Lifelong learning is a necessity nowadays. In Europe, on initiative of the European Commission, lifelong learning has been set on the political agenda since 2002 and the countries have been actively working on the development and raising of the individual and collective awareness of their citizens ever since. Learning throughout life is a possibility for each of us to strengthen and develop personally and professionally and to be more competitive on the labor market. On the other hand, building a knowledge-based society and the collective learning culture foster the economic development and wellbeing.
Learning throughout life, learning from the cradle to the grave...Have you ever asked yourself what does learning mean for our brain and how it affects us and our health from a pragmatic point of view? We are discussing these topics with Tina Vaskov M.A., a neuropsychologist and founder of the Center “Kognicija” from Skopje, North Macedonia;
Mrs. Vaskov, you have a rich professional experience in the field of clinical neuropsychology and you deal with the functioning of the human brain and its connection and relation to our behavior. It would be interesting to hear from you more on the learning potential of our brain: are we predestined for learning by nature?
The human brain never stops developing, because of the myelin and the myelin sheath that surrounds the nerve cells. It enables a fast transmission of nerve impulses – information. The myelin building process in children is intense and it decreases throughout life but it is continuous and never stops.
Are we predestined for learning? The human brain is not predestined for alphabetization – if we see learning as such; but if we consider learning as a process of adjustment of experiences – then the answer is YES, the human brain is created for learning. Humans possess a unique and unlimited ability to learn and gain new skills and an adaptability to new environments and circumstances.
What happens in the brain in physiological sense when we gain new knowledge?
For everything newly learned, there are connections constructed in the human brain. The connections are built by a huge number of brain cells. Scientific studies confirm that the brain is incredibly plastic and the neuron network has a capacity to transform regardless of age. Every time when we learn a new skill, no matter if it is a social game, a dance or a foreign language – we change our brain. How is it possible? To perform a task of any type, we activate a certain part. In the next phase, the brain coordinates a complex chain of reactions, consisting of processing auditory and visual information, motoric functions, speech etc. The evolution has designed separate brain structures for every function but they cannot provide knowledge alone. For the provision of knowledge, they need to coordinate with other neuron networks shaped by experience.
Does the child brain gain new content differently than the brain of the adult individual?
Right after birth, a large number of connections are developing in the brain on daily basis. This process of intensive connection creation i.e. intense learning lasts approximately until the 25th year of life, after which the process of gradual decrease begins.
There are so called “sensitive periods” in which a certain type of learning is most effective. For example, the early age is a sensitive period for learning languages. We can learn a new language later in life as well but the process would take longer. The building of vocabulary, for instance, as an activity, can be developed in any period of life.
And the answer to the question is YES – children and adults acquire knowledge differently and they can be efficient, if they choose the right approach.
In that context, is the theory “it is harder to learn at a later age” truth or just a myth?
The physiological characteristics are just one of the factors that defines the learning capacity. The senses play here a role as well. Namely, their function weakens throughout life (hearing, sight, reaction speed), This theory also has one another aspect: the only responsibility and task of children is to learn, while the adults have many additional daily responsibilities beside learning. Very important to be mentioned are the motivation, as well as other environmental, societal and cultural factors that play a significant role. For the process of successful learning, the emotional, physical and intellectual factors inevitably play a role as necessary preconditions, as well as upbringing, social environment, physical activity, nutrition...
How does the learning process affect the adult learner and what are the benefits for the physical and psychical health for the individual?
The benefits are visible on various levels. Education is related to the profession and the financial power of the individual – it influences directly the capabilities and their quality of life (leisure time and activities, nutrition style etc.). The profession defines to a high extent how we spend our time and to whom we communicate.
Learning is a tool we can use to combat the decrease of our cognitive abilities and helps us delay and slow down the neurodegenerative processes in our brain.
The brain reacts positively to the pleasure induced by learning new things and our emotions hold the power to change the nerve tissue. Statistics prove that the persons with better education nurture a higher level of awareness about life in general and tend to live a longer and healthier life.
What would you recommend to the adults who want to enter a learning process after a longer period of time?
I would definitely encourage them to return to learning, to learn new content and to develop new skills, to re- and prequalify if necessary because they will help their brains work longer and better! Every time we learn something new, we actually care about our brain.
Are there any tools or tips for easier, more effective and efficient learning?
Although each individual has a personal learning style, it is proved that adults learn better when involved into more modalities: visual, auditory and movement/dynamics/kinetics. It is important to choose the learning style of one adult learner is important because it later defines the methods and approaches in the teaching and learning process
For the majority of adults, the best strategy is their participation in active learning because it leads to permanent memorizing of the learnt content or skill. Adults have more obstacles to overcome than children do: lack of time, lack of self-confidence, lack of information related to the learning environment, lack of motivation etc. If the adult individual manages to find motivation and reasons to learn, to eliminate or reduce the obstacles, the gaining of new knowledge is almost guaranteed. Establishing a connection between the new knowledge and the positive benefits and options it would create is a very successful strategy in the decision to be and stay motivated to learn.
What is your message to all adults who consider themselves old to learn and who are frightened by lifelong learning?
I would recommend them to see lifelong learning as a challenge! It is never late to learn and it is the most appropriate way to take care of our brain. The fear is only in our mind and we can release from it only by facing it. That is why: learn, learn continuously and learn freely, no matter if formal, non-formal or informal. Learning shapes us into personalities with right and healthy values.