By Marco March
Some people insist that after the age of 25, or close to it, the brain starts to solidify and devolves into a semi-permeable shadow of what it once was in terms of neuroplasticity, only letting in the most relevant information and blocking the useless. This theory was never based on any real cognitive science; it was inferred and then augmented from the various memory models of decay theory and interference theory, which are somewhat outdated.
But now that we have the fMRI procedure at our disposal, neuroimaging is possible and we have a better picture of which areas of memory are affected over time. According to Dr. Jonides and his team of neurologists, it turns out it is not so much the long term memory that is affected, but the working memory which suffers the most as we get older — and even then, it is only a matter of one or two seconds longer of focused attention in order to archive a memory. That’s not a problem for aging crossword enthusiasts, but if you are considering digging into your pension and need to stuff an entire book on elderly law into your noggin, you may be advised to call a solicitor.
There are some signs of decline in the rate at which neurons fire in the long term memory over time, but as long as the neural pathway leading to the sought memory is rehearsed, it will not be forgotten. So, as far as we can tell, there is not really a great difference between a young healthy brain and an old one. Why then does it so often appear that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks?
It could be that the older we get, the stronger our sense of identity becomes and we make the conscious decision to filter or reject information based on a need to know basis regarding whether it will be useful to us in particular. Perhaps it is simply a case of easing the workload as the more time spent working and using information leaves less time for studying and absorbing it. Whatever the reason, there is no excuse for discontinuing your education, as there are plenty of ways to help you reconnect with your inner student. Equally, if you teach older students, then you should look into different ways to help them engage themselves.
To get elderly students to apply themselves, teachers should reintroduce them to the learning environment. This can be done a number of ways, and one particularly effective method is to get right into the meat of a subject and ask students some very difficult questions to pique their interest early on. Teachers will also need to introduce technology into the equation; one website which is helpful in this respect is cyberwise, which vows to keep teachers and students up to date with the latest technological advancements which they call ‘digital life skills’. It will save a teacher having to dance the same dance one does with one’s grandparents when they get a new mobile phone and they ask you how to switch it on.
The lesson content has to be quite different for students who are pushing on old age. Teachers can’t expect elderly language learners to take a role play exercise seriously if it involves going to the club to ‘get crunk’ any more than you can expect young language learners to go nuts for a role play involving the writing of a will. Too many online courses satisfy the average student likely to be studying for GCSE’s or A-Levels. But as the percentage of over 65’s is set to rise and become a quarter of the population of the UK by 2040, provisions must be made to help the 76% of this mature age group who believe that the country fails to make good use of their skills and talents. We could start by offering them some better education to accompany their wealth of experience.
There of course needs to be a certain level of patience when teaching the older generation, as they are unlikely to grasp complex subjects as fast as younger learners due to the slight change of pace in their working memory. The willingness to overcome this through acceptance and recursive positive action is strenuous enough and would be more productive if teachers were able to adapt to elder learners’ memory rituals and techniques. The Ananda College of Living Wisdom could prove to be an answer for this common generation gap problem; they offer a number of relaxing alternatives to the traditional teacher–student model such as meditation, yoga and journaling.
Generally speaking, most of us will become more introverted with age. The Ananda College seeks to inspire learning through introspective mediums and may be just what the elderly and the laid-back learners need. That, and a third eye to spot the onset of dementia and curb it before it hits.
Perhaps the current system that we employ when teaching all ages works fine on the whole, but it might be pushing some people away from education rather than extending their abilities. A common question that all students must answer is, “Why am I studying this?” The answer for somebody under the age of fifty might be fairly simple, “Because I need to bolster my C.V.” But for somebody about to retire, there is no salient end game for them. To learn for enjoyment is one thing, but the sort of dedication that it takes to complete a year of Higher Education leaves many elderly learners bewildered.
Certainly now that the median national age is increasing rapidly, we need to think of ways of adapting education to all ages, especially the older generations. If the average age of retirement increases to 80 in this century, as is thought to happen, there will be stiff competition for jobs, and the older generation — soon to be us — will need to justify our job titles.
Age UK (2015) Later Life in the United Kingdom pp. 3-4
Brown, J. (1958) Some tests of the decay theory of immediate memory. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology 10, 12-21
Lewandowsky, S., Oberauer, K. (2008) The word-length effect provides no evidence for decay in short-term memory Psychonomic bulletin and review, 15(5), pp. 875-888