Wednesday, August 12, 2015

In an earlier post, I reviewed Paul Tough's book “How Children Succeed” in which he discusses the importance of children having grit, curiosity, and character to succeed in school. Besides reading about such non-cognitive factors, I am also interested in learning about what researchers have discovered regarding cognitive factors. Thus I read and review here Frances Jensen and Amy Ellis Nutt’s book “The Teenage Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Survival Guide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults.” 

This neurologist (Jensen) and science journalist (Nutt) focus their microscope on teenagers and young adults’ brains. They discuss and demonstrate with detailed drawings the development and functions of the different parts of the brain.  The part of the brain called the “frontal lobe” is used for making judgments, controlling impulses, and applying insight. This part develops last and is still developing during the teenage and young adult years. Based on my personal experience, I believe the subtitle of their book is more realistic (than the title) because it includes the words “young adults”. Though I do not have a “natural” science degree (I have several social science degrees), I have witnessed young adults throughout their 20’s, female and male, who were not able to anticipate the consequences of their decisions and actions.

The authors make the case that the brain still has “plasticity”, i.e. it is still malleable in the teenage and adult years, as long as it has not been damaged by alcohol, smoking, and drug use. Since the emphasis in the general press has been on early childhood, Jensen and Nutts’ research will reassure educators and parents that they can still positively affect the development of the minds of young people at this later stage. 

Jensen and Nutt warn parents (and educators I would say) that after a teenage or young adult learns about this late development of the frontal lobe, they may claim that something is not their fault.  However, Jensen and Nutt suggest this response:  “Your brain is sometimes an explanation; it’s never an excuse” and “[you] have the capacity to modify and the responsibility for modifying [your] own behavior” (page 82). How? By reminding and explaining to them again and again!  With teenagers and young adults you appeal to their interest in what’s going on in their bodies. This reminds me of an article I recently read about a school district providing professional development to all adults who came into contact with students, even bus drivers. In this professional development course, a bus driver learned that students of the 21st century ask for reasons instead of just following instructions like she did as a child. Once she gave them a reason for the requested behavior, they usually cooperated. Same with presenting “science” to teenagers and young adults because that way they will not just think that mom or dad is asking them to do something just because of a personal preference.

I disagree with Jensen and Nutt on two issues.  They believe it's best to study in the same place but I think it depends on the student. Also, even if the student studies in the same room (their bedroom) with the same furniture (their desk, chair, and lamp), it will not look exactly the same wherever they take an exam because even though they will be sitting in a chair and at a desk it will look otherwise different (other students in the room, details of the room, different desk and chair).

The second issue about which I disagree is sleep.  Jensen and Nutt provide scientific evidence that students at that age have different sleep and wake cycles than their parents.  Though I have read other publications about these different sleep cycles and that some schools start later in light of such sleep research, I wonder if students will just stay up even later since they know that they have a later starting time?  Will it really work starting the school day later?  Again, just like where to study, I think it depends on the student (their daily schedule, their responsibilities, their stressors, their physical environment). 

My conclusion:  great read for parents, educators, and anyone else interested or responsible for the care and education of teenagers and young adults.