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The Mind of a Middle Schooler: How Brains Learn

Heather Wolpert-Gawron

ELA Teacher, Middle School, Curriculum Coordinator TOSA
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In my last post, I began a celebration of brains and made the argument as to why teachers need to brush up on their knowledge of brains in order to reach that all-too-allusive 'tween noggin.

During this, my second of three posts in this series, I'll bring up a few key terms you should know in your own neurologic education. Then, we'll follow a history-related fact as it enters the brain of an average middle schooler, weaving its way towards the blessed long-term memory.

Excerpted from my book, 'Tween Crayons and Curfews: Tips for Middle School Teachers, these posts are boiled down versions of my chapter on the 'tween brain in the hopes that we not only increase our own knowledge of our clientele, but share that knowledge with them as well.

Brain Talk

Before we proceed, here are some key words to know:

Prefrontal Cortex: this part of the brain makes up only 17 percent of the brain and is in charge of judging, analysis, organization, connecting the dots, and making calls on what is valid information and what isn't. It also plays a huge role in empathy and self-awareness. It's one of the last parts of the brain to develop and can be influenced. Therefore, hormones and emotions easily manipulate the prefrontal cortex.

So in other words, just when we're asking them to evaluate, show relationships, and analyze, the middle schooler's prefrontal cortex can be sidetracked in a big way simply by a note slipped to them during the passing period. It's not that they can't control it, but 'tweens need to know about this tendency if they are going to successfully work despite it. We all can better fight an enemy if we know the enemy we are facing.

Automatic Brain: This is also known as the reactive brain and makes up the remaining 83 percent of the brain. It's the part of the brain that automatically reacts to the world around it. In other words, when a student is stressed, depressed, angry, or bored, information gets filtered into the reactive brain, not the prefrontal cortex, possibly dooming that information to the short-term memory.

When we think about middle schoolers, we know that for many of them, stress, depression, anger, and boredom can be completely out of whack and disproportionate, so it becomes essential that we design lessons to coax information towards the prefrontal cortex.

Neurons: They transmit information along the nervous system, connected by synapses. Think of it like neurons are the depots while the synapses are the trains upon which the information is carried.

Neuroplasticity: This term refers to the very encouraging fact that the brain is capable of growth, of developing new connections and pathways between neurons through new experiences and teachings. So, in other words, if a bridge is down between the depots (see above), specially targeted lessons might just help build track where there was none before.

Dopamine: When a person feels pleasure, success, pride, dopamine is released into the brain and acts as a lubricant of sorts, increasing attention, motivation, and memory.

Amygdala: This monitors the emotions. It's actually the amygdala that decides, based on the emotion a person feels, where to send information. If the person is stressed or freaking out, information gets routed to the reactive brain, avoiding the path to the sacred long-term memory storage.

Hippocampus: This is the area of the brain next to the amygdala that creates connections between prior learning and experiences with new information. Creating relationships between new information and past information preps the new piece for long-term memory storage.

Reticular Activating System (RAS): Unconsciously, the RAS system sorts though billions of bits of information per second and organizes them by something that should be considered at a later time and something that can be immediately discarded. As a teacher, you want to make sure your lessons get through the RAS filter, and pass its test of what's worth keeping.

But this vocabulary doesn't tell you everything you need to know. It tells you the team players, but not the structure of the game.

In the Classroom

So to understand how it all works -- in an ultra-simple, elementary way -- let's do a little visualization here. Imagine there's this bit of information that a student needs to know for their unit test in eighth-grade history:

In 1858, Abraham Lincoln delivered his famous "House Divided" speech.

The student, let's say her name is Alex, sits in class with her elbow on the desk and her cheek in her hand as the words are uttered by the teacher. The words go floating through the air, and the fact passes through her eardrum and into the brain through one of those metal camera-lens-like-closing-doors-from-Star-Wars. Whoosh! The door closes behind it.

The fact then travels into the RAS filtering system. RAS isn't paying much attention, she's reading a newspaper, sipping coffee, and offhandedly just sorts information into two piles: "to be trashed" and "still to be considered."

Luckily our little fact has joined the latter pile, but the system is totally on overload right now since the student has other things to think about. She didn't have breakfast, and her best friend passed her a note during the passing period saying, "Whatever he says, don't believe it." She also hasn't started her three-dimensional cell project that is due Friday, and she wonders if her mom will be able to take her to the store to get some Styrofoam.

"The amygdala will see you now" a neuron says, and finally ushers the fact through the next door to the filter that determines if it's a worthy enough piece of information to get through the velvet rope to the prefrontal cortex.

Suddenly, the student takes a deep breath, shakes her head, and realizes that she's been phasing out in class.

Meanwhile, as soon as the fact has greeted the amygdala, the hippocampus gets to work finding connections between this new piece of information and any prior knowledge in Alex's long-term memory. 'Ah! Here's a file on Abraham Lincoln that she's had since her fifth grade President's Day project!" the hippocampus says. A connection made, the new fact begins to pick up speed.

The student raises her hand and says, "In fifth grade I learned that a doctor named Mudd helped Lincoln's assassin with his leg during his getaway." Some students say they remember that too, and the teacher thanks her for that little tidbit. Alex feels good and some dopamine is released into the brain, lubricating the pathways and creating bridges between the neurons over the synapses -- voila, and the little fact is ushered into the holy temple of long-term memory, the prefrontal cortex.

Whew! We're lucky that Alex had the sense to shake her head clear and do some things to help her brain guide the fact into the correct place.

My third post in this series is now live at In it, I review a few steps that Alex did right, and share a few more that we can teach students to use to help themselves shake off the daydreams and proactively attack a case of "having a 'tween moment."

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Heather Wolpert-Gawron

ELA Teacher, Middle School, Curriculum Coordinator TOSA

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TODD SENTELL's picture
Author of the hilarious schoolhouse memoir, "Can't Wait to Get There. Can't Wait to Leave"

Spike, my favorite student of all time, came to me on test morning one day and said he studied so hard he forgot everything. I knew how the mind of Spike, an 8th grader, worked. I believed him, but handed him the test anyway.

Motown65's picture

Interesting read and definitely relative to the topic of cognitive theory in the classroom. I have found that in the middle school classroom it very important that teachers facilitate construction of meaningful representations by arranging and differentiating instruction in a way that allows students to make the appropriate connections. The "tween" mind is a cosmic whirlwind of hormonal activity that is trying to sort out the world around them. Many times prior learning concepts get replaced by peer-centered interactions and thoughts. This is why middle school teachers have to make clear and concise connections between old and new information; the information should be presented in a way that is both conceptually and socially relevant to the adolescent mind. Interactive discussion, graphic organizers, jigsaws, corners activities, games and technology integration are all invaluable resources for achieving this end.

Whitney Hoffman's picture
Whitney Hoffman
Producer LD Podcast, Digital Media Consultant, Author

I wish we taught kids, specifically middle schoolers, more about how their brain works, especially how working memory works. It would be the best information/study skill we can teach them. For example:
There are a bunch of theories about working memory, but the easiest to understand is that there is a "language" portion and a "visual" or physical portion of working memory. So while you can talk on the phone while watering the plants, you can't listen and talk on the phone and write an email at the same time- the language inputs interfere with each other, and get in the way- meaning if you are singing along with your favorite song, you probably can't be doing a great job writing that essay at the same time. However, you can probably walk around the house and study spelling words at the same time, and that's ok.
Also, if you get stressed, one part of your working memory will start to steal "RAM" from the other- like when you are driving and a rain storm hits, you can't always carry on a conversation or listen to the radio at the same time- you need all your concentration on the task at hand- steering the car.
This would be the best "secret brain hack" info you could give kids, so they understand why watching TV and doing homework simultaneously is never a really good idea- you can even run tests in class and prove it to them!

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