Keeping the mind active as one grows older is a well-known tactic to battle the onset of cognitive aging and dementia. The old "use it or lose it'" saying turns out to be pretty accurate when we look at aging brains. Rachel Wu, a psychology professor at University of California, Riverside has proposed that we can dramatically increase our cognitive health as adults if we continue to learn new skills the way we did as children.
In Wu's paper, recently published in the journal Human Development, it is argued that as we age our cognitive health declines because we are not embracing the same learning strategies as we do in early ages.
"We argue that across your lifespan, you go from 'broad learning' (learning many skills as an infant or child) to 'specialized learning,' (becoming an expert in a specific area) when you begin working," Wu explains.
Wu defines "board learning" across six different factors: (a) open-minded input-driven learning or learning new skills outside of one's comfort zone, (b) individualized scaffolding or learning under the direction of a teacher or mentor, (c) growth mindset, understanding that ability takes effort and practice, (d) operating in a forgiving environment, (e) serious commitment to learning, and (f) learning multiple skills simultaneously.
The theory proposes that as we get older we move into what is termed "specialized learning." This encompasses familiar routines, no access to teachers, consequences for failing, belief that ability is inborn not learned, lack of commitment to learning and limited variety in new skill acquisitions.
"When you look across the lifespan from infancy, it seems likely that the decline of broad learning has a causal role in cognitive aging. But, if adults were to engage in broad learning via the six factors that we provide (similar to those from early childhood experiences), aging adults could expand cognitive functioning beyond currently known limits," Wu said.
Wu's thesis challenges current theories on education. Generally it is understood that adults and children learn quite differently. In the 1970s a field dubbed "andragogy" was defined in the attempts to clarify a more functional and effective way of teaching adults. Andragogy, as opposed to the youth-centered field of pedagogy, assumed that adults have several traits that stand them apart from children and demand different teaching methods to be effective.
While we have long known that learning new skills in older ages can slow cognitive decline, Wu argues that we also have to change the "way" we learn those skills in order to maximize the cognitive benefits. At the moment Wu's proposals are just theoretical but she is hoping to move into more tangible scientific studies soon.
"We still need to test our theory with specific scientific studies, but this theory is based on over five decades of research. What I want adults to take away from this study is that we CAN learn many new skills at any age," Wu said.
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