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The Secret Life of the Teenage Brain

Science of Adolescent Learning


The Alliance for Excellent Education Invites You to Attend a Webinar/Book Talk

The Secret Life of the Teenage Brain

Bob Wise
, President, Alliance for Excellent Education

Sarah-Jayne Blakemore
, PhD, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience, Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, University College London

On July, 19 2018, the Alliance for Excellent Education (All4Ed) held a webinar and book talk, during which All4Ed President Bob Wise interviewed Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, PhD, professor of cognitive neuroscience at University College London, about her new book, Inventing Ourselves: The Secret Life of the Teenage Brain.

Until very recently, scientists believed that the human brain was fully developed from childhood on. Yet thanks to new technology and new research, it is now known that adolescence is the second most active time of neurodevelopment in a human’s life. At that time, the brain continues to mature and change with profound implications for the adults that these adolescents will become.

But what do these changes mean for parents of these adolescents and practitioners who teach them every day?

Dr. Blakemore, one of the world’s leading researchers on adolescent neurology, has published more than 120 papers in scientific journals and won multiple major awards for her research. She was named in The Times’s Young Female Power List 2014 and was one of only four scientists on the Sunday Times 100 Makers of the 21st Century 2014.

Follow the event on Twitter at #scienceoflearning.

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

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Bob Wise:                   Welcome. My name is Bob Wise and I’m President here at the Alliance for Excellent Education. Thank you for joining us today as I get the chance to talk with professor Sarah-Jayne Blakemore about her new book, Inventing Ourselves: The Secret Life of the Teenage Brain. Our conversation comes at an opportune moment as All4Ed has a new report that it’s a start of a major initiative for us, an initiative to ensure that critical education decisions are driven by a science.

Because improving high schools for all students, especially the historically underserved has always been All4Ed’s prime mission. And focusing on the science of adolescent learning and how it affects secondary learners is a natural part of our work.

Our new report Synapses, Students, and Synergies: Applying the Science of Adolescent Learning to Policy and Practice, points out the major opportunities that exists in the next few years and urges new ways that we can work together to maximize impact. During today’s webinar I look forward to exploring these issues further with Dr. Blakemore.

But before we get to our discussion a few details. For today please join the conversation via Twitter using the hashtag science of learning. Today’s event will be archived at

Now let me introduce our guest. Professor Sarah-Jayne Blakemore is Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at the University College in London, where she is Deputy Director of the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience and leader of the Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience Group. Professor Blakemore has a deep interest in the links between neuroscience and education and her group’s research focuses on the development of social cognition and decision making in the adolescent brain.

Professor Blakemore has been awarded several prizes, including the British Psychological Society Doctoral Award in 2001; the British Psychological Society’s Spearman Medal for outstanding early career research in 2006; the Royal Society Rosalind Franklin prize in 2013; and the Klaus K. Jacobs prize in 2015. She’s published over 200 articles and co-authored a 2005 book with Professor Uta Frith called the Learning Brain: Lessons for Education. Her most recent book released in May is called, Inventing Ourselves: The Secret Life of the Teenage Brain. The copy that we have here at All4Ed is in high demand. Let me just also observe wherever you are in the spectrum of working with adolescents, whether you’re a parent, a teacher, an educator, a policy maker, in many ways a lay person I recommend this book because it’s written in a way that all of us can understand and take valuable lessons from.

So thank you for being here again Dr. Blakemore coming to us via Skype from London. Let’s get right into questions about your new book.

So the Alliance for Excellent Education has long advocated for the needs of middle and high school students, believing that these years are critical for post-secondary success. In fact you open your book with a chapter, “Adolescence Isn’t an Aberration.” In that chapter you state that adolescence is a unique stage of human development with a three-pronged argument. Could you explain a bit more how the concept of adolescence has evolved over time and why you consider it to be a distinct critical stage of development?

Blakemore:                   Yeah so the word “adolescence” was first used to describe this age group, the sort of 10 to 25 year age group, about a 120 years ago. Some people have argued that adolescence is a recent invention and it doesn’t really exist as a biological period of development, but actually there’s really good reason to think of adolescence as a unique period of biological and psychological and social development.

First of all you see it across species. So it’s not just human adolescence where you see increases in risk taking and impulsivity and changes in social behavior. You can see there is adolescent typical behavior in other species like in mice and rats. You also see those behaviors across culture. So even where culture have very different societal expectations of this age group you never-the-less see similarities in behavior of this age group. Again you see increased risk taking and increase sensation seeking in adolescents across very different cultures.

And of course you see it across history. You look at historical descriptions of adolescents going back thousands of years to Aristotle and Socrates they were described in a very similar way we describe them today using stereotypes of about making bad decisions and being lazy, lots of negative stereotypes that curiously we still apply today to this age group.


Bob Wise:                   So you in your book you reference Ron Dahl’s Paradox of Adolescence and the theory that there’s a developmental mismatch in the adolescent brain. Can you elaborate a bit on the evidence from your own and other’s research that backs the developmental mismatch theory and how it relates to this idea of a paradox?


Blakemore:                   The mismatch theory is the idea that different systems in the brain develop at different rates. You have the limbic system, which is responsible for emotion and giving you kind of rewarding positive feelings, things like risk taking that develops earlier than the prefrontal cortex which is right at the front of your brain. The prefrontal cortex is involved in decision making, planning, and inhibiting risk taking. That undergoes very protracted development right through adolescence and even into the 20s and early 30s.

So the idea is that the brain in adolescence is already able to process emotion and the reward we get out risk taking, but it’s not yet fully mature and able to inhibit risk taking because that relies on the prefrontal cortex which is still in development.

Now the actual evidence to this is quite mixed. So some evidence to suggest that regions of the brain in both reward processing and risk taking are hyperactive in adolescence, whereas the prefrontal cortex isn’t. There is some evidence that these regions do develop at different rates. But actually I think the overall conclusion I would take from this literature is that there are huge individual differences and not a lot of adolescents develop in the same way. So for some that might be true and they might be risk takers and for others they might not. Actually the individual differences are just as important to pay attention to as the average changes that are going in adolescence.


Bob Wise:                   So it sounds in your writings what I’ve seen I believe is so there are different stages of this development, the physical process is occurring as well as other individual differences. What does this mean for the educator?


Blakemore:                   I think educators themselves know all about individual differences. They work with adolescents every day of their lives and they know there’s no such thing as an average adolescent, there’s no such thing as an average teenager, every teenager is different and that’s absolutely what we’re finding in the neuroscience in the psychological research that although you can look at averages it’s probably more meaningful to think about differences between individuals within adolescence.

That might have translational and real world implications into different teaching strategies for different types of adolescence, but we’re nowhere near there yet. We’re nowhere near really understanding what underlies the individual differences. Is it genetics or is it the environment that different children grow up in? Like for example their cultural environment or their socioeconomic group or even things like their peer relationships or their nutrition levels, their exercise levels, all of the these things can contribute and probably do contribute to brain development at an individual level, but we’re only just starting to look at those questions.


Bob Wise:                   Would you mind expanding some that? Because in your book you mentioned near the end of it that the relationship between brain development and the environment, things like culture and technology is still not well understood. So as an organization such as ours that focuses on historically underserved students such as low-income students, students of color, students with different learning needs these students often disproportionately deal with challenges at home, in their community, and their society, so what do we know about adolescents facing external environmental challenges how this affects their development?


Blakemore:                   Well in terms of their brain development we don’t know very much at all, but there is some indication that those differences in environment do have an association with different development of the brain. So for example there is some research by Elizabeth Sowell at USC and her colleagues that socioeconomic status is associated with different developmental trajectories of the brain in adolescence. But there is some very high profile papers published but only in the last two or three years, so that’s a question that now many more people are starting to ask and we don’t have the answers yet but we will do.

For example the new Adolescent Brain and Cognitive Brain Development Study the ABCD Study which is a huge study of 10,000 children aged currently age 9 to 10 who are going to be tracked and tested every year for the next 10 years in terms of brain data, psychological tasks, mental health questionnaires, things like socioeconomic group, screen time usage, and mental health outcomes like substance abuse. That study it only just begun, but that study will tell us a huge amount about these really, really important questions.


Bob Wise:                   So you are clearly a proponent of using research to inform educational practice and policy. You also warn throughout your book of the persistence of what I call or you call “neuro miss inconsistency in research findings and sensationalism of new neuroscience findings by the news media and individuals.” So for an organization such as ours which is involved in not only understanding the research, but more importantly translating and brokering it into implementation what are the implications for this and what can we do to commit ourselves to supporting the application of science of adolescent learning to education policy, but to make sure that research is integrated, interpreted properly and applied appropriately?


Blakemore:                    It’s such an important question. I’m a neuroscientist and I’m also really interested in the implications from neuroscience to education. I mean education 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.

But then the question is: Pragmatically are there any findings from neuroscience that really have translational, real world implications to the classroom? I think the temptation is to be seduced as I talk about in my book this kind of seductive allure of neuroscience and products take advantage of that and sell themselves to schools based on the idea that they improve the children’s brains and children’s learning.

But as I say in my book I just thought it was so important to emphasis that actually you have to be really careful. You have to be really careful that whatever product you’re looking at or book you’re reading has actually gone through the proper scientific studies and systematic – for example randomized control trials if it’s an intervention. So often at least in my country and I’m sure it’s the same in yours that’s not the case and educational products that are selling themselves, that are marketing themselves based on something about the brain, optimizing brain development have no basis in evidence. I think that’s really a problem.


Bob Wise:                   That’s good. I think particularly as we look this is a critical period in the United States for policy reasons for implementing certain decisions as 13,000 school districts now have to develop plans for how they transform their lowest performing schools. So to implement the best science of adolescent learning, at the same time being responsive to the concerns you just raised it’s going to be a big issue for us I think.


Blakemore:                   It’s a really big challenge because these products you know a lot of them want to work and they market themselves very cleverly. But it’s probably worth trying to get hold of a psychologist or an educational psychologist or a neuroscientist to check them out if you’re interested in a product.

I mean the best problem with those kinds of products is the school is just wasting money on them, it’s just a waste of money and they may or may not work, but probably not for the reasons they say. But there are more problematic outcomes which is that you know how do we know they’re not doing harm if they haven’t been through proper systematic studies and randomized control trials? We have no information, we have no data about how they’re affecting brain development.


Bob Wise:                   So you referenced Dr. Jay Giedd’s National Institute of Health Brain Scanning Study several times and we’re fortunate at All4Ed here to be working with Dr. Giedd. From reading your book it sounds like studies like his are vital in this discussion or vital for advancing our understanding of brain development. If that’s the case what are the future types of studies that governments and philanthropy should be looking to fund that will continue to build these longstanding foundations, long-lasting foundations for neuroscience to inform education?


Blakemore:                   Jay Giedd is really the pioneer of this area. He was the first person who pioneered studying the adolescent, the developing brain using MRI scanning. His was the first paper published in this area. He is one of the critical players, neuroscientist in this area still. He has so much value I’m glad you’re working with him. He has spent many decades thinking about all these questions and all these issues. Yeah so working with someone like him is going to be really helpful.

In terms of – oh yeah in terms of the future I mean I mentioned previously the ABCD project, the adolescent brain and cognitive development project, that is a project that’s funded by NIH, it’s based in the US and it has many dozens of principle investigators, that is scientists from different institutions all around the US. They’re coming together with a very large amount of funding to track brain development, behavioral development, mental health outcomes like substance abuse and depression, as well as a whole load of other biological and psychological measures in a very large group, 10,000 nine- to ten-year-olds as they get older and as they go through adolescence over the next ten years.

That study will be really crucial in telling us answers actually to a lot of critical questions. Like what are the precursors of substance abuse? Like what are the risk factors? Why do some children development mental illnesses and not others? What’s happening before the development of those, the onset of those mental health problems both in terms of their brain and their psychological development, but also what are the risk factors in their environment? This will have implications for mental health of course, but also for education. Other questions like screen time, they will be measuring the amount of screen time and technology use children take part in each day and looking at the outcomes of that, because that’s a worry that a lot of people have, but actually we don’t really have much data on it at all at the moment.


Bob Wise:                   So you’re in the UK, we’re in the US, a number of other researchers and practitioners across the world are very interested in the science of adolescent learning. We’re part of a number of conversations about how to do a better job using international research in the science of learning to inform educational practice and policy. As an international researcher yourself and you reference a large community of researchers throughout your book my question is how should US policy makers and practitioners and for that matter policy makers and practitioners in all countries support and learn from the international research community? Where is it – we all have our unique cultures and systems of education, but how it is that we can also learn from each other?


Blakemore:                   Well fortunately at the moment science is an international endeavor and there’s a huge amount of movement across borders to do science well. So people from all around the world move countries to train to do to either be students or to do Ph.D.s or to do post-doctoral training in other countries and other cultures that is so critical to science. We really need to have those kinds of international collaborations.

Also even if you’re not moving physically you can collaborate like I am now on Skype. You know it’s easier now to collaborate with people in different countries and that’s so fundamental to the science we do these international collaborations. Most PIs, like most scientists like me will have many different international collaborations.

It’s a really interesting question these cultural differences because they do exist even within the same western cultures. You know education systems are different, culture is different, children grow up in different environments and how those affect brain development and education is a question that people are starting to become really interested in, but we don’t really know that much about it yet.

One question that I’m often asked is: “Well what about brain development in cultures that are very different, so non-westernized cultures or say low or middle-income countries?” The answer is we don’t know, because we know a huge amount about brain development, how the brain develops in adolescence, but only in adolescence from the USA and some countries in Europe. Very few other countries have tracked brain development in their own adolescents who are growing up in their countries, so we just don’t have that comparison data and that’s really important.


Bob Wise:                   You talk about how adolescence is a stage of heightened creativity and give an example and you gave an example of how you seek the opinion of the youngest members of your lab when going through a creative process. In education are we missing out on a key opportunity to lift up adolescent creativity and if so how should schools think about unleashing the creativity of their students in school work and in other what would be today nonconventional ways?


Blakemore:                    Yeah so there is some evidence from Eveline Crone in the Netherlands her lab showed that in some creativity tasks adolescents do better than adults. That kind of makes sense, that’s an empirical study, an experimental study but it kind of makes sense anecdotally if you think about adolescence. This is a time where young people are very passionate and they have new ideas and they test new things out and you know they’re interested in kind of novelty doing new things.

Does school take advantage of that? I’m not sure it really does, at least not the school system I know of. That’s not the teacher’s fault. I mean teachers are so busy and so squeezed in terms of the amount of academic information they need to each and they have too, they’re obliged to teach their children and the children, the students get tested on each year. But it’s very hard to fit in anything around that like promoting real creativity for example. But wouldn’t it be nice if there was more of that and that the education system allowed that more?


Bob Wise:                   This also seems to suggest that we need to be looking at schools of teacher preparation, because if we’re asking teachers to be able to both have the knowledge and develop the pedagogy to meet each student where he or she is in their development that’s going to I think require some change a least in conventional preparation. Any observations on that or how we prepare our teachers for this emerging science?


Blakemore:                   yeah I mean I think the teachers that I work with here in the UK are largely really interested to know about the science of the teenager brain and it’s currently not something that is taught in teacher training. I mean some teacher training programs cover it a little bit but it’s not systematically covered across the country in teacher training. But it does seem to relevant you know the way the brain develops and the way it might be particularly plastic and amenable to change, amenable to learning, to creativity seems really relevant to education.

I think that you know teachers have a right to know about that. It’s their students that they’re teaching, it’s their brains who are changing. The teachers I work with in this area say that they find it kind of empowering to learn about what’s going on in the brains of the teenagers they teach.


Bob Wise:                   So while we’re on the subject of plasticity I’d like to ask how you feel about the plasticity of political brains in the sense of as educators need to be aware of this so it is that policy makers whether in the United States, the local school board member who’s making decisions that affect 2000 students in a school district, all the way up to a member of congress that’s passing the next major piece of federal legislations how is that we can communicate effectively science of adolescent learning with them?


Blakemore:                   Well there is a lot of evidence out there about how the brain changes in adolescents and the science of adolescence and a lot of the people who work in this area are really keen and enthusiastic about working with policy makers, because the evidence does probably have tangible policy implications both in terms of education, but also mental health and public health.

But the desire to know about that evidence has to be there in the first place. The policy makers need, you know have to want to have an evidence and want to know about the evidence and that’s sometimes tricky to persuade them that this evidence is really relevant to the questions they’re thinking about.

But once you establish that kind of relationship with policy – like there is a lot of interest in the UK from policy in neuroscience evidence, then that relationship can be really fruitful and you can get a lot out of – and it’s also bidirectional, it’s not just about the neurosciences telling the policy makers what to do, of course not, it’s about a bidirectional conversation where the policy makers are asking about questions they’re interested in and maybe even you know shaping the direction of the science or giving us new interpretations of our science. It really helps us as well develop scientific questions that have tangible implications for policy.


Bob Wise:                   Well that helps a lot. We just issued a report at the Alliance that calls on a triangle that the communications not only between researcher and practitioner, but also include that policy maker as well and that there be an ongoing interaction.

Question on in your book you write about how medicine has years of controlled testing before a new drug or intervention is implemented and you say you agree with the argument that education should require a similar testing of new methods. However, when I think about medical environments they seem to have a higher level of standardization and control compared to classrooms. So thoughts on there’s less room for variability by the nature and design. Given the large amount of variation in classrooms, teachers, and so on is it reasonable to point to random controlled trials as a gold standard if they don’t necessarily replicate the environment that adolescents are learning in?


Blakemore:                    I think it’s a really good point and I totally understand the difficulties of doing that kind of randomized control trail in education and the difference with medicine. But if you think about one branch of medicine which is clinical psychology or psychiatry where you’re having interventions like cognitive behavioral therapy or behavior and activation, those kinds of talking therapies where a clinician is working with a client who has some kind of mental health problem, it might be phobias or depression or any number of mental health problems.

Those talking therapies undergo very large amounts of systematic study and randomized control trial. It’s thought of as really important before investing in them as a government to make sure they actually have efficacy and have positive results compared with active controls. So that’s another example of where it’s messy and it’s not – you can’t really control the environment so much. There’s individual personalities involved and yet somehow they manage it. So I think it’s not an impossible task, but I understand that it’s complicated and also it doesn’t have the history, the kind of culture surrounding randomized control trials. So it would have to – it would require a whole culture shift to do that.

But I mean the reason why I think it’s important is because when you’re educating children you’re changing their brains. And in medicine if you take anything, any drug or any cognitive therapy or whatever that changes your brain you wouldn’t do that without it having gone through many years of randomized control trial.


Bob Wise:                   Let me just read a quick excerpt from your book, “Education policy tends to emphasize the importance of early childhood intervention.” You even quote the US National Scientific Council on the developing child from 2014 which said, “Brain plasticity and the ability to change behavior we’re learning decreases over time.” You then go on to write that, “This argument is partly based on findings from economics and interventions early in life are more worthwhile than later interventions in terms of the money saved. However this emphasis on early interventions is at odds with the findings that the human brain continues to develop throughout childhood and adolescence and into early adulthood.”


So a question: Are we suggesting that the way we often think about interventions is wrong? Could you elaborate further on how you think education leaders and I might add policy makers might think about decisions about interventions?


Blakemore:                    Yeah so for many years there has been this emphasis in education policy or economics that the first three years or maybe the first five years is most critical to intervene and that’s really based on economic arguments that that has the most added value later on in life. But the problem with that is that you can’t just intervene in the first three years of life, you can’t just try to help children from very say low socioeconomic groups in the first three years of life and then stop the intervention and expect them to be fine from then on.

The brain and children develop in this very protracted way right throughout childhood and adolescence, so the intervention needs to continue and be sustained after the first few years of life. We shouldn’t neglect adolescence as a period of potential and opportunity for intervention.

If a child slips through the net early on in life and they don’t have that early intervention that doesn’t mean that it’s too late to intervene in adolescence, it’s not. The evidence from brain research suggests that in fact the brain continues to develop very substantially during adolescence and provides an important window of opportunity for intervention, rehabilitation, teaching, and learning.


Bob Wise:                   I think that’s an important point. As a colleague of mine once said, “We can’t just love them until they’re three.” What I take from your book and other research, but particularly this book which states it so well is adolescence is a particular moment of development just as early childhood is and indeed there’s a continuum of development that occurs throughout our life. Is that a fair premise?


Blakemore:                    Exactly. I think the idea which used to be quite prevalent which is now known to be wrong is that if you don’t – you know you have to intervene early and if you miss that window it’s just too late, it’s not worth the intervention later on. I think that’s a wrong assumption.


Bob Wise:                   So my guest has been Professor Sarah-Jayne Blakemore. Her book again, Inventing Ourselves: The Secret Life of the Teenage Brain. I urge everyone to read it. Dr. Blakemore thank you very, very much for this very illuminating conversation.


Blakemore:                   Thank you.




[End of Audio]



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