People and Community Research

How to teach an old dog new tricks

Editor’s note: The following opinion piece was submitted as part of the inaugural “Op-ed Challenge” hosted by the University of Miami Graduate School. Open to all graduate students, entries were judged by media professionals.

We have all heard the saying, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” Some attribute this concept to old people who are set in their ways. Yet what if it was possible to capitalize on this attitude in order to effectively teach old dogs new tricks?

Research currently being conducted at the University of Miami is exploring just that. In a study utilizing the neural model Aplysia californica, the California sea hare, older animals are learning better than their younger counterparts at recognizing inedible food. This finding is highly irregular as it contradicts the common theory that the ability to learn declines with age. Investigation into potential causes of this result has only just begun. 

Aplysia has been used for decades to study simple learning and memory. In 2000, Eric Kandel was awarded the Noble Prize in Medicine for his work on defining the molecular differences between short-term and long-term memory using this animal model. Aplysia has many unique features that make them ideal for learning studies such as their ability to modify behaviors after training and the fact that they possess large conspicuous neurons, some of the largest in the animal kingdom, in a reduced nervous system compared to humans. 

These traits make it easy to identify specific neurons as well as the neural networks they form which control the animal’s movements and in which learning is stored. This allows for the unique opportunity to investigate gene expression changes in the nervous system. By defining the gene expression changes that follow learning, which allow for increased performance in inedible food recognition, researchers hope to over-express these genes to see if they can further induce enhanced learning in these older animals. This has the potential to lead to drug preparations that can help older Aplysia, and humans, stay brain fit. 

Yet even before diving into gene expression changes, we can already begin to use these current results to enhance adult learning outcomes in humans by reevaluating the way older individuals are taught. Teaching an Aplysia that food is inedible is known as a negative operant conditioning learning paradigm.

F. Skinner first described operant conditioning in 1938 as a change in an animal’s behavior because of receiving rewards or avoiding punishments. Operant conditioning has been used in human learning studies as well, where increased learning has been observed in older humans that receive punishment for wrong choices. This is attributed to a natural shift in the motivation to learn in humans as they age, away from reward-based learning toward loss-avoidance learning. Older people are less willing to spend as much time trying to figure something out when it is not working. As soon as they see what they are attempting is not successful, they will stop trying faster than when they were younger, which often proves beneficial. 

Educators need to incorporate these concepts into adult teaching methods. It’s commonly known that school-age children learn better based on their preferred teaching modality. You may have heard about audio learners versus visual learners, but there are also reading/writing and kinesthetic learners. Educators should add two more teaching modalities to this list—reward-based learners and loss-avoidance learners. A simplified example of this is starting a class with a grade of 0 and earning your grade based upon exam scores, versus staring a class with a grade of 100 and working hard to maintaining that grade. 

It is not the sole burden of the student to learn efficiently, but there is a shared responsibility with the instructor to teach effectively based on that student’s preferred leaning modality which is shown to change as the student ages. 

Only when we adopt these concepts into adult education can we finally retire the antiquated saying, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” and instead proudly proclaim, “Yes, you can teach an old dog new tricks,” depending on the modality in which they are taught. 

Eric Randolph is a graduate student in the Rosenstiel School of Marine, Atmospheric, and Earth Science at the University of Miami. Read more about the inaugural “Op-ed Challenge.”