As educators, we need to understand how the social and emotional changes that occur in adolescents affect the learning experience. The fact that teenagers want much more autonomy over their learning than younger students directly influences the culture of the classroom and teaching. Cognitive growth – changes to the functioning and structure of the brain – is a significant factor in how teens learn.
While neurological changes are directly related to how teens learn, they also create the basis for the social and emotional development of adolescents. Executive functioning becomes more complicated during this growth period, and young people develop the ability to engage in more abstract thought. Furthermore, the decision-making and planning centers of the brain are developed during this time.
Educators have learned that experiential learning strategies provide the positive support and opportunities for teens to accomplish the tasks associated with cognitive changes.
Concrete to Abstract Thinking
Adolescence is the time when teens develop the ability to consider hypothetical situations and multiple options or solutions to a problem. This affects their social interactions as relationships suddenly become more complex. The question no longer is "who is my friend?" An array of complicated relationships such as degrees of friendship and loyalty must be addressed. This can be unnerving for an adolescent who is used to a world visible in black and white. The ability to classify everything as right or wrong, friend or enemy, ethical or unethical has disappeared. Without these clear-cut definitions, some adolescents struggle socially and emotionally. And without with ability to separate emotional struggles from the rest of their day, some adolescents struggle in school as they try to make sense of it all.
The transition from concrete to abstract thinking is a critical component of teen learning and can be supported and developed via experiential learning. Learning by doing or through experience with guidance from a teacher gives adolescents the ability to make mistakes in a structured environment. It also provides scaffolding to help students determine their own belief systems and presents opportunities for growth in a learning environment.
Reasoning and Decision-Making
Reasoning skills of adolescents are also developed during this time. This sudden ability to reason can be somewhat overwhelming, and many adolescents may desire to exert more control over decision-making because of it. They may also feel the need to work through logical sequences on their own, which often leads to decision-making that is anything but logical in the eyes of parents. However, it is important to note that developing the ability to think logically and make decisions is an integral part of brain growth during this period.
Brain maturation causes adolescents to "shed" synapses that they have been building since birth. In doing this, they are also creating new synapses, including those that develop abstract and logical sequencing skills. During this time, the prefrontal cortex goes through many changes, one of which is improving the ability to manage impulses.
The skill of impulse control is one that also must be honed and can be supported by both experiential learning and group assignments. Actively engaging in the learning process and working with peers promotes the ability to manage impulses and behave as a member of a team.
The teen years are some of the most volatile years of our lives. With so many changes occurring in the brains of adolescents, they are in a constant state of growth. This cognitive growth, while necessary to becoming a functioning member of society, can be challenging. The difficulties that teens have in managing all the changes can affect the classroom. To support adolescents in social and emotional growth, we need to understand the reason for the changes. In doing so, we help our teens grow even more fully into adults.