Who Learns Faster and Best - Children or Adults?

We are continually learning throughout our lives, for our personal and professional development. Most people associate learning with formal education at school, college and university.  From an early age we are taught the importance of ‘getting a good education’. Some would argue that a formal education and the resulting qualifications are important. Education may maximise our potential to find better, more satisfying jobs, earn more and, perhaps, become more successful in our chosen career.

However, ‘schooling’ is just one type of learning. There are many other opportunities to further our knowledge and develop the skills we need for successful adult lives.

Some might argue that children are the better learners, on the assumption 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 and taking part in a range of extra-curricular activities. This environment for children 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 accept correction and feel like they have learnt what they need to know in comparison to a developing child. Alternatively adults may be able to build on their prior knowledge and experiences of the world when learning and subsequently be better learners.

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 may have been pushed aside in our minds or completely forgotten, as adults we hope that the ability to learn remains. Children cannot 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 used throughout life. Indeed, one of our primary aims at Yateley Manor is to teach the children ‘how to learn’.

The science behind it

The simple answer is that there are some tasks that children can perform better than adults.  This is due to the fact that, in adults, the prefrontal cortex of the brain is more developed but less flexible than in children.

The prefrontal cortex is the grey 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 lose out to a functional fixedness, causing them to see things exactly as they are.  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, imagination makes that pencil case or rucksack a thousand different objects. We 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 performs, but a child’s brain learns. Knowing that children’s brains operate in this way has some useful benefits.

Creativity is the key

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.

Whether you are a better learner as a child or adult may purely be an individual trait. Or it could depend on your environment, personality, motivation and life experience. But ultimately we need to let children do what they are naturally good at…being creative.