreme forgetfulness, and episodes of rage.
Even though the physiological aspect plays a huge role in learning, there is still the aspect of outside influences.  The differences in learning between children and adults has been a hot topic for the past few decades, and those differences are discussed in theory in the book, “The Modern Practice of Adult Education: Andragogy vs. Pedagogy,” written by the American educator Malcolm Knowles.  Knowles’ theory claims that there are five key differences in the learning processes between adults and children.  The theory describes key differences in the learner, experience, readiness, orientation to learning, and motivation.
The theory postulates that adults are independent and evaluate themselves and their surroundings while children need instruction from a teacher and must be told what to focus on.  Adults bring the experience factor to the table and can incorporate life lessons into what they learn, while children have very little or no experience.  In terms of readiness, adults usually learn based on their current needs and often with a sense of urgency and necessity, while children are guided by a teacher and only advance when they are told they are ready.  In the last part of the theory, Knowles described differences in motivation.  Adults are driven by emotions and personal goals, whereas children are usually affected by factors such as rewards and peer pressure.
The true mystery behind all of this research is the brain itself.  Nothing can unlock the intricacies and depth of this most fragile organ.  In the end, it all comes down to the individual.  Just like no two people are alike, no two brains are the same.  The best we can do as individuals is to keep using our brains and presenting ourselves with the new challenges.  Because of life’s uncertainties, you can’t teach every old dog a new trick, but age does bring new opportunities and possibilities.

Crawford, David.  The Role of Aging in Adult Learning: Implications for Instructors in Higher Education.  New Horizons for Learning [Internet].  December 2004.  [cited 2010 September 28].  Available at  http://www.newhorizons.org/lifelong/higher_ed/crawford.htm
Flatlow, Ira and Strauch, Barbara.  Brains, like Red Wine, Gets Better with Age.  NPR radio broadcast.  2010.  [cited September 28, 2010].  Available at  http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=127771662
Trudeau, Michelle.  The Aging Brain Is Less Quick, But More Shrewd.  NPR radio broadcast, morning edition.  2010.  [cited September 28, 2010].  Available at http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=124118077
Knowles, M. S. The Modern Practice of Adult Education. Andragogy versus pedagogy, Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall/Cambridge. 1970, 1980.

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