Old Dog, New Tricks, New Hope

We were having difficulty with a student. Language barriers, mental illness, fear, culture shock, and expectations converged on an adult learner, and she was in danger of academic failure. The faculty bantered about what we could and could not do to help. The director dismissed the concern by saying, “Research shows that she is too old to learn at this level. After forty, you may as well forget it.”

I gasped. The faculty gasped—only one instructor and the director were under forty. I gasped at the insult. I gasped at giving up on a student without intervention. I gasped at prejudice and stereotype. I gasped that the director, a Christian, could reconcile such a view point with Christianity.

The idea that older people lose the capacity to learn is pervasive in our society. We hear it all the time: “Mom’s a little slower, and we need to help make decisions.” “It’s too complicated—I will handle it for you.” “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks” (see video). Of course, if people have dementia, they do need help. But most are quite capable of learning new content and making decisions on their own.

Many previous studies failed to identify factors such as early dementia or other medical causes. Those over fifty will be happy to know that research dispels some lore about how people’s brains perform as they age. (One such study—Healthy Brain, Healthy Decisions: The MetLife Study of Decision-Making Potential) And more good news, age-related characteristics like life experience, reasoning ability, and accumulated knowledge enhance learning.

Let’s hear that again: Healthy older adults show no decline in decision-making, and learning capacity may actually increase with age.

Jesus takes captives and turns them into free people. The ability to make good choices–to learn–is a fruit of spiritual growth (Galatians 5:23). If you are not able to do that now, God will help you. He will work in your life through a process of spiritual growth. God has given you freedom, and commanded you to take control of the things that He has entrusted to you. “Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.”

By the way, the director who dismissed learning abilities in a student is now nearly fifty.


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