Challenging Learning and the Adolescent Brain.

Good morning, Parents.

I hope everyone had a very enjoyable and relaxing holiday break, and I hope our students are glad to be back at school. (It may be more likely that at least their parents are glad they are back at school.)

One of our teachers shared an article with me recently that I thought parents may find interesting as well. The article was entitled, Harnessing the Incredible Learning Potential of the Adolescent Brain, by Katrina Schwartz.

The article begins, “It has become a cultural cliché that raising adolescents is the most difficult part of parenting. It’s a common to joke that when kids are in their teens they are sullen, uncommunicative, more interested in their phones than in their parents and generally hard to take. But this negative trope about adolescents misses the incredible opportunity to positively shape a kid’s brain and future life course during this period of development.”

“Adolescence is a stage of life when we can really thrive, but we need to take advantage of the opportunity,” said Temple University neuroscientist Laurence Steinberg at a Learning and the Brain conference in Boston. Steinberg has spent his career studying how the adolescent brain develops and believes there is a fundamental disconnect between the popular characterizations of adolescents and what’s really going on in their brains.”

“Because the brain is still developing during adolescence, it has incredible plasticity. It’s akin to the first five years of life, when a child’s brain is growing and developing new pathways all the time in response to experiences. Adult brains are somewhat plastic as well — otherwise they wouldn’t be able to learn new things — but “brain plasticity in adulthood involves minor changes to existing circuits, not the wholesale development of new ones or elimination of others,” Steinberg said. Adolescence is the last time in a person’s life that the brain can be so dramatically overhauled.”

Steinberg believes a big part of the reason that we are not taking full advantage of the adolescent potential to develop their thinking is because school can seem so boring to students. He goes on to say that the reason students are bored is because we are not challenging them enough. This not only hinders their academic development, but it also means that we are not taking advantage of this critical period in life for learning and development of the brain. The more specific problem is that, “many high schools confuse “challenging work” with “amount of work.” Students are stressed out by the volume of tasks they must complete each night or week, but that isn’t the same thing as being challenged by the work. Steinberg points out that hours of repetitious work that is not challenging do nothing but make kids hate school.”

As we have pursued our goals in the last couple of years related to improving our students college and career readiness skills, we have put a strong focus on teaching more rigorously. This means teaching with greater depth, complexity, and asking students to apply what they are learning. Our definition of rigorous learning is exactly the same as the “challenging work” suggested above, and it is also completely connected to our focus on teaching to the college and career readiness standards which require process thinking and application, not just low level understanding. We believe as we get better at teaching in increasingly more rigorous and challenging ways, not only will school continue to get more interesting for students, they will also grow in ways that will serve them well in their futures.

Have a great week.