Lifespan Perspectives on Education Research Paper

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For many people the likelihood of being able to retain the same job, or even the same profession, for the whole of one’s working life is becoming increasingly remote. In these circumstances the idea of learning and education continuing to take place throughout life is a necessity, not simply a desirable goal.

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There are and always will be good practical reasons for paying particular importance to learning and training during a young person’s early years. The need to equip a person with the skills and capabilities that make it possible to have an independent life, and deal with the demands and responsibilities of a job sufficiently well to be employable, is most pressing in the early stages of life. It is understandable that once someone is capable of making a living and functioning as a mature adult, further learning and training may receive less priority. Even so, the chances are that at various times a man or woman will have to face new challenges and adapt to changing circumstances. For that reason it is highly desirable that individuals are encouraged to be aware that they may repeatedly be required to engage in learning and studying activities, throughout their whole lives.

1. Do There Exist Fixed Periods For Learning?

Because it is so important for adults to maintain their capacity to learn, it may seem odd that some people continue to regard learning and education as being activities that take place exclusively in the preadult stages of life. However, there are at least two reasons why that association continues to be made, if erroneously, even today. First, many people have been led to believe that a person’s mental capacities are relatively fixed, and unchangeable. Second, it is widely assumed that there are certain critical periods for learning, and that these occur in early childhood. Both these assertions imply that learning and educational experiences that take place after a person has reached adulthood have at best limited effectiveness. Therefore, it is inferred, childhood is the proper time for learning.

In reality, neither the belief that mental abilities are fixed nor the idea that there are critical periods for learning is at all firmly founded on factual evidence. Although the view that every person possesses inherent mental abilities that cannot be changed is still widely shared (see, e.g., Herrnstein and Murray 1994), it is challenged by evidence from a variety of sources (Ceci 1996, Howe 1997). Proof that mental abilities can change, often very considerably, has been provided by several kinds of research findings. First, for instance, results obtained in adoption studies demonstrate that children adopted at birth into nurturing families tend to be more intelligent that their biological relatives (Schiff et al. 1982, Schiff and Lewontin 1986). That finding would not occur if it were true that people inherit a fixed intelligence. Second, the results of a number of intervention studies that were designed to provide compensatory educational experiences for young children reared in disadvantaged early environments, provide further evidence that substantial changes can occur in a young person’s mental capacities (Ramey et al. 1984, Zigler and Muenchow 1992). That finding too would be an impossible one if it were really true that each person has fixed inherent mental abilities. Third, further evidence of the malleability of people’s mental capacities has been obtained from studies in which average performance levels at intelligence tests is compared between different generations (Flynn 1987, Flynn 1991). Once again, the findings provide evidence of substantial rises, challenging the belief that a person’s mental ability is fixed at an early age. Finally, findings obtained from a variety of studies assessing the influence of factors such as schooling provide additional proof that a person’s mental capacities are indeed alterable rather than being fixed (Baltes and Reinert 1969, Cahan and Cohen 1989).

The notion of critical periods, which is the other phenomenon that seemed to provide support for the view that learning and training experiences are only fully effective when they take place early in life, has also been sharply criticized. In the case of humans, it does not stand up to scientific scrutiny (Bruer 1999, Gopnik et al. 1999). It is true that in certain nonhuman species there are restricted periods, at an early stage of life, during which certain forms of learning have to occur if they are ever to take place at all. In humans, however, that is broadly not the case, with a few minor exceptions. Generally speaking, the timing of learning is not so crucial.

In humans, the only circumstances in which delaying learning has disastrous consequences for a child are ones in which there has been massive deprivation. For example, language development can suffer permanently when a severely neglected child is deprived of any opportunities to experience language, and perceptual development may be disrupted permanently as a result of undetected pathological conditions that affect vision (Bruer 1999). But these very unusual and extreme critical periods in humans are largely nonexistent.

That is not to say that it does not matter at all when learning takes place. Some forms of learning are achieved more easily or effectively if they take place early in life. For instance, individuals who acquire a second language in childhood may learn to speak it without an accent, whereas people who do not commence learning the language until adulthood may never learn to speak without a detectable accent (Newport 1990). However, the fact that some forms of learning take place more readily or more efficiently earlier rather than later is no justification for believing in the existence of rigid critical periods.

The vast majority of skills and capabilities that typically are learned by children and young people can also be learned by adults: in healthy nonelderly individuals substantial age-related decreases in learning capacity are unusual. Consequently, there are few if any impassable barriers to learning across the whole life-span. However, adult learners may encounter various practical obstacles. For instance, the kinds of learning arrangements and learning contexts that are appropriate for children and young people may be less appropriate for older adults. In order to maximize adult learning opportunities it may be necessary to devise arrangements that are more flexible than the school-based schedules that have been designed for children tend to be.

2. The Need For Flexibility

One of the practical reasons why it is necessary to provide especially flexible arrangements for encouraging adult learning is that, compared with children, older people have more responsibilities, more demands upon their time, and more complicated lives. Although a man or woman with a job and a family may be just as capable of learning as a younger person, and equally keen to learn, in all likelihood it will be necessary for learning activities to be fitted in with all kinds of other activities. In children, it is realistic to assume that whole days and weeks may be almost exclusively devoted to learning, but in most adults that desirable state of affairs will only rarely occur. Partly for that reasons, the sheer number of hours that an adult can devote to learning will be restricted, in comparison with the amount of time that a younger person is likely to have available.

The fact that the sheer amount of time that an older learner can devote to studying may be restricted does not inevitably mean that the older person will make less progress. Even when, as at school or in a full-time college or university course, the whole day is nominally set aside for training and learning purposes, it does not always follow that young students will be engaged productively in learning activities throughout the day. For most young people, there is a limit to the extent that they can continue concentrating on learning tasks over lengthy periods of time (Csikszentmihalyi et al. 1993). Perhaps as a consequence of boredom or fatigue, or inability to concentrate, a school pupil may spend much of the time relatively ineffectively, going through the motions of studying but not giving learning tasks the sustained concentration that can be achieved by a more committed individual.

For these reasons, highly motivated adults who are especially committed to their studies and capable of sustaining their concentration on studying tasks may achieve more in a given amount of time than a younger person does. That is most likely to be the case if the training and studying arrangements are flexible enough to enable the adult to engage in study activities at the same time as meeting their other. A full-time course will be a viable option for some adults but not for others. Part-time courses in further education will be preferable for many adults.

Some older students will favor the especially flexible kinds of arrangements for learning that are offered by institutions such as Britain’s Open University and also by comparable institutions in many other countries. Here the actual timing and scheduling of learning and studying sessions is largely decided by the student. For middle-aged and older students, there are also some ‘Third Age’ institutions, which typically combine an emphasis on flexibility with a lack of emphasis on factors such as competition and assessment. These can discourage older learners who may perceive them as irrelevant or aversive. For other learners, however, the extra flexibility on nontraditional courses is only achieved at a cost, because the individuals have to take more responsibility for structuring their time and also have to make decisions concerning how and when to engage in study activities. Broadly speaking, the more flexible the arrangements, the greater the demands that are made upon the person’s maturity and independence as a learner.

3. Problems Faced By Older Learners

In comparison with school learners, older people will usually benefit from the major advantage of being able to decide on the particular course of study to be followed, rather than being expected to study at a particular subject simply because that is what the school requires. Broadly speaking, older students are likely to be highly motivated to learn. On the other hand, there are certain problems that are more likely to be confronted by older than younger learners. The added responsibilities of an older person’s day-to-day life may not only constrain the hours available for study activities but may also produce distractions at times that are nominally free for learning. Older people worry about their jobs and their relationships. Parents, in particular, are likely to be concerned about their children. Responsibilities like these may make it difficult for an adult learner, compared with a younger person, to concentrate fully on learning. Of course, children at school have anxieties, too, but the fact that older learners are likely to be responsible for other people as well as themselves may create distractions that are especially hard to ignore.

Another difficulty that is more prone to be experienced by older learners stems from the frustration that can accompany individuals’ awareness of the slowness of their progress. For example, compared with a young child who is learning to play the piano and is perfectly content to keep practicing at the simple tunes that music teachers set for their child pupils, an adult beginner may have different expectations of what a learner ought to be able to achieve. An adult beginner at the piano may be anxious to learn to play the kind of music that they enjoy listening to. For older learners it may be frustrating to discover that it will be some years before they will reach a stage at which they can begin to play that music. They may be unhappy to perceive that in order to become able to do so it will be necessary to spend numerous hours painstakingly attempting to master easier musical compositions. These may provide few of the aesthetic satisfactions associated with more advanced music. For children, on the other hand, their actual rate of progress may be equally slow, but lacking either a knowledge of more advanced music or an adult expectation of the amount of progress that ought to be made, for the younger performer there may be no comparable frustrations or disappointments.

Similar frustrations may confront adult learners of a second language. Once again, an adult learner may actually be making just as much actual progress as a younger student. However, being more aware of the differences between one’s goals and one’s actual achievements, and being more conscious of how difficult it is to make progress, the adult is likely to experience more discontent than the child does.

Adult learners may be taken aback to find themselves experiencing other obstacles that less mature students encounter. For example, the activity of studying contains elements that make it a difficult one for many people to sustain, irrespective of age. Studying tends to be solitary, it requires concentration, and it takes effort. Many learners, young and old, find themselves inadequately equipped to meet the demands that are imposed upon a young learner by the necessity to function effectively in that combination of circumstances (Csikszentmihalyi et al. 1993) Put simply, a learner of any age may be unprepared for the sustained and sometimes lonely efforts that studying and learning demand.

Of course, to a considerable extent people are able to learn how to learn more effectively. In many countries ‘how to study’ courses, which attempt to meet the particular requirements of adults who are returning to education, are widely available. However, it takes time and effort for a learner to gain the kinds of habits that help make it relatively easy for a person to engage in continuous study sessions (Howe 1990). Those learners who do succeed in establishing firm study habits experience fewer anxieties than other learners, and are less likely to feel the desire for distractions, or for company, that is common in learners who have had relatively little experience at independent learning (Csikszentmihalyi 1993, Howe 1998).

Some learners of all ages are handicapped by experiencing a severe fear of failing (Covington 1998; Howe 1998). A person who fears failure may genuinely want to succeed, but be so anxious to avoid failing that they cannot make progress because of an unwillingness to engage in difficult learning activities that are not perceived as resulting in certain success.

Fear of failure is linked to a lack of confidence, and for a self-confident and experienced learner, the prospect of an occasional failure may be not at all threatening. After all, seen objectively, a failure to achieve something is nothing more than a sign that further progress is needed, or that more work must be done. However, a less confident student may perceive possible future failures very differently. Someone who has failed often in the past, and found the experience a humiliating one, and one that is a real blow to one’s self-esteem, may easily start to feel that failure must be avoided at all costs (Covington and Omelich 1981). To such a person it may appear that the easiest way to avoid failing is to simply not try. After all, if one has not even tried to achieve something, one cannot really fail at it.

Unfortunately, of course, although not trying at all may be a good strategy for avoiding failure, it is certainly not a good way to promote learning. In order to become an effective student, someone who is suffering from fear of failure will need to learn to see possible failures in a different light—as mere signals that more work is needed rather than as proof of the individual’s inadequacy. This may be a difficult process, and one that requires time and patience, and the support of sympathetic teachers.

The view of education as a lifelong process is increasingly being seen as a necessity rather than just a possibility. Undoubtedly, most adults are just as capable of learning as younger people are. There are differences between older and younger students, of course, and, as we have seen, there are both advantages and disadvantages of being a more mature learner. Because arrangements for learning need to be more flexible when it is necessary for a student to deal with all the responsibilities of adult life, is not always easy for the adult learner to identify educational programs that are suited precisely to the individual’s particular needs. However, in many cases the fact that older learners are likely to be especially strongly motivated to learn, and can make informed choices and decisions about the topics to be studied, provides ample compensation for any difficulties.


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