How to Keep Learning All Your Life
Newsweek|January 07 - 14, 2022
The need to learn is constant, but the tools necessary for it change as you get older
By Robin Abrahams and  Boris Groysberg. Photographs by Westend61, Simon Ritzmann and Getty

Learning is a lifelong endeavor. But it is not the same endeavor all your life long. Your brain changes over the course of time, and so does your social and physical environment. In each phase of life, however, six physical and environmental factors are crucial to learning—sleep; exercise; diet; support for physical and mental health; opportunities for mastery; and safety to fail.

Physical Needs

SLEEP. The effects of sleep on learning are direct and immediate. Sleep is so crucial to the processes of learning, memory, judgment and insight, that it should be factored into any educational or creative project plan. EXERCISE. Exercise improves mood, decision-making and other psychological functions, which facilitates learning and the ability to use what is learned. Strength, aerobic and balance/control exercises like yoga and tai chi are all helpful. EART EALT DIET. The mechanisms here aren’t well understood, but a body of evidence shows striking effects of a heart-healthy diet on cognitive performance, particularly in later life.

Environmental Needs

SUPPORT OR P SICAL AND MENTAL EALT . If a person’s environment does not support their wellbeing, their capacity to learn will be diminished. Basics include quality food, health care, space and time for exercise and sleep, as well as social norms that encourage healthy habits, and practical help when needed. OPPORTUNITIES OR MASTER . Experiences of mastery teach people that they can learn, that the initial state of helplessness or confusion in the face of a new challenge will dissipate and be replaced by competence. A healthy learning environment, therefore, provides plentiful and diverse opportunities for people to experience mastery. SA ET TO AIL. No one achieves mastery—at crawling, coding or anything else—without some initial awkwardness. Learning inevitably involves getting it wrong, taking too long, forgetting key things, making poor choices. If these experiences are punished or made shameful, learning will be impeded, as extensive research by our colleague Amy Edmondson has shown. An environment that promotes learning is one that destigmatizes and even celebrates the mistakes that come from learning or worthwhile experimentation.

Here’s how to take advantage of the key factors at each stage of life.

Early Adulthood (15–25):

Take the Right Risks

When people are asked to reflect on their most important life events, chances are they will recall moments from this extraordinarily important, emotionally vivid, cognitively blooming decade. The brain of an adolescent is changing and developing nearly as fast as in infancy. These are the years when people make important choices about education, occupation, social and romantic relationships, beliefs and ideologies. The decisions made at this point in life have a profound impact on future learning opportunities

A 15-year-old is intellectually adult in many ways, able to think abstractly,think through scenarios, consider multiple points of view, plan long-range action, make independent moral judgments. A 15-year-old can process novel information faster than an adult. What a 15-yearold lacks is wisdom, due to limited life experience and, more importantly, a not-yet-fully developed brain. The prefrontal cortex—the part of the brain that integrates information and plans appropriate actions to achieve goals, a series of processes known overall as “executive function”—does not fully mature until about age 25.

Adolescent behavior is characterized by three things: seeking novelty, taking risks and intense concern with the peer group. The “Teen Triad” behaviors have been observed not only in all cultures, but in nearly all social mammals. The interlocking nature and cross-species universality of the Teen Triad suggest that they are crucial to learning. At the same time, as any parent can attest, the Triad can pose a great risk to present learning and future opportunities. The primary challenge in early adulthood is to take the right risks: risks that will enhance, rather than foreclose, possibilities of future learning.

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