Thursday 18 October 2018

How to teach an old dog new tricks

Have you resolved to pick up an instrument, try a different sport or take up a language in 2018? It's never too late to acquire a new skill, writes Dr Shane Bergin - but it helps if you first understand exactly how you learn

It's never too late to acquire a new skill
It's never too late to acquire a new skill
Life-long learners, from left: Diane McSweeney, Dr Shane Bergin and Lynn Scarff. Photo: Tony Gavin

With the New Year comes resolutions. Whether people seek to break bad habits or have a go at something new, this will require a degree of learning - something that we Homo sapiens are particularly skilled at. While most New Year's resolutions are long forgotten by the end of the month, the fact that we try afresh each January shows an intrinsic eagerness to grow. And knowing more about how you learn could make the difference this year.

As a scientist in UCD School of Education, my research borrows ideas around how we learn from philosophy, neuroscience, psychology and genetics. My job sees me blend the best of these disciplines to educate student teachers. Later this month, I am launching a podcast series that follows people learning new skills and concepts. 101: The Ways We Learn will look under the hood of human learning as people learn to cycle, to cook and code among other things. While science can't yet offer a simple formula for successful learning (we still don't fully understand what the mind is), research points to the following ideas that you may wish to consider with your resolutions for 2018.


The most important thing to note is that you can teach an old dog new tricks. As children we all learned an incredible range of things. Whether learning to walk, talk or negotiate our place in the world, our brain worked hard to establish neural patterns that made continuing these processes easier. As we age, our brains become more efficient at doing things we've already learned. This has consequences. It makes it harder for us to establish new patterns and learn new things. However, while there are certain periods of our lives when it is easier, we never lose the ability to learn. We all know people who've started to swim or cycle as adults, patients who've re-learned how to walk following accidents, or indeed those who've developed complex emotional responses to events that life presents (eg, the break-up of a relationship or parenting a teenage child).

Life-long learners, from left: Diane McSweeney, Dr Shane Bergin and Lynn Scarff. Photo: Tony Gavin
Life-long learners, from left: Diane McSweeney, Dr Shane Bergin and Lynn Scarff. Photo: Tony Gavin

Such stories are the exception rather than the norm, but they don't have to be. Two years ago, as I sat on the slopes of a snowy alpine mountain frustrated at my inability to ski - it was my first attempt and I looked on in envy as tiny children glided past with ease. Much of what prevents us from learning as adults is our mindset. We think of the many reasons that would prevent us from doing new things. We fear failure and how that might look to others. Had I, on that ski slope, embraced a more open mindset, I may have had more success. I could have built on failure and ignored the voices in my head that told me the Swiss found my technique comical.


If you could learn one new thing what would it be? A new language? Fly an aeroplane? Play a musical instrument? These answers are based on popular replies to a Facebook post of mine. Think about why you chose that. Was it to seek external rewards (eg, get a higher mark in an exam or get promoted)? Research shows you are far less likely to persist with an externally motivated interest than with those that intrinsically motivate you - those things we do without any obvious external rewards. We do them because they make us happy. Good teaching involves creating learning environments that connect with students' intrinsic motivations. A combination of challenge, curiosity and recognition are key. Look again at your New Year's resolutions: ask yourself what's driving your desire to learn?


Learning is far more than memorising and repeating facts on demand. It's also the ability to understand, to apply, to question, and even to create knowledge. As I write this, I am quite conscious that those of you negotiating your way through school, or indeed college, may roll your eyes and conclude that exams are nothing more than a conspiracy to keep highlighter companies in business. However, using a selection of routes to learn is wonderfully freeing. If your goal in 2018 is to brush up on your French, do you really think success lies with rote-learned grammar over negotiating the small talk required on a trip to Paris? While committing things to memory is essential for fluency in any language (or, indeed, recalling the numerous online passwords required to function in 2018), one might consider that memorising may come later - as a consequence rather than as a prerequisite.


Whether driven by social convention or previous bad experiences, many of us have fixed views on our ability to learn certain things. Mathematics is a perfect example. When I tell people that I'm a physicist, I'm met with comments like "my brain just doesn't work that way" or "my family are more artsy than maths leaning". Such perspectives are not supported by various fields of research. While our genetic make-up has an influence on our ability to learn, the effect is not as large as many might think.

Children in musical families are more likely to be musical mainly because they have access to instruments, they are encouraged and taught by experts, and it's viewed as a 'normal thing to do' within their family. Musical talent is predominantly developed rather than inherited. The same things can be said of ability in maths. People who believe their talents can be developed have a growth mindset. Research shows they tend to achieve more than those whose mindsets are fixed and believe their talents are innate gifts.

Reflecting on my own mathematical education, I can identify how my mindset changed: it was due to a great teacher. Mr O'Leary believed we were all capable of learning and that there was a range of teaching techniques he could explore with us to make that belief a reality. It worked. Not only did I jump from a C at Junior Cert to an A in the Leaving, I chose to study physics at university - being mathematical is now part of my identity. Incidentally, I wasn't the only one in my class to change mindset. I try to remind myself of the power of a growth mindset when I grapple with things I find difficult, like learning a language or sport.


Learning is a social enterprise. Tackling a new concept, skill or adventure is almost always more successful when done as part of a community. Collaborating with peers or teachers stretches our abilities. Collaboration encourages us to go beyond our comfort zones, negotiate challenges, and share success. Reflecting on my own musical education, I recall numerous rehearsals and heated discussions on the finer points of replicating that REM sound that now serves as a backing track to my teenage life. That learning was deep. It was stretched, mediated, and reinforced by my friends and peripheral characters like music teachers and role models. While the learning was social, the effect was personal. Incidentally, research shows peer learning to be far more effective than passively lecturing university students - the classes I teach are rarely quiet. Should you envisage 2018 as the year you finally dust down the old guitar, then seek out others to share that journey with you.


Playing and having fun when learning is not just for children. For many of you, Christmas Day was spent on the floor surrounded by toys, games, and other delights that Santy delivered. Perhaps, like me, you'll have considered the priority children give to having fun while playing and indeed the positive impact play has on children's capacity to learn. As adults, often reluctant to let our guard down, we might do well to mimic these childish behaviours when learning. When we play we imagine. We apply rules to this imagined existence. We act as if we were an astronaut/a farmer/a parent. This helps us construct ideas around complex concepts and abstract thought. The rules serve to regulate and promote team work. When adults adopt these behaviours, they learn in rich and meaningful ways. Enjoying yourself sustains your interest and prolongs the opportunity to learn. Role play might see you develop confidence in public speaking or expressing yourself at awkward work meetings. Indeed, prioritising fun and a sunny disposition plays as vital a role when tackling traditionally sombre topics as it does for the creative arts. Having fun is not just an outcome of good learning; it's essential to making it happen.


Finally, perhaps the most powerful tool when learning is one's capacity to think about your thinking. It's like having a bird's-eye view of your kayak as you navigate the choppy seas of learning. Activities such as planning how to approach a task, monitoring your progress, and reflecting on your learning can have dramatic consequences. Awakening an awareness of yourself as a learner touches on many of the other ideas I've described. It's what inspired my upcoming podcast series - 101: The Ways We Learn. While no one area of academia can lay claim to fully understanding the complexities of human learning, we can look to evidence-based clues from various fields of expertise. 101: The Ways We Learn will touch on many of these as it follows people learning everyday things like drawing, design and drumming. I hope listening may challenge you to think about your thinking and in doing so make your 2018 New Year's resolutions a reality.

'101: The Ways We Learn' will launch later this month. You can find it on iTunes or where you pick up your podcasts. See

'I'm learning how to code'

Lynn Scarff (39) is the director of the Dublin Science Gallery. She learned how to code. She says:

"As a mum of two small kids, I am conscious that they'll be in a world where coding is the norm. So basically I want to stay ahead of my kids.

I had never done coding before this challenge, but I've seen it in a lot of our programmes at the Science Gallery - particularly for transition year students - and our shows, so I have always been interested.

My instructor was Junior Cert student Niamh Scanlon, who is a mentor at CoderDojo. She is such a natural teacher. I did the Hour of Code, which offers lots of activities in different grades and coding languages free online. Using the Blocks language, I wrote a simple programme that made Anna and Elsa from Frozen skate around in squares and circles - which my four-year-old loved!

I'm not hugely maths inclined. I'm more of a visual person, so I was surprised to find that dragging and dropping blocks that carry instructions such as 'move forward by so many pixels' was actually a very visual task. There were bits where the patterns overlapped so it wasn't just paint by numbers, there's thinking involved.

If I have the time, I'd like to carry on coding and take it to the point where I can use coding in my work and to do household tasks, like sending a Tweet that will open the cat flap."

As told to Leslie Ann Horgan

'At 26, I'm learning how to swim'

Diane McSweeney (26) works in the Access Department at Trinity College. She took on the challenge of learning to swim. She says:

"I had a one-hour swimming lesson, and I said to myself that my aim was to be able to do a lap at the end of it. Obviously the first thing the instructor said was 'Now, you won't be able to do a lap at the end of this!' It was surprising to me that I wouldn't be able to do it right away. I know that it's better to learn things like languages and music when you are younger, but you think that once you put your mind to something that every other adult can do, like swimming, that you'll just pick it up. You forget the patience that it takes to learn physical skills, and that when you were a child you didn't just pick things up, it took a lot of trial and error.

"I have never felt comfortable in the water. I just don't enjoy the sensation. I was embarrassed about not being able to swim, but before doing this challenge I thought that it was too late for me to learn. I was nervous going to the lesson but I knew, logically, that I'd have to float the same way everyone else does - it was just a case of mind over matter.

In my head, the water is thrashing, so it was nearly a surprise when I got in and it was calm. The instructor taught me that you control the water, not the other way round. It took effort not to freak out, but by the end of the session it was fun!

"I've been back to the pool since with my boyfriend who is an avid swimmer. I think that you'd call what I can do now a doggy paddle. I will keep it up, because when I have kids I don't want to pass my fears on to them."

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