New ‘tricks’ for ‘old dogs’

You’re retired and full of ambition to learn new things. After all, you now have the time and resources to seek out new knowledge and skills, and put your talents to the test.

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For many of us, something always seems to get in the way of achieving the goals we set ourselves.

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Sometimes it feels like the older you are, the harder it can be to change habits, add a new skill to your repertoire, or start a hobby.

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Is it really true that an old dog can’t learn a new trick? One thing scientists do know is that fluid reasoning – the ability to think logically and solve problems quickly in new situations – does tend to decline as adults age. However, crystallised intelligence-knowledge that comes from experience and prior learning like reading comprehension or vocabulary-increases over time.

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This means some forms of learning are harder as one ages, but other forms of learning actually become easier.

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Harvard University Graduate School of Education Professor, Chris Dede, draws from research around adult development and learning science to provide five tips for learning new things that adults can keep in mind in this new year.

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Tip 1: Start with what you already know

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This is because learning science suggests people learn by building off existing knowledge or “the edges” of what they already know.

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For example, if you’re an accomplished photographer but you’ve always wanted to take up painting, you may be able to learn faster because you can build off what you already know about composition and light.

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“Because adults have more knowledge from past experiences, they have more edges to learn from and build off of,” Dede said.

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Tip 2: Identify your motivation

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Learning something new at a later stage in life tends to be more about positive self-concept and intrinsic interest.

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Adult learners don’t generally have to pass a test at the end of a unit. As a result, there’s often less pressure or lower stakes attached, making the conditions more conducive to positive experiences with learning tasks.

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Tip 3: Analyse your interest to help find potential new areas to explore

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Think about what you like doing & ask yourself why. Maybe you like cleaning the house because it’s a finite task with a concrete sense of accomplishment. Maybe you like jigsaw puzzles because you like recognising patterns.

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By deconstructing your engagement with different activities, you’re exposing more “motivational edges” you can build on as you expand your learning.

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Tip 4: Find ways to connect and bond with others

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The best way to learn is often to teach or to have someone to bounce ideas off. It can also help to have someone to hold you accountable. In fact, studies have found that you’ll often work harder to help a protégé than yourself. Find someone who appreciates what you know and tackle the project together.

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Tip 5: Challenge yourself and have a growth mindset

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Surmounting a challenge has been shown to make people happier. Learning something new can provide that kind of challenge.

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“Picking something you might enjoy and building your growth mindset by learning it in a challenging way that involves other people can really make all the difference and help form a successful learning experience for an adult,” Dede said.

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