The confidence needed to learn

'As a teacher, I pushed kids pretty hard to get past the lack of self-confidence to ensure they recognized their own learning potential.' 

Graham Hookey

Graham Hookey

As a career educator, I faced the challenge of encouraging young people to understand and accept the concept that what seemed difficult today could eventually become easy at some point in the future.

The capacity of the brain to learn new things is generally overshadowed by a fear many of us have of failing and it is this fear that either turns us away from things we don’t understand or causes enough frustration that we give up before we give ourselves a chance to learn.

As my 87-year-old mother has become part of my household, I have recognized exactly the same fear of learning in her, more deeply entrenched by her belief that with age, the brain loses its capacity to remember and learn.

During the time I spent with my parents this past summer, I listened as friend after friend visited and the topic of conversation drifted to technology and how they watched their grandchildren do things they couldn’t possibly comprehend.

Just the sight of a computer would have them retreating as though it was some kind of technological vampire that they needed to avoid contact.

As a teacher, I pushed kids pretty hard to get past the lack of self-confidence to ensure they recognized their own learning potential.

Now I find myself using the same strategies with my mom.

I have taken the stand with her that she is absolutely capable of learning new things and I have taken some time with her each day to introduce her to the basics of computer use.

She fights me verbally, constantly saying that I don’t understand what it’s like to be old and that she’ll never feel comfortable with technology. But I believe this is a default argument she offers because she’s afraid she won’t be able to learn.

The argument is weakening. She is learning some of the basics of the computer, and since we don’t have a land-line telephone, but do use an internet service for phoning, she is now almost completely independent in opening the program, finding her contact list and phoning whoever she wishes to.

A month ago she claimed that would never happen.

She is not ready to admit anything yet about the fact that she is still quite capable of learning. In fact, if you listen to her talk to her friends on the phone, she continues to claim to be a technological illiterate. I suspect that’s because she doesn’t want to argue with them when they say they could never learn to use a computer.

Peer pressure follows us all our lives.

While it is true that it takes many repetitions to develop a pattern for her and that copious notes are written and taped on the computer to help her, she is learning, and her ‘fear’ of the computer is beginning to diminish.

She will now sit down at the computer and ask for help if she needs it, whereas not long ago she would walk a wide path around it.

I often told parents not to underestimate how much or how fast their children could learn if they were challenged to do so. Now I find myself wondering how much we underestimate how much our elders can learn given the same challenges and support.

It might not be as fast as the young ones, but it may be just as effective in maintaining the confidence they need to remain independent and intellectually stimulated.


Graham Hookey writes about education, parenting and eldercare (