Do children learn faster? Yes or No?

Yes, children learn more quickly:

Many argue that children are the better learners. It is thought that children are less afraid to take risks, having less responsibilities and less vulnerability for mistakes. A child’s environment is a big motivational factor in their learning. They are at school studying many different subjects, playing different sports, and taking part in different extra-curricular activities. This child environment contrasts with adults who are usually focused on one subject area and are less open to different learning opportunities in their lives.

Some people believe that children are more creative, spontaneous and energetic than adults, making them better learners. Adults may be less inclined to be corrected and feel like they have learnt what they need to know in comparison to a developing child.

No, adults learn more quickly:

Other people believe that adults are better learners, as they can build on their prior knowledge and experiences of the world when learning.

Adults have also learned how to learn and know what they enjoy. Enjoyment and having fun help learning and adults know better what they like.

Whilst many of the facts and figures learnt at school have either got pushed to the back of our brains or completely forgotten, we hope that the ability to learn remains. Children can’t possibly remember everything their teacher has told them. They should however, be able to ask questions, explore, investigate, question their thoughts, listen and think. These are the important skills that are learnt and will be used throughout life. Indeed, one of the main aims of Primary Education is to tutor children in ‘how to learn’.

In depth:

The simple answer is, yes, there are some tasks that children can perform better than adults.  For those of you who appreciate the longer scientific answer, this is because in adults the prefrontal cortex of the brain is more developed but less flexible than in children.

The prefrontal cortex is defined as ‘the gray matter of the anterior part of the frontal lobe that is highly developed in humans and plays a role in the regulation of complex cognitive, emotional, and behavioural functioning.’

A developed prefrontal cortex means that adults are hampered by a functional fixedness, causing them to see a spade as a spade, i.e. a tool for digging.  Or let me put that another way for you teachers; an adult sees a pencil case or a school rucksack as exactly that.  However the under-developed prefrontal cortex in a child allows children to be far more inventive than that, as their prefrontal cortex is not limiting their ability to be creative and flexible. In their minds, that pencil case or rucksack can be imagined as thousands of different objects. You’ll probably know this as ‘thinking outside of the box’. So this is why a child can see a broomstick as a javelin, or the mattress as a trampoline.

As a result, children are often better than adults at solving tasks that require a creative solution, such as being set a challenge with limited equipment. Put another way, an adult’s brain is designed to perform, but a child’s brain is designed to learn. Knowing that children’s brains operate in this way has some useful benefits for a teacher.

Beyond the promotion of creativity, the under-developed prefrontal cortex allows children to learn social conventions at a fast rate.  This is because at this stage of brain development a child sees the most prevalent behaviour as the appropriate way to behave. This is the reason why appropriate adult role models are so crucial to a child’s social development.  Interestingly, this ability to quickly learn conventions also explains a child’s ability to learn languages faster than adults.

Another piece of useful information for teachers is that Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) are both believed to be linked to the development of the prefrontal cortex, so both affect a child’s ability to learn certain skills.  Children with ADHD tend to exhibit a delay in the development of the prefrontal cortex, while the opposite is true of ASD children.  In children with ASD this more developed prefrontal cortex is believed to be the primary cause for their difficulty in acquiring social conventions.

Whether you are a better learner as a child or adult may purely be an individual trait and depend on your environment, personality, motivation and life experience. But the final message for this piece is to say that we as teachers really need to let children do what they are naturally good at…being creative!

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