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New All4Ed Report: How Students Learn as Important as What Students Learn

WASHINGTON, DC— During adolescence, students confront a variety of issues as their bodies and brains undergo rapid transformations—more so than any other time outside of birth to early childhood.

A new report released today from the Alliance for Excellent Education (All4Ed) underscores the importance of culture, experiences, and environments during this period of life and explains why adolescents need to learn in safe, supportive, and culturally responsive environments. The report, which includes recent findings from neuroscience, cognitive science, and psychological research, also examines how culture and multiple environmental factors—from community values and social expectations to poverty, prejudice, and inequity—influence classrooms, schools, and student learning.

“During adolescence, trying to learn is like crossing a busy New York City street,” said Bob Wise, president of All4Ed and former governor of West Virginia. “Only for the students, the buses, cabs, and electric scooters are the rapid body and brain changes, peer pressure, and everything else coming at them during adolescence.

“That’s why research tells us that the environments where students learn and the conditions under which they learn are crucial, especially for historically underserved and marginalized students who frequently face challenges outside the classroom from prolonged exposure to stress and inadequate access to nutrition and health care. For students, supportive educators and environments can turn that New York City street into a well-run intersection with a veteran traffic officer.”

According to the report, Science of Adolescent Learning: Valuing Culture, Experiences, and Environments, adolescence is not only a time for increased opportunity for learning, it also is a period of heightened stress due to the many biological and social changes students face, including physical maturation, drive for independence, increased sensitivity to social interactions, and brain development. These various stressors not only impact physical health, they can both directly and indirectly disrupt learning processes in still-developing adolescent brains.

Particularly at risk are historically underserved and marginalized students who often experience additional learning obstacles because of stressful experiences related to poverty and inequity, including the impact of prolonged exposure to stress, inadequate access to nutrition and health care, and more. “Poverty-related stress contributes to worsening symptoms of depression and anxiety, delinquency, attention problems, and poor physical health, each of which can affect school attendance, academic engagement, and learning,” the report notes.

Inequality, bias, and the persistence of structural discrimination also constitute serious hazards to the positive development of all adolescents, the report notes. And while all adolescents must examine and confront these issues, historically underserved students disproportionately experience stress related to these pernicious aspects of society.

Making adolescence more complicated for all students, educators, and parents is the rise of the internet, social media, and smart phones, which have changed the way adolescents learn, play, and interact with each other. And while this digital revolution has enabled anytime, anywhere learning, the report finds that it also offers new challenges for adults as they seek to keep adolescents both physically and psychologically safe while simultaneously allowing the adolescents the opportunity to use digital technologies to explore and interact with others in ways that benefit their social, emotional, and cultural development.

Science of Adolescent Learning: Valuing Culture, Experiences, and Environments offers several recommendations and strategies for educators, policymakers, and parents as they seek to better engage, motivate, and prepare middle and high school students for future success. One key strategy focuses on school culture—the shared values and norms of a school.

“When students feel that their schools recognize and value their cultural and community beliefs, their motivation to engage in academic and extracurricular activities increases,” the report notes. “Culturally responsive practices also support historically underserved and marginalized students in coping with the bias, discrimination, and negative stereotypes they too often face because of their cultural, racial, and socioeconomic identities.”

The report also recommends that policymakers and educators capitalize on the learning opportunities that diverse cultures and communities offer. They can do this by incorporating aspects of out-of-school learning environments, such as technology and current and historically relevant connections to academic work, in school experiences.

Science of Adolescent Learning: Valuing Culture, Experiences, and Environments is the third of four reports in All4Ed’s Science of Adolescent Learning Consensus Statement series. The first report examined changes in the body and brain while the second report focused on adolescents’ risk taking, peer dependence, and changing motivations. The fourth report will cover how identity and empowerment influence student learning.

Science of Adolescent Learning: Valuing Culture, Experiences, and Environments is available at

For more information on All4Ed’s Science of Adolescent Learning initiative, visit

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The Alliance for Excellent Education (All4Ed) is a Washington, DC–based national policy, practice, and advocacy organization dedicated to ensuring all students, particularly those underperforming and those historically underserved, graduate from high school ready for success in college, work, and citizenship.