Connecting the Disconnected: Tip #3

One of the advantages of teaching technology to older adults is the richer background they invariably have. That background is part of what has been called “crystallized intelligence,” which is stable and “lossless” under normal circumstances. The knowledge and skill remains even after they have stopped using it. This is a very important advantage that is often overlooked. I once had a 91 year old woman in my classes who had been a typist 70 years earlier. She struggled to hunt and peck on the keyboard. Finally, she carefully placed her fingers on the keyboard, closed her eyes, and typed perfectly.

A major task for the trainer is to identify existing knowledge or skills, to make the process of learning technology easier. Even if they do not have experience on a computer, their history is part of the history from which current technology developed. Instant messaging is just a new way of sending telegraphs. A camera’s memory card is just a new type of film: it has to be inserted into the camera to get pictures, and must be carefully removed to prevent losing the pictures. By making a connection between the new and the known, the skill (or concept) becomes an extension of what is already familiar.

Building on existing knowledge and experience reduces the processing overhead, part of what is called “fluid intelligence,” which is the hardest hit in the aging process. Whether it be remembering how to type, or making a conceptual connection, any time learning can piggyback on stable, “crystallized intelligence,” there is less burden on working memory and the process of creating more crystallized intelligence. This is a good thing.

Tip #3: Build on what they already know.

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