What Brain Science Says About How to Better Teach Teenagers

Ellen Galinsky has been on a seven-year quest to understand what brain science says about how to better teach and parent adolescent children. The past few years have seen advancements in our understanding of this time — where the brain is going through almost as much change as during the earliest years of a child’s life.

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In the past, Galinsky says, researchers and educators have focused too much on portraying the emotional turmoil and risky decision-making that is typical in adolescence as negative. “The biggest breakthrough,” she argues, “is that we now understand that what we saw as problematic, what we saw as deviant, what we saw as immature, was in fact a developmental necessity.”

For her research, Galinsky, who is co-founder of the nonprofit and nonpartisan Families and Work Institute, also surveyed nearly 2,000 parents and students, and found that a large percentage of parents looked at teenage years as a negative time that would be fraught, while students felt they were unfairly stereotyped and misunderstood. She’s gathered her results in a new book, “The Breakthrough Years: A New Scientific Framework for Raising Thriving Teens.”

What her findings mean for educators, she argues, is that lessons for adolescents should be designed to lean into this period of human development.

“Adolescence is a time when young people are moving out into the world — think of the baby bird as leaving the nest,” she says. “And it’s important for them to be exploratory. They react very strongly to experiences because they need to understand what’s safe, what’s not safe, whom they can trust, whom they can’t trust, where they belong, where they don’t belong, and who they want to be and who they are in a world that is much extended from their families.”

She hopes to reframe this period of development as what she calls “a time of possibility.”

And the work has led her to strong views on the question of whether or not to ban smartphones in schools.

Hear the full conversation on this week’s episode. Listen on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts, or use the player on this page. Or read a partial transcript below, lightly edited for clarity.

EdSurge: What’s happening in the brain in this phase of human development?

Ellen Galinsky: I love the analogy that Jennifer Silvers from UCLA used. She talked about it as a time when you’re laying new roads. And what that means is that the connections among different parts of the brain are being formed and strengthened during adolescence, and she says if it’s a stormy day, sometimes the concrete can get wet and mucky and messy, and that’s the emotionality of adolescence.

But it is a time when these new connections are being made that help develop particularly what we call executive function skills. And that is a name that I find is pretty misunderstood. If people know it at all, it sounds like, ‘Shut up, sit still, listen to the teacher, be compliant, obey, organize your notebook, remember to bring your homework’ — those kinds of managerial skills. And in part that’s true, these are the brain-based skills that underlie our ability to set goals.

But executive function skills are always driven by goals. It’s a time when we can then understand the landscape, the social landscape that we’re in. We can understand our own perspective, the perspectives of others and how those differ from our own perspective. It’s a time when we learn to communicate. I don’t mean just talk, talk, talk. I mean thinking about what we say and better understanding how it’s going to be heard by others. It’s a time when we can learn to collaborate, which means dealing with the conflict that relationships with people and collaborating can bring.

This country could use a little executive function skills right now and learning how to collaborate. It’s a time when we learn how to problem-solve, and that has different components — including making meaning of the situation, thinking creatively in terms of solutions, not just what you’ve always done, but how might I solve this in a different way? And then understanding what works or what wouldn’t work about that solution.

In other words, evaluating solutions, or relational reasoning as it’s called in the literature. And then critical thinking, like making a decision on the basis of what you think is valid and accurate information and going forth in implementing that decision. It’s also a time when we learn how to take on challenges. Now, there are some core skills, brain-based skills that underlie this, and in addition to people thinking that executive function skills are ‘shut up, you still listen to the teacher, listen to the parents,’ also people think of them as, sometimes, soft skills. These are the most neurocognitive skills we have. They’re the part of the brain that coordinates our social, emotional and behavioral capacities in order to achieve goals.

There is this idea that school is mainly for academic content and that’s what is usually measured on statewide tests of performance. But it sounds like you’re arguing that soft skills are even more important in the teen years than academic skills.

I think they’re called soft skills to differentiate them from academic skills, but they’re not soft. They’re really hard skills. They are pulling together all of our capacities so that we can achieve what we want to achieve and live intentionally. So these are very strongly neurocognitive skills and not something soft and squishy that is beside the point.

We tend to think of learning in the early years as about numbers and letters and math and learning to read. And those sorts of things are critical, but these soft skills are the skills that help us learn those numbers and letters and learning how to do math and learning how to read.

So we have 20 years of research that shows that these soft skills are more predictive of success in school and in life. These skills are more predictive than or as predictive as IQ or socioeconomic status, which are the big things in predicting how well we do in life.

You talk about something I haven’t heard much, which is that schools are often too future-focused, and you quote a 16-year-old who says: “I feel like everything is for the future. In middle school, everyone’s pressuring you to be ready for high school. In high school, everyone’s pressuring you to be ready for college. In college, everyone’s pressuring you to be ready for life.” Can you say more about this?

I can go back historically to 1992 when the first President Bush created educational goals, and the first educational goal was that young children will be ready for school. And that, I think at least in my many years in education, ushered in the period of ‘readiness.’ And we became ready for school and then ready for college and then ready for life. And they work in the sense that people got it that it was a way of understanding the importance of education.

But it has had its downside, I think. Adults have to learn to live in the now. Think about how many books are written to help us as grown-ups be in the present, pay attention to whom we’re with. Not always be focusing on our to-do list and what’s in the future.

Readiness is important. I’m not throwing the baby out with the bath water. But we need to be in the nowness, too. We need to be able to help children live these years. In that particular group where you just quoted a 16-year-old, another 16-year-old said, ‘My parents are always saying, these are the best years of my life. But why can’t I live them? They want to go back to them, but they’re not letting me live them now.’

I have to ask you about a big topic in the news these days, about whether to keep smartphones out of schools and keep people younger than 16 off social media. The biggest proponent of this right now is Jonathan Haidt, who has a new book called “The Anxious Generation, How the Great Rewiring of Childhood is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness.” Do you agree with Haidt’s argument there, that teens would be far better off without access to social media and smartphones during this developmental time?

I don’t have a Yes or No reaction. I think Haidt has raised a very important issue, which is ‘What are cellphones doing in our society?’ I wish that he hadn’t called it an anxious generation, though. That’s just stereotyping kids. And I wish that he hadn’t freaked out parents so that they overreact. Parents are waiting for bad news about their kids. We want to protect our kids. We want them to be safe. We want them to have a good life. Being freaked out about something doesn’t always help us do that.

The science is correlational. He does eventually say that, so there isn’t proof that phones and social media are causing anxiety. The National Academies of Sciences put out a report in December of last year that said that the science is correlational. We don’t know, particularly for all kids. For some kids there’s evidence of harm, but there also is evidence of benefits.

But here’s my biggest issue with Haidt. I think he wonderfully understands the importance of play, and he understands the importance of autonomy, but then [he argues for] jumping in and reacting to this without teaching kids the skills to manage it themselves. If we are banning cellphones, first of all, kids will get around it, won’t they? It’s the kid currency. If we’re doing that in a way that doesn’t involve them, we’re going to repeat the mistakes that we’ve made with ‘stop smoking.’ Evidence shows very, very clearly that the ‘just say no’ approach in adolescence — where there’s a need for autonomy — does not work. In the studies on smoking, it increased smoking.

I wish we would carry out Jon Haidt’s emphasis on autonomy, and if schools would say, look, kids agree, there are bad things about cellphones. They’re distracting, they’re addictive. You see people who are ‘perfect.’ You see that you weren’t invited to the mall with all the girls like Taylor Swift. We can’t let the use of it, though, just become negative. So there have to be some rules about it, and the kids could help the adults even come up with the rules. We don’t want cellphones in the school, but how would that best work if the kids aren’t part of the solution?

One of the most frequent things that young people are asking me is, ‘How am I going to have the skills to fare in the adult world if we fix problems for kids?’

If we fix problems for kids, then they’re going to go to college and always be connected with us anytime they have a problem. So we’ll continue to fix things for them. They’re going to be taking anti-anxiety medication. I mean, I’m exaggerating, but this is the time for them to learn these skills, to begin to deal in constructive ways with society. Young people can be part of the solution, and we’ll be developing skills in them. And that’s my main beef with the discussion that’s going on.

What advice do you have for educators to best embrace this developmental period for teens?

Risk-taking is seen as negative. We have defined it as negative risk-taking, drinking, drugs, bad driving, texting. We say, ‘Why do they make such stupid decisions, kind of risky behavior?’ And we need to understand that this is a period of their lives when they’re learning to be brave.

I love the way Ron Dahl at the University of California at Berkeley says it. They have a more of a fear reaction and they are sensation seekers. The highs are higher, the lows are lower. So we need to give them opportunities to take positive risks — positive risks to help those other people who are less fortunate, positive risks to try something that might be hard for them, positive risks to stand up for something that they believe in.

We need to give them opportunities to figure out who they are, to play into their development, which is a time when they are feeling things so strongly, and give them experiences for the benefit of themselves and for the benefits of society.

For example, I think of learning to clean up a pond that is polluted, or giving to kids who don’t have toys near their playground or there’s just so many things. That’s a positive risk. That is so cool. Doing something for the world. Things that young people care about and they’re learning the skills that go along with that. They’re learning that they can be contributors to society.

Listen to the full conversation on the EdSurge Podcast.

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