It's time for tech to stop the stereotyping: Older people are just as capable—if not more capable—of learning new tech skills as their younger colleagues, according to Jonathan Dariyanani, president of Cognotion, Inc., in a Friday session at IdeaFestival 2016.
"In general, this idea that younger people are better at learning things, and 'you can't teach an old dog new tricks,' is not scientifically valid," Dariyanani told TechRepublic after the session.
In fact, it's easier for a person to learn a skill when they have an analogous schema—something they already know and understand that is similar to what they are trying to learn.
"Older people have mastered a number of complex systems, so as long as they're willing to be flexible and be uncomfortable, they can learn technology and master it the same as younger people," Dariyanani said. "The problem tends to be that as we get older, we're less willing to tolerate non-comprehension and discomfort. This often results in us not persisting and trying to learn things."
That's the biggest difference between older learners and younger learners, said Dariyanani. Young people are constantly forced into uncomfortable situations. Adults avoid them.
However, when older people do persist at learning a technology skill, they often master it more efficiently than their younger counterparts, Dariyanani said.
This aligns with the results of a recent Dropbox survey of more than 4,000 IT workers, which found that people over age 55 are actually less likely than their younger colleagues to find using tech in the workplace stressful. Only 13% of respondents aged 55 and older reported having trouble working with multiple devices, compared to 37% of 18-to-34-year olds.
"Adult learners are basically the same as child learners," Dariyanani said. "All of this adult learning theory is really not true, from a purely research-driven point of view."
But after age 25, most adults don't feel confident that they could learn a new skill, like coding or a foreign language. The problem lies in comfort with discomfort, Dariyanani said. "Kids are forced every day into uncomfortable situations," he said. "They've developed the ability to have emotional equanimity in discomfort, and are used to persisting in non-comprehension. Adults lose that habit."
Adults don't like being taken out of their comfort zone, and avoid activities that do so, Dariyanani said. "They lose the habit of persisting in non-comprehension—and it is a habit, it's not neurological," he said.
The best way to dive into learning a new subject is to first spend at least two days fully immersed in it. After that, you can spend just 15 to 30 minutes each day working on it. But you need that immersion to be successful, Dariyanani said.
The other key is an emotional investment. "You're not going to be successful as an adult learner without finding some source of passion and emotion amplification," Dariyanani said. "The key to adult learning is to jack up the emotion." Even hiring a tutor who you strongly dislike can be a good thing, because of the emotion that person evokes, he said.
It also helps to induce peer pressure. For example, websites like stickK allow adults to make a public financial commitment, such as "If I don't learn basic coding skills by this time next month, I will donate $100 to a political campaign that I actively oppose."
"Make a public declaration about what you're going to do, and make it a high-stakes wager with your community where the results of losing are profoundly humiliating," Dariyanani said.
So, to sum up, here are Dariyanani's four tips for boosting your ability to learn new things as you get older:
- Immerse yourself in the new skill for two full days, and then follow up by working on it every day for 15 to 30 minutes.
- Find an emotional investment in what you are learning.
- Create peer pressure to incentivize you to persist.
- Get comfortable with discomfort, and don't be afraid to be a novice again.
The 3 big takeaways for TechRepublic readers
- The stereotype that older people cannot learn new skills, including in technology, is false, explained Jonathan Dariyanani, president of Cognotion, on Friday at IdeaFestival 2016.
- Neurologically, older and younger learners are the same. But adults are less comfortable with discomfort and non-comprehension than younger people are, and therefore are less likely to persist in learning a new skill.
- Adults who want to learn something new should immerse themselves in it for a set time, then learn by chunking into smaller sessions. They also must create an emotional investment in their learning.
- IdeaFestival 2016: How a NASA team of black women 'computers' sent an astronaut into orbit in 1962 (TechRepublic)
- IdeaFestival 2016: 5 ways to navigate uncertainty in the workplace and use it to enhance creativity (TechRepublic)
- IdeaFestival 2016: How we can use data to stop an impending pandemic health crisis (TechRepublic)
- IdeaFestival 2016: Why science and tech need the humanities to create maximum value, explains MIT physicist (TechRepublic)
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Alison DeNisco Rayome has nothing to disclose. She does not hold investments in the technology companies she covers.
Alison DeNisco Rayome is a Senior Editor for TechRepublic. She covers CXO, cybersecurity, and the convergence of tech and the workplace.