Teaching Old Dogs New Tricks

We all know adults can teach adults. We have been doing this since the beginning of time. Adults, not children, have been the teaching focus for millennia. Well before Socrates.

Believe it or not, the very concept of “adolescence” was only introduced to the general public in North America in 1904, popularized by G. Stanley Hall in his voluminous four-volume study entitled Adolescence. What followed was a sea change in the very idea of who should be educated. And when. The teenage years were to become the primary focus of public interest and public policy. Schools became a far higher priority than the disparate adult education system of the day.

Through the 1920s and 1930s the “rise of adolescence interest” saw this famous phrase appear: “You can’t teach old dogs new tricks.” Why? Various I.Q. tests became popular in the ‘20s and ‘30s and in the rapidly growing school system, those types of I.Q. tests consistently showed how remarkably “smart” the younger generation was. Adults did not do so well. Adults were not as quick. They obviously “couldn’t learn new tricks.” The subsequent move was to invest heavily in the school system, right through to today. It took well into the 1960s before it was realized, and accepted, that adults had other intelligence qualities. Qualities such as insight, informed judgement, even wisdom.

As is discussed in Section Four, “fluid intelligence vs. crystallized intelligence” became a controversy. It was ultimately agreed that children with “fluid learning” could sponge up information and reiterate answers on an I.Q. test; but adults had patterns of knowledge built on maturity and stores of experience. This is depicted in the metaphor image of crystallization, and the controversy began to change the popular “old dogs/new tricks” attitude.

Adults may not have done well on I.Q. tests, but adults ran the world. And, yes, it was realized they could learn “new tricks.” It can be added in this background snapshot that the rise of the Adult Education discipline in the 1960s had a lot to do with this rethinking of adult learning.

By the way, it is beyond the scope of the guide, but I have written elsewhere as to why our field of adult literacy should be considered a profession, not an occupation, not a “job.” Ours is a profession by the criteria of how “profession” is defined in the literature. See the Reading List at the end of the section for my publications on this topic if you are interested in this side of adult literacy.