We spend a lot of time grappling with new information and skills just so we can keep up in the modern world. Every time we buy a new gadget or product, we have to learn how it works. Computers and mobile phones constantly change. Information technology demands we keep up or give up, but that’s not all that changes.
Last week I conquered rapid antigen tests, although I felt quite nervous. What if I got it wrong? What if I couldn’t do it? But two new great-granddaughters and my need to see them and their mothers meant I’ve become very blase about RATs.
From cradle to grave, human brains learn and grow. (See my blog on life-long learning.) The best results come from those experiences which caused us to battle with new information and find a place for it in the framework of knowledge that already exists in our brains.
Eric Erikson’s eight life stages make interesting reading. He states that at each stage, an individual has developmental tasks which must be completed as the person grows to maturity. At every stage, people must learn, practise and grow new skills.
These tasks seem to come easily to most babies and little children. They quickly grow from tiny helpless beings to individuals who walk and talk and have opinions.
Being old is no excuse for giving up learning. At all ages, we need to make new connections so that the grey matter in our brains becomes more dense and the white connective matter becomes stronger. The process in which our brains become more maleable, is called neuroplasticity. (I’ve written about neuroplasticity in another context here.)
Struggling to learn new information is good
According to Professor Jo Boaler, mistakes are good for our learning. She says,
‘…if we are not struggling we are not learning. Not only is struggle good for our brains, but people who know about the value of struggle improve their learning potential.’
She adds that knowledge is less important than a mindset of discovery and curiosity. She tells her students who tell her something is ‘hard’,
‘That is fantastic. That feeling of ‘hard’ is the feeling of your brain developing, strengthening and growing’.
A personal learning story
I know from personal experience how struggle to learn can create all sorts of amazing results, thanks to a remarkable teacher, Kevin Byrne.
My parents thought girls didn’t need an education (mid 1950s). I left school at 15, learned to type, then trained as a nurse. A decade later, I enrolled to complete a university entrance qualifications – two Leaving level subjects and a general aptitude test. I had three pre-schoolers and a disengaged husband who worked shift-work.
I managed well until it came to the poetry section in the Literature unit. I’d learned to love English poetry because the nun who taught me for three years was passionate about the subject. However, Australian poetry was not to her liking, so we had none of that.
The poet set for the year I did my exam was the Australian poet, Judith Wright, who was not only a poet but an environmentalist and campaigner for Aboriginal rights.
My battered sixty-year-old copy of Judith Wright’s Selected Poems and one poem showing hard work and scribble as I came to terms with this wonderful poet.
I wrestled and struggled with her work. It didn’t make sense to a mind fed Keats and Yeats and John Donne. My tutor, Kevin Byrne, received several very cross letters from me, about how hard it was, and how I could never come to terms with this poetry. The ignorance! The arrogance!
I thought Kevin’s response unfeeling because he urged me to keep trying and thinking about the poetry. When I finally gave in, stopped being angry and tried curiosity instead, I discovered the grace and beauty of the poetry I’d resisted.
‘I knew you’d come round to liking her work,’ said the always gracious Kevin. ‘Your struggle to understand intrigued me, but I knew you’d get there in the end.’
The sudden realisation that came after perhaps a month of struggle felt like a huge reward for trying to make sense of new information.
Brain plasticity did not become well understood until the end of the 20th century and I certainly had no idea about the process. But I’ve been grateful ever since for the lesson of a tutor who encouraged me to work through the hard part of learning when I would happily have given up.
Prevention of Alztheimers disease
The adage, ‘Use it or lose it!’ applies to our bodies and our brains. We know we need to continue to learn in order to look after our brains. We’ve all been told that practising a new language or a musical instrument can help to protect us from Alztheimers disease.
From middle age, regular exercise, a healthy diet and enough good quality sleep are also important. Health authorities tell us that what’s good for our hearts also helps our brains.
Health professionals also suggest ‘brain exercises’. Wordle, crossword puzzles, jigsaws and card games, for example, keep our minds active and us connected to the world. So does socialising with family and friends. We’re urged to join groups and do new things.
Benefits of learning new information and skills
Learning not only helps our brains to grow stronger. Below is a list of other benefits.
- Being bored becomes a thing of the past as we stretch ourselves to learn. New worlds open in front of our eyes.
- The more we learn or practise a new skill, the more involved we become and the more we want to continue.
- Our socialisation skills improve as we develop new interests and intensify ther old.
- Learning in groups helps us to contribute and feel connected.
- It also introduces new people into our lives.
- The more things we learn and the wider our interests, the more topics of conversation we acquire.
- When we develop new skills, we can contribute more to our families and wider social circle.
What new information are you learning?
I’d love you to share what you are learning in the comments. It would be good if we could start a discussion around this important topics.