Adolescence is an exciting and confusing time as teenagers become more and more independent. As they experience several cognitive changes, their brains are ready to learn, try new things and take steps toward becoming healthy, successful adults. Teenagers are more inclined to learn and thrive when encouraged to tap their developing brains, take healthy risks and attempt creative approaches to learning.
Educators who work with teenagers must understand their brains and motivations to best support their learning outcomes. Graduates of Southern Oregon University’s online Master of Science in Education (MSEd) in Curriculum and Instruction in STEM Education program are prepared to pursue STEM education careers that work closely with teenagers. These roles include middle and high school math teacher, middle and high school science teacher, STEM curriculum/instruction specialist, STEM learning specialist, and district program administrator.
The Changing Adolescent Brain
During adolescence, the prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain that acts as the control center for executive functions such as planning, goal setting, decision-making and problem-solving) undergoes significant changes. Adolescent experts suggest that a period of extraordinary neuroplasticity occurs between the ages of 12 and 25. Neuroplasticity, or the capacity to change the brain’s structure and function, allows teenagers to become functionally smarter and take ownership of their learning.
This knowledge can help educators who work with teenagers to maintain patience, understanding and empathy with students while allowing them to take ownership of their own needs and wants.
Opportunities for Change and Success
Experts recommend educators provide opportunities for adolescent students to discover their increased potential to learn. Due to the extreme neuroplasticity they experience naturally, teenagers have more power to improve than adults, and educators should take every opportunity to let them know that they have this potential. In particular, students who have not performed well academically should be consistently encouraged to look at themselves positively, anticipating success rather than failure.
There are several ways to encourage and empower students to take charge of their learning and embrace their neuroplasticity. Examples include:
- Talking frankly with students about their brain development to help them reset their expectations and provide useful context for what they are learning and why.
- Explaining the teenage brain’s malleability to students to establish a basis for them to understand themselves better and give them a greater sense of control over their educational
- Encouraging students to explore what their brain can do, which leads to taking healthy risks and getting creative with their learning habits.
The Value of Risk-Taking
Adolescent brains are prone to risk-taking behaviors, as they have a higher tolerance for ambiguous results. However, not all risks are “bad.” Taking healthy risks is crucial to teenagers’ empowerment. In their book, Teaching Students to Drive Their Brains, Donna Wilson and Marcus Conyers argue for making the most of this mindset by encouraging students to take educational risks such as giving public presentations or exploring different paths to getting the right answer. In writing, for example, students create first and edit later. In the math classroom, students attempt to solve problems, whether they feel they are ready or not, then revisit those problems to see if they should have done something differently.
Educators can also encourage students to try out various study strategies and assess which ones give them the best results. For some students, simply reading content without interruption is the best strategy for taking in information. Others may find creating graphics to connect ideas or using flashcards more effective. However, at this point in their learning, they must understand and develop the study strategies that will work best.
Students themselves can get creative with how they learn. For instance, less-traditional note-taking strategies may help adolescent brains strengthen their rapidly changing neural connections and improve focus and retention. MathGiraffe’s Doodle notes use drawing and doodling-friendly sheets with features that instructors can use when introducing new skills, formulas and concepts. Educators can also utilize doodling for practice or review.
Introducing imaginative visuals to note-taking allows the brain’s right and left hemispheres to blend, aiding students with emotional and cognitive challenges. This makes what might feel like an overwhelming lesson seem less intimidating and more doable.
Why an Advanced Degree Can Help
According to an article from Science ABC, adolescents will start losing connections in their brain that become inactive. So, educators must take advantage of the neuroplasticity and risk-taking tendencies present during this developmental period. Those interested in learning more about teaching the adolescents and supporting their learning development should consider pursuing this degree.