When Neal Conan announced the title of his Talk of the Nation interview a few weeks ago, I realized that it might be one of the most interesting and relevant radio programs I would hear this fall. “Understanding The Mysterious Teenage Brain” featured science writer David Dobbs (who had recently written the cover story “Beautiful Brain” for National Geographic), as well as brain researchers BJ Casey and Dr. Jay Giedd.
Dobbs’ motivation? His teenager was recently pulled over for driving 113 miles per hour. While his son accepted the consequences of his actions, he refused to acknowledge that he was reckless: he deliberately drove on a long, flat highway during a sunny day. In his opinion, he had taken a measured risk (though illegal, and horrifying to any parent).
Why do teenagers do these crazy things?
Dobbs went on to explain that teenagers don’t think that they are invincible; in fact, they often overestimate risk less than adults to. But research suggests that teens value rewards more than consequences. Thus the novelty of driving extremely fast with your friends outweighs police attention.
In the last 20 years there has been a huge increase in research on the teenage brain. Advances in technology have allowed people like Casey and Giedd to look at the living, growing human brain, and conduct longitudinal studies on kids as they develop into adults. What they and others have found is that the human brain is not completely developed until the age of 25. More importantly, the teen brain is not broken or defective (as perhaps parents may think at trying times!), but it is different from a child or adult brain.
So what do we, as educators and parents, take away from this discussion?
Dobbs asserted that the hardest thing that humans ever do is leave home. “If you look at the things that characterize adolescence in almost all cultures—risk, novelty-seeing and the affiliation of peers—that’s the perfect menu to actually motivate you if you are 14 or 15 or 16 or 17 years old get out and explore the world, even though it’s hard to do and the risk is tremendous. You have to have a taste for risk at that time in your life.”
Experiential or place-based education is crucial for students during this period in their lives. You have to do something to know something, and you have to feed your appetite for risk. The National Academy of Sciences recently reiterated that learning by doing is key to more effective science education from kindergarten through high school. Stanford professor emerita Helen Quinn explains, “The understanding that students should be doing science to learn science has sometimes been overwhelmed by the notion that that was just messing around, and that children really needed to be learning facts. [Students learn more] when they have a context in which to put those facts…and where they get to understand what science is by engaging in scientific practices.”
At MA, this type of learning takes multiple forms: from outings to experiments in the garden to end-of-year experience to athletics and performances. In contrast to how many of our teachers learned through rote memorization of textbooks, we strive to bring our lessons to life through doing. It’s more interesting to teach and learn, and it’s more conducive to the teenage brain. Much has been written about place-based education in elementary and middle schools, but it’s just as important—if not more important—in high school. We’re also able to up the ante a little bit and allow for more calculated risk (beekeeping and mountaineering come immediately to mind).
Casey pointed out that the fact that the teenage brain is not fully developed is not a green light for kids to do what they want because they can’t help it. Accountability is key: “This is a time when they need to explore, but they also need to recognize the limits within society of what they can and cannot do. That’s part of transitioning from dependence on parents to independence and being a pro-social adults.”
Parents, rest assured that we will not condone driving 113 mph, but we are providing experiences for your children to learn. Help us encourage them to feed their need for risk by pursuing a challenging outing or minicourse, trying out for a new sports team or performance, and most importantly, weighing consequences and rewards and taking accountability.