Go with the flow - and take a deep dive into learning

The importance of relevance for the teenage brain

Dr Bettina Hohnen Clinical Psychologist, University College London

Dr Jane Gilmour Clinical Lecturer, Institute of Child Health UCL

A few years ago, one of us was talking a young person close to the family who was studying Psychology at university. She had always been academically successful, obtaining the highest grades in national exams. She had enjoyed the A level psychology curriculum and loved the subject but found the A level ‘dull’ despite achieving 100 % in the exam. She recounted how her motivated and supportive teacher had shown her the essay marking criteria early on in the course and the course content had been framed in terms of these criteria and getting a good grade. It meant that studying became an exercise in memorisation, as far as she was concerned. Despite the good intentions of the teacher in our story, teaching to the test is really missing a trick, particularly given what we now know about the teenage brain.

The neuroscience around the period of adolescence has exploded in recent years and we have learned that, from puberty into the mid-20s, there is an identifiable and adaptive stage of development when significant and unique brain changes take place. Teen brains are different to those of younger children and adults, characterised by a shift in how their brains function, how their brains respond and to what the brain is attracted. This science is shifting the narrative of adolescence – now we understand the period of adolescence as a time when the brain gets a young person in the right place at the right time to learn a variety of tasks required to be a successful adult.

One key aspect that makes the teen brain unique is the significant development of the motivational and emotional brain circuits, outpacing growth in other parts of the brain. This means the adolescent brain is highly sensitive to emotions, and behaviour is more emotionally driven. Emotions have traditionally been considered irritations, distractions from learning, that need weeding out. However, emotions are inherent parts of learning.

Immordino-Yang & Damasio (2007) suggest we think of emotions as steering thinking and learning, like a rudder steers a ship. The processes of feeling and thinking are therefore interdependent, and the brain systems for emotions and learning intertwined. If we want to promote learning then we would do well to engage emotions. Going with the brains developmental forces are likely to have a much more powerful effect on outcome than pushing against them. Have you ever tried to paddle upstream?

At the same time, the heightened role of the motivation circuits of the brain also means teens are driven to engage in and seek out activities they find meaningful, to take on causes they believe in such as climate change or social inequality. Their brains are wired to find out what they are passionate about. This has often been considered a pathology but the learning benefits that come with a passionate interest are obvious. Allowing teens more choice to pursue topics that have meaning for them ignites their emotional engine – and that is rocket fuel for learning. The approach of schools like the XP School in Doncaster, where pupils engage in projects connected to real local community issues, such as water purity, is a promising model for connecting learning to pupil concerns. At the International School of Geneva, ‘Passion Projects’ are part of their replacement for GCSEs.

Immordino-Yang and Knecht (2020) move this idea still further in their exploration of learning engagement, contrasting deep vs shallow engagement. In both instances, young people are on-task and learning but the ways they relate to learning differs. In deep engagement students are engaged in meaning, building a story relevant to their lives and in line with their passions. It is process-oriented, and emotions drive the learning. Shallow engagement means students are focussed on outcome and grade. Here, the goal and strongest emotions are experienced only after the work is completed, and grade awarded (Immordino-Yang, 2015). Immordino-Yang and Knecht (2020) describe specific patterns of physiological reaction and brain reactivity in deep versus shallow learning.

The relevance for our conversation about assessment is this. If the sole reason for going to school and learning about a subject is working for the grade, it sets up shallow engagement. Moreover, grading and high stakes exams risk being so emotionally salient for teenagers that they swamp their ability to grow ideas and engage at a deep level. There are interesting alternative practices from around the world which we would do well to notice. The US-based Expeditionary Learning movement puts the emphasis on ‘authentic assessment’. Pupils work collaboratively on projects, and their success is assessed through public presentation, or exhibition, where there is meaningful application of skills learned. The emotional salience is therefore to grow ideas and engage at a deep level with the topic and its application.

To unleash the power of the teenage brain we need to hitch a ride on the mighty motivations of the teen brain, harness the power of positive emotions and make school learning relevant for teens. It’s time to rethink highly prescribed curriculums and rigid marking criteria, which get in the way of deep learning. A system in which teachers have more scope for bespoke learning topics will result in happier, more self-aware and engaged students who have the opportunity to learn about aspects of the world that have greater relevance for them and likely for contemporary society. It is time to advocate educational policies that are supported by science.

References

Immordino-Yang, M.H. (2015) Emotions, learning and the brain: Exploring the educational implications of affective neuroscience New York, NY: W Norton & Co

Immordino-Yang, M.H. and Damasio, A.R. (2007) We feel, therefore we learn: The relevance of affective and social neuroscience to education. Mind, Brain and Education 1(1), 3-10

Immordino-Yang, M.H. and Knecht, D.R (2020) Building Meaning Builds Teens’ Brains. Connecting adolescent. Learning and the Brain 77 (8), 36-43

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