ENG: The adolescent brain is a work in progress. On education and personal growth

ENG: The adolescent brain is a work in progress. On education and personal growth

How teachers and parents can stimulate the maturation of the adolescent brain

Context shapes the brain. That is the conviction of Jelle Jolles, professor of neuropsychology at the Free University of Amsterdam and director of the Brain & Learning Centre. “The environment stimulates the development of complex brain networks within the boundaries of certain genetic conditions” explains Jolles. “What a person can achieve is not predetermined at birth. Practice and life-experiences throughout childhood and adolescence, as well as a continuous sensory stimulation are essential to further talent-development. Educators, teachers and society together create the conditions for this development. This is accomplished by providing support, guidance and inspiration. So, they provide important knowledge and help the child or teenager to reflect on options and routes-to-travel. And new insights about the maturation of the adolescent and his or her brain have great potency for educational innovations”.

Why should educational professionals have to know something about the adolescent brain?
“We will be able to have a better understanding of our teenagers as soon as we acknowledge that they are ‘a work in progress’. This is because their brain matures until well after the twentieth year. Therefore, it is of major importance that teachers, parents, coaches and other professionals who work with young people understand how the teenage brain processes information. After all, teachers want that the knowledge and procedures which they are trying to convey are well absorbed and stored, and that the student can reproduce the stored information at a later moment in time. Therefore, teachers and other educational professionals and parents should have knowledge about the factors that contribute to differences between children: biological factors, psychological factors and socio-cultural factors. Considering these and their mutual relations is essential to bring students to a greater learning motivation and performance on the domains of school, music, sports and other. It is also important to consider the life and learning history of the student: was this a ‘rich’ or ‘poor’ learning environment? Likewise, it is important to acknowledge that there is a difference in speed of maturation between boys and girls.”

What is the process of this development?
“A child up until the age of ten years learns many basic skills: perception, language, motor learning, three-dimensional navigation, sitting, walking, running, biking, rollerblading. What the child learns and experiences during childhood and adolescence guides and stimulates the formation of complex networks in the brain. There are nearly 200 separate structures on the cerebral cortex which have a more or less specific task in the brain. Through the years – and because of experiences and stimulation –many connections develop to connect these brain structures. This happens according to a plan which had been programmed in the genes. As said, the emergence and growth of these networks is based on the experience someone gains. My advice to teachers, schools and parents is to give children enough and diverse stimulation in all the sensory domains and motor functions possible. This will enable a proper maturation and development of the whole brain and not only specialized parts. Challenging the natural curiosity of teenagers may be an important way to capture their attention and to stimulate their learning motivation.”

And what about experiences?
“The brain loves new stimuli. It wants to be challenged and gain new experiences constantly. This is because new stimuli might be important ‘for later use’ in our rapidly changing society. Adolescence is a separate period between childhood and the period of adulthood which starts early in the twenties. The adolescent brain is different from that of the child; this changed brain has the major task of stimulating the teenager to gain as many experiences as possible. This is imperative to acquire the experiences which are needed to effectively position himself in the society of the adults.

A very important notion is: ‘The adolescence is a period of chances and opportunities’. And temptations, risks and threats are not the major characteristic of this important period, even though there is presently so much emphasis on these negative aspects of adolescence. The teenager learns to position himself in the world. This is why the peer group is so important for the teenager: the teenage brain wants to know everything about other teens. This way the teen learns to have empathy, exhibit social behavior and learn to evaluate and experience relevant emotions – which adults can not provide! – .”

In your publications and in your recent book “The Teenage Brain ‘ you state that there are many young people who underperform at school. What is the reason and what can schools do?
“A brain that has a top-potential, genetically speaking, will only develop optimally in an environment that stimulates and inspires. Moreover, such an optimal or sub-optimal development is dependent upon previous events in life: earlier life experiences ‘write the personal biography of the person’ in the brain wiring (the complex neuronal networks). So, learning and teaching work through the brain as the organ which stores earlier experiences. And a proper functioning of this organ requires emotional, cultural and social nourishment. This is why a relatively poor development with few stimuli and a relative lack of experiences give rise to a slower development and knowledge acquisition even in children who have loving parents. Improper or ‘poor’ stimulation may lead to less targeted and slower absorption of new stimuli and slower knowledge acquisition.”

So a child who is underperforming, has the risk to perform even less in the future?
“That is right: the backlog is growing. A child who has had little experience, relatively speaking, has the risk to lag behind in the acquisition of language. In addition, such a child may have less ‘imagination’ and will be less able to link particular information creatively with other information. In principle these children or teens may have the same potential as others who have grown up in a richer environment, but they lag behind. School should give these students the knowledge and as many experiences as possible to make up for those they may have missed. In addition, targeted interventions are needed to train core functions such as self-insight and self-regulation. This should be done at school and at home. Self-insight and self-regulation are important neuropsychological skills which determine the cognitive, social and emotional development. An interest in the world, curiosity, and an entrepreneurial attitude are important for this. And the same is true for the ability to plan and prioritize. Already children and especially young teens can learn and acquire a different mindset: they experience that it is possible to develop themselves: personal growth. This stimulates their learning motivation.”

So according to you, schools should take greater account of individual differences and brain development?
“Yes. When we give the same amount of attention to all our students this has the disadvantage that the material is far too easy for some students and much too difficult for others. The individual differences between students and the crucial role played by the environment means, in my opinion, that we need to provide our students with more personalized learning paths. Of course this does not mean ‘thirty individual trajectories per class’, but there should definitely be more than the usual three. Above all, we must realize: “A tree which grows slowly can eventually become the tallest tree.” This notion has major implications for education and development. We make a huge mistake when we base our notion about the potential of children on their test scores. I myself had mediocre grades in high school; it was only in my late adolescence and emerging-adulthood that I eventually made a dash for the finish line. So it was well after the age of twenty that I made a spurt and realised my latent talents!”

What insights in the development of the adolescent brain can already be of relevance for teachers in front of a classroom full of teenagers?
“The notion that the teenager is ‘work under construction’. What he can do when he is 12, or 15 or 17 is not at all indicative of what he can do in an x number of years, nor what he has the potential or motivation for. The grades and performance of a teen have little to say about ability and potential, but a lot about motivation. To motivate a teenager, it is essential to further develop his self-insight and attitude. Self-insight is the basis for all change. Attitude has to do with his approach towards learning, school, teachers, and with empathy and the understanding of intentions of the people around him and society at large. The so called ‘executive functions’ are fairly easy to train with a targeted and relatively simple approach. This can have a major impact on learning motivation and academic performance of a student. It therefore makes sense to invest in inspiration, guidance and motivation by training the executive functions.”

Are these insights based upon scientific research?
“Certainly: there is a large reservoir of scientific knowledge and insights: the problem however is that only a minor part of this knowledge has been translated to the educational practice up till the present day. That is why I am glad that TEDxED exists and that it wants to play a role in the dissemination of knowledge on this domain. That is also why I wrote my book on The Teenage Brain. The book gives special attention to neuropsychological functions such as self-awareness, self-regulation, planning and prioritizing, and gives tips about the role of teachers and parents in ‘fostering’ the developing teen. In my view it is one of the tasks of education and upbringing to train these types of functions and the personal growth, and do that for both boys and girls. Do not wait until the teenage brain develops these skills by itself, because that will be a long wait. If these features are not sufficiently developed, this will affect the skills of the student. Unfortunately, this is the situation in many schools: we give too little support, guidance and inspiration to our teenagers.”

You put a lot of emphasis on the environment. Does that mean that heredity and ‘genes’ do not matter?
“Heredity and genes are equally important. But they function in a different way. The genes determine what a person can become in the optimal situation, and the environment determines what the person can become within those genetic limits. It is crucial to realize that it is the environment that determines the development of talent. In addition, my book suggests that straightforward ‘learning styles’ do not exist. A teenager works with ‘learning strategies’, and those are adaptable and can be taught and trained. It is therefore of importance to teach the student to develop as many strategies as possible and coach him to gain many experiences. Again: the environment, the teacher and the educator are essential to accomplishing this. An example: boys and girls differ much more than you think. This is not just the consequence of their brain function, but it is also due to their past life history: to the way they were raised. It therefore makes sense to encourage girls to become more entrepreneurial, to be curious and to use more visual strategies. Boys on the other hand can profit from environmental support to develop self-awareness, empathy and language skills. I think that this is a task for both school and parents.”

What do you hope to recognize over five years in education that relates to your field?
“I hope that the insights I mention here and in my book have become commonplace in education. In the behavioral sciences, it has been widely recognized that the brain functions are relevant to our functioning. That was a vision which hardly existed in the early nineties. However, now in 2017, insights into brain functioning are recognizable in all areas of psychology and pedagogy. I expect and hope that this new and more multidimensional way of thinking will also become prevalent in education and upbringing. In my vision, it is the teenager, the subject with his thoughts, his knowledge and his feelings who will be at the core – and not the brain or the environment – . The teenager at school, at home, in sports, music and leisure activities. With adolescence as a period of chances and opportunities. “

Jelle Jolles, The Teenage Brain. About the adolescent between biology and environment. (In Dutch: Het tienerbrein, over de adolescent tussen biologie en zijn omgeving), Amsterdam University Press, Amsterdam, 2016. ISBN 978 94 6298 398 4.
– This article is partly based upon an interview by Brigitte Bloem, published in PrimaOnderwijs, January 2017, p 18-20

Foto: Ton van Til

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