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The Amazing Adolescent Brain and How We Can Impact Learning
By Tinaya York
We complain and boy do we complain, about teenagers. They don't pay attention, they want instant gratification, they are always falling asleep in class, and they don't listen. Many of the gripes we have about young people can be explained by the outrageous amount of things going on in their brains during this stage of development. This article seeks to talk a bit about the adolescent brain and get readers thinking about what scientists are understanding now about adolescence and how it may impact our instruction.
The World Health Organization defines adolescence as the period in human growth and development that occurs after childhood and before adulthood, from ages 10 to19. Scientists are now saying that the period really lasts from ages 10 to 25 (Schwartz, 2015). The change or development is marked by vast changes in two factors: biological and social. It is also more recently understood as a time when the brain undergoes dramatic change akin to the growing and developing of new pathways experienced in the first five years of life (Schwartz, 2015).
We have learned more about what's going on in the adolescent brain in the last 15 years. Here are some interesting things to note:
- It is extremely sensitive to environmental factors.
- The "emotional" part of the brain is working full steam ahead while the "rational" part of the brain (prefrontal cortex) is still developing. That is, "When a poor decision is made in an emotional context, the adolescent may know better, but the salience of the emotional context biases his or her behavior in opposite direction of the optimal action" (Casey, Jones, Hare, 2008).
- Can reason like adults (cold cognition). Emerging research shows that the neural sensitivity to risk in adolescence can actually help the adolescent make optimal choices and better evaluate options, even better than adults (Galvin, 2016). However, when in an emotionally charged situation (hot cognition) the "rational" part of the brain doesn't work as well.
- Peer opinion is most important.
- More susceptible to stress and this is where psychologists and researchers note that depression and anxiety disorders sets in.
What is critical for educators to understand is that adolescence is the last time in a person's life that the brain goes through a HUGE overhaul. This means the brain will never be as wired for LEARNING! Without going into a lot of scientific details, because a scientist I am not, the
adolescent brain is going through a process called pruning.
Jargon-Filled Definition: Synaptic pruning refers to the process by which extra neurons and synaptic connections are eliminated in order to increase the efficiency of neuronal transmissions.
Layman's Definition: Use it or lose it
The adolescent brain is super wired for learning and at its most malleable. This should be leading middle and high school classrooms to cognitively engage students in their learning. But some question whether this is happening. "
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" (Armstrong, 2016).
Are we hardwiring our students to be passive in their learning?
We know adolescents can reason, care a lot about what their peers say, are primed for learning, but may be a bit unorganized. So how should we plan for instruction? Say we have a high school chemistry class and the teacher's goal is to use the textbook to introduce the structure of an atom. Compare the two instructional routines:
Which routine is making use of what is known about adolescence and the adolescent brain? Which routine may be more effective at engaging the adolescent learner?
When I think about literacy and the young adult brain, I go back to my usual mantra of students meaningfully interacting with each other and teachers beginning to have students thinking about their learning, how they are learning and what is working for them. Metacognitive strategies have a positive impact on improving student outcomes (Education Endowment Foundation, 2016), but have yet to make their way into the every day routines of middle and high school classrooms. Getting students thinking about how they are solving their reading problems and giving them strategies to think through more academically complex texts goes further than assigning work and just telling students what to do. In fact we may be doing less to develop adolescent brains by solely teaching in this way:
"Classroom teaching that focuses largely on delivering content through lectures and textbooks fails to engage the emotional brain and leaves unchanged those prefrontal regions that are important in metacognition" (Armstrong, 2016).
I hope this article gets you thinking about how we might take new and known understandings of what adolescents need and apply it to our practice. As teenagers push us with their extreme sensitivity and moods, we should remind ourselves that this is part of true brilliance at work and create learning environments that nurture their minds.
Armstrong, T. "'Brain Friendly' Practices for Adolescent Success."
Education Week, October 12, 20116, vol. 36, issue 8, pp. 24, 28. (2016).
Greenleaf, C., Murphy, L., & Schoenbach, R. (2012). "Reading for understanding-How reading apprenticeship improves disciplinary learning in secondary and college classrooms." San Francisco, California:
Schwartz, K. (2015). "Harnessing the Incredible Power of the Teenage Brain." Retrieved from
Getting Parents Involved in Your Literacy-
Based Classroom: Making a Plan for Parent Involvement
By Priscilla Dwyer, IRC Vice President
In last month's article, I laid out a plan for getting parents involved in your literacy-based classroom. This month, I will look into the first part of that plan: Plan Before the School Year Gets Started. Dr. Patricia Edwards, guest of the latest Wired Wednesday Webinar and author of several books on parent involvement, discusses the research that confirms the link between parental involvement and children's educational development. She states that through "a comfortable relationship with their child's teacher, parents can gain an understanding and acknowledging the school and teacher's curriculum and expectations and how to work with their children at home on academic activities" (p.17, Edwards, 2009).
First, it is important to know what parent involvement looks like at your school. Are there forms that need to be filled out to volunteer? Do parents have to take a volunteer training class? What are other teachers in your building doing with parent volunteers? These are all important questions to keep in mind when planning for your parent involvement. If there is paper work to fill out or volunteer trainings to complete, be sure to have copies made for parents and schedules of training times. If you don't plan ahead for these things, parents will be less likely to make the commitment.
As far as considering what other teachers are doing, in my own experience, there were many teachers not having parent volunteers at all. I was going to be the trailblazer and eventually other teachers did follow me in my efforts, but don't expect all of your colleagues to be enthusiastic. Don't be discouraged. You will be happy in the end.
Do consider your parent community when planning for volunteers. Do you have a large bilingual population or parents that do not speak English? Would offering tasks such as reading with students in their second language be an idea to get these parents involved? What other tasks would work? What do I need to know about my parent community so I won't offend parents? If parents choose not to be involved, what community members can I ask to be advocate volunteers in my classroom? Some ideas of community members are elected officials such as the mayor, the county clerk, doctors, lawyers, preachers, retired teachers, local business owners and professionals. Having a mix of both men and women volunteers is also beneficial. I found that having male volunteers was really helpful with my male students who, in our particular community, needed more male role models. Additionally, the female students enjoyed having a female to connect with, other than me.
Once you have considered paperwork and parent community considerations, now it is time to think about activities. This is an area where you want to make parents feel welcome, confident and needed. In addition, you want to have the activities be based on learning outcomes/objectives. Look at your literacy curriculum, not just ELA, but how does literacy integrate with other disciplines in your classroom? Put together a list of activities that parent volunteers could accomplish with students of various learning abilities. Have this list available for parents so that they can choose the activities they are comfortable doing with students. Some ideas might be reading together and discussing text, writing and editing, monitoring independent work, helping with projects, and playing games.
Now that you have your plan in place, it is time to organize a meeting with parents to schedule and train. In my next article, I will discuss what this meeting looks like and how to train parents on activities for a successful parent volunteer experience.
Edwards, P. A. (2009). Tapping The Potential of Parents. New York: Scholastic.
IRC's Statewide Special Interest Councils: What is the Illinois Title I Association (ITA)
By Nancy Paprocki, ITA President
As a special interest council of the Illinois Reading Council, here at Illinois Title I Association (ITA), our mission is "to inform, to connect, and to support individuals associated with Title I programs." ITA supports and fosters the interests of Title I teachers throughout Illinois. ITA members are kept current on research, regulations, and policies associated with Title I programs in Illinois and the nation through regular newsletters sent throughout the year. Additionally, ITA sponsors a strand of professional development related to Title I practices and issues annually at the Illinois Reading Council conference. ITA fosters literacy and promotes successful instructional practices statewide and provides Illinois Title I teachers with opportunities to dialogue and network about classroom ideas that are effective and innovative. ITA enjoys partnering with other local councils of the Illinois Reading Council to provide professional development opportunities throughout the state; most recently we have worked with MID-State Reading Council to bring Matt Glover to a summer workshop.
ITA is always looking for new members, and is searching for new motivated officers to join us on the board. If you have any questions about ITA, please contact Nancy Paprocki at 708-285-3992 or
. If you're a local council that would like to partner with us to provide professional development, please reach out as well.
By the IRC Educational Media Committee
Take a moment to review some of the Literacy Links provided by the IRC Educational Media Committee to help Illinois educators in today's classrooms. These links and past links will be available on the IRC Website under "Literacy Links" on the homepage.
This online resource has turned learning vocabulary into a game. Players can accumulate points, achievements, and badges while competing against Facebook friends, classmates, or other members of the Vocabulary.com community. Use your own words or use the lists they provide.
This online tool is a quick and easy way to share and compare YouTube videos on one page and poll students about those videos. Teachers can ask any question they would like and students answer by viewing the videos and selecting the video that best answers the teacher's question, such as identifying bias, propaganda, rhetorical devices, and more.
This digital resource offer free access to historic front pages, videos and artifacts in the Newseum collection as well as lesson plans and interactive learning tools. This is a great tool for incorporating primary sources into the curriculum.