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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Understanding How Adolescents Think

An interview with Raleigh Philp, author of Engaging 'Tweens and Teens.
By Amy Standen

Raleigh Philp isn't a scientist; he's a longtime teacher and a teacher trainer at Pepperdine University's Graduate School of Education and Psychology. But he also thinks of himself as a translator, someone who can use current brain research to help teachers teach. His book Engaging 'Tweens and Teens: A Brain-Compatible Approach to Reaching Middle and High School Students aims to show teachers how to cope with the developing -- and often baffling -- teenage brain. (Read an excerpt from the book.)

Credit: Raleigh Philp

Philp points to research showing that teenage brains don't function the way adult ones do. (See a good introduction to scientific studies on teenage brains on the Web site for the PBS program Frontline.) The neocortex -- the part of the human brain responsible for language, planning, empathy, and executive functions -- hasn't fully developed inside the average 13-year-old's head. That teenager still relies on a more reactive, gut-instinct part of the brain, the amygdala, which handles emotions and memories associated with emotion.

Teenagers also aren't very good at reading emotion on others' faces. In addition to the obvious physical signs of adolescence, teens and 'tweens are undergoing a major neurological overhaul, which is why that perennial teen mumble "I don't know" may be closer to the truth than we'd realized.

What this means for teachers, says Philp, is that they must be both patient and persistent. The point at which teenagers tend to withdraw and ask to be left alone is exactly when it's most important to engage them.

Below, Edutopia.org discusses Philp's conclusions with him.

What is the first thing teachers need to know about the brains of their teenage students?

I think one of the things middle school teachers need to recognize is the incapability of consistency from most kids. The kids will come in one day loving you, and then the next day, with no warning, you are the total enemy.

For young teachers, this is really hard on their developing confidence. You're searching for assurance that you're doing OK, but the inconsistency with which kids treat you is really disarming. So, middle school teachers need to recognize that this is the outward manifestation of a brain that is undergoing profound changes.

Teachers often make assumptions that their directions have gotten through. But the disconnect is that the student often doesn't get it. His or her interpretation is really different.

One of the standard things I talk to teachers about in my work is that when a kid gets in trouble, the teacher will ask, "Why did you do that?" Kids will almost always say, "I don't know," and maybe that's more accurate than we thought. When teachers understand some of the rudiments of how the brain is changing, they have a lot more patience with kids.

There are so many things going on with kids -- the physical and emotional changes, sexual development, all of those things are being undertaken by a brain that isn't capable of functioning like an adult brain. A lot of kids will look at any time they have to be quizzed about how they feel, or their reasons for doing something, as a demand for introspection. That's what teachers are asking for, and parents, too. So the teenager's response is, "Leave me alone. I don't feel like thinking about this."

That sounds discouraging, as if there's nothing to do with teenagers but sit back and wait until their brains are developed enough that they can act like human beings.

We've made some assumptions about the teenage brain, but we're looking at a tremendous curve here; I'm amazed at how many kids function awfully well and do use pretty good judgment. And one has to look at it and ask, "OK, is that environmentally controlled? Is it something we can instill in others?" That's the encouraging part of this research. We're beginning to realize that, experientially, the brain is really influenced by its environment.

At about age 12, 13, 14, the brain goes through a major pruning, much as it did around age two or three. Many of the neurons have two choices, if you will: They can develop into a neural network threaded together as a result of experience, or they're pruned away.

So, in other words, if you develop a skill at a young age, you're likely to retain that ability, whereas if you don't, that skill may be much harder to develop.

Yes. Unless teenagers put together those neural networks, they may never develop successful relationships with academics, with skills of all sorts. So, if the kid is sitting in front of a TV all day and not getting experiences, acquiring skills, we have a more serious problem than anyone had realized. Probably, we've only started to realize this in the last seven or eight years.

That suggests that we need to engage teenagers, not just let them grow up on their own.

Often, we let them go and we don't want anything to do with them. But what we've known for a long time is that if we let kids do their own things, they'll first seek out adult role models, but if those are not available for them, they'll seek out teen role models.

And this is the time when, characteristically, we've given up. Parents don't attend middle school and high school events like they did in elementary school. Kids want their privacy, and a lot of parents capitulate to that. And we're looking at probably the most important developmental time for the brain.

Recently, we've seen some wonderful character-development programs, like Developmental Assets. Those programs tend to be based on behavioral studies, but I see, over the next few years, that those behaviorally based programs will be fortified by research on the adolescent brain.

What does a teenage brain need in order to learn?

In order to make any progress, a child's brain has a list of priorities. At the survival rate, kids are not learning anything. For a kid walking through South Central Los Angeles to get to Locke High School, for instance, just getting there is a real concern. In the big herding high schools where they have 2,500 or 3,000 students, many of their emotional needs are not being met.

And the brain, in order for learning and thinking to occur, must fulfill those two categories first: You've got to survive, and you've got to have your emotional needs met. And good teachers have always known this. When you walk into a good classroom, you see a comfortable, pleasant place, a place where people are welcome.

Once a classroom is safe and comfortable, what can teachers do to engage their students?

When I do my workshops, one thing I try to get across is that kids can listen only for a short time -- probably 15 minutes max, maybe 20. And you've got to find innovative ways to change the psychological state of your learners about every 20 minutes: Get them up on their feet, change the environment using music, have them interact with each other.

I encourage teachers with a variety of strategies. For instance, how can you use music effectively in the class in order to make it an emotionally welcome place? A lot of teachers use music, but the nuances of how to use it are really important. I see more teachers saying, "I can learn to control the physiological state of my learners much more by using music at the right time."

So, for instance, maybe you should play something calming when they come into the classroom, like maybe classical music?

That's the perception most people have, that you should have music playing when kids come in. But you would also want to have playlists for other kinds of music, too. When kids come in to the class, you probably want to use music with an upbeat to it, 80 beats per minute or something. Other times, you'd want to use music in transition, between activities, or when you're writing in journals, maybe 50-60 BPM.

I'm a fan of public radio, and I'm amazed at how well they can integrate little pieces of music. So I try to encourage teachers to use emotional songs when they're doing readings. You remember the Ken Burns documentary The Civil War? There's a musical theme running through it, a resounding, beautiful melodic piece. It would be a great piece of music to play in the background along with a reading of Civil War letters.

And a lot of teachers don't realize how easy this is today. With laptops, iTunes, and inexpensive speakers, it's easier than ever to use music in the classroom.

What you're advocating is a real departure from the let-me-lecture-to-you-for-45-minutes approach to teaching.

I think that's the single most important thing I want to give to teachers: Sure, your students may be giving you eye contact, but that doesn't mean you're engaging them.

Amy Standen is a former contributing editor to Edutopia. She reports on science and the environment for KQED-FM, in San Francisco.

Comments (19)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

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Fran Hannan's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Thought this might be a good conversation starter in a team meeting or even a division meeting. Hope you are having a good summer! Please share with Diana and Claudia.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This is a great article.
Something that is useful and I am going to copy it and put it into each teachers' box at school!!!

Christine's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I thought this was a great article and it made sense. I agree that students need to feel safe and secure before any real learning or retention takes place. The teacher sets the stage for children to feel comfortable and sound at school.
I also agree that you have a small window of opportunity to engage students in a lesson. Students should be more involved doing an activity and not hearing about it.
Do you have more information pertaining to first graders or elementary aged children?

Renee's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I think that this is a great article that I am going to share with my graduate study group. We are studying brain research as well as various forms of technology that educators use this week. I was wondering if anyone out there has tried aroma therapy? I saw it used when I was student teaching in a 6th grade classroom and was told it wad very effective for getting students to settle into working and maintaining appropiate behavior.

Adrienne's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Renee,
I thought the article was excellent as well. I am a middle school teacher currently in a graduate program through Walden. I felt much of the information provided was relevant to my population as I work with at-risk kids.
In response to your comment about aromatherapy. I know a teacher who happens to be in a program to become a homeopath. She feels one really needs to know their students "chemistry" prior to attempting aromatherapy. There are specific scents that do prove relaxing to most, yet she prefers to cater to other senses such as music and movement (yoga, tai chi). Hope this helps.

Renee's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Adrienne,
Thanks so much for the insight on aromatherapy, it helped immensely! That is a really relevant point about knowing students specific 'chemistry' prior to just implementing aromatherapy in the classroom. The teacher I worked with used lavender and mint in the classroom. When I asked her how she got started using aromatherapy she told me that she had received an aromatherapy set as a gift and decided to give it a try in the classroom after reading an article that focused on using the senses to enhance learning and behavior. I agree that since this is a highly specified area that one should have an expert to be able to provide advice and guidance. I also think using music and movement is an excellent way to increase learning. I am a firm believer of the "Brain Gym" to enhance learning, focus, coordination, listening. If you have not tried this you should give it a try. There are many articles on edutopia related to it and brain research.
Thanks Again!!

christina ferraro's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As a mom and a teacher of high risk teens, this article fascinated me. I had read before of the "pruning" going on in teen brains and I wholeheartedly agree that it is a miracle that anything is retained. Raleigh Philp stated that he was "amazed at how some teens function awfully well..." Add hormones and familial stress to this mix and you can start to realize what teens are up against. The other part that I liked about this article is that it gave some concrete strategies to help ease this emotional time. This article is going in some mailboxes at my school.

Dareece's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

You mentioned using Brain Gym in classrooms! Great idea to get the kids moving! There are lots of articles that discuss how movement and even playing allow the child's brain to take in more of the information and retain it longer! There is a fairly new program being offered to school teachers around the country, called YogaKids TOOLS FOR SCHOOLS. It is a system that helps the teacher blend yoga (and some Brain Gym-inspired) movements into the curriculum. Kids love it. There is a video on the CNN website showing this in action. Also, you can check out the YogaKids website to learn more about the program. :)

Dareece in Oregon

Don Chaney's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Just to let everyone know Mr Philp practiced what he preached, I was a biology student of his in 1977-78. His is one of the classes I remember from high school so many years ago. Although I had no interest in biology, and I was one of those teenagers that had that 15 minute attention span, his lessons were always engaging. Despite my best efforts, I learned. I am sure I didn't appreciate Mr. Philp at that point in my life, but looking back I am very glad I had the opportunity to learn from him.

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