Gen Z brains and innovation in assessment

Making use of neurological studies to inform how we best learn, teach and assess

Tabatha Sheehan Head of English at Westonbirt School

Ken Robinson famously stated that Gen Z exists in ‘the most over-stimulated society that has ever existed’, with continuous upheaval and an increasing sense of nihilism, pessimism and cynicism. Gen Z teenagers have access to an overwhelming world in a way other generations have not and as such, carry stresses and anxieties beyond their capabilities to process them. There are many studies that uncover the damages stress causes on our physical and mental health and whilst this has created a more open dialogue about ‘managing stress’ or wellbeing and self-care, there is little to none of this being implemented into the education system.

Teenage brains are incredibly vulnerable to stress and educational psychologist Dr Russell Romeo argues that ‘adolescence is marked by significant shifts in hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis reactivity, resulting in heightened stress-induced hormonal responses’, which is an alarming fact to consider. If our education systems are rooted in an assessment method as rigid and stressful as strict, timed written examinations, what added pressures are we putting on teenage brains in a world that is already damaging them?

We must look to innovate the system to better support our teens to ensure that we are not one of the ‘perturbations of the maturing adolescent brain’ which Romeo argues ‘contribute to the increase in stress-related psychological dysfunctions, such as anxiety, depression, and drug abuse.’ If schools remain the same, we remain part of a system that does not protect our pupils from the types of stresses that could cause significant mental and physical health problems later in life.

We already know that the human brain’s learning system, in a biological and social sense, is at its best when given multi-modal opportunities and that the limits of our timed, written assessments that dominate examinations (and thus students’ ‘success’) do not best reflect the vastness or reality of their capabilities. What is now also clear is that the substantial stress reactivity of these rigid approaches are not just limiting our pupils but also damaging them.

We are within a system that impacts teens beyond their time at school – a system that can cause neurological and psychological dysfunction to the extent that they cannot effectively survive in the world, but also with the potential to create a genetic code that could be reductive to the human species ability to learn and evolve in the future.

This does not all mean however, that there is no hope.

Many studies in educational psychology and neurology are looking to counter these damages and find the best ways to reduce stress and limitations on teen brains, as well as find the best ways we can teach and ‘assess’ learning for success and survival. Self-regulation skills, in terms of managing stress reactivity, balancing emotional output and controlling one’s environment, is a consistent measure of academic and personal success but relies, as Zimmerman states, on the ‘reciprocal fashion’ of context, with schools and parents needing to take responsibility for and creating connection with teens in regards to their social, emotional and academic needs and monitoring the environments they create to best support them.

Gen Z are also an incredibly self-aware generation, with a keenness to understand themselves and their place in the world. Schweiger tells us that they can recognise the faults of the systems and, whilst cynics, also hope for improvement and desire ‘more personalised micro-experiences’ that best reflect their unique abilities. As with most of the human species, teenagers require support and human connection – they need the variety of choice, the support of home and school to regulate stress, and the diversity of assessment that reflects our evolutionary abilities.

It is interesting to note that this has essentially been the process of TAGs this year – diverse range of assessment types and conditions, marked by teachers who know their students’ needs and abilities exceptionally well, without the unnecessary added (and highly unrealistic) pressure of a 2-hour one-shot attempt at success.

Ultimately, to protect our future generations from increased mental stress and to ensure our evolution as a species, we must be allowed to innovate. Our scientists know this, our teachers know this and our pupils know this already.

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