Apr 23, 2010 by Sherrelle Walker, M.A.
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Remember the old saying, "You can’t teach an old dog new tricks?"  Well, we are actually finding out that you CAN teach an old dog new tricks. Decades of research tell us that the brain has the capacity to continually grow and re-wire itself. 

The ability of the brain to change itself is termed brain plasticityor neuroplasticity. A good question is "how do we translate this knowledge of neuroplasticity into success for all learners?"

First, we need to understand what "learner" means. According to TheFreeDictionary.com, "learn" is defined as "to gain knowledge, information, comprehension, or skill."  Lifelong learning is described as learning in which a person of any age keeps the mind and body engaged by actively pursuing knowledge and experience. 

Dr. Michael Merzenich, a leader in the field of neuroplasticity research, claims that we can constantly change the structure of the brain and increase its capacity to learn. His research shows that if the brain is not challenged with new learning, the brain's function can gradually erode over time, leading to decreased memory and cognitive function. Collaborative experiments by Merzenich and William Jenkins, Ph.Dshowed the adult brain demonstrated change and adaptation in response to stimuli.1

Lifelong learning is not confined to childhood and has extended beyond the traditional classroom environment. Learning takes place in Tai Chi classes for senior citizens or in sandboxes where children can create the future. Many community education programs include lifelong learning courses on a variety of topics, including photography and naturopathic medicine. These activities offer new opportunities for the learner to experience new things, learn new concepts and stimulate the brain in a new way, thus keeping the brain "plastic." 

Educators are learning that brain fitness for students is just as important as physical fitness. Adults, especially Baby Boomers, are embracing lifelong learning as way to keep the mind and body healthy. Some are even looking at voluntourism(combining volunteer work with vacationing) or educational travel (combining lectures, explorations and leisure time) as a way of pursuing lifelong learning.

So, try learning a new language or playing a new musical instrument, teach reading in Romania, or maybe even learn how to do magic. You really can teach an old dog new tricks and you should!

For more information on lifelong learning and neuroplasticity, refer to Norman Doidge's book, "The Brain That Changes Itself" or the video, The New Science of Learning: Brain Fitness for Kids.

1Jenkins, W. M., Merzenich, M. M., & Recanzone, G. (1990). Neocortical representational dynamics in adult primates: Implications for neuropsychology. Neuropsychologia, 28(6), 573-84.