Lifelong Learning

In the traditional sense, learning is a process that begins with elementary school and ends with graduation from a higher learning institution such as a university. It is not a surprising conception since the modern world emphasizes degrees earned and certificates collected rather than appraising actual knowledge gathered by the individual. We are constantly evaluated by the grades on our CVs when applying for a job. Even when meeting a new person, one of the first questions usually asked is ‘Where did you graduate from?’ or ‘What did you study?’

The concept of lifelong learning challenges the idea that learning is limited to only a certain period of life. A lifelong learner keeps learning long after he graduates from a university or a higher institution. According to this notion, one should keep learning new ideas, concepts, and skills until he is mentally or physically no longer available to do so. The motivations to know new things are also revised. For a lifelong learner, the reason should be to gain the information and use it in new settings rather than obtaining a certificate or a degree.

Does Human Brain Stop Change?

As science shows that the brain keeps changing even after childhood, there has been a shift in understanding the human learning process. Before, we considered that the human mind could change and adapt in only the early years of life. According to this view, it is impossible to play the piano or learn a new language after a certain age. This misconception is pretty common in society as we can easily find people who say 'It is too late for me to learn Spanish now' or 'I am too old for this sports'. One thing they ignore is that recent scientific studies on neuroplasticity overthrew this idea. Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to change its structure by forming new connections between nerve cells. Studies now show that although this ability is more prominent in the early years of life, the human brain retains the capacity to change and modify itself even later.

Fixed vs. Growth Mindset

A fixed mindset means believing that the characteristics of a person – let them be inherited traits, previous education, or natural talents – defines what he can do in life. These characteristics cannot be changed for a person with a fixed mindset and will dictate any achievements or failures in life. Thus, if a person can speak many languages, this is because of his inherent talents in language learning, or if someone is a good basketball player, he is somehow prone to sports – he is a sportsperson. Someone with this mindset is reluctant to study new subjects or learn new skills because he does not believe it is possible.

A growth mindset, on the other hand, is quite the opposite of a fixed mindset. This view attributes a person's achievements to effort, resilience, and persistence rather than specific inherent abilities and talents. So, for a person with a growth mindset, if a person is successful in business, that is because he spent many hours studying the field, meeting people and talking with them about his career, and seizing the opportunities. Similarly, a top tennis player is good because he has been practicing more than his rivals. The findings from many studies suggest that a growth mindset mainly governs success.

How to change the mindset?

Having a fixed mindset might sound like a bad thing, but it is possible to change. In one study, teaching the adolescents that intelligence is not fixed but improvable resulted in higher grades. Therefore, it is sensible to change the mindset from set to grow to become a lifelong learner. There are certain tricks to do, such as learning from the failures rather than being frustrated, challenging the ideas of a fixed mindset with positive self-talk, and increasing the awareness of our own beliefs and preconceptions. By constantly reminding ourselves that the workings of our mind can be changed and improved, we can use neuroplasticity in our favor and move towards the growth mindset.

How to become a lifelong learner?

For a lifelong learner, the thrill is the learning process itself, not the endpoint. As we see that we can learn new information and apply these to new situations, we start to like learning even more. Our brains are inherently prone to like this process. By constantly using the newly formed pathways, learning and enjoying it soon becomes second nature. We start to approach the problems differently, devise new methods to solve them, and keep applying the newly gained knowledge to different domains of life.

Technology gave us many opportunities to keep our learning muscles pumped even in a busy schedule. Using our smartphones, we can learn how to speak a new language by spending only 15-30 minutes every day. Open learning platforms from many prestigious universities make lectures and lessons available worldwide and for free. Now we can listen to our favorite books while driving or walking home. It is an exciting time to live as a lifelong learner!

Apart from the obvious benefits of learning new information and skills, keeping an active mind by learning can prevent some effects of dementia. A study conducted at Mayo Clinic showed that people engaged with intellectually stimulating jobs or pursuits delayed some effects of Alzheimer's disease. Gaining an understanding of learning has beneficial effects even in the elderly. Dedicating some time to achieve the lifelong learning perspective might help us live better and more fulfilling lives.

Dr. Egehan Salepci

References

1.      Good, C., Aronson, J. & Inzlicht, M. Improving adolescents’ standardized test performance: An intervention to reduce the effects of stereotype threat. J. Appl. Dev. Psychol. 24, 645–662 (2003).

2.      P, V. et al. Association of lifetime intellectual enrichment with cognitive decline in the older population. JAMA Neurol. 71, 1017–1024 (2014).

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