Monday, January 30, 2012

The Teenage Mind

In a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, Alison Gopnik, Professor of Psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, shares some fascinating, research-backed information about brain development and why it makes teenagers behave the way they do. Teenagers, she writes, are products of their biology and their environments.

Many adults simply cannot understand why teenagers, even those who seem grounded and smart, engage in such reckless behavior. Gopnik shares results from recent studies from Cornell Medical College's Sackler Institute, which suggest that teenagers may engage in risky behavior because they are more satisfied by rewards than are adults. Evidence suggests that while they understand risk, taking chances feels worth the jeopardy in which they may place themselves. Particularly rewarding are perceived social benefits. 

Gopnik’s article also explores the brain’s control systems – that is, the areas in the frontal lobe that govern motivation, emotion, decision-making, long-term planning, and gratification delay. These brain functions develop through experience, but because today’s adolescents are focused on going to school and learning about a variety of topics (as compared with, say, the apprenticeship models used for education in bygone years), their experiences are not directly related to adult life. Gopnik says that there’s nothing wrong with this, and points out that average IQ scores have risen as people’s formal education has increased in duration. Still, it explains why teenagers may dive into a pursuit with an abundance of passion but lack the motivation and discipline for the kind of follow-through adults feel they need.

Pointing to the importance of experience in building up the frontal lobe, Gopnik suggests that additional schooling, such as extra instructional time, is not the answer. She’d like to see students engage in more apprentice-like experiences outside of school to give them opportunities to experience learning outside of the classroom. Teenagers need practice shouldering responsibilities in a supported environment so that they can make mistakes and learn from them.

Photo used under Creative Commons by Michael Robinson

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