Our knowledge of the changes in the teenage brain is not exactly “new knowledge”. It is 20 years now since reports of research on the teen brain starting appearing in the media. However, there is a long way to go before the field of education catches up with these exciting developments. There are many who argue that a collection of brain scans does not help us plan the curriculum, or organize the school day.
This is to misunderstand the value of knowledge about the teenage brain. In talking to teachers, it becomes clear that, in the main, they see this knowledge as extremely helpful. They don’t value it for lesson planning, but as a vital tool for helping them to understand their students.
They want to understand why some are drowsy in the morning. They want to make sense of the emotional melt-downs, and to know why young people develop at such different rates. Why do some mature early, whilst others lag behind? How can teachers help their students become more mindful of the consequences of their behaviour?
In addition to this there is another important possibility which arises out of our knowledge of the teenage brain. This is the possibility that we can actually teach young people about their brains, and about the changes that are taking place. Why is this important?
The fact is that most teenagers are puzzled about what is happening to them. They want to understand why they experience a rapidly shifting kaleidoscope of emotions. They want to know more about how memory works. They are keen to understand how best to revise, and how to manage the stress that they all experience. While we concentrate on teaching them science or history, they would really like to understand themselves better.
Our understanding of the brain has made this possible in a way that was unimaginable 20 years ago. We now know that the teenage brain undergoes a major restructuring and reorganization during these years. This knowledge provides us with an insight into teenage behaviour. Such an insight has value not only for adults – parents, teachers and others – but for young people themselves.
In my own experience delivering lessons on the brain to students, as outlined in my book “The teacher and the teenage brain”, this knowledge is hugely reassuring to young people. Those in the first years of secondary school tell me they are grateful to learn about this, whilst those in the “A” level years ask: “Why didn’t we have this earlier? It would have made so much difference!”
In my view this is a matter of a human right. Young people have the right to know what is happening in their brains. After all we now take it for granted that we teach young people about puberty. In years gone by it would have been assumed that this should happen in the family (if at all), but not as part of the school curriculum. Knowledge of the changing brain is the same. I predict that in twenty or thirty years it will be seen as extraordinary not to be including this topic in the curriculum.
In making this point I should not under-estimate the challenges involved. We have a long way to go in designing lesson plans for different age groups. Some initiatives are under way (e.g. Brain Waves in Oxford), but this an exception. There is also the question of who should teach this topic. Many teachers are cautious about taking this on as it is seen as a “new” subject.
In spite of all this, I remain convinced that, in time, this will be seen as an accepted part of the curriculum. Before too long it will be recognized that this knowledge is helpful, not only for teachers, but also that it leads to improved learning among students. Most importantly, it helps young people understand themselves better, resulting in happier, healthier teenagers. Who can argue with that goal?