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Dance in a year: Advice on how to learn

12 Jul

This video is from the website Dance in a Year. It documents one woman’s progress towards her learning goal.

I believe that adults need challenging learning goals to stay cognitively engaged. You don’t have to be interested in dancing to profit from this website. Anyone who harbors a learning goal will be helped by Karen’s advice. Here are some of her suggestions:





All this accords very well with the psychology of learning. What are you waiting for?

Big learning in small doses

26 Jun

I am an advocate of taking on big learning projects. While I enjoy Sudoku puzzles, they may not be challenging enough to have a large effect on our cognitive function. Big learning, that is trying to learn a  challenging new skill or master some body of information, is our best bet for long term memory improvement. Examples of big learning would include studying a foreign language, learning to play a musical instrument, or, finally, mastering calculus.

These things are hard, but I believe they are in the reach of  most adults. People often respond to this advice by saying that they don’t have the time or that the goal is so distant that it is not even worth trying.

My approach is that big learning tasks can be taken in small doses. My inspiration is a book,  Small Change: It’s the Little Things in Life That Make a Big Difference, by Susan and Larry Terkel. [Full disclosure, Susan and Larry are friends and my wife and I were married by Larry.  How many people can claim to be married by their yoga teacher?]

The message of Small Change is that we can make our lives better by small incremental changes in our daily behavior. I have come to see this as one of the most powerful ideas in my life. Imagine you want to learn a foreign language. This seems so difficult to most of us as to be beyond possibility, but imagine you dedicated just 15 minutes a day to listening to a Pimsleur language program. That would mean an hour of language study every four days. That would be over 90 hours of language study every year. Would this alone make you fluent in your target language? Probably not, but I guarantee you would know and remember a lot more than if you had done nothing.

My suggestions: 1) take up a big learning project, 2) break it down into small daily does, and 3) begin!

What is Chautauqua?

21 Jun

When Zelda Fitzgerald wrote  “I still believe that one can learn to play the piano by mail and that mud will give you a perfect complexion,”  she was contemplating the effects of advertising, but I think she captured something of the spirit of the Chautauqua Institution, a faith in the possibility of self improvement.


The Chautauqua Institution was founded in 1874, among its goals was to provide education to adults. It became the center of a vast social movement that embraced both self improvement and social betterment. Traveling chautauquas brought arts and education to Americans longing for something greater. Its book club the CLSC is the oldest continuously running book club in America.

Every summer Chautauqua holds its nine week season, each week organized around a topic. Every weekday morning there is a lecture on that topic made by a prominent expert. In addition, there are adult education classes, a movie theater, an opera, a theater program, and extensive activities for children.

Chautauqua also has the feel of one those great Amercian utopian projects. During the nine moth season the population of the institution swells to urban levels, yet it remains a very livable space where walking and cycling are the main modes of transportation.

I don’t know if you really can learn to play the piano by correspondence, but I am in favor of adults taking up challenging learning projects. Chautauqua is a place to keep cognitively engaged. If you have never been to Chautauqua you owe it to yourself to visit this amazing place.

Adult learners

17 Jun

When my son asks me about things “back in your day” I get cranky. I figure that as long as I have a pulse it still counts as “my day.”

Yet, so many of use act as if our day for learning has passed. The is the kind of intellectual defeatism that I rail against, not only can adults learn new things, we should learn new things. That is why I like to highlight stories of adults taking on new learning projects. For example, Joshua Henkin’s article in yesterday’s New York Times about taking up the piano at age 48. I have nothing but praise for Mr. Henkin.

Most of us assume that it is easier to learn new things when we are younger, but this is not always the case. One thing that adults bring to learning that is sometimes missing in children is motivation. You are more likely to master Spanish as a motivated adult than as a bored high school student.

Speaking of foreign language learning, I would also recommend “How Learning a Foreign Language Reignited My Imagination” by Atlantic Senior Editor Ta-Nehisi Coates.  If you are not familiar with Mr. Coates do yourself the favor of reading his memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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