Much of this material is taken from Blakemore’s The Secret Life of the Teenage Brain. The article is inspired by Laurence Steinberg’s statement in Age of Opportunity (2015): “American adolescents are not doing well…Adolescent’s drug use is on the rise, as is attempted suicide, bullying, ad the need for remedial education among college freshmen. Much of the progress we made in the late 90s has ended, and some of it is actually unraveling” (p. 11). Steinberg also notes that adolescents are as intelligent as they’re ever going to be by the time they are 16 based on standardized tests of cognitive ability. (p. 69) We need to do better with our teenagers and we need to believe, truly believe, in their capacity to do better.

Blakemore examines a little of the history of the research into the adolescent brain from Phineas Gage to Huttenlocher. “The important overall finding is that adolescents’ brains are physically different from younger children’s brains and from adults’ brains. In terms of brain development, adolescence is a distinct stage” (p. 73). Let’s add in the conclusion of cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham from Why Don’t Kids Like School?: “People are naturally curious, but we are not naturally good thinkers; unless the cognitive conditions are right, we will avoid thinking” (p.3). What are the basic preconditions for teaching adolescents in a way that they can learn? The following are suggestions that have some basis in research:

  1. Encourage risk-taking. Oddly maybe, they are not risk takers on their own, but put them with a group of peers, they become risk takers (cf. the study Peers increase adolescent risk taking by enhancing activity in the brain’s reward circuitry 2010). Classes should therefore be places where risks are possible and built into the structure of the lesson. Another way to think about this is in terms of challenge. N.B. Blakemore’s research (p. 138) shows that brain development in both limbic regions – including the amygdala – and pre-frontal cortex areas can develop in sync in some teenagers i.e. there is an average but it may not describe the person standing in front of you).
  2. Develop a culture that supports risk. Adolescents don’t like to take risks when the peer group is against it. It is interesting that in some student face to face interviews, they will declare that they like their school because it’s “cool to be nerdy”. It is key to the classroom environment that it is cool to take risks and that those risks are rewarded i.e. the pleasure center of the brain has an opportunity to be stimulated. Blakemore suggests that “social tasks might interfere more with other tasks carried out at the same time in adolescents than in adults” (p. 127).
  3. Always challenge. It is experientially true that teenagers complain if the task is difficult. But it is also experientially true that they admire the task, so long as it is meaningful and provided along with appropriate supports. It is also true that, lacking difficulty or challenge, these students become bored very easily and put as little effort in as is required. Willingham asks: “when does curiosity have staying power?” and answers it “The answer may lie in the difficulty of the problem. If we get a little burst of pleasure from solving a problem, then there’s no point in working on a problem that is too easy – when you size up a problem as very difficult, you are judging that you are unlikely to solve it and are therefore unlikely to get the satisfaction that comes with the solution” (p. 12).
  4. Teach self-regulation and stress management. Given that it is probable that the “limbic systems are hypersensitive in adolescence” (Blakemore p. 141), adolescents can find it hard to manage their responses to situations of high stress – think tests / exams or relationship trauma – and be unable to exercise the control required. There is significant evidence that mindfulness training can be helpful for both contexts. As Steinberg points out: “it helps strengthen self-regulation in people who don’t have psychological problems …. Helps reduce stress, it also improves sleep, cardiovascular health, and immune function” (p. 158). It also doesn’t cost anything and can be put into practice quickly without using a large amount of time.
  5. Improve self-awareness. Adolescents have troubling using metacognition rather than instinct to react to others. One blog (innerdrive.co.uk) suggests using these 9 questions continually to train them into more considered pathways:
  • Before a Task – Is this similar to a previous task? What do I want to achieve? What should I do first?
  • During The Task – Am I on the right track? What can I do differently? Who can I ask for help?
  • After a Task – What worked well? What could I have done better? Can I apply this to other situations?

These five strategies are not an all-inclusive list of strategies to understand, learn, and implement in your classrooms. They are however, key strategies that will improve interactions between teacher and student, and between the peers themselves.