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Old Dogs, New Tricks: A Look at How Older Adults Learn

Jeanette Leardi June 24, 2019
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Strong motivations and particular cognitive skills make older adults valuable and engaged students.

“You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” If there ever was a stereotype ripe for rejection, it’s this one. When older adults thrive—let alone survive—it’s precisely because they continually adjust to changes in their bodies, relationships, environments and economic situations.

A clear demonstration of this resilience and flexibility takes place every day in lifelong learning settings in which people in their 50s and beyond explore intellectual interests, artistic passions, personal-growth strategies, and encore-career skills. They’re learning “new tricks” all the time.

Aside from its offensive stance, why is the “old dogs” adage wrong?

“This saying is based on an assumption that all old people are the same, which of course is not a tenable proposition,” says Dr. Andrea Creech, professor of music education and Canada Research Chair in Music in Community at Laval University in Quebec. “In fact, as we grow older our individual differences increase. We become more different than the same, as we age. There is much evidence now that supports the view that older adults can learn new things and want to learn new things.”

Dr. Thomas Kamber, executive director of Older Adults Technology Services, can attest to this view. His organization provides free classes to people over 60 on a variety of subjects, incorporating technology-skills training in the curricula. “I’ve been fortunate to teach extensively at the college level and also spend thousands of hours in the classroom with older adults,” he says. “For pure joy of learning and commitment to gaining new knowledge and high standards of learning, I’ve never encountered any group more engaged than older adults.”   

What Motivates Older Learners?

In many ways, older learners are like students of any age, studying to meet their specific needs for self-development and personal growth. Just as traditional college-age students work toward a degree or meet other occupational requirements, many of today’s older learners hone their skills in order to remain in the job market and even start their own businesses. Nevertheless, their desire for self-development and personal growth can take on additional meaning with the advancement of years.

According to Tim Carpenter, CEO and founder of EngAGE, a nonprofit organization that creates vibrant centers of learning within the walls of affordable senior and multigenerational apartment communities, “The motivation for learning can change as we age… Often older adults learn for the sake of learning, attend classes to keep their mind active and create social connection to like-minded people.”

Dr. Carrie Andreoletti, professor of psychological science and Coordinator of Gerontology at Central Connecticut State University, adds to this portrait: “Older learners are more comfortable with ambiguity and less concerned about the ‘right answer,’” she explains. “They don’t want to be lectured to, but want to be active participants in their own learning. They ask tough questions and want to know why something is important and how it is relevant to their own lives and experience.”

Creech agrees that relevance is a key driver of the educational experience for older learners. “As a general framework, I use the idea that ‘learning’ opportunities for older adults should be framed by person-centered goals (goals that are personally meaningful, and relate to the idea of ‘being’), fellow-centered goals (goals that are concerned with collaboration, a sense of community, and relate to the idea of ‘belonging’), and matter-centered goals (goals to do with development, relating to the idea of ‘becoming’).”

Older Learners’ Mental Skills and Needs

Similarly, older adults can bring different cognitive abilities to the task of learning. Many studies have determined that the human brain changes with age, acquiring certain skills as others begin to fade.

“Research shows that older people sometimes absorb certain kinds of information more slowly, but this is offset by deeper ability to contextualize and apply new concepts,” Kamber explains.

Creech clarifies this distinction: “There is some evidence that as we grow older we become stronger on tasks that demand crystallized intelligence—these are tasks that depend on the capacity to reflect on acquired life experience and to apply that knowledge in problem-solving. On the other hand, some older people may decline on fluid intelligence, which involves abstract, context-free reasoning, often in the context of quick, time-limited tasks.”

Given this difference in mental processing, Kamber advocates that, in addition to providing relevant content, instructors ensure safe spaces and allow older learners to help design the curriculum and engage in problem-solving activities in small groups.

The Benefits of Intergenerational Classrooms

One of the most common lifelong-learning settings is among younger students in the college and university classroom. Maximizing the older-younger interaction is a mission of the Age-Friendly University, launched in Ireland in 2012. According to Andreoletti—who studies the ways in which intergenerational service-learning programs reduce ageism and promote social productivity and personal well-being—the AFU’s 10 Principles “provide a framework for helping universities to think more broadly about how to be age inclusive and better meet the needs of learners across the lifespan.”

When young and old students learn together, the resulting synergy can be remarkable. “I love seeing older and younger students working together in an intergenerational classroom,” she says. “Today’s young people are so anxious, stressed, overwhelmed, and worried about their futures. When they have the opportunity to get to know older students and hear their perspectives, they realize that it will all be OK. They see that these older adults have lived through so much, but here they are, in the college classroom, happy, having fun and eager to learn. Age stereotypes on both sides are challenged, and younger and older students are often surprised to realize how much they have in common.”

When it comes to teaching old dogs new tricks, older learners’ abilities make a powerful argument for abolishing that old adage. Carpenter best sums up EngAGE’s view: “We have a counter-saying that I like better: ‘Not only can you teach an old dog new tricks, they most likely have a few they could teach you, if you’re open.’”

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Jeanette Leardi

Jeanette Leardi is a social gerontologist, writer, editor, and community educator specializing in aging issues. Her passion for older adult empowerment has led her to anti-ageism activism. Find her work at www.jeanetteleardi.com.

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