Sunday, October 2, 2011

Can You Teach An Old Dog New Tricks?

In this case, of course, the dog would be me.

Whether or not I am old depends on your perspective, but in dog years I am 259.

And twice a week, for much of the fall, I head to night school. The class is a requirement of my new job.  It’s part of an alternative route to becoming certified to teach in the public schools for those of us who spent our undergrad and graduate years meeting requirements that had nothing to do with the real world.
In my case that was by design; I was studying theatre.

Now I am studying the art of teaching.

It’s been about ten years since I was a student (at NYU’s School of Continuing Education) and even longer since I felt, as I do now, that I am new at something. I am not inexperienced at teaching, but I am to this kind of teaching—the jargon, the acronyms, the trends in philosophy that define this moment in education.

Perhaps it's the nature of the class I am taking but I often ask myself: am I still a good student?

Unlike my experience as a student before, this time around I am a mother. And that means that in a lot of ways I embody the traits of a slacker.

I arrive to class late. I drink out of a mysterious thermos. I reach for my cell phone.

I have my reasons, if not excuses. I'm often late because I'm handing the kids off to a baby sitter. As for the thermos, it was more of a sippy, and that was because my water bottle was lost.  And I needed to use my cell phone to text the sitter to make sure the stove was off.

Yet, somehow, despite all signs to the contrary,  I know I am understanding, absorbing, and learning as well as I ever did.
A study released this past summer, and discussed on the webiste ScienceDaily,  might explain some of that. While it didn’t look at the distractions that come with being a student and mother of two young kids, it did look at the difference between young and old brains when it comes to learning new things. Researchers at the University of Montreal found:

“Funny enough, the young brain is more reactive to negative reinforcement than the older one. When the young participants made a mistake and had to plan and execute a new strategy to get the right answer, various parts of their brains were recruited even before the next task began. However, when the older participants learned that they had made a mistake, these regions were only recruited at the beginning of the next trial, indicating that with age, we decide to make adjustments only when absolutely necessary. It is as though the older brain is more impervious to criticism and more confident than the young brain," stated Dr. Monchi.”
 I don’t think I am as old as the participants recruited for this study, but I feel light-years away from the young college student I once was. Whether it's slacking, or multi-tasking, or juggling, the result is I am an old dog (or thirty-something mother) learning something new. The only way to do that is to have a few tricks of one's own.

 I am not sure how the researchers define mental confidence, but I can say that not understanding something the first time around, or even getting it wrong, does not bother me anymore.  And that's not because I'm a slacker; it's because I am a mother.

A few years ago, the economic downturn prompted an increase in adults going back to school.  About.com had an article with 5 Tips for Going Back to School as an Adult. The one commodity needed to achieve most of these goals is one that can be managed but not created: time.