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Teaching Advice/Does learning get easier as you age ?

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Question
Is it a brain developmental thing, personality, nature vs. nurture, interests, or what ? Or could it be that as young adults we have so much taught to us that we don't fully grasp enough to really learn.
A learning curve so to speak ?
So here's my example: I am currently experiencing water softener problems. I am on a computer, on the internet, reading about poly-atomic ions killing my softener, and the differences of bacterial, permanent, and dissolved iron, calcium, and magnesium. I get it, I understand it, it all makes sense. Forty plus years ago in high school chemistry, biology, electronics was like speaking a foreign language. I guess the real question is why do things seem so much simpler and easier as you age.

Thanks

Answer
In response to your excellent question about learning getting easier as we age I would like to say it is both yes and no. In your example you talked about your high school experience and it implied that learning was harder then as opposed to know. Lets look at that for a moment.

When you were in high school you covered from 4 to 8 subjects of new knowledge every day. Some of those subjects you had an interest in and some you did not. For example, lets say you really enjoyed you World History class and were facing death by boredom in Chemistry. Naturally, during World History your attention and focus were higher and the information was easier to integrate and remember. On the other hand, during Chemistry your interest was not peaked at all and the mathematics, new language, and structure of the information you were required to learn was of little to no interest so you checked out mentally to some degree and the subject was harder to learn. This is to say that you point about interest is a valid point on how learning is easier now that you are older.(i.e. the water softener is not working and now you have a high desire to know why.)

There is a part of learning where facts are integrated into the whole structure of what you know as a person. It takes place in the brain and is part of our ability to recall facts. This is part of the reason you are learning easier than in high school. Learning and fact integration are building block processes. The things you were learning in high school in chemistry and electronics had no prior knowledge to attach to so they were brand new to your brain and harder to recall. Now with a lifetime of experience the same data is presented to you again as you search for the answer to the water softener problem and it has the high school knowledge to attach to and is easier to understand.

You ask if it is a "brain developmental thing" and you are correct in thinking that it is. Without going into a whole course on brain development let me hit a few highlights to support your idea. In the front of the brain there is a part of it that controls impulses and it develops very slowly as compared to the rest of the brain. That is why we see children and teens doing silly things sometimes. They do not have a fully mature impulse control system. This lack of self control lets our mind wander during classes in which we have no interest and/or when we have other things on our mind that have a more emotional pull. Thus, that information is harder to remember.  

As it develops the impulse control center helps us to stay focused on the topic at hand while we are learning. This lets the brain integrate the data with past data and as you experienced in your water softener research. The terms that were once just ideas now seem to have a greater meaning that it easy to understand. You see the integration of the whole of the system as opposed to individual parts. This can be because of your self-control mechanism working at the proper level and keeping those impulses to ignore, or avoid the new information under control.

Personality is a very complex set of reactions in the brain and it can have impact on learning at an early age. If I may reduce it to an overly simple explanation, if in high school you had a very outgoing personality and was the most popular person in school then you may have had little interest in the topics you are researching today. On the other hand if you were extremely shy or introverted you may not have had an interest in the topics you are researching today also. Personality in my mind has an impact but it is more on the edges rather than in the center of learning.

Nature vs nurture is a question best answered in the dimensions of your home life. When you were in high school if your parents were not really all that interested in your education then you probably did not take a high interest in those subject you mentioned before. If for example you dad was a chemist and your mother a biology teacher then it was more likely that chemistry and biology were talked about at home and your interest would be nurtured by your parents.

Yes there is a learning curve to all learning regardless of some idealistic views expressed by people. We learn all the time, all day long. If I may make an assumption that you are employed and enjoy your current profession then I can illustrate my point. When you first started your job, on the first days and weeks, you had a huge learning curve. You may have prepared for it in college or trade school BUT you had to learn to do it they way your employer thought it was best to do it. You may have made minor mistakes, corrected your course of action,took in new information(learned) and now are hopefully successfully employed and making less and less errors at your job. You successfully lived thorough and moved along on the learning curve.

If I may share a few final thoughts with you. Is it easier to learn as we get older? Yes it is for several reasons as we discussed above. Will learning every new subject be easier? Yes, to some degree or another, because we will pick subjects that we have a high interest in and we have the ability to study only those subjects. Must we continually learn? Yes we should be lifelong learners as it keeps the brain challenged and refreshed and gives us interest in life. It does not mean going to school at a college or trade school only. We can self-teach through reading and the internet. There is an online program called Coursera that has over 400 plus classes you can take and it is sponsored by a wide variety of universities and colleges all over the world. They give certificates of participation and learning and have quizzes and homework required outside of listening to the lectures on the internet. The biggest draw is that if comes at no cost to you other than your time and effort.

I wish you the best and I hope this rather long answer is of some help to you in answering your question. If you have a further interest Mr. Eric Jensen has an excellent website and seminars on learning and the brain.
Best Wishes,
Dr. James Turner B.A., M.A.E., M.A.Educ. Admin., Juris Doctor, Supervising Teacher  

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Dr. James Turner

Expertise

I am able to give both general and specific answers to questions on how the brain learns, how to bring brain learning into the classroom, how to teach middle school students, and how to create classrooms that function in learner friendly ways.

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I have been teaching and studying how students learn, how the brain learns and how to teach middle school students for the past 13 years.

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ACSA Calvary Chapel Church

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B.A. Fine Arts Masters in Education and Educational Administration Juris Doctor in Law

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