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Science of Adolescent Learning: Three Brain-Informed Reasons to Focus on Adolescent Education

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May 09, 2016 04:11 pm


While children in the early years of education increasingly experience curricula and learning tools based in the science of adolescent learning (SAL), children in middle and high school—particularly those from historically underserved populations—endure traditional “common sense” approaches that go against what researchers know about the developing brain. The growing research on adolescence in the SAL reveals that investment in secondary schools is essential to ensure students graduate prepared for college and a career. Here are three reasons why:

1. Adolescent Students Are Sensation Seekers

Secondary school teachers and leaders commonly struggle with distracted or disengaged students in the classroom. Yet, adolescents are natural “sensation seekers,” a fact that educators can use in their favor. Around puberty, the brain’s reward system is highly sensitized due to changes in dopamine activity, which means that teenagers find rewarding experiences especially gratifying. This is why adolescence is the time when individuals are most likely to engage in risky behaviors, like crime.

Rather than having this research inform only school discipline policy and practice, educators can take advantage of this impulse by making learning a rewarding experience. When high schools create learning environments that challenge students—such as project-based learning opportunities or connecting out-of-school internships to classroom learning—instead of simply providing the same repetitive work, students seek out learning experiences themselves, becoming lifelong learners. They also remember what they learn because they have stronger emotions attached to the experience. Students from low-income families and students of color, though, are less likely to have access to these engaging models, while these types of learning opportunities are available to privileged students both inside and outside of the classroom.

2. Higher-Order Thinking Happens in High School

For most of a child’s life, the adults around them, including teachers, make complex decisions on their behalf to “protect” them from the consequences of making wrong choices. However, teens may miss out on the chance to develop higher-order thinking skills because of this overprotection. During late adolescence—the time period most students are in high school—the brain develops more efficient neural connections in the prefrontal cortex, sometimes referred to as the “CEO of the brain” because of its involvement in higher-order cognitive functions, such as evaluating risk versus reward, advance planning, and complex decisionmaking. In other words, the high school years are an ideal time for students to practice using these skills and improve their ability to use them in the future.

Developing higher-order thinking skills is crucial for success in college and a career, and the sooner students build these skills, the more effective they will be at using them. Historically underserved students have the least access to the rigorous course work that develops these skills, though, which contributes to the gaps in college persistence when compared to their peers.

Designing the high school classroom as a risk-free setting where students could practice making complex decisions would develop their higher-order skills and other deeper learning competencies, maximizing students’ ability to use their education effectively in the twenty-first century.

3. Deeper Learning: Use It or Lose It

Probably the most compelling reason for ensuring that students receive high-quality and effective education throughout their K–12 experience is that when students don’t continue to use important skills and knowledge they are more likely to lose them. This is especially true for adolescent students. During adolescence, the brain undergoes a major synaptic pruning removing unused or under-used neural pathways to use energy and resources most efficiently.

Despite this “use it or lose it” system within the brain, practitioners are inconsistent between grade levels in how they prepare students with the behaviors and cognitive skills necessary for college and career readiness. Students in early education and elementary grades participate in daily activities that foster deeper learning, such as peer interaction, mentally-stimulating activities, and inquiry. However, once children enter the middle grades and high school, educators expect them to complete assignments individually, learn primarily through lecture, and answer questions correctly the first time, activities that require rote memorization rather than a deep understanding of content, a drastic change from their earlier schooling.

If children practice deeper learning skills during their early years, developing those complex neural networks, but fail to exercise those pathways throughout adolescence, their brains likely will prune away those competencies, much the same way that proficiency in a foreign language declines when an individual does not use the language regularly.

The SAL shows that adolescence is a developmental stage of both vulnerability and opportunity. Teens want challenging learning experiences and are ready for higher-order thinking. But if they do not have opportunities to engage in deeper learning throughout their schooling, then early investments in their education could be wasted. The human brain has incredible capabilities, so schools must ensure that all students receive access to learning experiences that allow them to reach their maximum potential at every stage of their development.

This blog is part of the Alliance’s work on the potential impact the science of adolescent learning (SAL) can have on the educational experiences of secondary students. SAL is the interdisciplinary study of what happens in and with the brain during learning.

Robyn Harper is a policy and advocacy associate for comprehensive high school reform at the Alliance.

SAL Resource, Science of Adolescent Learning, Science of Learning

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