Educators say that, for adults, one way to nudge neurons in the right direction is to challenge the very assumptions they have worked so hard to accumulate while young. With a brain already full of well-connected pathways, adult learners should “jiggle their synapses a bit” by confronting thoughts that are contrary to their own, says Dr. Taylor, who is 66.
Teaching new facts should not be the focus of adult education, she says. Instead, continued brain development and a richer form of learning may require that you “bump up against people and ideas” that are different. In a history class, that might mean reading multiple viewpoints, and then prying open brain networks by reflecting on how what was learned has changed your view of the world.
“There’s a place for information,” Dr. Taylor says. “We need to know stuff. But we need to move beyond that and challenge our perception of the world. If you always hang around with those you agree with and read things that agree with what you already know, you’re not going to wrestle with your established brain connections.”
Such stretching is exactly what scientists say best keeps a brain in tune: get out of the comfort zone to push and nourish your brain. Do anything from learning a foreign language to taking a different route to work.
“As adults we have these well-trodden paths in our synapses,” Dr. Taylor says. “We have to crack the cognitive egg and scramble it up. And if you learn something this way, when you think of it again you’ll have an overlay of complexity you didn’t have before — and help your brain keep developing as well.”
Jack Mezirow, a professor emeritus at Columbia Teachers College, has proposed that adults learn best if presented with what he calls a “disorienting dilemma,” or something that “helps you critically reflect on the assumptions you’ve acquired.”
Dr. Mezirow developed this concept 30 years ago after he studied women who had gone back to school. The women took this bold step only after having many conversations that helped them “challenge their own ingrained perceptions of that time when women could not do what men could do.”
Such new discovery, Dr. Mezirow says, is the “essential thing in adult learning.”
“As adults we have all those brain pathways built up, and we need to look at our insights critically,” he says. “This is the best way for adults to learn. And if we do it, we can remain sharp.”