When you’re young and still in school, you basically have one job: studying. But children often struggle to nail that one task. They might have numerous distractions, each competing for their attention. Interest in extra-curricular activities, developing relationships or having issues with their peers, and the allure of video games and social media; all of these can detract from learning focus.
With age comes maturity, a greater ability to focus, and more depth of experience. As a grown-up, you know what’s important and how to manage priorities. You can see how a particular subject can be relevant to your life. And your prior knowledge serves as a lens through which you can understand new material and make connections to strengthen the learning process.
For these and other reasons, we often think that adults are better at learning than kids. But there are times when taking a childlike approach to learning can actually prove helpful.
Children rely on structure
The period covering infancy though childhood and adolescence is one of intense learning. Our traditional model of education is founded upon that premise: equip children with the knowledge they need, and they will succeed later in life. Thus, educators develop a curriculum and environment that will be conducive to a child’s learning while steering them in a specific direction.
Parents also seek to nurture their children and give them further advantages through additional activities. They might have their kids take violin lessons out of the child’s own interest, but it’s also no secret that music enhances cognitive function. In the same way, kids can get involved in team sports because they love to play, but it doesn’t hurt that sports improve coordination, confidence, and social skills.
Because of these factors, children learn differently in large part due to decisions made by a higher authority; parents, teachers, school administrators. Each day, they are immersed in a setting where learning takes place continuously. They don’t have to question why, how, when, where, or for what purpose they are studying.
The mind works differently
However, there are also underlying differences in the way children themselves tackle the challenge of learning. Anyone who’s been around young kids will have noted how they interact with their surroundings using all of their senses.
They will attempt to manipulate objects in ways that would probably never occur to an adult, often with unpredictable or hilarious results. But kids aren’t afraid of failure or embarrassment (although looking back will often give older children and adults plenty of that).
This combination of mental disposition and experiential learning makes children highly effective at learning novelties. Completely unfamiliar skills such as language are easy for them to pick up. In stark contrast, many adults struggle to learn more than a few simple phrases in a foreign tongue.
Neuroplasticity is the scientific catch-all term referring to the brain’s ability to modify its structure and function in response to experiences throughout life. This quality is very high in young children but decreases as we grow older.
A child of 2-3 years old has about twice as many synapses per neuron as the average adult. Synapses are related to the brain’s ability to make new connections. If they are unused, they get ‘pruned’ in order to maximize brain efficiency.
Learning like a child
Put simply, children are literally wired for learning, while adults are programmed to function and perform. This can be a little disheartening for those who seek to continue learning as adults. But it doesn’t tell the whole story.
The study of learning ability in relation to brain structure is still in its early stages. Our brains are less flexible or receptive to new knowledge as we age, but research indicates that other factors can effectively ‘reopen’ our minds even later in life. Enriched sensory environments, and a high signal-to-noise ratio, are among the methods known to stimulate the brain’s plasticity.
Adults can be more efficient learners in selective areas. But if you become stuck, can’t wrap your head around something, or are faced with a totally incomprehensible domain of learning, try to learn like a child.
Instead of being completely self-reliant, take lessons from an expert; it lessens the burden of planning and decision-making on your part. Instead of questioning why something is relevant or how it can be applied, simply absorb new knowledge.
Approach your topic with a playful attitude. Don’t be afraid to fall on your face or make mistakes and look silly. Try to supplement your lessons with a variety of media to enhance the formation of connections. And seek to engage in practical activities for reinforcement of learning.
You might not be able to teach an old dog new tricks, but an older human can certainly work to overcome natural tendencies and keep on learning throughout life.