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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

How to Deal with Teenage Learning Fatigue

A book provides insight into coping with the developing -- and often baffling -- adolescent brain.
By Raleigh T. Philp
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This article is an excerpt from Raleigh T. Philp's book 'Tweens and Teens: A Brain-Compatible Approach in Reaching Middle and High School Students.

Credit: Corwin Press

The single most important thing a teacher must do is manage the learning state of his or her students. Twenty minutes is probably the maximum time that most people can stay in a positive learning state without a change of stimulus. Most students may even be aware that they have moved down the spectrum from a positive learning state to a feeling of the brain being out to lunch!

An effective teacher is aware of the looks on the faces of students, the squirming, and general disinterest. These teachers are always scanning the class for signs of learning fatigue and know what to do to ameliorate the problem.

For middle school, the rule could easily be reduced to the 15-Minute Rule. Teachers cannot expect middle school students to stay in a favorable learning state for more than 15 minutes without intervention. A maximum of 20 minutes for high school students and probably most adult learners, including those in graduate school, is appropriate.

We could learn from observing how lower-elementary teachers handle learning fatigue. Since students in the early grades generally have a limited attention span and suffer from learning fatigue in a more demonstrative way than older students, elementary school teachers are constantly forced to manage the learning state more acutely than teachers of middle school and high school. Visiting a good teacher of second graders, for instance, would provide an opportunity to see a master of state management, since most second graders are able to stay continuously in a positive learning state for only a short time.

Visit college classes, particularly graduate education courses, and you will frequently observe a professor lecturing on and on and on. The concept overriding almost all other objectives is to cover the material. The most expedient way to do this, of course, is to teach didactic lessons. Creative teaching strategies are talked about but, because of limited class time and a great deal of material to cover, are seldom demonstrated fully.

Students at this level know how to play the game and are habituated to the didactic lesson. The eyes make contact, the pencil is poised, the laptop is humming, but after about 20 minutes without a learning-state change, even the brains of these high achievers are on autopilot, with very little learning taking place.

As we see a higher percentage of courses taught online, the challenge to demonstrate the management of learning states becomes even greater. These classes now become the models for teacher preparation.

The most effective teachers know intuitively how to read their students and have almost a built-in clock that reminds them that middle school and high school students need to have their learning states managed about every 20 minutes. Naturally gifted teachers and speakers change the learning states smoothly and without even their own awareness at times.

As you experience an outstanding presentation from a gifted speaker, make mental notes to see how often the speaker changes the learning state. It may be a change of voice, a joke, a gesture, a storytelling, or a relocation of the speaker -- anything that allows the participants to change their state!

In classrooms where teachers are effective learning-state managers, students know what to expect and often look forward to getting out of their seats periodically and interacting with others, ultimately refreshing their learning states. Some teachers say that once they get the students settled into their seats, they want to retain that structure for the remainder of the class period if possible.

The problem isn't as critical when students are involved with cooperative learning, project learning, or other activities that require students to move around and be involved in hands-on learning and discussions with other students. The bottom line is that students need to have their learning states changed frequently.

Read an interview with Raleigh Philp.

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Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am not a professional teacher, instead a grandparent, and father of three successful daughters. I think a lot of the trouble that I see with today's children is that too many "excuses" for failure are available. Today, some districts don't even give a child a report card or if they do, the "F" or any level of grading is eliminated. This teaches that nothing is worth something and that failure is not only acceptable, but is allowed by the system.

I see the child psychologists try to explain away the miscreant behavior of some teens and try to blame others for the reactionary behavior of malcontents and misfits like the Columbine duo or the Bowling Green episode, but the truth is that kids will behave and act in a responsible manner, if there is not any other choice. I harken back to my childhood when children were perhaps emotionally abused in the name of discipline, but none was permanently damaged by the strict requirements of correct acceptable behavior. I caught two 13 years old boys tresspassing on my property, "snooping" around. I known it was only a matter of time and opportunity before they stole something simply due to impulse and anonymity. I grabbed them up and took them to the local police station where their parents were called. The first thing out of one of the boy's mother was to accuse me of "kidnapping" her son and wanted me arrested.

In my day, if a neighbor had brought me home to my parents, then all manner of hell would have broken loose, not against the neighbor, as he was believed, but against me the offender. Today, the kids are never at fault, the parents too quick to blame the messenger instead of the message which they obviously don't like. Yes, most of the incidents which have been widely reported, from teen-agers murdering their parents, to fellow classmates, to even the college age mass-murderers like at Virginia Tech, the evidence was plainly visible that the child was trouble waiting for a place to happen. Most parents, either too selfish to do a really good job at parenting or too busy trying to provide a secure, coddled, "good" life for their kids don't care. Too many expensive sneakers, game boxes and other "necessary" items of a child's existence are part of the problem. Children need to be hungry in their souls and should be made to work to find a way to satisfy that hunger. I mean, there needs to be a fire in the belly of kids, a parent cannot put one there if every want, not need, is satisfied and the child is over indulged as apparently this 13 year-old scofflaw I apprehended is.

I don't accept the current notion that kid's brains are immature, therefore, they are deliquent. Hell, Mozart was just four when he started concertizing, and Joan of Arc was merely 13 when she led an army to recapture France. There is a lot about growing up that the human body experiences. Even as adults, the body continues to evolve and change due to the aging process. So what if the brain is still evolving, so are the sex organs and the muscles and everything else about the kid. Why should we cut him slack simply because the selfish little over-indulged brat wants to misbehave. The same as we train the kids to learn math, then we train them to obey the rules. We make it too easy for kids to find cover for their behavior. It is about time for the "woodshed" to reappear.

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