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Masters in Educational Practice: Child and adolescent development 0-19


Changing teens and changing brains


Implications of the changing brain for education

One of the implications of the changing brain in adolescence within education is that the functional development of neural circuitry regulating emotions during adolescence may influence an adolescent’s social interaction within their school peer group.

'The young are permanently in a state resembling intoxication.'

Aristotle (384–322 BC)

In one study using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) by Baird and colleagues (Baird et al., 1999) areas of the brain were identified as active when a group of adolescents (around 13 years old) and adults were shown pictures of faces expressing different emotions. They found that while older adults used their prefrontal cortex (an area within the frontal lobe implicated in planning complex cognitive behaviour, personality expression, decision-making and moderating social behaviour) when identifying the expressed emotion in the photograph, the adolescents relied on the amygdala, part of the more fundamental limbic structure of the brain responsible for emotional reactions. Their interpretation was that this was because the prefrontal cortex was not effectively connected to the amygdala yet, although this has yet to be confirmed.


There are also some initial indications that adolescents use their brains differently from adults. Overall, the evidence does seem to be building to suggest that processing information in the frontal cortex is less immediate for adolescents than for adults.

Despite our growing understanding of the changing adolescent brain, the learning pyramid, developed in the mid-twentieth century, is still often applied within education yet its origins are questionable. Any model is an imperfect simplification of more complex realities. Allowing for this, as educators, it may be better to ask whether it is a) helpful and b) grounded in reality.

Previous research has shown that adolescents are more likely to report a negative emotional reaction to a situation or stimulus than an adult. As a result of this overall increase in negative feelings, adolescents’ motivation for learning also declines over time. One way to approach teaching an adolescent would be to encourage reflection, make learning links clear so that the student can see how one topic links to the next and consider whether problem-based learning might encourage questions.

Specific ideas for education:

  • increase physical challenges
  • real-life apprenticeships offer a real understanding
  • encourage group or peer learning to share knowledge and experience
  • try cutting themes across disciplines so the student can see how they weave together
  • provide structure to lessons and make this explicit
  • link as many educational outcomes to the student’s interests and their future goals
  • provide a purpose for learning and exploring knowledge and skills in a real-life context to increase academic motivation
  • optimum amount of sleep is around 7 hours.

Science Daily - If You Don't Snooze, Do You Lose? Wake-Sleep Patterns Affect Brain Synapses During Adolescence


Reflect on:

  • How you might design lessons to suit teenagers?
  • How you might design an ideal school day for teenagers?

During adolescence (and the rest of life for that matter) high demands are placed not only on the executive systems of the brain, meaning the systems that coordinate action, but also on the interplay between cognitive (thinking) and affective (feeling) processes. Such cognition-emotion interactions are particularly crucial in the context of peer-peer interactions and the processing of verbal and non-verbal cues. It is likely that the interplay of thinking and feeling is particularly important in social situations in which the right balance must be struck between peer-based influences and the individual’s own goals.


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