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Adolescent Minds: Science of Learning Informs Teaching and Student Engagement


More Than a Test

“Will this be on the test?” That is a question your students probably have asked during a lesson. While some students may have a genuine concern about scoring well on the next assessment, for many this common question highlights how engaged—or disengaged—they are with the content at hand and the relevance they see to their own life goals and desires. During adolescence, students experience a variety of changes in their brains that influence their motivation and mindsets about learning. Additionally, their abilities to plan and think critically continue to improve, which means students need ample opportunities to practice using higher-order thinking skills. These brain changes occur at different times and different rates for each student and do not necessarily correspond with chronological age and grade level, an important point for educators to know about adolescents.

Knowledge about brain development can be a vital tool for teachers seeking to connect with students and help them learn, says Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, cognitive neuroscientist and author of Inventing Ourselves: The Secret Life of the Teenage Brain. “The teachers that I work with in this area say they find it empowering to learn what’s going on in the brains of the teenagers they teach,” Blakemore says in the Alliance for Excellent Education’s (All4Ed’s) podcast Critical Window. “[E]ducation is all about changing children’s brains, that’s what education does. So of course the brain is absolutely fundamental to education, to teaching and learning.”

Brain Complexity

Behind what many people see as mere “raging hormones” of teens is a changing bundle of nerves that will constitute the adult brain. Research indicates that the onset of puberty, with its associated release of hormones such as estrogen and testosterone, triggers a new surge of brain development. This makes adolescence the second most important stage of brain development after early childhood. During this period of increased brain “plasticity” or adaptability, ignited by the hypothalamus deep inside the brain, connections known as nerve synapses strengthen with stimulation and are pruned away with disuse. This process of strengthening and pruning makes the brain more efficient and allows it to respond to the demands, activity, and stimulation from the adolescent’s environment.

At the same time, the nerves are wrapped with fatty cells. This insulation speeds up communication between nerve cells and makes it easier to engage in advanced thinking and mental tasks. It is important for educators to understand that this pruning and wrapping process occurs in key brain regions related to impulse control, emotion regulation, and higher-order thinking. This extensive brain development and activity highlight both the opportunity for positive experiences and learning and the vulnerability of adolescence.

Biology and Environment

Environmental influences and learning experiences intertwine with brain development to shape the formation of neural pathways during adolescence. This sensitivity to environmental influences makes adolescence a time when positive and productive relationships among teens, their peers, and the adults in their lives can affect their long-term trajectory significantly. Furthermore, the capacity to think critically and solve problems is more likely to develop and mature when teens have opportunities to practice higher-order thinking skills.

At the same time, teens are at greater risk for certain issues related to mental and behavioral health, alcohol and substance use, accidents, trauma, sexual health, and nutrition. Teens also encounter unique socioeconomic, cultural, and physiological influences that affect their individual growth and development. For example, improper nutrition can delay puberty for some children, while obesity can hasten puberty’s onset in girls.  

Educators and policymakers should work together to ensure that schools provide middle and high school students with opportunities to develop and apply higher-order thinking skills. Learning experiences that allow adolescents to practice critical reasoning, solve complex problems, connect course content to their personal experiences, and apply new knowledge in real-world situations support healthy brain development.

Science of Adolescent Learning at All4Ed

All4Ed supports schools and districts in implementing established findings from adolescent learning and development research—a body of disciplines known collectively as the science of adolescent learning (SAL). Its work builds on a set of guiding principles crafted by a twenty-two–member expert advisory group, assembled by All4Ed, composed of researchers, psychologists, neuroscientists, and other leaders in the SAL field. With these principles as a foundation, All4Ed’s SAL initiative focuses on putting research into action in schools via coordinated efforts among researchers, practitioners, and policymakers.

Classroom Connection

SAL indicates that students will be more invested in course content when they see that it extends beyond rote tasks, has meaning beyond an immediate assignment or assessment, and connects to the world around them. To engage your students in their learning, connect assignments to issues students face personally to help them see the value of their efforts. Give students opportunities to develop their own assignments as well that align with their interests. This will win their investment in the learning process and help them see the relevance of what they are learning.

Learn More

Visit to access All4Ed’s collection of resources designed to help school and district leaders deepen their understanding about adolescent learning and development and guide SAL-informed practices. Through a series of podcasts, webinars, interviews, papers, infographics, and other fact sheets, SAL experts explain their work and offer solutions to support the professional learning of educators.

Keep in Touch

Join All4Ed’s mailing list at to receive immediate access to new SAL resources and stay current on the latest news and developments in SAL research. To share your expertise and receive answers to specific questions, contact All4Ed’s Vice President of Practice Winsome Waite, PhD, who leads All4Ed’s SAL program at or (202) 261-9846.

Photo by Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action