‘The New Science of the Teenage Brain’

The current October edition of National Geographic has an interesting article on the ‘teenage brain’. I do not usually buy this magazine but waiting for ferries in Hong Kong, and the incredibly inexpensive cover price compared with Australia, has led me to buy a couple recently for articles of ongoing interest.

The New Science of the Teenage Brain does not tell educators anything completely new, if you have been paying attention for the last couple of years, but it does illustrate our new understandings about the workings of the brain with some very real anecdotes and stories about teenagers growing up today. This “adaptive-adolescent story” emphasises that the teen as an “exquisitely sensitive, highly adaptable creature wired almost perfectly for the job of moving from the safety of home into the complicated world outside”.

…the [teen] hunt for sensation provides the inspiration needed to “get you out of the house” and into new terrain…

This is a difficult challenge for educators (and parents), especially when our systems place students in an environment that is extremely repetitive and highly risk averse. It is not surprising that many students disengage with formal schooling, finding the experience deadening. What will come as a relief for many, reading this article, is that, “contrary to popular belief, they also fully recognize they’re mortal…(and) actually overestimate risk”. The author’s anecdote, about his son’s ‘reckless driving’ charge, is amusing and illustrative of this point:

“It’s just not accurate,” he said calmly. “ ’Reckless’ sounds like you’re not paying attention. But I was. I made a deliberate point of doing this on an empty stretch of dry interstate, in broad daylight, with good sight lines and no traffic. I mean, I wasn’t just gunning the thing. I was driving.

So why are teenagers attracted to risky business? In an evolutionary sense, the answer is very important. Teenagers value  rewards more heavily than adults do and give “more weight to the payoff.” “Excitement, novelty, risk, the company of peers” are:

…traits that define adolescence make us more adaptive, both as individuals and as a species…

My own thoughts revolve around the nature of the ‘rewards’ that schools/teachers sometimes (in our closed, restrictive educational environments) offer to students to motivate them. How can we use this latest research to adapt? How can we provide a more stimulating learning spaces or rather, how can we have students ‘out of school’ more often, in learning environments of their own choosing?

I encourage you to read the article and draw some conclusions (and it would be great if you could comment and share here) from the perspective of educator and/or parent.


cc licensed ( BY NC ) flickr photo shared by TZA

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The views expressed at this site are my own and do not necessarily represent those of my employer.

9 Comments

  1. Rebecca:

    Darcy, the Freakonomics boys frequently bring up something about risk that’s been proven again and again. And it’s something the article doesn’t mention. The more you have, the less you are willing to risk. Teenagers have pretty much nothing to lose and everything to gain. I don’t think that’s the same as giving more weight to the payoff. One argument is about gain and another is about loss.

    This might be drawing a long bow, but rock/pop stars are the same. They take risks early on, then they get some success and just keep repeating the behaviours (music) that gave them success. It happens in art too.

    Another Freakonomics fact is that human beings in general overestimate long-shot risk and underestimate other, more likely risks. That just means that in that regard they are no different to adults. They’re more likely to die of heart disease from sugary and fatty snacks than die in a car crash. Yet they wouldn’t modify their behaviour to avoid heart disease. There are a few good education and parenting-based programs on the podcast. I have been enjoying them immensely!

    Should the conversation be about risk generally? I am sure teenagers are sick of people talking about their brains! ;)

    (Great post. Really got me thinking).
    Rebecca.

    • Darcy Moore:

      Thanks Rebecca. I would have imagined that it was the other way around and that much more chat focuses on the crazy risks teenagers take, not the neuroscience. Like you, I am always amazed that the community/media focus on issues like gaming, social media or the internet as areas of concern when clearly parents can do something about diet, a much more serious issue.

  2. Darcy, very interesting article and I agree with your comments. I was impressed by the work of Geoff Mulgan’s ‘Studio Schools’ which he spoke about in a recent TED talk. ‘Studio Schools’ aims to reach disengaged teenagers who didn’t see any relationship between what they learnt at school and future jobs. The schools are smaller class size, curriculum centred on real life practical experiences, coaches in addition to teachers and timetables much more like a work environment in a business. The underlying principle of this model of schooling is based on the idea that a large portion of teenagers learn best by working in teams and by undertaking real-world activities. The result was that student performance improved significantly.

    I’m also about to start reading a book by Cathy N. Davidson ‘Now you see it: How the Brain Science of Attention will Transform the Way we LIve, Work & Learn’. She completed some interesting brain research on the power of disruption and destraction in learning, and writes about the problem of ‘attention blindness’.

    All very enlightening, and helps us in our work as educators and learners.

    Greg

  3. Troy:

    I read the same article with interest (far less exotic time and place though, my nan’s house)…I do wonder why the physical space of school remain the same, despite the nature of our knowledge of the brain evolving. The easiest way to change may be the physical spaces constructed to contain, rather than engage.

  4. Dobbs raises this point about how adults view teen behaviour:

    “Scientists…ask, What can explain this behavior? But even that is just another way of wondering, What is wrong with these kids? Why do they act this way? The question passes judgment even as it inquires.”

    I agree that the question passes judgement, but not that it frames teen behaviour as ‘wrong’. However, taking his point, rather than asking ‘what can explain this behaviour?’ perhaps we could ask ‘how can I relate to this person?’ as a way of reflecting on how we organise school activity.

    One thing that frustrates me is the difficulty I’ve experienced taking students out of school for excursions. The lock-step nature of timetabled school activity means that teachers flare up if you take students out of “their” allocated class time. And the day-to-day curriculum is so jam-packed that arranging for students to miss a day of lessons can be tricky business.

    I say bring back the ‘incursion’. Outdoor education in particular is a powerful tool for stimulating student engagement – let’s go on a poetry walk!

    • Rebecca:

      Kelli, I like your comment about relating. Regarding timetables, I am about to start work experience at a high school (not part of a course, but just to prepare myself for a career in education), and they have a special unit for children who are not responding to timetabled classes. I will report back, but it sounds amazing for kids who are more vocationally oriented and the system seems to be working.

      And regarding the poetry walk, there is talk, especially for primary school students, that homework should include things like exercise and families talking with each other.

      Anything physical seems to be falling by the wayside. My eldest child is in kindergarten and does virtually no sport. When I ask her why, she says they are too busy. She competes at state level for gymnastics and while we are not athletic parents at all, we are about to make a complaint. So many kids are kinaesthetic learners. What happens to them in high schools?

  5. I just posted about tween international students at camp. The ten/eleven-year-olds had this to say about their teenage sisters:

    Student 1: My sister is 13 now and she acts like a teenager. Grumpy all the time!
    Student 2: Yeah, my middle sister became a teenager and it was like death. She locks herself in her room and yells at me.
    Student 3: I’m going to talk to my sister all the time so that won’t happen to her.
    Student 2: NO! That will make it worse! You just have to act all cute and innocent.
    Student 3: But, my sister still gives me gum balls.
    Student 2: Not for long.

    Great link – I’ll refer to it as my stepdaughter traipses through the teen years.

    Janet | expateducator.com

    • ‘But, my sister still gives me gum balls!’
      ‘Not for long.’

      Classic – thanks for sharing Janet :) That extract sums it right up, I think.
      I was an older sister, and once I hit high school I had to stop sharing with my sister and get my own room. I must have been unbearable! She’s 3.5 years younger…we ended up sharing a room again a few years later when she turned teen and started terrorising our younger brother. Now there’s a dude I feel sorry for, haha :/

  6. Peter Johnson:

    Hi Darcy,
    As a parent and a teacher I am reminded that sometimes some things remain reasonably constant.
    It seems as adults we still get concerned about teenage behaviour just as those before us have!

    “Our youth now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for their elders and love chatter in place of exercise; they no longer rise when elders enter the room; they contradict their parents, chatter before company; gobble up their food and tyrannize their teachers.”
    ― Socrates

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