Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Wired for Trouble

If you teach or work with teenagers, you know they are wired for trouble.  Don't blame them, it is the uneven maturation of their brains.  As kids mature into the teenage years their brains mature as well.  The maturation moves from the back of the brain where more behavioral functions such as vision and movement are, to the front of the brain where more complex decision making and long-term goal setting begin.
Teen brains crave novelty, risk and peer affiliation.   They are in a continuing state of flux emotionally.  The kid they see in the mirror in the morning is not the same kid they see in the evening.  The frontal lobes of the brain are still maturing so the decision making is not always reliable.  As a consequence, teens depend more on the amygdala, the emotional reactive area of the brain.  This reliance makes them more vulnerable to pessimism and self-destructive behaviors.
Teenagers get what they are experiencing.  What they do not necessarily understand is why they are feeling the way they are.
Several educational approaches are better for teens and teachers.   First of all, let the kids in on the secret.  Explain in scientific detail-as opposed to browbeating for a bad decision- what is happening developmentally in their brains.  Let students see brain models.  Explain that this process is not unlike  the development of physical and verbal skills when they were toddlers.   Lots of falling down, but lots of getting up as well and soon they could walk and talk.
Just as in learning to walk, adolescents need to learn to think independently.   They will not learn this skill without practice.  Again, in learning to walk they tried a lot of times and fell a few times. But each fall was in a protected environment and encouragement to try again followed.  So it is with independent thinking.  Teens need to be in a school environment where they will not be teased or embarrassed when they slip up.   Or just as bad, be in a place where repeating someone else's correct answer is masquerading as independent thinking.  Students need to be exposed to teachers making mistakes and acknowledging them and moving on.   They will learn that in thinking, making a mistake is the same as falling down in learning to walk.
Students need to learn about themselves and what makes them think at their best.   Many teachers use the K-W-L learning strategy where the "K" is what I know, the "W" is what I want to know and the "L" is what do I need to learn.  For teens, the addition of the "H" to this plan will guide students to learning how their brain works.  The "H" stands for How will I learn what I need to learn.   Each student can detect the way in which he or she learns best.  This approach responds to the craving for novelty and some risk.  It feeds the need for independence because students will be learning to do it "my way".
Just learning content won't do it anymore for any of us.  There is simply too great an explosion of knowledge.  Just learning content is particularly nonfunctional for teenagers.  Teaching kids how to use their cognitive skills in a manner that is appropriate to their learning profiles is the gift that will last a lifetime and truly prepare them for life in the wide, wide world.

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