Educators are always exploring ways to create successful learning experiences for their teen students. Brain science in the 21st century is providing new ways to think about learning and giving teachers tools to meet the needs and interests of all learners in their classrooms. One of these tools is the knowledge gained from brain research to understand which portions of the adolescent brain are the most developed and the most active.
We know that a significant growth period in the human brain starts at adolescence and ends at the age of 25. While most of the brain is developed by the age of six, the developments during adolescence affect the way teens behave and learn in the classroom.
What is Known About How Teens Learn?
Adolescents do not learn the same way as adults. The primary distinction is that different areas of the brain are used to acquire new information. When adults learn, new information is processed through the striatum. The striatum is an area of the brain that performs two primary functions – regulating movement and regulating the feeling of reward. For this reason, the new information is associated with the reward it presents to the adult learner.
For example, if nurses know that learning about blood-borne pathogens can save their lives and the lives of their patients, they are more apt to want to learn the information because the "reward" would be safety for all involved.
The teen brain, on the other hand, uses two areas - the striatum and the hippocampus - to obtain new information. The hippocampus is associated with episodic memory. This means that the teen brain learns both when it knows the outcome, or "reward," and when it can recall recent or episodic memories. We know that the pairing of episodic memory with the feeling of reward lends itself to experiential and collaborative learning styles.
Interest and Emotion Drive Learning
The adolescent does not have a fully developed frontal lobe. The frontal lobe is the portion of the brain that regulates emotion. When the combination of memory and emotion drives adolescent learning, students can create positive associations regarding new material, which means they will learn some information more readily. Interest can be emotion-driven and inspire adolescents to learn. When learning occurs through hands-on experiences, students tend to be more interested. On the other hand, lack of control over emotions or negative emotions can inhibit adolescent learning.
Scaffolding Helps to Present New Information
Teens also learn better when information is presented sequentially. A critical strategy for learning new information or tasks with multiple steps is scaffolding. When teachers use instructional scaffolding, they are building on the knowledge and experience that students already have as they learn new skills. It is important for the teen brain to receive information in a way that scaffolds, or supports, learning. That is, students should receive information incrementally, so their brains can process the information. When students have a solid foundation in a particular subject, that knowledge acts as a support or a scaffold to help them acquire new information more quickly.
Social Learning Experiences Engage the Teen Brain
Another key element of teen learning is socialization. Experiential learning that focuses on cooperative and group problem solving allows students to engage their brain’s need for socialization while developing new skills and learning new information. Social experiences tap into the emotional response of the frontal lobe and the episodic memory of the hippocampus. As teens likely associate social experiences with more positive emotions, social learning experiences are more likely to end with long-term retention.
Thanks to brain science, we know more about what happens in the brain when teens learn something new. Educators are using the knowledge gained from brain research to understand how their students’ social, cognitive, and cultural experiences shape the way they learn. Teachers are better informed how to reduce barriers to learning and to meet the needs and interests of all learners in the classroom. Creating learning experiences based on the capabilities of the teen brain increase the possibility of successful learning experiences.