Adolescent Brain Development: What It Means for High Schools and Learning
Adolescent Brain Development: What It Means for High Schools and Learning
Ronald Dahl, MD, Professor, School of Public Health; Director, Institute of Human Development; and Director, Center on the Developing Adolescent, University of California, Berkeley
Bob Wise, President, Alliance for Excellent Education
Stephanie Wood-Garnett, EdD, Vice President of Policy to Practice, Alliance for Excellent Education
On December 13, 2016 the Alliance for Excellent Education hosted a presentation and discussion about adolescent brain development, the recent research in this area, and the potential impact that research could have on schools, teaching and learning, and education policy.
The Alliance’s interest in adolescent brain development is driven by its focus on closing long-standing achievement gaps for traditionally underserved high school students. More than 50 percent of students in the United States are from diverse or low-income families, and there is a moral and economic imperative to explore what’s known from research and apply it to policy and practice to ensure equity in outcomes for all young people.
Professor Ronald Dahl, MD, presented his research on the topic of adolescent neurodevelopment. Dr. Dahl is a pediatrician and developmental scientist committed to interdisciplinary team research with the long-term goal of improving the lives of children and adolescents. His research ranges from basic studies of neurobiological and psychological development and clinical studies in pediatrics and child psychiatry, to consideration of the social, family, and cultural contexts that shape neurobehavioral development. Dr. Dahl serves as a professor at the School of Public Health at the University of California, Berkeley, (UC Berkeley) as well as director of the Institute of Human Development and director of the Center on the Developing Adolescent, both also at UC Berkeley.
Bob Wise, president of the Alliance and former governor of West Virginia, moderated the discussion and was joined by Stephanie Wood-Garnett, EdD, vice president of policy to practice at the Alliance.
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Hello and welcome. I’m Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education. As many of you know, the Alliance is a national policy, advocacy and practice organization dedicated to ensuring all students, particularly those traditionally underserved, graduate from high school, ready for success and college in a career and as a citizen.
Today our topic is a neurodevelopment of adolescence and what the current research might mean for schools, teaching and learning. The Alliance’s recent interest in adolescent brain development is driven by our focus on closing long-standing achievement gaps for traditionally underserved high school students.
Over 50 percent of students in the United States are diverse or from low income families. That’s why we have a moral and economic comparative to explore what’s known from research and apply it to policy and practice to ensure equity and outcomes for all young people.
To help with today’s conversation, we’re very fortunate to have my Alliance colleague, Dr. Stephanie Wood-Garnett and Professor Ron Dahl of the School of Public Health at the University of California at Berkeley.
Stephanie is vice president of the policy to practice team at the Alliance. She’s also an accomplished educator with extensive experience in leading complex P20 educational form initiatives. Throughout her career she is focused on establishing systems for programmatic changes at the local, state and national levels to support and advance educational equity.
Ron Dahl is a pediatrician and well-renowned developmental scientist committed to interdisciplinary team research with a long-term goal of improving the lives of children and adolescence. His researches range from basic studies of neurobiological and psychological development, clinical studies in pediatrics and child psychiatry, to consideration of the social, family and cultural context that shape neurobehavioral development.
A professor at the School of Public Health at the University of California Berkeley, Ron also serves as director of the Institute of Human Development and director of the Center on the Developing Adolescent, both at Berkeley. It’s great to have you both with us, Ron.
And now before we get started, two technical details. Please join the conversation via Twitter using the hashtag science of learning. Additionally, today’s event is being recorded. Video and PowerPoint slides will be available immediately after the webinar ends at www.all4ed.org/webinars.
Ron, thanks very much for being with us today and for your work in the field of adolescent brain research. I’ll start off by asking if you can share with our viewers information about your latest research and what it tells us about young people and their neurodevelopment.
Thank you. It’s exciting to be here. I am increasingly inspired by the opportunities and challenges of making links between our research on development and the developing brain and the important issues of education. There’s nothing more important than having a positive impact on young people’s lives and to use the best science available to help inform how to do that.
I will be talking about some of our more recent research and I also want to help provide some framework that we have been increasingly stretching our understanding about how to best use the science to inform these issues. And so I want to talk a bit about the Center on the Developing Adolescent that we have been increasingly using to make these bridges.
This is a program, a research that is at Berkeley but we have partners actually across the company and around the world involving researchers in these areas. And the goal of the center is to really to connect the emerging brain research to programs and policy by building interdisciplinary teams.
Increasingly what we’re understanding is that to translate the neuroscience or brain development research into policy is no simple process of saying this is what it means. It really involves these bidirectional interactions of people with expertise and different pockets coming together and understanding each other more deeply. These are important challenging issues and it has really shaped the ways of thinking of our scientists as well as our practitioners and policymakers who are interested in these complex bridges.
So I want to start with trying to simplify a complex set of issues that I think will help us as we focus on the inter development and that is thinking about the developmental science of adolescence broadly. And a key part of what we are understanding about adolescence is that it’s a perfect storm of interacting levels of change. That is, it’s not simply changes in brain development.
It’s a time of rapid physical growth. The second fastest growth of the lifespan. Only infants grow more quickly. It’s a time that there’s activation of new drives and motivations. It’s a time that there are sex-specific changes in faces and voices and body characteristics. It’s the face that kids are seeing when the mirror’s changing as they go through puberty. The faces of their friends are changing.
It’s a time when they have changes in sleep and their _____ regulation, metabolic changes and a wide array of cognitive and emotional changes. And most importantly profound changes in social motivation, social context and social roles. The reason I’m emphasizing these issues of dynamic changes across levels is that each level we look at, whether it’s the deep biology and molecular changes, behavioral changes, the neurodevelopmental changes that I’m gonna talk about a lot, changes in peers, family, school, culture, technology and media, that those changes are inherently causing changes at other levels.
As the brain changes, the interest in peers and in the selection of peers is influenced by those brain changes as individuals interact with different peers than the media and technology they use changes. But then the experiences of technology and media are then changing the brain. If I put double arrows across every level you wouldn’t be able to read the words.
But if we don’t understand these interactions then we can’t understand the spirals. And then of course another important to mention that often doesn’t get discussed about puberty and adolescence, and I love this quote, is figuring out to relate to the world and yourself as a suddenly and mystifyingly sexual being. And these dynamics that stir up and churn strong emotions and strong feelings and these interactions are important to understand because they set the stage for these spirals.
As things start to go badly they unravel and affect other levels of the systems. Now we have focused in the traditional research in this area on what I call the dark side of this, that these rapid interactions, these multiple levels of bidirectional interactions that are actively sculpting these developing neural systems create vulnerabilities.
Because these interactions are happening quickly and interacting across these levels, this sets the stage for what a lot of people stereotype adolescence as this time of vulnerability and problems. And it’s what I would call the dark side of this spiral. And it’s clearly true. It’s part of what we call the health paradox of adolescence.
And it’s a paradox because on one hand adolescence is the healthiest period of the lifespan. Almost everything you can measure, if you go from elementary school across adolescence into early adult gets better. Strength, speed, reaction time, reasoning abilities, cognitive skills, immune function, resistance to cold, heat, hunger, dehydration and most types of injuries.
And yet overall death and disability rates jump 200 to 300 percent between elementary school and early adulthood. And of course these aren’t mysterious medical illnesses. These are problems with the control of behavior and emotion. It’s increasing rates of accident, suicide, homicide, depression, alcohol and substance use, violence, reckless behaviors, eating disorders, sexually transmitted diseases, health problems related to risky behaviors broadly, worsening obesity.
And in addition to the measurable levels of death and disability this is a time when patterns of behavior are instantiated that have long-term consequences across the lifespan. The most striking example is smoking. If you look at people who are gonna develop emphysema and heart disease and lung cancer in their 50’s, 60’s and 70’s, almost every one of them will have begun smoking at adolescence between ages 10 to 20.
So if we’re gonna focus on the trajectory to these health problems we need to understand that adolescence is the key inflection point for many, many, many outcomes. But what is equally important and less understood because it’s been more difficult to study, for everything we’ve said about these dynamic interactions across systems that create negative spirals creates opportunities for positive spirals.
This is a time of rapid changes that create opportunities for learning, for exploration, for acquiring skills, habits, for shaping intrinsic motivations, heartfelt goals and passions. These are unique opportunities for social, emotional and motivational learning that shape deep feelings that are having enduring effects, as well as habits and patterns of behavior.
We need to understand that the opportunity to scaffold and support and nudge positive developmental spirals is equally important and equally impactful and from an educational perspective, perhaps the most important challenge in using the science.
The first place I want to start with this work, particularly the work over the past several years not only in my lab in our center but in a number of labs around the world is to push back against what I think is a non-helpful myth that adolescence behaved the way they do and that these negative vulnerabilities emerge because their brains aren’t working well, that they’re broken, that they’re missing part of their prefrontal cortex.
These metaphors don’t fit the science and they don’t serve understanding adolescence. Adolescence prefrontal cortex work very well when they’re motivated to do something, when they’re engaged, when they have passions. They can recruit their prefrontal cortex quite well.
Adolescent brains are very well adapted to the tasks and challenges of adolescence. They direct their attention and salience and what they will react to to their social world, to learn about the complex social world and their place in it as an individual. They are tuned to that and reacting to that in ways that can override their cognitive abilities. But that doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with their brains.
They’re doing what the adolescent brain should do. They’re focusing and prioritizing learning about their complex social world. And if you want a simple example about adolescent brains, let me pose this question. If there was a new technology that emerged or an ability to do something as tedious as text messaging and you wanted to compare who was gonna master this more quickly, an adolescent brain or an adult brain, I can tell you where most of you would place our bets.
If it’s a way to increase your social world adolescence will master the learning very rapidly. If they’re being told that they need to learn something because it’s gonna help them sometime in the future then their brains may not look like they work very well. But it’s not because something’s wrong with their brain. And I think this is an important point to highlight that these shifts in priorities for attention and learning as we’ll talk about later, we shouldn’t think about as an adequacy or somehow we should wait until their brains are more mature.
This is a key time for positive learning and that these patterns of experience are really calibrating the social and emotional valuing systems in the brain that generate feelings about what matters and what doesn’t matter. These heartfelt goals and priorities are being shaped by these experiences in ways that can have positive impact.
We’re doing a disservice to the brain if we think that it’s all about rational thought. Feelings can be smart, wise feelings. We can have passions for good causes and purposes that guide our value systems and shaping these systems are as important as shaping the ability for the thinking brain to suppress emotions. That’s a far too simplistic understanding of what it means to become mature or wise.
Now a colleague and I did a meta-analysis back in 2011 and we published in 2012 of all the functional brain imaging studies at that time in adolescence. And we showed evidence that a simple model of an immature prefrontal cortex did not fit the data very well at all. As a part of that paper that we published we highlighted that there was really strong evidence for changes in the emotional and social processing systems in the brain when puberty began that created increased sensitivity of certain kinds of rewards and strong feelings and self-conscious emotions.
And those systems interact with the thinking-planning brain in ways that can derail them. I’m sorry, and this is important to understand, I don’t have to go over all the details of the model, but when puberty begins it affects subsets of systems and circuits in the brain that are involved in processing social and emotional input and sensitizes that. That recruits parts of the thinking-planning brain in flexible ways.
That can lead the way to negative spirals across the mid to late adolescence if those priorities begin to be aimed at risky behaviors and dangerous behaviors and drugs and alcohol. But in the same way if those priorities become aimed at positive passions for long-term goals, for adapting and mastering challenges and feeling admired for those very positive things in one’s life, those spirals can become very positive and for most adolescents they are.
Most adolescents get through this period quite well, getting along with their teachers and their parents and have good friends and do wonderful thing and are idealistic and can contribute to the world. We need to understand that these positive spirals are at least as important if not more important than the negative spirals. Now as I try to summarize some key parts of what the science is telling us, it’s important to even define what we mean by adolescence and understand that there are different periods within adolescence, within which the scientific insides may be somewhat different.
There’s a lot of what I call paradoxes or precarious tipping points during windows of brain development as we’ll talk about. And just for simplicity let’s set the frame. First of all, adolescence is not being a teenager. It actually starts before being 13 or 14 because puberty happens early and has been happening earlier. So it’s from the beginning of this rapid physical changes of puberty. And when does adolescence end? Well, that’s a difficult thing to define biologically.
It is when you take on adult roles and responsibilities. That’s a long period of time that is often from ages 9, 10 or 11 when puberty is starting, and in the mid-20’s lots of people are still living with their parents and having a hard time feeling like they’re adults. So it’s helpful to consider three general windows. I’m gonna talk a lot about the transition into adolescence, the onset of puberty as the most dynamic period that creates probably new plasticity and specialized learning in the brain.
That early inflection point is often ignored because we think of adolescence as teenagers that are 15 to 19 with problems. But if we want to do positive scaffolding of the most important inflection point, we may want to focus earlier in this 10 to 14 period as they’re just ramping into puberty. Now that’s not to diminish the importance of mid to late adolescence. This period from 15 to 19 is when the spiraling is gonna continue. If you’re on a negative trajectory it can really plummet into even worse patterns and positive trajectories can really build. So we want to think about the 15 to 19-year-olds as an important window of development as well.
And then finally, there’s increasing evidence that this transition into adulthood is one of the most vulnerable times. Finding that first job, the key relationships, the patterns of stable life feeling like there are economic opportunities to succeed as an adult. So that’s an important transition as well.
But the science is different in terms of what hints we get about opportunities and vulnerabilities in these windows. So it’s good to think not just of adolescence as everyone from 8 to 28, but rather windows of development and the developmental processes biologically and developmental processes socially that create these opportunities and these challenges.
So I want to now focus on the early part of that set of changes, and that is again the onset of adolescence is pubertal maturation. It creates tremendous physical changes and there is a bio-behavioral activation of a subset of brain systems that cause changes. Now the biology is important but as I’ll say over and over again the important implications aren’t about the biology. They’re about what kinds of experiences kids have when the biology has sensitized learning and emotional reactions.
Puberty causes an increase in the attraction of novelty, exploration and trying to figure out about the world and who you are in the world. That’s true across a lot of species. If animals didn’t have this tendency to explore, why would they leave their safe burrows and nests and go out into the world as an individual? This has been studied across a lot of species, this tendency that puberty and sexual maturation to have a tendency to explore and seek autonomy.
There’s also an increase in sensation-seeking. Sensation-seeking isn’t just being impulsive. Sensation-seeking is having an appetite for, an inclination for excitement, arousal, novelty, bursts of unusual experiences and feelings. Now that’s not true for every child and there are plenty of kids who are sensation-seeking when they’re three and four and five and as adults.
But the tendency to become more sensation-seeking goes up at puberty. Even anxious, shy kids tend to get a bit bolder. And kids that are already pretty bold tend to get a lot bolder. And if you look at the data about boredom in school, it maps on really well. David Yeager had a wonderful analysis of a big population data on boredom in school and in seventh and eighth grade is when boredom in school peaks.
A huge number of kids are bored more than 50 percent of the time when they’re peeking in their sensation-seeking. They want to learn and explore. Sitting in a desk being told what is important often doesn’t tap into these biological shifts. The second thing that we know deeply is that as these pubertal hormones go up the motivational salience of being admired and respected increases.
Of course kids like to be admired. Of course adults like to be admired. Status-seeking is a human characteristic. And as kids go through puberty, boys and girls, as these hormones go up the relative importance of being admired and respected and figuring out how to get more social status is intensified and we have to understand this as a spurt in the system that creates vulnerabilities and opportunities.
The science is fascinating. We’re really trying to take apart the complexity and understand some of the components of the hormones and the brain systems, but the principles about education and learning I think are beginning to be clear even with lack of details and some of the mechanisms. And that is this is a period of plasticity from learning. The brain is trying to promote certain kinds of social learning that have been quite adaptive for most of human history.
This isn’t a bad period. This is a good period that with positive learning can have a very, very positive impact. Now I want to pause for a moment from the adolescent-specific parts of the story and talk more generally about neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity has become something of great interest I think around the world, and a lot of this came out of the recognition that the first couple of years of life are enormously important in shaping everything in brain development and it’s important to invest in the early prenatal and early postnatal and early developmental period because of the plasticity in the brain.
But plasticity isn’t just having a soft, flexible brain that’s shaped by experience. It is really a wide range of not only synaptic, the links between neurons, and non-synaptic processes that are involved in brain development, but it’s fundamentally about the ability of the brain to instantiate learning. Keep the learning in place that that learning becomes instantiated.
And increasingly the interest of people in different areas in policy and plastic about plasticity is the idea that there are sensitive or critical periods in development for certain kinds of learning. And again, we all know that that’s true in the first few years of life, but this is an area of amazing progress and elegance in understanding in neuroscience.
Most of that work has been driven by focusing on very early periods of development. And it’s not just that kids, whatever language they’re exposed to in their first year or two of life, just seem to absorb that language instantiate it deeply. Increasingly the developmental researches are understanding that there are components of language discrimination, of making certain kinds of sounds, of forming words, the forming aspects of grammar. And the sensitivity for these systems to be shaped by what language, one an infant or a toddler hears, overlap.
It’s not just a critical window that either you get it or you don’t get. And it makes sense how these different components interact. But I want to, without going into the details of the plasticity of the molecular system is in the brain that underpin this, I want to hit two important principles that have emerged from these studies of early development that I think are gonna be relevant to thinking about these issues in adolescence.
And the first is that it’s not that the brain responds to being pressed on or pulled. It’s that the brain plasticity, how kids expertly learn to talk, walk, control their eyes, read emotions comes from practice. Mark Johnson’s lab in the UK showed that by two months of age infants have executed more than two and a half million eye movements. They are practicing moving their eyes. That’s how they learn to control it.
And what are they looking at? They’re looking at things that are attractive to look at in terms of those neural systems. They’re looking at faces. They’re drawn to faces. They’re drawn to emotional faces. And by two years of age they’ve looked at hundreds of thousands of emotional faces. They’re learning by practicing. What the brain is wired to do is to be attracted to certain kinds of experiences that then get repeated.
A toddler learning to walk, a really elegant study that showed that the average toddler learning to walk takes 14,000 steps a day, covers about 46 football fields, and incurs 100 falls a day. We use this metaphor fall down nine times, get up ten is being resilient. An infant falls down 100 times a day and gets back up. That’s not executive function. That’s not grit. That is a fundamental desire to explore and practice mastery over challenges.
And we need to understand that these tendencies are what drives learning at deepest level we’re beginning to understand in the brain. Now the point broadly is that patterns of neural connection are shaped by patterns of behavior. And it’s not simply one experience or five experiences. It’s the practice that happens and the natural tendency to practice certain kinds of things and the social context, the particular language you hear.
If you’re in an impoverished environment and you don’t hear as many words or exposed to rich language or exposed to social interactions that are rewarding and fun, those are going to shape how those patterns of neural connection are shaped by learning. The neural plasticity, this tendency for systems to wire together and be sculpted by experience doesn’t end at age one or at age three or at age five. It changes.
But one of the stories from the neuroscience is the story isn’t fundamentally about plasticity. It’s about the balance of stability in plasticity. If we didn’t have some stability we would have no development. If we didn’t learn a language well, if we didn’t attach to particular people emotionally, if we don’t have some stability from the learning then we would remain plastic and open to new languages. But then we’d never have the foundation of learning.
What the brain does is it goes through periods of plasticity, stabilizes one set of neural systems, and then plasticity involves interactions across neural systems. There’s increasing evidence that the onset of puberty represents another set of shifts in this balance. There’s been a lot of stabilization. Kids have learned a lot. They’ve acquired a lot of skills and they have a lot of abilities.
But now a new wave of learning comes in as an individual facing a complex social world. And the question for our field of individuals trying to study the neuroscience of adolescence, what kinds of plasticity are enhanced at the onset of puberty? What are those windows of opportunity? There’s a lot of work to be done, but there’s some really interesting themes emerging from this work.
Broadly, the way we could pose this question is, what are the natural attractors to the adolescent brain? In other words, what in the same way that kids want to practice walking and talking and they naturally engage in certain kinds of situations that cause them to practice over and over again, what are the equivalents? What are the adolescent corollaries to this tendency to repeat and be drawn to and be engaged by certain kinds of experiences?
Well, I think you don’t really need to be a neuroscientist to have some guesses about where those attractors are for adolescents. If you spend time with seventh and eighth and ninth graders and high school students and watch what’s difficult and effortful for them to do and what’s natural for them to engage, there’s some really important themes.
And I’ll come back to some of the neuroscience evidence, but I think there’s some wise people that have recognized these themes for a long time and it’s about social and emotional learning about self and others. I love this quote by Frederick Buechner about adolescence, “We search on our journeys for self to be, for other selves to love and work to do.”
There’s a desire to find a way to contribute in ways that are valued. Where do I fit in? How can I be admired? How can I add to something larger than myself? And there are healthy ways to have that learning and there are challenges to that kind of learning. Another favorite quote of mine that captures deep wisdom that I think fits with the data that’s emerging from the lab is Maya Angelou’s quote, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you’ve said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
Now that’s true for adults. It’s true across the age span. But it’s particularly true for young adolescents. This intensification of self-consciousness and how one feels in relation to the individuals around them, everyone can remember some experience of being about 11 or 12 or 13 and having some little social mistake or a comment that felt so humiliating, it still burns in our brain.
Could be about clothes, could be about something we said, it could be about an awkward fall, could be something someone made fun of. But the sensitivity to being socially rejected or diminished and the thrill of being admired intensifies and this is fundamental in terms of these opportunities.
So the developmental science of adolescence, these teams of people coming together to slice through this complexity and understand how do we think about developmental trajectories to healthy outcomes? How do we advance understanding of deep processes that give us inside that have practical applications?
I want to just say a little bit about this approach and I want to begin with something that can seem a little bit tangential to learning, but I think gives us a model of developmental science and that something is easy to measure as height. And this part of developmental science is to understand pathways to individual differences.
And of course height is something that shows a lot of _____ _____ and there’s tremendous range of ways that can affect. Some of it’s genetics, some of it’s nutrition, some of it’s environment, some of it’s disorders or diseases or accidents or injuries. But there’s also within that complexity data that’s been measured on literally millions of people with really beautiful longitudinal data.
And what we know is that both in boys and girls these are plots of height and velocity. This is measured within an individual, how much they grew since the last time they were in the pediatrician’s office and what you can see on the left, the very high numbers of growing really, really fast is the highest levels are in infancy. Infants grow like crazy.
And then kids continue to grow. Of course they’re growing across their whole – their entire toddlerhood and childhood. But the rate slows down and it’s relatively stable across that age of 10, 11, 12 years and then boom. What you see, starting at about 11 in the girls and starting about 12 in the boys is a big spurt in height.
Now this isn’t being a certain age. It’s not some mystery of what’s happening that suddenly growth accelerates. We know exactly what happens. This is puberty. And if you go through puberty at 11 versus 13 the growth spurt’s gonna happen at a different time. This is not a subtle change. If you’re in the house of an individual going through this you suddenly find you can’t keep them in shoes, clothes or food in the refrigerator.
This is a profound change in a very simple physical process. The point here is that of course something like malnutrition or a disease could affect growth at any point across this entire interval. But think about if that happened in the first year of life or if it happened just as you’re starting puberty. It’s total impact is gonna be much larger.
This is an analogy for other processes that are harder to measure. When we say kids always are harder to measure. When we say kids always are sensitive to admiration, they’re always sensitive to whether they’re feeling respected and admired, that could be true, or that kids seek status or they have sensation-seeking.
But in the same way that height increases we think there’s certain kinds of feelings, tendencies and learning that also accelerate in an analogous way. We also know that the hormones that cause this growth spurt happen at puberty. It’s testosterone and growth hormone and other hormones suddenly surge. That’s what makes the body go up.
Those same hormones affect the brain. They affect dopamine systems in the brain that are involved in reward processing and learning. They affect social and affective sensitivities to being respected and admired and they incline motivation to pay more attention to peers and other admired adults that they have a natural inclination to pay attention to and learn about.
This shift, it’s called this reorientation of social and emotional information processing streams. It shifts attention and motivation more naturally to pay attention to social roles, peers, potential romantic partners, social hierarchies, certainly interest in sexual and romantic behavior and this intense focus on one’s self. Who am I? Where do I fit in? Where do I not fit in?
These tendencies are very healthy processes and they create opportunities and vulnerabilities. One of the drivers – this isn’t the most important part of the story, but it is a very important part, is for example the hormone testosterone in both boys and in girls. These levels of hormones are high in the first year of life. They go down to very low levels and at the beginning of puberty they go up.
And as they go up they, and they go up earlier in girls even though they don’t go up as high in girls, and they affect the same neural systems – most of the same neural systems that they do in boys. And they sensitize individuals to what kinds of behaviors are being admired. And they’re gonna do more of those behaviors. This is important to understand not because the biology’s driving the behavior, because the biology sensitizes learning about social context.
Now I’m gonna say a little bit about brain circuitry. This is a complicated set of issues. The important points conceptually is increasing if you talk to people in the neuroscience community we tend not to talk about parts of the brain or regions of the brain or structures of the brain. Those are important frameworks. But the action is about networks of connection between those structured.
Almost everything that we’re interested in in terms of the systems of emotion, motivation, cognition and motor development involves areas of the prefrontal cortex, areas of the deep structures of the brain, areas of the cerebellum. These circuits are interacting with each other. And what we also are increasingly understanding is that the circuits that are involved in cognition and in motor systems involve a part of the basal brain called the dorsolateral striatum.
And one of the things that we are increasingly understanding is that these systems change in a pretty linear way with age. As kids get older and have more experience they improve. But if you look at the circuits that are involved in emotion and motivation and a feeling base of motivation, what you feel motivated to do, those systems involve another part of the striatum and those seem to have a more quadratic shift with age.
That is as puberty kicks in they shoot up and then come back down. And the interactions between these circuits, how our feelings interact with our cognition and our behavior is being shaped by one system being shifted at puberty. What does that mean? I think what it means is that as puberty kicks in it creates what I’ve often referred to as igniting passions in the developing brain.
It creates profound changes and romantic interests and motivation and the intensity of emotion. It increases sensation-seeking and it sensitizes the brain to pay attention to goal-directed behaviors related to status. And it’s also an opportunity to shape motivational learning. And when I say motivational learning here it’s not about making yourself do something because the goal comes later.
It’s not about reading literature because you want to get an A in your AP English class and get into a good college. It’s about falling in love with literature so that you hide under the covers and read all night. It’s about these feeling-based aspects of wanting, liking and desiring particular kinds of goals. It’s about heart-felt goals, values and priorities.
It’s like when kids fall in love with a sport and you’d have to keep them from practicing, shooting the basketball or kicking the soccer ball. It’s about falling in love with poetry that kids will spend all of the time available writing and reading poetry or playing a particular instrument or being engaged in making the world a better place or falling in love with a particular religion. This capacity for intense motivational alignment with certain kinds of activities is shaped strongly by this period of time.
To summarize the practical aspects of this work, I think we’re increasingly understanding that early adolescence, this period of 10 to 14, the onset of puberty is a period for adjusting motivations and early identity. Adjusting motivations can also be disengagement. Depression rates increase at the same time kids have these igniting passions.
But it’s a time also to adjust motivations to a particular kinds of goals and activities. This is a time of intense romantic and sexual feelings and confusion for a lot of young people. Finding a path to acceptance, belonging, respect and autonomy is naturally facilitated by these changes. Kids’ sensitivity to what do I do to feel admired and valued, how do I contribute in ways that makes me feel valued, expanded, enlarged in some way that’s not just about myself. It’s about being part of and connected to something larger than myself.
Kids are seeking meaning and purpose. They’re seeking ways to feel enlarged that can be very healthy and yet this urgency to get these hard feelings is also a risky time to get these feelings in cheap ways that can give you short-term versions of these feelings and that’s part of the risk for the negative spirals.
These changes are also interacting with other adolescent domains – the risk-taking, the novelty-seeking and increased fear and emotional reactivity. But together they’re shaping high intensity motivational learning. I’m gonna finish by giving one of my favorite examples that I think really captures key elements of this and that is that adolescence, particularly after the onset of puberty, is a time that the brain is capable of transformational changes in motivation. And the most striking example of that is literally falling in love.
Pre-pubertal kids develop crushes but they don’t exchange a hundred words and two kisses and be willing to die for each other and destroy their families and feel like the Universe had always intended for them to be together. Now that’s not an absurd comedy of Shakespeare. It’s the most successful tragedy in Western Literature.
And there’s a reason Shakespeare made Juliet 13. There’s this understanding across cultures that this capacity to hijack every motivation with just a few intense experiences is facilitated in this window of time. But this capacity for sudden transformational changes and motivation is not simply literally falling in love. This is also a metaphor. It’s a time kids can fall in love with literature, dance, music, a particular religion or philosophy, the idealistic ambition to make the world a better place with math, science, social justice.
It is a vulnerable time when these motives can be hijacked for negative things and it’s also a vulnerable time for withdrawal and disconnection from any passion. It’s a time when kids become more apathetic, bored and depressed. But that doesn’t mean the model’s wrong. It is quite consistent with this idea of rapid adjustments that can spiral down as well as spiral up. And the developmental science motivation is at a really early stage.
So in summary, adolescence appears to be a key developmental window of motivational learning. It’s a time of development when the brain expects to adjust targets and intensity of motivational feelings, and the particular patterns of behavior, the social and mastery experiences that are practiced during this maturational window.
Not in any day or week, but across this interval of time are gradually strengthening the patterns of connection related to heartfelt goals and priorities or failing to do that. Now there’s some compelling developmental social neuroscience questions about mechanisms and processes. We need greater precision in understanding this, to use the science to really have the most precise input to these policy-level issues.
But I think it’s also important to recognize that it’s not simply about understanding the brain. I think the most exciting questions are compelling developmental science questions that incorporate science across multiple areas of expertise – health education in the broadest sense.
But how to scaffold and support the early development, especially in the early adolescent period when the system seems most plastic to have a positive impact not simply to avoid the negative, but to help build these positive early roots of identity and feeling – they’re finding ways to contribute to something larger in healthy, sustainable ways. Thank you very much.
Ron, thanks so much for your informative presentation. And as Bob said, we are really glad to have you here today with us. To help inform the Alliance’s work in this area, my team administered an informal survey over the summer to practitioners who wanted to hear what they want to know, what they think they know or don’t understand related to how research about the brain could or should inform practices at the school and classroom levels with adolescence.
So I have a couple of questions that we’re gonna be using throughout the day and the first question is, what advice do you have for educators on impacting the long-term learning of adolescents, particularly students who are most likely to leave school without a diploma or graduate unprepared for a productive future?
Yes, so these are really important and complex questions and I think that as I alluded to in the talk there is some principles that are really emerging. And I’m often reminded when I was – I trained as a pediatrician before I focused on my work on developmental science – and I remember someone saying to me that 90 percent of what a pediatrician does any wise grandmother could do. But the other ten percent is important.
The other ten percent, we wouldn’t have come up with immunizations against these diseases and cures for pediatric cancer without the science. And I think the same thing is true for the science of learning and for developmental science more broadly. Most of these principles about being sensitive to identity and feeling and the things I’ve highlighted, in fact wise teachers probably have a better idea how to engage and have wisdom about these issues than neuroscientists will.
And I think that’s really important to emphasize. I think looking too much to the neuroscience or that how the brain is gonna tell us about how to do these things won’t serve us well. And, as in the analogy, I think there are places where the science is gonna surprise us. And I think that the exciting opportunities are by bringing these teams of people together.
Every time we have worked in the translational area, whether it’s clinical work or public health work or education, if we start to naively think that the scientists who understand this deeply can translate what this means in a complex setting it falls flat because there’s the complexity of how to apply that principle in a particular context with a particular group of kids or social influences is larger sources of variability than the science.
And so these partnerships of how do we come together and discuss the principles and how they apply in different settings is really the art here. So I can give some examples. So one of the things we’re trying to emphasize is adding a bit more precision into the understanding developmental processes. But it’s not just being an age or a grade level that – and to emphasize the positive aspects of the science rather than the negative.
It’s interesting if you look at parents and other adults’ response to infants and toddlers, infants and toddlers are a huge amount of work and stressful, but there’s this sense of wonder and joy of watching infants and toddlers explore. The emotion when you’re dealing with kids going into adolescence tends to be different. Why? Why isn’t it as wonderful to watch the awkward exploration and emotional raw struggles?
This tendency to problematize youth because they become more threatening. Because their power looks more threatening to us than toddlers. And I think that if we can help to refocus, this is a window of opportunity as a time of learning and that a lot of these struggles to push against adult efforts to control and steer what they’re doing is a healthy part of what they’re doing.
And I think the second part of that is that the more precisely we can understand particularly important early windows – when I was initially doing a lot of this work and we would talk about trying to understand the deeper science relevant to things like depression or substance use and we would talk about 10 to 14, they’d say wait a minute. Why do you want to study them? These are problems that occur in 15 to 19-year-olds.
And I would as a developmentalist say yes. What didn’t I make clear in our model? Yes, we need to treat people with lung cancer in their 60’s and 70’s. But ultimately we need to stop them from smoking. But I think in similar ways the early roots of these patterns of behavior are gonna be more modifiable, especially at the population level and at the education level.
Of course kids are gonna get into severe problems and need different kinds of interventions later in adolescence. But I think focusing on investing. It’s just like we’ve globally invested in infants and young children around the world and had a huge impact in really inspiring ways.
I think there’s opportunities to invest in that early adolescent period to help especially kids that are struggling and disadvantaged and don’t have a lot of ways to feel admired, have ways to feel respected and their autonomy can feel more threatening to people. Creating ways for them to explore and find their own path to be admired and supporting those in really valuable ways early I think is a part of this.
So again, that’s not the only point but it’s an example where if we bring together teams of people with expertise on each side I think we can translate this work into practical principles. And then, as in every other area of science or policy, we want to evaluate them. We might be a little off. We may be close to the truth but when we apply it and realize it’s more complicated, but we need to do that and evaluate it and have more of these partnerships.
And finally, I’m often surprised by something about the emphasis on biology in the brain. In some ways people find it inspiring and they increasingly want to understand and engage it. But there’s still a tendency to worry that emphasis on biology is somehow diminishing the importance of the social interactions or the context.
And I what I really hope we can make even more progress is that it’s not one or the other. That the most important messages aren’t that the genetics or the biology mean that people are gonna be A or B or C. It’s giving us hints about why certain kinds of learning is particularly important in particular situations at particular times in development.
And coming together and appreciating the science and the biology not as threatening as any wise people working with young people recognize are important ways to help young people, but to help leverage that in the most productive ways.
So I thought I heard, in following up on Stephanie’s question, I thought I heard through your presentation the concept, the importance of engagement of students as part of the learning process. We at the Alliance ascribe to deeper learning outcomes, the ability of every child to not only finish high school with core content knowledge with the ability to think critically, solve problems, to be agents of their own learning going forward.
And that only occurs it seems to me through a different pedagogy than perhaps what is traditional. Could you talk a little bit about that? Because I think I heard a marrying up of development that is physical development and also the neural development, but the importance of student engagement.
That’s a great, totally on-point question. I think that’s exactly the area that I see as the greatest potential in the following ways. At some level discovery learning and personalized learning is going to enhance learning at any point in lifespan. But the principles you just talked about, engaging young people in ways that make them feel like they have control and autonomy, and it resonates with what feels important and salient to them is intensified at this period of puberty.
Those principles, which may be true in general, become ever more important. And so highlighting and prioritizing those issues to an even greater extent – we’ve learned this in a number of areas of even public health or behavior change with kids. Giving them good information about healthy eating or exercise or anti-bullying, if those messages at the process of giving that message somehow makes them feel diminished, makes them feel like they’re being talked down to, or that adults are trying to tell them they don’t know what’s best for themselves, they need to listen to adult advice, that feeling of being diminished or disrespected will completely offset good information from well-meaning people.
It resonates with what you’re talking about in terms of pedagogy and learning. Helping kids discover what’s true for themselves and scaffolding that for good reasons, but giving them more autonomy, their natural attraction to want to be interested in each other and social relationships. Working in groups. Creative approaches to having social interaction and the energizing of social interactions, working together in teams on projects.
Again, lots of people have been talking about this long before we knew the neuroscience. But the degree to which that becomes even more important right in this window of time. Rather than going against the grain and making kids sit at their desk, and whether it’s with technology or a book and solve problems, that helps one set of skills. But if it’s going against the grain of their natural motivations, they’re incredibly bored and feel like I don’t belong here. This doesn’t feel salient in my life.
The degree to which we go against the grain of those natural motivations versus aren’t there ways to master the same cognitive skills and ways that are going with the grain of having kids work in groups. Having them do some mixture of competition and cooperation, of teams of peoples trying to solve problems.
And relating the problems increasingly to things that feel salient, what really matters in their lives and helping them feel connected in their own identities to those issues that they care about. So again, these principles resonate with what teachers have known, and yet this added emphasis that right in that window, and I think there are some really nice studies that show that even light touch interventions, that seventh grade period when so many kids are falling off the trajectory, that make them feel valued and challenged in positive ways can totally change their trajectory.
So I think the principles that you’re emphasizing broadly are strongly resonant with the science and the science would suggest that the importance is even greater in that window that we’re talking about.
So, Ron, can you talk a little bit about the policy piece of this? Many of our viewers today will be policy-makers who might be a state or at a local level or they could be educators who sit in a superintendent seat or a building principal’s seat. And as they’re listening to our conversation and the important questions we’ve been asking about how do we seize the opportunity with adolescence, they’re probably wondering, how do I make this something that’s not teacher-dependent but something that might be systemic?
So as we think about what schools could do across all classrooms or what districts could do across all schools, are there any policy opportunities for really better supporting what you’ve been sharing with us today about adolescent youth development?
Yeah, these are huge questions and really important ones. So let me start with one part of the puzzle that I faced not only in education or interacting with UNICEF or in other areas, which is we don’t want to pit one developmental peer against the other.
Emphasizing early adolescence in no way diminishes the importance of very early development or school readiness or key when there’s a time for learning math and language skills when those systems may be more plastic earlier.
It’s about matching the emphasis to the opportunity. In the public health we call it precision public health. But the idea is if you have limited resources and you want to have the maximum impact then invest wisely to provide support in windows you’re gonna get the most leverage and traction to the long-term trajectory.
So I think there’s likely to be educational corollaries to that, that as we understand more about the science of learning and from a developmental science perspective, it may help us refine that some principles may be true just for learning across the entire lifespan, but others may really give us hints that particular kinds of learning are more deeply instantiated, more naturally internalized during different windows of development.
And it’s not to say it’s all about this age group or that age group, but it could help us understand that emphasizing certain kinds of principles, especially in that sixth, seventh, eighth grade window may be so important that affect these internalized attitudes of belonging, whether you feel part of school, whether you feel that you’re mastering something that’s exciting even if it’s hard and challenging.
So I think that that, and partner around there. And the second thing is we need to evaluate. We need to come up with creative ways to look at outcomes rigorously. Again, put the scientist hat. There’s a lot of things that we can believe are true and when we try to measure them carefully we can be surprised.
And I think we can’t just wait 20 years from now and follow _____ studies and come back and change. So I think we need to develop really good evaluations where we do some experiments and we say okay, if we really think this is more important, try actively maximizing these opportunities and see if they have positive effects. And if they do, then they’re cost-effective in a larger sense. They’re worth putting more investment into.
So I think it also comes back to the partnering. If I try to give a prescription for how to apply these I’m gonna miss with half of what I say from somebody who has been spending years, decades trying to incorporate these principles already.
I think creating the right teams of people to design applications and think about the diversity of context of where these would apply and evaluate them rigorously, I think that would be the most exciting way to link the science to education policy.
Keeping on the policy theme, the passage of the Every Student Success Act, or ESSA, requires A, evidence-backed measures, interventions. It also gets into identify school quality requirements and one of them is often referred to the fifth indicator, which schools and districts, or districts and states can come up with. What type of polices have the potential for supporting adolescents in this important period in their lives, and as well what kind of fifth indicator is relevant in today that science of learning can substantiate? And where do we go with that? Because that’s gonna be one of the leading questions I think that states and districts have in the next couple of years.
So I’m gonna take on two big challenges here. And again, I’m gonna be speaking a little out of perhaps the mainstream ’cause not working directly in this area. But there’s two things that I think are really crucially important to consider. And one is I’m gonna call – let me refer to social emotional learning in this early adolescent period.
And I don’t want to be critical of some good programs, but I do think that our research and others research suggests the simplistic approaches to social emotional learning of labeling feelings and recognizing emotions is a little off center from where the action is.
And the analogy here is it’s a bit – the procedural learning and the complexity in these systems are about managing your feelings in real time and intensely complex social situations. And it’s not being able to say in a sentence I am feeling X or Y, or oh, that person’s faces things – that’s not the way these systems work.
It’s a bit like if you’re gonna learn to really good at a sport, learning the words of like this is a racket and this is a serve over and over again, or watching a video clip of someone who’s good at it. Until you try to master the complex social challenge you’re not gonna really develop the skills. And we’ve learned this in other areas of like helping kids with anxiety disorders, with cognitive behavioral therapy.
If they don’t have graded exposure of learning to approach things that they’re afraid of rather than avoid them, they can have all the cognitive insight in the world. It’s about learning how to manage feelings. And so I think we need a – revolution may be too strong a word. I think we need a renaissance of work that in this area of social and emotional learning in this period of time about what are the ways to really help kids learn about relationships, how to deal with their charged feelings, how to in real time deal with conflict.
And that I think can be informed by some of the science and the wisdom of the education. So I think that’s a really important one. And then the second one is, and we actually talked about this a bit earlier as we were chatting, is the role of technology. And I think increasingly, and in the technology is not only within school but outside of school.
And of course out of school learning is so, so important in everything we’re talking about. If kids have one set of experiences in school and their sense of self or agency or feeling admired outside of school, and their experiences through technology are very, very powerful and different, the rapid intense changes in how children and adolescents interact with the world through technology.
We all know it, we all see it in our daily lives, and yet it’s happening so fast that it’s almost blurring I think our perspective. We were talking about tablets have only existed since 2010. They’re so part of our life – the smartphones. We so quickly just think of these things as normal. And the virtual reality, the augmented reality, the capacity for compelling experiences.
And then of course, as many people have pointed out, how many of the kids who have trouble having the self-discipline to do even an hour of homework a week will spend 40 hours a week earning status in their video games. These dimensions of learning and social experience and how rapidly they’re changing and how savvy some of these approaches are at capturing motivation for kids are really, really important things to be considered in relation to this.
Because I think rather than – there’s a tendency to either be dystopian or utopian. There are people that think that this technology revolution is going to save the world and do unbelievable things for education in kids, and there are people who think it’s gonna ruin the world and ruin kids’ experiences.
And of course there’s a lot of reasons to believe it’s somewhere in the middle that there are going to be good and bad ways technology can impact human lives and how do we engage these changes as policy-makers caring about kids’ education and experience? And how do we promote versions of technology? We’re not gonna stop it.
I think it’s become clear, not just to the U.S. but around the world, the rate of change of technologies is happening and the kids are the early adopters. And they are two or three steps ahead of their parents in most of the areas of new technology really fast. And so it’s happening. And finding positive ways to incorporate the technology revolution I think is a huge component of this.
So these two things – how do we develop better social emotional learning as a component of our education system? Because kids could be remarkably good if rational thinking and cognitive understanding, and we know from a lot of really beautifully done longitudinal studies. If their social skills and sense of self and social emotions are problematic, those cognitive skills are not gonna predict as much of their success in life, economic success, social success as these other areas.
And yet even though there’s some really wonderful progress in social emotional learning in young children and really empirically evaluated programs that have had a positive impact, I think in this window of sensitive learning and puberty were really so early in the curve, a time to do a positive – have a positive impact, and we’ve got this looming issue of technology becoming so dominant in their social experience in both concerning ways, as well as opportunities for that to enhance.
So how do you deal with two forces? One is the rapid change that’s coming in the same time, the need to be able to provide more research that truly documents what works and doesn’t. And specifically one of the Alliance’s major initiatives is the future-ready school’s an issue in which 3,000 school districts representing about one-third of all school children have signed a pledge we want to be future ready, meaning that they want to raise student learning outcomes and have a plan how to use technology that assists in that process, helps high-quality teaching and so on.
We developed a planning framework around it, and as I say roughly 3,000 districts have indicated or expressed interests in participating in it. Technology is here but how is it that – what is it that the science of learning can show us or needs to be showing us going forward to use it most effectively?
Great question. I was just at a conference a couple of weeks ago that brought together a lot of child development researchers and digital technology world, really influential, interesting people. And I was struck by the importance of one deep principle. And this is true not only for adolescents, but also toddler, preschool and probably elementary aspects of technology is in educational apps.
And that is that when the use of technology enhances social interaction when it’s the basis for parents and children interacting with each other or children interacting with each other in ways that are scaffolded and promote other kinds of learning, technology can be a very positive. And when technology is a distraction from the social world and way to isolate, and mainly be entertained in easy entertainment ways, which is a lot of educational apps are much more in that category, I think that principle emerges over and over again.
And so whether you’re talking about virtual reality, there are versions of virtual reality or augmented reality that can bring people together. I mean I don’t want to say anything good or bad about Pokémon Go, but I know people who met their neighbors for the first time because they were out capturing – I mean I think the capacity. Not that that’s the answer, but I think there is a capacity for these technologies to promote social interactions and to have parents in the same way that a parent reading a book or watching a TV show with their child, talking about the issues that come up, is very different than kids doing those things alone.
I think this is even more amplified with technology. And so I think that the evidence that this creates opportunities for kids working together with the technology on a project and do some augmented reality version where they have real objects and the technology, so that it’s not about immersing in the technology that isolates you from other people but rather it’s a tool that promotes social interaction that helps you learn.
And the other reason I want to emphasize that principle isn’t just that it makes a lot of sense – common sense. It’s that I think what the neuroscience is telling us is that it’s not about cognitive development or social development or emotional development. It’s about the integration of those together.
And just like there’s one way of training, you just work one muscle at a time and another muscle – but for most sports you need to use those muscles together. I think the analogy is that for most of life challenges it’s not just about being a careful thinker or controlling your emotions or having passions that are healthy. It’s about the integration of these systems together.
And so I think if technology can help integrate multiple systems rather than isolate kids to just work up little levels – they may get great reaction time. They may have great multitasking cognitive processes. But if they can’t deal with the social or the emotions of interacting with someone else at the same time, it may be like just making one set of muscles really strong at the expense of the other parts of the body. It may not be the perfect analogy but I think that principle makes a great deal of sense.
So I think the technologies that can be integrated into healthy social interactions and scaffolded in the same way we would want to scaffold any other experience, whether it was a sport or dance, I think can be a wonderful opportunity. And we need to evaluate these.
So may I infer from this that, ’cause I want to go back to an earlier premise that we talked about, is once again it’s about student engagement and it’s about the technologies of tool. But it’s about, as far as the learning process goes the student actually engaging with the learning as opposed to having it handed to them or lectured to them.
I think that the engagement and some degree of autonomy and selection in choice and tailoring that to kids, helping to co-shape that and with other kids and adults I think is exactly the point here. And I think there are ways that technology can really promote these processes. And again, we need teams of people with wisdom on each side coming together. I do think that we have to be cautious about some of the technology implications. It’s not to say that it’s all gonna be good or if we do it just the right way it’s all gonna be good, but it’s also not all bad.
Let me give you one example where in terms of the adolescents I think the data – most of the data that people is worried it’s destroying kids’ abilities to interact have not been supported or there’s not a lot of concern. But there is one place where there’s already enough data that we can flag as a concern and that is sleep deprivation and light schedules.
The data, the meta-analysis was recently done and putting together data from a few different sources, it’s not simply that the technology’s keeping them up. It’s one of those spirals. It’s at the time the brain expects it to be dark, you’ve got light getting into the brain telling it that it’s light.
You’ve got all this emotional arousal, you’ve got excitement, you’ve got mastery challenges, you’ve got kids sleeping with their phone to get the text message about the important social information in the middle of the night. But then the later and later schedule, the catch-up sleep on the wrong phase of the cycle, sleeping in really late on the weekends, this becomes a spiral.
And then the kids are irritable and sleep deprived and they use more stimulus. It’s a set of spirals and technology has amplified that spiral. And having kids use technology at night is clearly a concern. It doesn’t mean technology’s bad, but it may mean that having an electronic curfew or having a period of time that technology is turned off could be a very, very important part of the puzzle.
And so I think again, it’s not to say I’m mostly optimistic about technology or mostly pessimistic. I think we need have science and data guide us, be really careful about places where the amount of technology used or kids that are immersing themselves or isolating or becoming sleep deprived and having crazy schedules amplified are real, and the opportunity for technology to be the novel, exciting thing to master, but also involves social learning that can be individualized in really fascinating ways.
I think these are really exciting things to be exploring that are totally consistent with the principles you outlined at the beginning of this discussion about engagement, about promoting agency and autonomy and having kids shape their own learning. These should be tools and they should be tools that help teachers have – there may be an ability in individualized learning in individuals and small groups that could never have been done five years ago.
But we have to be careful and we have to learn from principles from older versions of media, from other versions of learning and interaction and some of the new frontier work in the science of learning about windows of opportunity for certain kinds of experiences.
So, Ron, this has been an amazing conversation and we’re approaching the end of our time today. But one of the questions that seem to come frequently from the field during our summer survey was really the challenge of how do educators and policy makers and researchers communicate what is known, what is a myth and how to really use all that we are learning and know about adolescent brain development to shape the work at the local level. It seemed that people were really struggling with how do we reach a common understanding of the right information and how do we actually take that information and move it forward.
So for those who are watching, how would you advise them in terms of having local conversations that can really move forward on agenda in ways that honors the opportunity that we know exists?
So these are things I’ve thought about a lot, like in particularly in the adolescent area. And I’ve watched as a particular study comes out and gets a lot of attention and then people interpret that study in different ways, the signal to noise gets really noisy and it gets confusing.
And I’ve also watched, and this is not a criticism. I understand this. I’ve also watched a certain tendency for people to be interested in the brain science to whatever degree it supports what they wanted to do anyway, and then there’s a picture of a brightly colored brain that says this is why this is important even if it’s used in different ways.
And so I think we really – moving beyond that, now in some ways just recognizing that there’s this changeable brain does have value. And recognizing that there’s opportunity and not just problems does have value. But I think to get to a point where the science is thoughtfully, responsibly used and evaluated is going to require teams of people.
We’ve been involved – this is one example I know this, but increasing interest in the public messaging of the science in this area, the Jack Shonkoff Center and the developing child to me is an inspiring example of people from many different disciplines coming together saying, where do we agree, how did we – and they work with frameworks – how do we message this in ways that it leads to understanding rather than misunderstanding?
Let’s evaluate the messaging. Let’s write whitepapers that summarize we can be bold and stretch here, but let’s not get too far in front of data. There’s discussions going on right now of the need for that for the adolescent developmental science. And I think it’s really needed. And it really is this healthy but difficult tension. If we’re too conservative and wait for the science to be absolutely certain then we’re gonna be 20 years from now looking back saying oh, this is what we should have done.
But if we’re too bold in saying we know this is true then we could be steering efforts. We’ve all done that. We’ve seen the trend go this way and that way. So I think it really – it highlights the crucial role of creating teams of people that include the public policy, practice and science communication expertise with teams of people to do this hard work of putting out – a _____ a board to put out whitepapers or put out careful messaging.
But I think there’s so much confusing and the field’s changing so rapidly that this is a really important – and it doesn’t give you an immediate answer for what to do at the local level. Because you can read five different books on adolescent brain development and draw somewhat different conclusions from each of them.
But I think my general advice is to promote partnering with groups of people who have been really thinking carefully about not only what does the brain development show, but how do we apply this? Because I think we’ve learned there’s lots of other areas of science that leap is fraught with well-intentioned misses in terms of what does the knowledge really mean in terms of the policy.
And it’s an exciting time. I think the field’s moving fast and the recognition of this need is inspiring a lot of people to come together and hopefully we’re gonna make some progress in these areas.
You wrapped it up nicely because it is about – it does increasingly come down to the importance of different groups working together in what I consider as _____ time in American education, actually world education. But where you’ve got natural forces, the research that’s developed, much of which you and others have led, the pedagogy that’s developed, the practices that are developing, the recognition of higher desire for greater student learning outcomes, not only content-based but also critical skills.
All of that, the role of technology. And then you bring with it in this country the new federal legislation that says states and districts, you have a lot more autonomy now but we’re also counting on you in the next 3 years, all 50 states and 15,000 school districts to make critical decisions on assessments, accountability, how you intervene in local forming schools and so on, and it needs to be evidenced back.
So as you pointed out, the need at every level from the most sophisticated whitepaper to the messaging that helps an educator or parent or member of the public to make those decisions. So this is, I hope, the start of an ongoing discussions at a very, very important time in our nation’s education evolution.
So that is all the time that we have today for this discussion. Very rich, very important and one that’s proven to I think be incredibly informative. I want to thank Ron Dahl for being here today and for his important work, and also to my colleague, Stephanie Wood-Garnett.
Remember that today’s video and PowerPoint slides will be archived at www.all4ed.org/webinars. I’m Bob Wise for the Alliance for Excellent Education. Thank you for joining us.
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