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What It Takes To Be a Lifelong Learner

A friend learning her way around her new iPad wonders if learning really is different as we get older. And what’s the deal with that?

The short answer is yes, our ability to learn does change as we age. We get slower.

We have diminished capacity in our working memory as we age. That is, you can’t throw too much stuff at us at once. As a rule, it takes older people longer to learn things than it does young people. And older people might never get as good at new stuff as younger people can, no matter how long they study.

Hm, yeah, that’s no fun. I read that in an article discussing evolutionary theory, which also gave me this cheering thought, about allocation of psychological resources:

In childhood, the primary allocation is directed toward growth; during adulthood, the predominant allocation is toward maintenance and recovery (resilience). In old age, more and more resources are directed toward regulation or management of loss.

The older you get, the more of a bummer evolutionary theory can be.

So let us skip, instead, over to educational psychology, and an article titled “Age-related differences in the relation between motivation to learn and transfer of training in adult continuing education.”

This article argues, through a literature review and a re-crunching of statistics, that motivation is key to learning, and that older adults are just as motivated to learn as younger ones.

The research is aimed at workplace training, but the concepts can be easily transferred to independent iPad training. Which is one of the things older adults do better than younger, according to this article. Transferring: applying things we’ve learned to other situations. So there is that.

But motivation is the focus here. Do we remain motivated to learn as we age?

Our declining learning speed can certainly mess with our motivation. Adults don’t often have to do things they don’t know how to do, and then we find that we can’t learn as quickly as we once did. We get embarrassed and annoyed with ourselves and might decide that well, we don’t care about using that use that damn iPad camera anyway. We have a perfectly good camera already.

The theory of socioemeotional selectivity that I love so much also is a factor. The older you get, the less you want to mess with stuff that doesn’t fulfill deeper needs. Or, as psychologist Laura Carstensen, who developed the theory, explained:

When time is perceived as open-ended, goals that become most highly prioritized are most likely to be those that are preparatory, focused on gathering information, on experiencing novelty, and on expanding breadth of knowledge. When time is perceived as constrained, the most salient goals will be those that (. . .) tend to emphasize feeling states, particularly regulating emotional states to optimize psychological well-being.

In other words, do I really care if I can take photos with my iPad? Or are there more important things for me to do with the limited time I have on earth?

No judgment at all implied here. I would learn to use the camera. I like technology and it enhances my life and craft. So I would poke and prod and sniff at the thing like the apes in the opening sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey until I figured out everything I need to know.

Some people may feel differently about this particular task. This might make them seem incapable of learning how to use the camera. But rather, they’re just not putting in the energy necessary because life is short. I’ve been there, too. I once decided to learn how to build my own website. I bought software, spent a few hours playing with it, and decided I would rather hire someone.

When it comes to workplace training, whether or not you feel like learning a new skill is moot. If you want your job, you learn. That can be the motivation. Naturally, it’s more fun if you’re learning something that interests you as well, especially if it takes a while.

But when we’re on our own, we have to find our own motivation to clear the hurdles against our learning something new.

Learning is, in a way, losing control. Suddenly, you are incapable. The longer you’ve functioned as a competent adult in the world, the more intimidating the bottom of a learning curve can be, and the curve is steeper than it once was. Yikes. Will this be where I reach the bottom of my well of intelligence? Will this be where I hit the wall of new concepts? Is this the gadget that will finally confound me?

That depends on how badly I want it.

What It Takes To Be a Lifelong Learner

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APA Reference
Dembling, S. (2011). What It Takes To Be a Lifelong Learner. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 21, 2020, from


Last updated: 10 Dec 2011
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