Mark Murphy knows firsthand that learning changes lives. His conviction is so strong that the former school principal and past Delaware secretary of education founded a nonprofit devoted to helping young adults become lifelong learners. His organization, GripTape (named after the surface used to create secure footing on skateboards), encourages young adults to pursue learning challenges. There is one simple condition: Do it on your own. Challenges are self-proposed and self-directed and take place outside of traditional schooling.
For example, GripTape Challenger Alphina Kamara wanted to better understand the root causes of homelessness. To do so, she created a multistep plan that included running clothing and donation drives, holding a banquet for homeless individuals in her town of Claymont, Delaware, and recruiting local organizations to help host these events.
Alphina was successful in completing her project and hosting the banquet late last year. The intensity of the experience surprised her. “My journey was not without its challenges. I received a lot of rejections as I contacted organizations. But I still managed to make it fun by bringing my friends along for the journey and meeting new people and contacts who encouraged and reminded me how many people want to see young people succeed.” In doing her project, Alphina not only learned about homelessness, she gained confidence.
It made me feel like I was more capable of doing more things,” she says. “The results were fascinating and empowering in a way I never could have imagined.”
Through GripTape, Mark wants to create a generation of lifelong learners like Alphina, individuals with the unfailing agency to make intentional choices about what and how they learn. Why is that such an important skill heading into adulthood? Mark’s research and personal experience show that being committed to learning beyond our school years helps individuals develop both their sense of self-worth and their problem-solving skills.
Something special happens when people construct their own learning paths, he says. “At GripTape, people experience the deep sense of fulfillment and accomplishment that comes with engaging in learning in its most relevant and authentic manner.” Mark believes that when we improve our knowledge and craft, our hearts and minds open in new ways. Creative juices flow. We see a new world of possibilities.
As working adults with family responsibilities and busy lives, it is easy to get so caught up in the day-to-day that we feel we don’t have time to breathe, let alone to learn something new. Yet, as Alphina says, “If we are not learning, we are not growing.”
Benefits of an Active Mind
Scientists confirm that lifelong learning is associated with greater life satisfaction and a sense of optimism and engagement. According to the VIA Institute on Character, adults who are learning something new—by taking a class, pursuing a hobby or reading every day—report less stress and greater feelings of hope and purpose.
Ryan Niemiec, Psy.D.,VIA’s director of education, explains that researchers have identified love of learning as a character strength whose expression is consistently linked to positive outcomes for oneself and others. These outcomes are present across cultures and countries and include a boost in one’s sense of possibility, an increase in seeking and accepting challenges, and aging in a healthy and productive way. Individuals who love learning are more motivated to persist through challenges, setbacks and negative feedback, Ryan says.
One such individual is Byrd Helguera, age 89. More than 70 years after graduating from high school, Byrd is still intent on learning and takes regular classes at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. She’s so hooked she doesn’t even take the summers off.
Understanding history, in particular, gives her perspective on an ever-changing world and keeps her engaged and interested in her place in it. “It’s good for us to know how we got here and to consider what other people are thinking and talking about. It’s really quite valuable to all of us.”
The classes, which are taught by Vanderbilt professors, are part of the national Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes program. Byrd has studied literature, history, astronomy, psychology and many other topics.
“I grew up in a family of teachers and my husband was a professor of history,” says Byrd, the former associate director of Vanderbilt’s Medical Center Library. “I’m always doing something to keep my mind busy. If I’m not reading, I’m playing Scrabble or doing crossword puzzles or that sort of thing.”
She also belongs to a book club and writers group. “I think keeping your brain active is important to having a happy life,” she says.
Ryan explains why that is. “When adults have a passion for learning, they stay open to new knowledge, rather than being stuck in a know-it-all mode. This helps us see new opportunities for ourselves—who knows what our passion for learning might lead us to in the future?”
Researchers are still piecing together the links between learning, life satisfaction and having a sense of possibility. We do know that the hippocampus, an area of the brain essential to learning and related to forming and retrieving long -term memories, also plays a role in mood regulation and in our ability to imagine new situations. The hippocampus is of great interest to neuroscientists because it is where adults generate new neurons throughout their life spans.
Read more: Never Stop Learning
What Happens to Our Brains When We Learn?
As evolutionary biologist Alison Pearce Stevens, Ph.D., has written in Science News for Students, learning physically rewires the brain. Alison explains that the millions of neurons in our brains speak to each other via chemical and electrical signals. When we learn something new and the information becomes part of long-term memory, the neurons involved in the task become more efficient at talking to each other. As they work together, their communication pathways become faster and form networks.
The result is that we improve our understanding or physical skill. Scientists no longer believe that adult brains are unchangeable or in decline with age. Instead, they now know that our brains can undergo remarkable amounts of reorganization at any age. Brain plasticity, the ability to build new neurons and neural connections—that is, to change and grow—persists throughout our lives.
Lara Boyd, Ph.D., is uncovering ways to harness the power of neuroplasticity to create more effective rehabilitation for victims of stroke and other brain trauma. Lara’s work as director of the Brain Behaviour Laboratory at the University of British Columbia and the Canada Research Chair in the Neurobiology of Motor Learning shows that our brains have an extraordinary capacity for change and that every experience or stimulus we encounter reorganizes our neurons. In fact, Lara would say that after reading this article, your brain will literally not be the same.
Lara believes that maintaining neuroplasticity throughout adulthood is vital both to our survival and sense of fulfillment. “Learning is the key to managing our rapidly changing culture. We must keep learning in order to keep up with technology, our kids and our grandchildren,” she says.
Learning is the key to managing our rapidly changing culture. We must keep learning in order to keep up with technology, our kids and our grandchildren,” Laura says.
The challenge is part of the benefit, Lara says. “Learning becomes hard when we are challenging ourselves at a level that is just beyond our ability. Learning difficult tasks slows down the rate of change in behavior. This is why it feels hard. But it also increases the amount of brain plasticity.”
She applies the insights of her research to her own life by making a daily effort to cultivate conditions that she and other neuroscientists know optimize brain plasticity. These include exercising regularly, sleeping seven to eight hours a night and engaging in daily mindfulness practice. Lara also prioritizes learning at work and in her free time. “Because of the rapid changes in how we map and study the brain, I am constantly learning new imaging approaches. These can be quite technological and a bit tricky, but I love challenging myself to figure them out. I am also always reading books [that have] nothing to do with my work.”
Learning How to Learn
With all the benefits ascribed to engaging in lifelong learning, it is no surprise that “Learning How to Learn” is one of the most popular and highest ranked massive open online courses (MOOCs) in the world, according to ClassCentral.com, a website devoted to reviews of online courses. More than 1.6 million students have completed the course.
Learning How to Learn was developed and is taught by Terrence Sejnowski, Ph.D., head of the computational neurobiology lab and Francis Crick Chair at the Salk Institute, and Barbara Oakley, Ph.D., the Ramón y Cajal Distinguished Scholar of Global Digital Learning at McMaster University and a professor of engineering at Oakland University. Barbara is also author of several books, including A Mind for Numbers and Mindshift. In 2017, Terrence and Barbara followed up their successful Learning How to Learn MOOC by designing and launching a new online course called Mindshift based on Barbara’s book.
Barbara went from being a failing math student in high school to earning graduate degrees in engineering and eventually becoming a college professor teaching complicated mathematical and technical concepts to others. When Barbara’s students asked how she managed to change her brain so drastically, she began seeking an answer. She spoke with engineers, cognitive scientists and neuroscientists such as Terrence. She realized that there are distinct techniques that many mathematicians and scientists use to master technical or abstract material.
Barbara explains that the main message she and Terrence communicate to their students is that learning is always possible. “There are tricks and tools anyone can use to learn material that is novel to them. There is enormous possibility in how you can change as a person.”
Ready to grow? Get started with the following guidelines.
Tip No. 1: Think of learning as a lifestyle.
As Alphina and other participants in GripTape’s Challenges can attest, learning in its most powerful and lifelong sense is much more than studying a book or sitting in a class.
Matthias Gruber and his colleagues at the Center for Neuroscience at the University of California, Davis have found that being curious enables learning. Being curious sparks the physical changes in the brain that enable learning and make subsequent learning rewarding. Barbara says that being a lifelong learner “is to create your own process for acquiring knowledge and skills and actively live that process in some way every day.” Learning can be a grand project involving intense focus on one subject or skill, or it can be as simple as paying attention and asking questions about the things that you see around you.
Tip No. 2: Work with your brain, not against it.
In their courses, Terrence and Barbara talk about balancing the use of a diffuse and focused state of mind when trying to understand something new, especially if it is complex and technical. A diffuse state of mind is free flowing and looks for the big picture. In doing so, it enables more random connections. A focused state of mind is hyper-attentive and task-oriented. It concentrates on ordering details and blocks out extraneous information. A diffuse state of mind might help you brainstorm what to make for dinner. A focused state helps you make the shopping list and follow the recipe. In learning complex information, we need to employ both a diffuse and focused mind. The trick is knowing when to employ which mode and giving yourself the time and opportunity to switch between them.
Our brains approach novel information by first trying to integrate it into our existing knowledge—a set of connections and neural networks we already have in place. When our brains cannot find any connections, we may start to struggle and get frustrated. Our initial reaction is to try harder to make a connection using our focused, detailed-oriented minds. But it is often better to back off and let the details be in our subconscious so that new neural connections can be made. Stepping back and explicitly not thinking about a topic gives the new material a chance to sink in and enables our brains to go into diffuse mode and find novel ways to connect. This is why we often suddenly think of a solution to a problem or figure something out while in the shower or taking a long walk.
Tip No. 3: Rethink failure.
One of the most persistent and powerful roadblocks Barbara sees in adults is a fear of failure. We tie our self-esteem to getting things right and making the grade, rather than taking pride in our persistence. At a deep level, many of us are reticent to learn something new because we are afraid of not being good at whatever we’re trying to learn. For many of us, it is hard to overcome a fundamental fear of making a fool of ourselves. We want to get things right because that was what was most often rewarded in school. We may feel pain, shame and guilt at our mistakes.
Barbara reminds her students that great learners possess a general openness to letting experiences shape and affect them. They head into any undertaking with the thrill of discovery. And they have no prejudice or predetermined conceptions of the potential outcome of their experiences. With this mindset, failure can become a lot less scary.
Lara’s research at the Brain Behaviour Laboratory shows that if our goal is to reap the health benefits and adaptability that comes with learning, our stumbles and failures may be the best thing for us. This is because encountering difficulty and failure encourages brain plasticity. From a neurogenesis standpoint, they are at least as valuable as our successes, if not more so.
Tip No. 4: Be prepared to feel like an impostor, and then get over it.
In a class, we might worry that everyone else is getting it and we are falling behind. Or we might convince ourselves that we will never be any good at the hobby we’ve taken up, or that we are not serious students or our efforts are not valid if we are doing something just for fun. Barbara says we should embrace our inner imposters. She explains, “You don’t realize you actually have something very valuable. You have a beginner’s mind that enables you to step back and be more flexible. [In learning], many more problems actually come from being overconfident than being underconfident.” Barbara might say that no true master ever feels complete in his or her knowledge. Rather, they feel engaged and energized by their learning process. Mastery is not a static end state, but a high level of ability to find ways to refine one’s knowledge and skills.
This spring, Alphina achieved another milestone, giving a TEDx Talk on what it means to give young people the keys to their own learning. In her talk, Alphina spoke about the power of embracing learning in its messiest, most personal and broadest sense. Through GripTape, Alphina and her peers have learned one of life’s (and neuroscience’s) most meaningful lessons.
We limit ourselves when we think that education fits neatly into a box and that it only takes place for the 12 or 16 years most of us are in school. Education at its best and most powerful is a lifelong process. Knowing this, Alphina challenges learners of all ages to ask ourselves: “What are you learning that keeps you inspired and hungry for more?”
—Live Happy Science Editor Paula Felps contributed to this feature.
Jennifer Wheary, Ph.D., researches and writes about the possibilities of education for improving lives.