Some say that dogs of a certain age can’t learn new tricks.
Sue Starr can’t speak for the dogs, but as a community organizer, adult educator, and driving force behind the new Heart of Riverdale community centre, lifelong learning is both a joy and a necessity.
Take technology, for example. As technology becomes an unavoidable part of everyday life, falling behind means it’s going to get harder to catch up.
“Even for those of us who’ve grown up with technology, or worked in the field, the learning curve is getting steeper and steeper,” Starr says.
And while not exactly a necessity, technology does have the power to enrich a person’s life.
Starr gives the example of her sister, a long-time technology avoider. After inheriting Starr’s used tablet computer, she came around to technology, and the two now Skype every Sunday evening, undoubtedly making their lives better.
Learners whose synapses may not be firing in the same way they used to can use technology, as well. Starr says that one of the things she’s noticed as she ages is that her memory doesn’t serve her as well.
“When I was in my 40s, I took a music theory class and when I went to write the exam, I just couldn’t remember the terms.
“But now we have Google, omigod! We used to say you don’t have to know the answer, you just have to know where to find it, and it’s so much easier now.”
In this respect, learning is necessary for adapting as you age. Starr describes a first aid course she recently attended.
“Because I have some physical limitations, one of the things I had to learn is not just the first aid, but what tools I can use if I can’t get down on the floor,” she says.
Another thing she learned is how to self-help if she’s home alone and begins to choke. A small thing, but which can contribute to a person’s independence as they age.
Starr emphasizes this point:
“Learning how to ask for help. One of the biggest learning things about getting older is finding the balance of staying active as long as I can and using the capacity I have, but realizing that capacity will diminish over time and that I need to have others help me.”
An important aspect of learning is what we can gain from each other, across generations. This philosophy is partly driving Starr’s work at the Heart of Riverdale.
As she sits in the multi-purpose room at “the Heart,” Starr gestures to the drop-in participant and says, “I can see right now that there are three generations in this room and that makes me really happy.”
She points out one small boy and explains that he knows the name of every dinosaur picture he sees.
“I can learn from him,” she says. “That expression of equality is a really important factor. We learn as we play. We learn from each other. We learn as we’re doing stuff.”
So breaking down generational barriers in community programming is one aspect of her philosophy, but another is breaking down the division between work, play, and learning.
Starr’s background in corporate communication becomes evident as she explains, “We put ourselves into boxes: school, work, and retirement. We say that when you’re in school you learn; when you’re working you can learn but not play, and when you’re retired, you should just play and not work or learn.”
She says we need a more holistic approach that recognizes that learning, playing, and working are aspects of everything.
Another key to this concept is that learning and teaching go together and the roles of learner and teacher are not fixed.
“Teaching helps learning,” Starr says. “Any time I’ve taught I’ve learned because I have to not only understand what I’m teaching, but also how different people apply concepts.”
Moreover, the opportunity to be a teacher can present itself at any time.
“I love that when I’m here, kids come to me and ask me for help, or ask me to tie their shoe.
“When I was learning about being an adult educator, someone said, the sum of the knowledge in the room will always be more than yours and your job is to get it out.”
Part of Starr’s dedication to the Heart is simply to create a place where people are invited to share knowledge.
What you learn — that doesn’t matter to Starr, whether it’s how to text or how to tie your shoe, but she does believe that lifelong learning is a necessity.
“With the rate of change of everything, how can you not learn and still be in the world?”