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Friday, 8 April 2016

How Teens Learn: 3 Things all Parents Should Know

Spring break, unfortunately, is rapidly coming to an end. I've read a few wonderful books over break -- some great fiction, and one really interesting non-fiction book about the adolescent brain. In her book "The Teenage Brain," neuroscientist Frances Jensen offers parents and educators insights into the neuroscience of the developing adolescent brain as well as the implications of this science.

(Parents: Be warned though -- Jensen includes a number of anxiety-producing stories in the book as well, as she looks at reckless teenage behavior and the vulnerability of the teenage brain.)

Here are 3 Take-Aways from Jensen's Chapter on Learning:

1. Mastering Key Skills and Information Takes A LONG Time: Mere Exposure is Insufficient, Mastery Requires Repetition and Practice.

Jensen quotes Nobel prize winner John Eccles, "Long periods of excess use or disuse are required in order to produce detectable synaptic change." Jensen comments on this by saying, "What Eccles failed to realize is that the repetitions he observed...those 'long periods of excess use' ... were the the brain at work, learning and acquiring knowledge. After repeated stimulation, a brain cell will respond much more strongly to a stimulus than it initially did. Hence the brain circuit learns. And the more ingrained the knowledge, the easier it is to recall and use."

I've written about how learning requires sustained effort in a particular area over time, both in previous posts and in my book "Beyond The Tiger Mom."  I appreciated Jensen's detailed discussion of the science behind this phenomenon, and I think that contemporary educators need to think carefully about the science here. Too often, educators assume that merely exposing kids to interesting stuff is sufficient -- but if we really want them to master key skills and content, we need to ensure that they get sufficient practice and feedback.

2. The Teenage Years are a "Golden Age" for the Brain

 Jensen writes, "Memories are easier to make and last longer when acquired in the teen years compared with adult years."

This makes total sense intuitively: We remember the music from our teen years so well, we remember things we learned in adolescence so clearly. So what does this mean for our kids and their learning?

Jensen writes: "The teenage years are the time to identify strengths and invest in emerging talents. It's also the time when you can get the best results from remediation, special help, for learning and emotional issues."

What kids learn -- both intellectually and emotionally -- in their teenage years will have a tremendous impact on their later years, so this is a time period when we want to make sure that our kids are getting both a rigorous academic education but also, and very importantly, a thoughtful emotional education. The teenage years are a great time to get kids to think about relationships, emotional control, ethics, goodness, and truth. The values, ideas, and behaviors that they absorb at this terrific stage will impact them throughout their lives.

3. Teens need a lot of help with organization, time management, and focus -- We've got to set limits for them.

This is something that every parent and educator who works with teens knows: many of our teens need a lot of help managing their time, dealing with all the distractions that permeate the teenage world, and focusing.

Many teens, if left to their own devices (pun intended), will waste their time on social media, gaming, and a host of other unproductive activities, only to find that it's almost midnight and they haven't done any of their homework. Then they show up at school the next day, exhausted and frustrated.

So what can parents do? Jensen offers these practical suggestions:
- Remind your teen to stop and think about they need to do  and when to do it.
- Give your teen a calendar and suggest that they write down their daily schedules.  By doing so on a regular basis, they train their own brains.
- Set limits on the amount of time your teen can socialize virtually. Jensen recommends taking a hard line here: "If your teenager fails to comply, take away the phone or the iPod, or limit computer use to homework...Also insist on knowing the user names and passwords for all accounts."

Jensen writes, "The fewer the temptations for your teen, the more their brains will learn how to deal without the constant distractions."

In conclusion, Jensen's book is well worth a read. The science she describes is fascinating, and the implications are profound (though sometimes frightening).

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