Why are teenage years so special

How teenagers learn : The pubertal brain starves for experience

Teenagers are exhausting, listless, difficult, and unreasonable. They are forgetful, disorganized, easily offended, stay up too late in the evening and are overtired in the morning. These are just a few of the hits that a Google search yields for the keyword “teenagers”; the list goes on. It is certainly not wrong, and yet it also does the youth phase an injustice: the teenage years are a particularly valuable phase and are full of potential and opportunities, for example with regard to language development.

In puberty, like in early childhood, the brain waits hungrily for experiences. In contrast to the early childhood phase, the importance of which hardly anyone questions, puberty has so far been too seldom viewed from the perspective of its development opportunities. On the one hand this is understandable, on the other hand it is regrettable, especially since it is well known that a strength-oriented view is particularly good when the strengths are not immediately apparent. And with adolescents, as the introductory list shows, other things tend to come up.

From around the age of ten or twelve, children begin to change - girls earlier than boys. Puberty is here! In specialist books you can read how the hypothalamus in the brain provides the impetus for the release of hormones and a cascade of messenger substances that trigger puberty. Incidentally, their duration can vary between at least one and a maximum of six years.

Childhood is about quantity for the brain, puberty is about quality

The brain is extensively restructured: while in childhood it relied on quantity, i.e. on the most diverse impulses possible, in puberty it switches to quality and thus to efficiency. Connections that are not or rarely used are dismantled. But for what the young person is concerned with, structures in the brain are consolidated, expanded and efficiently organized. The young person creates a tailor-made brain architecture.

One could compare the processes in the adolescent brain with a spring cleaning including clearing out: Over the years things have accumulated that on closer inspection are not used at all and only stand in the way. It therefore makes sense to consistently check what is currently being used and what is likely to be needed in the future, how best to set it up and arrange it, where to create space for new things and to get rid of ballast.

The adolescent brain systematically restructures itself from back to front. In the case of the frontal lobe, the conversion, which switches from child mode to adult mode, takes a particularly long time. Since important functions such as risk assessment, emotion regulation, action planning, etcetera are located in the frontal regions behind the forehead, it should not be surprising that such things are sometimes difficult for young people.

The remodeling work in the brain means that emotions start faster than cognitive control, so to speak: An old brain structure, the amygdala, which is supposed to provide a quick emotional analysis and then actually work with frontal regions, acts in adolescence, so to speak, without a fully functional control entity . This explains why “think first, then talk” or “think first, then act” is not a natural strength of young people.

Taking risks is not always a danger

The willingness to take risks, often shown by adolescents, is also related to the late completion of the restructuring of the frontal lobe. It is valuable for some developments: young people often learn new types of sport faster than adults and use their motor skills that they had already achieved by the onset of puberty. The willingness to take risks therefore represents potential here and there and not always a danger.

After all, the search for more extreme experiences in adolescence is also linked to changes in the reward system, which is also affected by the restructuring processes: The sensitivity to the messenger substance dopamine (motivation, reward expectation and so on) decreases, although this does not mean that adolescents are growing up are no longer enthusiastic or motivated, but it explains why they are more easily bored or listless and sometimes look for more extreme experiences.

Some of the things that still inspire her in childhood no longer reach the threshold where the experience of reward arises. This does not mean that teachers are encouraged to think up extreme learning experiences, but rather to rely on learning opportunities that are appropriately challenging, enable self-efficacy, self-determination and the experience of social integration.

The ability to think abstractly increases

The restructuring of the reward system goes hand in hand with brain adaptation processes, which result in a further development of the ability to think abstractly. During puberty, the ability to think abstractly and the complexity of thinking and feeling increase. This is a critical development and resource valuable for further learning.

It is noteworthy that the development of creativity in youth is also making progress. It peaks around the age of 16. This may be surprising, because many young people seem to be able to keep their high level of creativity a secret from their teachers, for example. But it is possible that they are not even aware of this potential themselves and need some external impetus.

In summary, it can be stated that the renovation work is an optimization process. As with any remodeling measure, those in the adolescent brain will lead to replacement solutions and diversions for some time, but the remodeling is extremely sensible and the investments are worthwhile. Educational offers, age-appropriate forms of work and task formats that challenge motor skills or creativity, including flexible thinking, etc., can provide important impulses.

The results can sometimes only be seen later, but this should not discourage initiators such as parents and teachers. Appropriate suggestions and challenges, but not excessive demands, can influence and support the quality and speed of developments in adolescence. Learning works best when the young person recognizes the relevance of educational offers and when the desire to be able to do something can be awakened. The greater willingness to take risks can make one more courageous to open up new things.

The progression of cognitive and creativity development opens up potential that is not yet available to younger learners in a comparable way.

"Freewriting" aims at creativity

But how can this potential be used? For example, many adolescents are better able to get actively involved in the classroom if, after an impulse or a question from the teacher, they are given a short time to think about it before they are asked to answer. This relieves the pressure and allows the learners, who in adolescence are particularly careful not to embarrass themselves in front of their peers, to sort their thoughts and to think about how they would like to say something.

When starting a new topic, learners may be asked to spend two minutes writing down whatever comes to mind on the topic. The activity is called freewriting and the rules state that the pen must not be put down, the writing process must not be interrupted until the two minutes have passed. Freewriting aims at cognitive activation, reactivating already stored knowledge and mobilizing experiences, questions and ideas, that is. Freewriting also aims at creativity.

The author is a professor of English didactics at the Free University of Berlin. Her new book (together with Heiner Böttger) deals with the design of foreign language lessons for young people: Learning languages ​​during puberty. Narr Verlag, 250 pages, 24.99 euros ISBN 978-3-8233-8049-8.

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