Neuroscientists are just beginning to understand how what’s going on in our brains affects learning, and there can be no more mysterious place to look than inside the adolescent brain. The agreeable, chattering sixth grader you had for science last year comes back to seventh grade suddenly silent, sulky, and distracted.
What a difference a year makes!
Dr. Jay Giedd, professor of psychiatry at the University of California San Diego and former chief of brain imaging in the Child Psychiatry Branch at the National Institute of Mental Health, explores the pathways, mechanisms, and influences on brain development in adolescents, following them in longitudinal studies from childhood on. He has conducted more than 8,000 brain imaging scans with 3,000 children and teens. Dr. Giedd’s research interest is in the physiological transformations going on inside teens’ heads.
For an educator, it’s easy to see physical changes in your students from year to year, but it can be helpful to look “under the hood” at brain changes taking place and what they signal.
“An adolescent’s brain is not a broken or defective adult brain. It’s been forged by forces of evolution to be different from adults,” says Dr. Giedd.
In fact, the developmental period from ages 9 to 25 is pivotal to making the successful transition from childhood to adulthood, even when it seems to us, as grown-ups, to be chaotic and irrational.
Adolescence, as a rule, is marked by three chemical changes in the brain that manifest as behavioral changes:
- Increased risk taking
- Increased sensation seeking
- Greater peer affiliation
These traits appear across species. In humans, a long period of adolescence prepares young people to leave home, take on responsibility, and venture securely into the world as adults. It also gives the human brain a long period of remodeling and strengthening and enables the incredible development of the brain’s neocortex—that are responsible for higher-level thinking, planning, reason, and empathy.
What are the physical brain changes that occur during this protracted period of adolescence?
Brain Changes Impact Learning
Physically, the brain matures by becoming more connected (white matter) and more specialized (gray matter). The brain is made up of neurons, dendrites, axons, and synapses that communicate messages, in the form of electrical signals, inside the brain and to and from the body. Messages hop between neurons, protected by an insulating substance called myelin. As messages come from all parts of the brain, the brain fires signals between neurons to create patterns of meaning and information.
In the process of maturation, the brain creates fewer but faster connections—resulting in a “use it or lose it” experience of brain development.
That’s why trying out new things, practice and repetition are important to consolidating these brain connections. Because of this busy period of brain activation, it is an opportune time for learning. At the same time, because of their penchant for excitement, risk-taking, and peer approval, it’s also a time when many teens can go off the rails.
Teaching Teens to Be the Boss of Their Brains
How can we finesse the opportunity and lessen the risk? One novel approach is to teach teens how their brains work to regulate their thoughts, emotions, bodies, and behavior, known as metacognition.
Donna Wilson, Ph.D., of the Center for Innovative Education and Prevention, is a pioneer in teaching students to think about their thinking in ways that enhance learning. For a story in LearnNow, a web portal on the science of learning, Wilson notes, “Metacognition supports the process of learning and can be applied in all content areas. Through purposeful instruction on specific cognitive strategies to explore, understand and apply new content presented in class, students are taught to be the ‘boss of their brains.’”
She notes four evidence-based strategies that can help educators improve teens’ understanding of their brain capacity to increase learning:
1. License to Drive.
Remind students that they “drive” their own brains, and reinforce useful learning strategies, like planning, organization, good note-taking, and review. Encourage questioning and critical thinking. Demonstrate how brainstorming can stimulate new ideas and how curiosity facilitates discovery. This is an especially useful strategy for teens, for whom driving represents freedom and independence.
2. Going BIG.
Make a big deal about the idea that growing awareness of how their brains work can serve students in-and-beyond the classroom. Emphasize that learning how the brain learns can have a lifelong impact, giving students tools to “drive” their brains to improve learning.
3. Practice, Practice, Practice.
Athletes and musicians know the secret to great performances is rehearsal. Such repetition also has demonstrated brain effects. When medical researchers in England scanned the brains of London cab drivers, who must memorize all shortcuts through the city without consulting a map, they discovered that their hippocampal areas, connected to spatial reasoning, were more developed than in other adults.
4. Room to Improve.
Our brain capacity is not fixed. While some students may have natural talents that allow mark them as academic standouts, brain science now shows that every student has the capacity to grow and improve in a subject. Mindset research identifies how responding to students’ effort and improvement encourages them to reach higher and take on new challenges, resulting in increased capacity and performance.
Keeping Teen Brains on Track
Setting them on the path to knowing how their brains work may not turn all young people into model students—after all, teens will still be teens—but it does develop their capacity for introspection, self-regulation, and control and, importantly, sets the stage to understand what makes them—and all of us—tick. At the same time, by looking inside those developing minds, educators may gain insights to more effective teaching and classroom strategies that can result in higher student achievement.
Seems like a win-win. After all, the better we understand our students’ minds and our own, the better we become at teaching and learning those lessons that stand us in good stead for life.
Robin Stevens Payes is a Maryland-based science writer, coach and consultant in social marketing specializing in health, science and education. She’s also the author of the new teen time travel adventure series, Edge of Yesterday.