Twenty-seven million—that is the approximate number of students who attend public middle and high schools across the United States.[i] While the period of adolescence does not include only the middle and high school years, teenagers are a significant part of this stage of development. Adolescence can be thought of as beginning with a biological change—the onset of puberty—and ending with a social construct determined by factors like family, culture, and society.[ii]
This stage of development has been thought of as an exceptionally difficult one to navigate, both for students and the adults who support them. Despite its unique challenges, adolescence represents a significant time for learning. By understanding the science behind adolescent learning and development, educators and school leaders can create learning environments that improve students’ academic outcomes, promote their social and emotional well-being, and support their overall success.
The Realities of Adolescence
During adolescence, students’ brains deliver heightened rewards for engaging in risky behaviors while the neural systems involved with helping them choose between immediate and long-term gratification continue to develop. Adolescents are developing their own identities amid complex socioeconomic, emotional, intellectual, and cultural factors, all while being observed and evaluated by adults and peers both in person and online. Maximizing learning during adolescence calls for more targeted approaches informed by these realities, efforts that acknowledge and mitigate the hardships many students face, including the effects of poverty, racial discrimination or bias, limited English language proficiency, and disabilities.
A New Vision for Learning
Creating developmentally appropriate learning environments calls for leaders and teachers who encourage and respect students’ voices, offer students authentic and equitable opportunities to develop agency, value both progress and achievement, and provide ways for students to merge their personal interests and aspirations with academic pursuits. Some schools already recognize the overall benefits of such approaches and have transformed themselves to put students’ developmental needs at the center of their work. But millions of students stand to gain with broader buy-in and trust building by parents, educators, and policymakers. Under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the primary federal law for elementary and secondary education, roughly 13,000 school districts are developing plans to transform their lowest-performing schools. ESSA presents an opportunity for schools and districts to use research on adolescent development to maximize efforts to redesign curricula and instructional approaches and advance programs based on the science of how adolescents learn best.
Understanding the Science of Adolescent Learning
The Alliance for Excellent Education (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 translating and placing research into action in schools via coordinated efforts among researchers, practitioners, and policymakers.
Do not overlook peer power as a way to energize learning. Adolescents are motivated to engage in activities or behaviors that reflect the values and interests of their peers. SAL indicates that teachers who understand their students’ strengths and personalities can leverage collaboration to build more engaging and effective classrooms. For example, is one of your students struggling with a new concept? Tap another student who has the knowledge to provide some needed assistance. The peer influence may be just the right approach to get the struggling student over the hump and, at the same time, boost the identity of the student who helps a friend in need. Keep in mind that all students can assist their peers in some way.
Visit all4ed.org/SAL to access All4Ed’s collection of resources designed to help school and district leaders deepen their understanding about adolescent learning and development and guide the implementation of 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
All4Ed’s mailing list at https://salsa4.salsalabs.com/o/50932/signup_page/take-action-mailing-list 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 firstname.lastname@example.org or (202) 261-9846.
[i] U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Digest of Education Statistics 2017 (NCES 2018–070) (Washington, DC: Author, 2019) https://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d17/tables/dt17_203.10.asp.
[ii] S. Blakemore, Inventing Ourselves: The Secret Life of the Teenage Brain (New York: NY: PublicAffairs, Hachette Book Group, 2018).
Photo by Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action