Although the teenage brain is still developing, it is wrong to assume that they are just less well-formed versions of adult brains. Their brains are very different from ours in many crucial ways, and not just less developed, less perfect versions of them. It’s almost like they are a different species.
What follows is a very much condensed version of some of the things I think are important for parents and teachers to know about the teenage brain and how to help teenagers to learn more effectively.
Melatonin and the Sleepy Teenage Brain
Melatonin is one of the beautiful hormones that makes us sleepy. And sleep, although we still don’t understand it fully, is a wonderfully restorative and healing bodily function. In adults melatonin is released into our brains from about 9 pm. Which is why most of us old-timers want to sleep at around 10.
In teenagers, melatonin is released an hour or two later. They thus get sleepy closer to midnight. Teenage brains also need more sleep than adults’ brains – at least eight hours, and probably closer to nine.
The problem is that we generally wake our nocturnal beasts up before they’ve had enough sleep. Worse, though, is that while their bodies are awake, their brains are not. Their zombie brains are still soaked in melatonin. Thus they will always find it difficult to focus until at least 9 am.
This has implications for when we start school, which subjects we start it with, how much homework we assign, as well as when we start assessments, examinations and tests. Most schools, though, are more adult brain-focused: we start all the important stuff when adult brains start to focus.
Blame the Prefrontal Cortex
In many ways, the prefrontal cortex (PFC) is what makes us who we are. It’s where we think. It’s where our personalities emanate from. Here’s where we learn to suppress impulsivity and socially unacceptable behavior, and where we predict (and understand) the possible consequences of actions. The PFC is also associated with problem-solving, planning, prioritizing, and higher-order intellectual abilities. It’s also associated with our sense of morality, and where we learn to appreciate shades of meaning.
It is thus tempting, considering how rude, impulsive, irresponsible, and downright dumb teenagers often seem to be, to call them sub-human. The truth is, that although the PFC is only fully developed by our mid-twenties (something car insurance companies understand), the PFC is actually developing in teens. The implication being that instead of condemning them, we need to work with and around their underdeveloped PFCs.
In a very real sense, teaching teenagers is almost entirely about developing strategies to work with and around their emerging prefrontal cortices.
Teenagers need us to help them with tasks that involve higher-order intellectual reasoning, and with those that require planning, prioritizing, and short term memory. We need to give them written checklists – and clear instruction sheets – even for simple tasks.
More importantly, though, we need to have the patience to help them learn from their mistakes – and we need to remind them to try and see the bigger picture, instead of getting themselves stuck in the immediate moment, as they are so prone to want to do.
And we need to have those intense debates and discussions about the really ‘deep’ stuff they seem to crave so much.
Love and the Limbic System
The limbic system is our emotional center. It is more active during the teenage years than at any other time. In a very real sense, it is the limbic system that informs teenage thinking until the prefrontal cortex is more developed.
Remember love? Remember how deeply we feel love as teenagers? Remember our teenage friendships? Remember the emotional roller-coaster of your teenage years? The joy, the sadness, the outrage? We never really feel as intensely ever again.
We are quite literally never as passionate and never as emotional as we were when we were teenagers.
I am tempted here to recommend that we just let them be as emotional as they want to be – let them feel everything as intensely as they can. Let them love, let them be angry, let them be devoted to their friends, and let them experience their teenage outrage at how unfair the world is. This is what it means to be young.
After all, they will be drab, jaded adults soon enough.
But this is a post about learning, so I suppose I must add something on how we can manipulate the intensely emotional nature of the teenage brain to help them learn better.
And it’s quite easy: If we truly want them to learn, and to remember, and to understand, we need to tap into their emotional cores. History and English teachers already know this: read teens stories that will unlock an emotional response, and they learn better.
Also, we need to listen to them when they are emotional, and to slowly introduce more factual and logical alternatives as we go, so that their brains learn to associate emotions with more rational avenues of thinking. This is also important because a positive and healthy emotional relationship between teacher and student is imperative in leveraging the limbic system towards better learning.
Most importantly, teenagers can experience intense anxiety out of proportion to the cause thereof. We must take the time to reassure them and to put them at ease until their brains develop, and they can do so on their own.
Seeing With Our Occipital and Parietal Lobes
More resources are devoted to the visual processing hub of our brains than any other. This is especially true of teenagers whose occipital lobes focus more on the visual aspect of life and learning than any other.
We use our parietal lobes mainly to understand numbers and their relationships. Because the teenage brain develops from back to front, the parietal is one of the last to develop before prefrontal cortex. This is part of the reason why numbers are so difficult for teenagers.
To help teenagers learn better, we need to find ways of visualizing numbers and spatial concepts. The visual bias in teens also has implications for the ratio of ‘telling’ versus ‘showing and doing’ that happens in learning. Teenagers need to see what we are talking about – even if it is only conceptual markings and guides.
Our brains can wire and rewire themselves throughout our lifetimes. But it does get harder to do as we age.
The neural pathways we create in adolescence tend to determine the kind of thinking we use as adults, and yes, these can also change – if we work hard enough at them – but it does become more and more difficult to actually do later in life.
It’s basically about thinking habits – those we don’t intentionally nurture and use get pruned away. And bad thinking habits tend to hang around if we indulge in them too often. And even though these can change and get rewired later in life, the neural wiring we acquire in our teenage years tend to be the strongest.
What’s most exciting about neuroplasticity is that it helps to correct the kind of intellectual determinism that has haunted education for so long: the concept that we are born with certain intellectual abilities and that is that. We must recognize that young brains, in particular, are highly malleable, and with the right kind of support and training, can do amazing things.
- Image 1 source: https://pixabay.com/en/brain-mind-psychology-idea-hearts-2062048/
- Image 2 Source: http://publish.ucc.ie/boolean/2015/00/ONeil/34/en
- Image 3 Source: https://pixabay.com/en/water-waterfall-jump-plunge-nature-1192798/
- Image 4 Source: https://pixabay.com/en/couple-love-teenagers-young-boy-2176614/
- Image 5 Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_e6w5GtkcGI
- Image 6 Source: https://asiancorrespondent.com/2016/06/thailand-wire-bill-gates/