Learning throughout life stimulates your Ideative growth

by Robert S. Siegel on October 30, 2009

My friend thought that he had been out of school for far too many years to be able to muster the discipline to return. He also thought that at age 53 he was too old to learn a new language, something that had been one of his desires for many years. He explained to me that young minds absorb Knowledge like a sponge but older brains, like his, lack the flexibility to soak up new material. He didn’t think that he would be able to keep up with the younger students in the language program.

I convinced him to try. Turns out he was one of the best students in the class.

You can learn – Ideative learning for creativity
Ideative starts with growing your Experience and Knowledge. For this first post on formal learning; the acquisition of Knowledge through book and classroom education, I want to show you that formal learning can continue throughout adulthood. In fact, contrary to some commonly held beliefs, adults can learn as well as, or even better than they could in their youth. Adults can help themselves by understanding how to grow knowledge through formal learning.

It is important to understand that there is some truth to my friend’s concern about his ability to learn at age 53 compared to learning in his youth. Your brain changes as you age. You may lose some of what is called “plasticity”. This is relevant because according to the theory of neuroplasticity, thinking, learning, and acting, actually change both the brain’s physical structure and functional organization.

That is the key. Aging changes the way you learn but doesn’t hinder your ability to learn. You can take advantage of theses changes in the way you learn and therefore learn as well as, perhaps better than you did in your youth. Just follow the three steps below.

Step one – Decide that you will learn because as an adult, you value the outcome of learning;
Words like ‘learning’ and ‘education’ don’t sound fun to a lot of people. Instead, references to learning and education come with memories of boring teachers, useless subjects, and homework. While most people understand the benefits of furthering their education, these negative associations, along with a fear of being too old, hold many people back.

You have the maturity to work past these barriers because you understand the value of achieving your educational goals better than you did in your youth. Adults understand the impact of education because they have experienced the demands their lives have placed on them. Therefore, adults can set meaningful, impactful goals that inspire them to focus on their studies. In other words, you have far more of the discipline needed for the vital learning skill of concentration than they you had as a kid.

Concentrate on your goals.

Step two – Set learning goals
You will perform better in any educational endeavor if you set goals. This is true whether you want to learn for the pure joy of enhancing your knowledge, or to gain new career opportunities, develop the ability to help your children with their homework, or any of the millions of other reasons for learning.

Write your goals down where you see them all of the time. Use the goals to remind yourself of why you are learning.

You may be tempted to take this step lightly. Your goals may seem as simple as meeting your annual certification requirements, or passing the exams required to sell your company’s higher commission products. My question for you is, are those really your goals? Isn’t the goal of meeting certification requirements really more about maintaining your family’s long-term security? And by selling the higher commission products aren’t you really seeking to retire early, send your children to private schools, or maybe relieve stress by paying off some debts?

My point is that to really advance your learning efforts you should first give very serious thought to the rewards you seek from your learning. Understand in depth what you want to gain from learning because as an adult you have the maturity to use your goals to both discipline and inspire yourself.

Your goals drive your learning program – the process you will take toward learning.

Step three – Decide on a learning program you will succeed with
Adult learning can encompass everything from reading a few articles on a website to pursuing an advanced degree. Thanks to technology you have a lot of learning options available from which to build a learning program – the variety of classes, readings, and practical application you will use to achieve your learning goals.

Your learning goals determine they type of learning program you can set up. If your goal is to earn a degree, certificate, or meet a requirement of attending a class, than those requirements limit your learning options; i.e., if your goal is to earn a degree, and the requirements for earning that degree include class attendance, a dissertation, and final exams then you have to do those things. On the other hand, if your goal is to learn just enough to understand the difference between html and CSS coding for websites, you can easily find an online source, do a little bit of reading and a few exercises whenever you chose and at whatever pace suits you.

Note however, that you have flexibility even under the most stringent of degree programs. For example, many people learn complex subjects better from a book (or podcast, hands-on experience, etc…) than a lecture. If you are one of these people, consider supplementing the lectures with other forms of learning. A little pre-reading on the lecture topic will make the lecture much more understandable and perhaps enjoyable. The same is true if you have a requirement to read a book but prefer lectures, discussions, or some other audio or visual format. Don’t ignore your required reading, but libraries and the Internet contain numerous audio and video lectures and programs.

My point is that if you want to learn, but the proscribed course of your learning is not one you prefer, you have options. Use them.

Many adult classes at all levels are designed very differently than the high school and college courses you remember. Modern courses are given using state of the art teaching methods. This includes multiple approaches to accommodate varying learning styles, frequent breaks, and interactive activities, all taught by professionals with real-world experience in the subject. Further, in many adult education programs you can pursue subjects without the pressure of making grades, or the boredom of studying material you have no interest in studying.

My friend that wanted to learn a new language found grammar drills just too tedious to complete. He preferred to focus on making and understanding conversations, and from that he learned to form sentences that were grammatically correct enough for people to understand him. From there, he improved his grammar by talking with natives. Had he been required to pass grammar tests he would have dropped out of the program.

A final note: Adult learning centers on this one point –As an adult, you are free to learn or not to learn. The choice is yours.
When you were a kid you had to go to school. As an adult you can’t be “forced,” to go to school like you could as a child. Your boss may require you to take a training course or you may have to study for a licensing test, but ultimately the decision to learn is yours. If you are involved in any kind of learning activity you are doing it because you have made the choice to grow as a person, advance your career, or at least retain your current job. Keep that in mind because you have the options and the maturity to find ways to keep your learning interesting.

The choice of whether or not to learn, and the freedom from grades, enables many adults to set up learning at their own pace. When they are in the mood, they study, but when they are not in the mood they do only enough to keep the material fresh in their minds.

Just remember that as an adult you have an enormous learning advantage that you did not have as a child; you value the outcome, you have the discipline, and the freedom to learn. Ideative people are using these advantages to do everything from picking up a few helpful phrases in a foreign language to attending law school, earning MBAs, and even PhDs in their 40s, 50s, even 60s.

Ideative people can learn at any age.

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Lori Buff November 4, 2009 at 7:50 am

I agree with you in this article. I went back to school in my mid forties without any issues. I had learned what motivated me to learn and what distracted me and how to avoid those distractions. I think my focus is much better as an adult learner also. My parents started taking classes at the local community college after they retired. Not only are they enjoying it for the experience but by using their brains to learn and solve problems. I’ve heard this helps prevent some problems of aging.
Thanks for the article, I found it very interesting and thought provoking. As a visual artist I am very interested in views about creative thinking.

N.L.D. November 11, 2009 at 10:30 am

I couldn’t agree more. I went back to school as a non-traditional student and while it was difficult to juggle single-parenthood, working full-time, going to school full-time, home ownership, etc… I wouldn’t trade the experience for the world. I found myself to be a much better student than I was at 18-19; I was more goal oriented, more focused/disciplined and I had a foundation of life experiences to ground me. I have spent years since my graduation, motivating other adults to return to school. A 46 year old friend of mine just completed her Masters degree after a little encouragement from me. She celebrated her graduation and a new, higher paying job only about a month apart.

Thanks a lot for this post. I love your writing style!

Robert S. Siegel November 28, 2009 at 6:34 pm

Paul Baltes did a great deal of work on this issue at the Max Plank Institute. See http://www.baltes-paul.de/Overview.htm

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