Using Our Brains to Help Adolescents’ Brains

When I was fortunate to take a study tour of the US in April 2011 and meet some of the leading figures in the world of education, I had many memorable conversations. One that has stuck in my mind was with Ms Deborah Stipek, the Dean of Faculty of Stanford Graduate School of Education.

Among many interesting insights she told me that she was frankly embarrassed and felt it was a little shameful that only 6 months before (in late 2010) the Graduate School of Education had formalised a genuine relationship with the Department of Neurology in the Stanford Medical School. Sad to say, as the following article shows all too clearly, where Stanford may have been sluggish to acknowledge the reality and progress of neurological science, so the rest of the world is positively shameful in its slothfulness.

Education Week – Neuroscience Should Inform School Policies

If we stop and think for just a moment – the human brain is the very raw material, the plasticine with which educators work. If we care about how our pupils are learning (as opposed to what they are learning and in what quantity), then we have to be immeasurably fascinated by the new insights offered to us by the field on neurology in the last 15-20 years.

The article is interesting for many reasons, not least that it looks specifically at what neuroscience is telling us teachers should do more of (or less of) when working with adolescents. Inevitably, it suggests that a large part of how we continue to approach secondary education is working directly in opposition to what we now know about how teenage brains are working and developing. When our approaches to education take these issues on board, perhaps then we can tell pupils that we genuinely care more about them, their learning and their experience growing up than we do about the ‘stuff’ we teach.

Hearing Loss

There are times in life when the situations where you’re saying, “I told you so,” give little cause for joy.

This is one of them. To me, it really wasn’t ever going to take a genius to figure out that the excessive and loud use of earbuds, headphones etc. was going to have very negative implications. Now, more and more, the evidence is coming out through research, and it’s really not good;

Half of all teenagers experiencing tinnitus and hearing damage, says new study

To me, this was really so obvious and predictable. I have also had concerns that excessive use of personal audio devices causes youngsters to cut themselves off from others and fail to engage and communicate with others, or really genuinely notice the world around them. Many mobile devices offer a warning about the risks of turning up the volume, but to many teenagers this is almost a fun challenge. When you’re a teenager (maybe especially a boy) we now know that the frontal lobes of the brain are not yet fully developed. They act as a counter-balance to the amygdala and regulate risk taking. When I was young the biggest risks came from occasional exposure attending concerts, clubs etc. where the music volume was very high. However, the difference here is that the music listening is for so many more hours a day and delivered directly in to the ears.

The challenge we face is talking to teenagers about the longer term risks of their actions all too often falls on deaf ears and fails to have the desired effect. Teenagers can rationalise to themselves that whatever they’re doing and whatever the risks, they’ll be lucky and unaffected. Sadly, the potential outcomes of such a game of Russian roulette are terribly risky.

I once knew someone who suffered quite extreme tinnitus. Its impact on her life was to interfere significantly with her sleep, her ability to concentrate on complex mental tasks and sometimes to be maddened by her inability to escape from the ringing tone in her ears. There is hope that some sufferers recover over time, but by no means all. Somehow, there’s an urgent need to find ways to reduce the risks. Maybe in this case the best route forward would be new rules that simply reduce the volume of personal listening devices.

Social Media and Teens

As I’ve been sharing various articles recently, it’s startling to see some of the worrying data that’s emerging about the effects that social media is having on our youngsters. This, a report from the UK Daily Mail shares findings from a poll of 1,000 teenagers:

Daily Mail – Social Media Obsessed Teens Are Scared Of Real Life

This is such a live issue that we clearly need to be talking with teenagers, in the home and school, about the potential risks and I’m sure that more research is ongoing and we need to keep abreast of the findings. This isn’t one of those situations that we can just hope away, or that tolerates shrugging our shoulders and being defeatist.

Practical Steps on Sleep Issues

I’ve written extensively about the hidden menace for children and young learners (and adults) regarding inadequate sleep, poor quality sleep and the perils of failing to have appropriate disciplines and strategies regarding sleep.

The evidence available today is so great that ignorance cannot be an excuse for creating situations where some children are significantly impaired in their learning abilities and scope to benefit fully from school.

It’s been interesting in recent months to see so many commentators, first in the US and then in UK, responding to the data that suggests that young people (particularly teenagers) are sleep deprived and suffering. Their response has been somewhat shocking to me – start the school day later! Quite frankly, this seems to be the wrong solution to the issue. I fear that all that will happen is – the start of the day shifts, so they’ll simply go to bed later still, spending more night time on social networking and other unproductive (but somewhat compulsive and dependency forming) habits.

This article from The Guardian offers, I believe, a far more reasonable response – educate children early about the role and importance of sleep, get them to introspect on the effects for them personally and then support and help them to form the right, positive habits to ensure healthy sleep patterns. This is a significant area where home and school can really leverage strong partnership for the good of the pupils:

The Guardian – Wake Up Call

Teenagers in the Twenty First Century

Who would want to be a teen today, given the choice? Not me, thanks.

It was bad in enough in ‘our time’, but I reckon that for teens today there are extra layers of challenge, complexity and stresses that we were spared. However, it’s also a reality that the burden and unpleasantness today isn’t all experienced by the child – us parents carry our share of the burden too.

This article from Huffington Post UK, written by Chloe Combi highlights realistically some of the challenges and issues, especially related to the role that technology plays in the lives of today’s teens;

Huffington Post – Parenting Teenagers in the 21st Century

Whilst reading the article I couldn’t help wondering a bit about the extent to which teens are the architects of their own challenges. So much of the competition, the bullying, the offensive online behaviour is done by teens to teens. Also, as an educator, I’m inevitably drawn to question whether we and the way we run schools are part of the problem or part of the solution. Do we contribute to that sense that teens have of being in competition over everything? Would the situation improve if more emphasis was placed on the development of empathy, EQ and collaborative skills?

There is a perspective that suggests that for those who moved from teens in to adulthood over the last 10-15 years life was harder than for today’s teens. In Western ‘advanced’ economies the baby boomers are reaching retirement at such a rate that far exceeds the number of Generation X coming in to the working environment to replace them. This brings all sorts of other risks such as skills shortages, a sense of privilege and poor work ethic, but it may well mean that they don’t need to be as competitive to fight for themselves as those who went before.

Inevitably, the article also talks a lot about the role of technology in teen’s lives. It really can be all-consuming and, I fear, is creating distorted perceptions about human relations. When a young person chooses to be ‘online’ using social networking, they can portray themselves in any way they choose and interact with others who are also ‘acting out’ roles. In the real world, when teens interact with friends, they come to understand that all have good days and bad days, say smart things and foolish things, have strengths and weaknesses – in short – they know and accept their peers as three dimensional human beings. However, in online social networking everyone becomes a bit less themselves, can keep their weaknesses, foibles and less positive aspects hidden and can therefore seem simpler, easier to deal with and more appealing. Whilst this may be beguiling for the teen, it presents a distorted experience of human nature.

There is much that is happening with today’s teens that is unprecedented. As a result, nobody has all the answers or can accurately predict all the implications. We need more research and we need it quickly.

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