Brain Development in Young Adolescents
Good News for Middle School Teachers
Just five years ago . . . a 13 year old was considered over the hill by some experts in terms of brain development. -Judy Rosenfeld (2002)
Although most people believe that cognitive development plateaus in early adolescence, current research shows that young adolescents go through tremendous brain growth and development. Far from being over the hill, they are just beginning to encounter the mountain.
Adolescence is a critical time for brain growth (see interview with neuroscientist Jay Giedd). Significant intellectual processes are emerging. Adolescents are moving from concrete to abstract thinking and to the beginnings of metacognition (the active monitoring and regulation of thinking processes). They are developing skills in deductive reasoning, problem solving, and generalizing.
This period of brain growth marks the beginning of a person's ability to do problem solving, think critically, plan, and control impulses. This brain development cycle also impacts short-term memory. A middle school student can generally retain from 5 to 7 bits of information at one time, so teachers should not try to cram too much information into one lesson. The more engaged and "rich" the new information, the more likely it is that the new information will be retained. The short-term memory maintains information until it moves into another area of the brain (long-term memory) or until more, new information is introduced. At this point the short-term memory ignores the new information in favor of the previous information, or discards the previous information in order to deal with the new.
Some of these changes manifest themselves in behaviors that are observable and stereotypical of middle school students. Taken in concert with the other major development issues at this age, brain development reinforces the following typical adolescent behaviors:
- Engaging in strong, intense interests, often short lived
- Preferring interactions with their peers
- Preferring active to passive learning
Given what we know about brain development and the other changes taking place in the young adolescent, teachers can improve student learning by doing the following things:
1. Present limited amounts of new information, to accommodate the short-term memory.
2. Provide opportunities for students to process and reinforce the new information and to connect the new information with previous learning. (Encourage students to talk with their classmates about the new information; have them debate or write about it; create small group discussions.)
3. Provide lessons that are varied, with lots of involvement and hands-on activities. Brain stimulus and pathways are created and made stronger and with less resistance if they are reinforced with a variety of stimuli. (Create projects; use art, music, and visual resources; bring guest visitors into the classroom.)
4. Provide lessons and activities that require problem solving and critical thinking. Brain growth is enhanced and strengthened through practice and exercise.
As with other developmental changes, students reach the "starting point" of this brain growth cycle at different times and progress through it at different rates. Some students will be ready for problem-solving activities, while others may still be working at their best when dealing with concrete information. Given these facts and the fact that students learn in different ways and respond to different stimuli, the direction is clear: The middle school classroom should be an active, stimulating place where people talk and share, movement is common and planned for, and the teacher uses a wide array of approaches to introduce, model, and reinforce learning.
When planning lessons, middle school teachers must keep the goal clearly in mind and make sure that students can reach the goal in multiple ways. Teachers must check in with students along the way to keep them working toward the learning objective. As thinking and learning become more abstract, students need predictable and safe environments so that they can risk, explore, and grow. Teachers must structure and facilitate these experiences. Students need to learn how to problem solve, think critically, and develop processes for learning. Teachers need to structure and facilitate these, too. Teachers should:
- Teach students how to study. There are many resources for teachers to structure these experiences.
- Establish, teach, and practice consistent expectations and routines. Don't expect to tell students once and have them remember and follow the "rules."
- Use process charts to detail steps on a long-term project and revisit these steps periodically.
- Use graphic organizers to assist in visualizing problem solving.
- Distribute assignment sheets that clearly articulate benchmarks, timelines.
- Color code materials (e.g., assignments in blue, new information in red, long-term project information in violet) to help students put the material into a context and take away the thinking and categorizing work to orient the brain as to what should be done next.
These steps and others are tools teachers can use to facilitate learning through the new experiences and adventures in thinking that are part of the young adolescent's life.
No. The thirteen-year-old brain is not over-the-hill. It is just discovering the higher peaks of thinking. And its owners are ready to explore, understand, and maximize their developing abilities. Young people experience tremendous brain growth during the adolescent years. It is up to educators to capitalize on this time in their lives.
Rosenfeld, Judy. "Surfing the Brainwaves." Middle Ground 5, no. 5 (April 2002). National Middle School Association.
Pete Lorain, author of articles on middle schooling and other education issues, currently works under private contract. Prior to retirement, he served as a high school teacher, counselor, and administrator; middle school principal and director at the district level; director of human resources; and president of National Middle School Association from 1996 to 1997.