The School Doctor: Teenagers, Brains, and Doing Stupid Things

The School Doctor writes about how teenagers brain develop.

Developments in our understanding of the physical workings of our brains, and their impact on our metacognition, are increasingly having an impact on the way we think about teaching and learning. This makes a certain degree of sense – we are in large part interested in how we get information into others’ brains, how we can get those brains to work flexibly and effectively, and how we can get them to coordinate certain skills. Granted, we got through thousands of years of thinking and learning without knowing too much about what the mushy stuff in our heads was doing. But if we can understand how neural pathways, and other cerebal matter, develop, then perhaps we can improve our teaching to take that information into account.

One particularly striking development, especially in regard to teaching adolescents (especially adolescent males), has been our increased understanding of how the frontal cortex develops – or doesn’t for quite a long time. Tony Little summarises this better than I can in his An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Education (2015):

‘Generally, basic motor and sensory functions mature more quickly than higher-order functions like decision-making and exercising control … Structural magnetic resonance imagining (MRI) shows grey matter loss (pruning) earliest in the sensorimotor cortex and latest in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex. It is this late pruning of the frontal cortex that is most interesting. These regions are involved in the higher-order integration of information needed for planning, strategizing and goal-setting, activities that require the ability to focus attention and exert control over behaviour. Most importantly, the connections between these important frontal cortex regions and the structures below which stimulate appetitive (striatum) and aversive behaviours (amygdala) are very immature and have poor links with the memory (hippocampus). The picture we have then is that of the motor driving behaviour forward and being only loosely integrated with those higher functions that allow subtle differentiation about the appropriate action to take. The engine is powering away, but the selection of gears and indicators and use of the brake can appear randomly applied.’

Professor of psychology Laurence Steinberg, and his colleagues, have concluded that the adolescent search for sensation and excitement peaks around the age of nineteen, while self-regulation lags behind, climbing gradually until the age of twenty-three or twenty-four. The part of the brain responsible for rational decision making fully develops long after our charges, in particular our male charges, have left school. The inner monologue of ‘Is this a good idea? Not really’ features more prominently in those of us over thirty than under.

I find this particularly interesting to explain to my pupils, and they are particularly interested to hear about it. Of course they are: they are being given a get-out clause. ‘Of course I did that stupid thing, sir. My frontal cortex hasn’t fully developed yet’. ‘It’s not my fault, it’s my poorly-developed frontal cortex’. I do explain to them, naturally, that knowing about what is going on in their heads (or not going on in their heads) is not really an excuse for doing stupid things. It might explain them; it does not excuse them.

And this is partly where the problem lies. It is all very well them and us knowing what our pupils’ frontal cortices are doing, but when this metacognition is overridden by an in-built instinct to ignore metacognition, it may be worth saving our breaths talking about it to them. ‘Here’s a stupid thing I’m about to do. I learnt today about frontal cortices. I’m not meant to do stupid things. But I’m going to do the stupid thing anyway’. It’s a bit like showing them a car with cut brakes, then letting them drive it, then being a bit surprised when they crash.

It is easy to be flippant about this. On a basic level, and at a young age, we are talking about children’s desire to eat a whole plate of doughnuts overriding their understanding that they will feel sick as a result. But when our pupils reach adolescence, their instincts and ‘bad ideas’ can have dire and immoral consequences. In a world of swipe-right, swipe-left dating, aggressive masculinity, sexting, and questions over consent, the inability to make the right choice can be devastatingly life changing. Understanding the physical basis of bad decision making will not make those bad decisions go away (unless we expedite the development of frontal cortices, which I don’t suppose is on the cards). So far, so pessimistic.

Knowing the cerebral basis for decision making might be interesting – it really is interesting – but it has its limitations. The aforementioned Dr Steinberg and his colleagues suggest that biology only takes us so far and there are indeed cultural ways to override teenagers’ inbuilt drive to do stupid things. We need to keep focused on the social and moral imperatives for making correct choices, even when undeveloped brains and bodies might be suggesting a less sensible choice. A recent New York Times article by Lisa Damour, ‘Teenagers do dumb things, but there are ways to limit recklessness’, summarized the findings of Steinberg and co. Certain questions led to queries about the limitations of the limitations of the undeveloped frontal cortex: why do adolescents in China seem to have lower rates of drug use and unprotected sex than their counterparts in the USA? Assuming they are telling the truth, why do only two per cent of Indonesian adolescents note that they have tried alcohol in the past month, compared to half of teenagers in Argentina?

Damour’s answers? ‘Temptation must meet opportunity’ for teenagers to do stupid things, so those countries apparently with fewer teenagers doing stupid things focus on ‘cultural mores and patterns of access to opportunities’. They develop a culture of resistance to doing stupid things, thinking through safe dry-runs of tricky situations, so there are some ingrained responses, well-worn neural pathways, for when the real tricky situation arises. Or they just remove the opportunity altogether (though this does create its own problems – building up tension until the pressure valve bursts).

So we shouldn’t just shrug and let undeveloped frontal cortices direct unwise and unregulated behaviour, leaving the situation as teenagers doing what teenagers do, with some potentially cataclysmic results. Damour reminds us of the need to give teens ‘frequent reminders of clear rules for decision-making – or bright lines’, so there are well-versed neural responses to counter what other parts of teenagers’ brains are encouraging them to do. Which is a rather complex way of saying: keep doing what most of us were doing anyway, as interesting as all this brain stuff might be.

The School Doctor is a practising teacher at a UK school, using a pseudonym to allow more freedom in his/her regular columns for Schools Improvement.

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