Sunday, May 7, 2017

Learning Continues

When Alex was little, the theory regarding developmental windows of opportunity caused needless anxiety for me, fearing that we only had a short time for him to learn needed skills. Promoting early childhood learning and early intervention for children with developmental delays, this windows concept stresses that optimal learning takes place between birth and the age of four. As I tried to teach preschooler Alex everything I thought he needed to know, I kept picturing that dreaded window slamming shut as I was running out of time.

Later research discovered the concept of brain plasticity in which the brain can modify its structure and function after bodily or environmental changes, such as brain trauma or disease. In fact, the brain can be remarkably adaptable, allowing further learning and modified behavior at any age, even after that learning window has supposedly long closed. As a teacher of adolescents, I know learning opportunities exist after age four because I see growth and development every school year in the students I teach. Moreover, I see Alex continue to develop his skills over time, even though he lags behind his peers due to autism.

A few days ago, a fascinating article regarding the continued ability to learn appeared in an online article in UCR Today. [To read this article, please click here.]  In “You’re Never Too Old to Learn That,” Mojgan Sherkat describes the research of University of California Riverside psychology professor Rachel Wu, whose paper “A Novel Theoretical Life Course Framework for Triggering Cognitive Development Across the Life Span” was recently published in the journal Human Development.

Professor Wu asserts that people develop habits and learning strategies throughout their lives that either encourage or discourage cognitive development. While infants and children learn many skills through broad learning experiences, adults learn to specialize their learning for their careers, becoming expert at certain skills. This specialized learning leads to cognitive decline, first in unfamiliar settings and later in both unfamiliar and familiar areas. To prevent the cognitive decline with age, people should engage in “broad learning experiences,” continuing to learn new skills.

Moreover, she contrasts the differences between broad learning, usually seen in children, and specialized learning, usually seen in adults, in six ways. For example, broad learning focuses upon learning new patterns and skills outside the comfort zone, whereas specialized learning shows preference for familiar routines. In addition, in broad learning, teachers and mentors guide the learners; in specialized learning, learners do not have access to experts who can help them. Also, while broad learning holds the belief that abilities develop with effort, specialized learning holds the belief that inborn talent is more important than effort. In another contrast, during broad learning, mistakes and failure are allowed as part of the learning process, but these same mistakes can have serious consequences in specialized learning, such as being fired from a job for incompetence. Yet another difference between the two types of learning is the serious commitment to learning found in broad learning versus little commitment to learning found in specialized learning, often due to time constraints or giving up when the task becomes difficult. Finally, broad learning, as its name suggest, involves learning multiple skills at the same time; specialized learning involves learning one––if any––skill at a time.

Consequently, to keep the mind sharp, adults must return to the learning styles they engaged in as children. As Professor Wu explains, “What I want adults to take away from this study is that we CAN learn many new skills at any age. It just takes time and dedication.” Thus, the proverbial “old dog” apparently can be taught “new tricks” with the proper amount of effort and willingness to learn.

Often, people will ask me what Alex is doing these days, now that he is a twenty-five-year-old young man living with autism. Because he cannot yet function in a job setting and because we have not found a day program appropriate for his needs, he is at home with us. However, he is not just sitting around; home schooling continues for Alex as we give him as many opportunities to learn as possible. Knowing that the window of opportunity to learn has not closed, we provide him with guidance, encouragement, and the tools he needs to learn. He spends his days reading, researching online, engaged in conversation with us, and getting out in the community by going to restaurants, concerts, sporting events, and other activities he enjoys. As career teachers and parents, Ed and I hope to continue to develop this broad learning so critical to Alex’s continued progress.

Last week, we were able to see how Alex learns through a series of unusual events. Apparently, he had some virus (as I later discovered his music therapist and one of my colleagues also had experienced last week) that caused him to have no appetite. Since Alex has always been a good eater, this caught us totally by surprise, especially when he wouldn’t even eat his favorite foods, such as shrimp, white chili, and meatloaf. Ever the researcher, Alex delved into his various huge medical books and Internet medical websites, trying to diagnose his ailment, just as many of us do when we have odd symptoms.

Although we tried to reassure him that he had nothing serious and encouraged him to eat a few things that appealed to him, such as applesauce and Jello, he decided to begin a new search on mortality. Since Alex has never had to deal with the death of anyone close to him, this may have been his first time exploring the concept of death. Along with recently having discussed the meaning of Easter and Jesus’ death and resurrection, Alex decided to study the abstract concepts of life, death, and immortality. However, we, along with his therapist, had to reassure him that he was not going to die from a brief loss of appetite. Nonetheless, our conversations with him revealed that he continues to develop a depth of understanding about the world around him, even those difficult to comprehend issues of life, death, and eternal life promised by the sacrifice of Christ. Clearly, Alex continues to develop his cognitive skills, and we eagerly anticipate all that he will learn and share with us in that amazing mind God has given him.

“That is what the Scriptures mean when they say, ‘No eye has seen, no ear has heard, and no mind has imagined what God has prepared for those who love Him.’” I Corinthians 2:9

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