Joseph Chen: Educating the aging brain

Joseph Chen
Joseph Chen is a licensed clinical psychologist, associate professor and the director of Student Support Services at DePaul's School for New Learning. (DePaul University/Jamie Moncrief)
As it turns out, the saying "You can't teach an old dog new tricks," is just that: old. Joseph Chen - a licensed clinical psychologist, associate professor and director of student support services at DePaul's School for New Learning - proves that adults are indeed great learners. His research involves the impact of culture on perceptions, the change process and the aging brain - studies that he uses to help educate SNL's nontraditional adult students. Continue reading to learn how.

How is working with adult learners different from working with younger students?

In SNL, we work with older students who aren't interested in a lecture-based approach - they are probably working professionals with families who are trying to balance those things. Younger students have been socialized to sit and receive, whereas adult learners want to contribute. They bring in a significant amount of life experience. We harness those experiences and opinions as a template, then assess those worldviews and compare them to other models. This is helpful because it makes the subjects relevant and helps students realize all they have accomplished in their lifetime.

How do you develop curricula suited for each student?

In SNL, we do not have "majors"- we have "focus areas." We design a course of study extremely individualized to each student's experience and goals. Many of these classes are not only theoretically based but also very practical. SNL was developed as a competence-based program, which is based on teaching students 'to do.'  It goes beyond knowledge attainment to the demonstration of the ability to use knowledge application. 

We meet with students to help them determine their academic goals, which are often tied to their professional goals.  Then, we help them engage in research to determine the competencies they need to obtain them.  This could include both coursework as well as other types of learning experiences. We broaden their understanding of learning to include more traditional methods, such as coursework, but to also think of other ways to learn.  I try to provide students with a holistic approach to a topical area; for example, in my classes we look at the topic at hand from a global and scientific perspective.

What does science say about the aging brain?

The latest brain research is showing the remarkable ability of the brain to continue to change - meaning to learn - in older age.  That idea for older learners is very helpful, because many feel discouraged. The reality is that we can continue to expand our skillsets into our elderly years, it just may require activating certain lifestyle choices both emotionally and physically.

While it is not as easy to learn as adults, compared to children, there is significant potential if adults are willing to be honest about their current limitations and challenges, overcome the discomfort and initial physical and emotional challenges of new learning and practice, practice, practice.

One of the most common ways to promote our ability to learn as adults is exercise.  Exercise helps increase a neurotrophic factor that promotes change at the synaptic level.  All types of learning require changes at the synaptic level.  Another way to increase learning is novelty.  The brain pays more attention to new things, which require the brain to process and understand it, which, again, is change at the synaptic level.  Therefore, having positive new experiences, especially as it relates to knowledge, helps the brain change at the cellular level, which helps promote learning.

Why is it important for us to continuing studying as adults?

A lot of people feel college and education are for young people - you build a skillset then go out and utilize it for the rest of your life. However, with the changing world, people are being forced to reinvent themselves over and over again. In SNL, we have students who are in their second, third or even fourth iteration of a career, and I think that is going to become more of the norm.

One concept that is changing very quickly is what it means to "work" and "have a job." With the shared economy, we very much have to be in charge of our own careers. In the future, there may not just be one job to be had - we may have to have a portfolio of jobs. The skill of being able to do and discover on one's own - to have that entrepreneurial spirit - is vital.

What is something that YOU have learned from your adult students?

The value of education is so much more than obtaining a degree.  Even adult learners discover parts of themselves during the learning process that they previously did not know existed - such as interests and skill - or they rediscover parts of themselves that were forgotten or put away due to the demands of adult life.  Learning is life transformation.