How does the senior brain learn best?

Catherine Marienau
Catherine Marienau

How do seniors learn best? Do seniors learn differently from other age groups? What are the best ways for seniors to approach their learning?

Two experts on adult education, Catherine Marienau and Kathleen Taylor, emphasized that it is important for seniors to take advantage of their experience in the classroom, and that teachers should avoid a “top down” approach when teaching seniors.

“As we get older, it’s really important to have our perspectives validated,” said Taylor, who is a professor at Saint Mary’s College in California. “If we don’t do this, you often see people nodding in agreement, but not engaging.”

Marienau, who teaches at DePaul University in Chicago, echoed that it is very important to create a “hospitable” environment in classrooms and to make sure people’s voices feel “welcome and respected.” Marienau has led workshops for Jewish educators and she said that she is always impressed by the complexity of the material that Jewish classes take on.

“Having a shared view of the world that comes from Jewish teachings adds another incredible layer of richness and power to these classrooms,” she said.

Marienau emphasized that when teaching seniors complex material, it is important to not approach the material differently than one would with younger adults.

“The notion that when you’re teaching seniors you have to dumb down the material is really insulting to them,” she said. “They have so much lived experience for the teacher to tap into. If you think about everyone in a classroom, their shared experience is like another textbook.”

Marienau explained that from a scientific point of view, cognitive ability does decrease with age, but that decrease is widely overestimated.

“The research suggests that average cognitive capacity reaches its peak around age 40,” she said. “But a 60-year-old operating only slightly above average is operating at the same range as the average person in their 40s.”

Kathleen Taylor
Kathleen Taylor

The two experts, who co-authored the book “Facilitating Learning with the Adult Brain in Mind,” also said it is important for teachers and students to accept the importance of emotions in classrooms.

“Emotions are part of the thinking process,” said Marienau. “It’s important to acknowledge how people are feeling in the room.”

Marienau told the story of a rabbi who said he has been teaching for 35 years, but hasn’t paid much attention to how people feel about what they’re learning. He said that as he has gotten older and gained more experience he has learned not to “shut down” that part of learning.

One way to make older learners comfortable and to draw their experiences into the classrooms is to use narrative learning and storytelling, Taylor said.

“When we are telling our stories, we are vulnerable and there is an opening to considering another perspective,” she said.

Overall, Taylor said the worst thing teachers can do is to treat classes as a one-sided lecture.

“We all know that some rabbis like the sound of their own voices,” joked Taylor, who is Jewish. “But a top-down approach isn’t going to work at all.”
It is important for educators to see older students’ experience as an opportunity, she said.

“There is some truth to the idea that children’s minds are like sponges,” she said. “As we grow older, we take on a lifetime of cultural assumptions. But we should use that experience as a platform for learning more.”

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