Modern neuroscience is presenting revelations about how the brains of middle and high school students develop and how best to engage them, but, as the author of this post says, “Regrettably, these proactive practices in middle and high school appear to be the exception rather than the rule. In this post, educator Thomas Armstrong discusses how schools are ignoring what science is telling them about how older students learn — and how they can fix it.
Armstrong has been an educator for more than 40 years and is the executive director of the American Institute for Learning and Human Development. He is the author of sixteen books related to learning and human development, including his newest, “The Power of the Adolescent Brain: Strategies for Teaching Middle and High School Students,” from which this selection was excerpted.
By Thomas Armstrong
The last 15 years of neuroscience research on the adolescent brain reveals that it is still under construction and amenable to influence from the environment. While there are a wide range of factors that educators have no control over, the one place where educators can have a high impact on adolescent brain development is school. Students in the United States spend about 1,000 hours in school each year (not counting extracurricular activities and before-school, after-school, and summer programs). This time, which amounts to about 15 percent of students’ waking lives, presents a golden opportunity for educators to create instructional activities that can change brain functioning in positive ways.
My new book, “The Power of the Adolescent Brain,” presents “brain-friendly” strategies that secondary schools throughout the United States (and the world) are currently using that dovetail with the way the adolescent brain works. Regrettably, these proactive practices in middle and high school appear to be the exception rather than the rule.
Evidence has been mounting to suggest that too many secondary schools are “brain-hostile” at worst, and “brain-ignorant” at best in their use of outdated practices that fail to take advantage of the neuroplasticity of the adolescent brain. These practices might even be termed “brain-damaging” to the extent that they create stress, apathy, and resentment among students that negatively affect brain functioning.
A large-scale national survey of middle and high school students revealed that more than half of all 10th grade students were bored in class and less than half enjoyed being at school, while another survey of 14- to 15-year-olds revealed that only 33 percent of girls and 20 percent of boys were seen by their parents to be actively engaged in school. A 2013 national Gallup Student Poll found that 75 percent of elementary school students were actively involved and invested in school, while only 44 percent of high school students had the same level of engagement.
“If we were doing right by our students and our future,” says Brandon Busteed, executive director of Gallup Education, “these numbers would be the absolute opposite. For each year a student progresses in school, they should be more engaged, not less.’’ Even students who appear engaged may in many cases just be going through the motions by providing teachers with responses that are least likely to cause them harm or exposure.
At a time when adolescents’ emotional brains are jacked up to the max, the middle and high school curriculum suddenly “gets down to business” and becomes emotionally flat in tone. This has only become more common during the last few years. One recent study revealed a strong pattern of emotional suppression in students’ relationships with teachers at urban high schools. The authors wrote:
As teachers come under increasing pressure to produce demonstrable student achievement gains because of newly developed teacher evaluation systems and enact challenging pedagogy because of the implementation of the Common Core State Standards, they may be more likely to think about understanding and improving emotion related interactions as a distal goal—one that diverts time and energy from the primary task of fostering student learning.
Owing to challenges from interest groups and other factors, such as the “committee” authorship of most textbooks, the textbooks that dominate so much classroom time lack any real zip, as former U.S. Assistant Director of Education Diane Ravitch points out, referring to high school history textbooks: “There seems to be something in the very nature of today’s textbooks that blunts the edges of events and strips from the narrative whatever is lively, adventurous, and exciting.’’
At a time when the adolescent’s brain increasingly craves stimulation from peers, education becomes more teacher-centered, offering less small-group interaction and cooperative learning than elementary classrooms. In addition, teachers promote student embarrassment by posting students’ grades and test results for everyone to see, and ban or restrict social media that could facilitate interpersonal learning in the classroom.
At a point when students’ decision-making skills are at a critical stage of development and the prefrontal cortex is going through a process of fine-tuning, zero-tolerance discipline policies run roughshod over students’ capacities to learn from their mistakes. In addition, schools heap required courses on students to prepare them for college, some actually requiring students to declare a major or course of study in ninth grade or even earlier. This approach deprives students of opportunities to take electives that are interesting to them and that might lead to a vocation in adulthood.
During a point when students are entering the developmental stage of formal operational thinking and are able to engage more deeply in metacognition, the curriculum begins to devote more attention to lower-order skills, such as recall of facts, formulas, and details.
Finally, at a time when adolescents have a huge appetite for rewards, teachers start employing higher standards in judging student competence and tend to give lower grades than elementary school teachers.
It’s clear that substantial reform is necessary to align classroom and schoolwide practices with the mountain of research now available on how the adolescent brain develops. One professor has gone so far as to suggest that we need a Head Start program for adolescents.
The guiding principle in reforming secondary education should be to craft educational programs and instructional strategies that link the evolutionary advantages of the adolescent brain to socially appropriate and constructive learning outcomes . So, for example, although risk taking can lead the adolescent to engage in unsafe driving practices, it can also lead him or her to try out new, challenging activities that promote learning, such as a poetry slam.
As one 16-year-old commented after competing in a poetry slam, “It’s really scary. You’re nervous and shaking. Then afterwards you get that same feeling you get coming off a roller coaster. You want to go again.’’
Similarly, adolescents’ need for bonding with peers might propel them into membership in a violent gang—or it could drive them to get involved in a service learning project that benefits the whole community. The sensation-seeking behavior that can lead adolescents to drug abuse could alternatively be directed toward a highly engaging student-centered learning project. The reward-seeking behaviors that might lure teens into Internet addiction could be tapped through a game-based learning experience in the classroom.