Teen brains, language and social skills

Anyone who has taught teens or is the parent of a teen will relate perfectly to this TED Talk by cognitive neuroscientist Sarah-Jayne Blakemore on the adolescent brain.  Apparently, throughout the years our teens’ brains develop they become increasingly more adult-like in their ability to process intellectual information to the point where in later adolescence their brains basically function exactly the same as an adult’s in this regard.  But (surprise, surprise) the pre-frontal cortex, which regulates how we make plans, decisions and relate to each other socially is still undergoing massive changes and anything but fully-formed.

Explain a few things?  Ever wonder why you can have those really cool conversations with teens on art, music, politics, society – just about any topic under the sun – and then realize that these are the same teens who can’t remember to bring their homework to class (not AGAIN!), go through incredible mood-swings (remember how much fun those were?) and can come out with some pretty inappropriate (though admittedly often very amusing) comments at times?

Chalk it all up to the adolescent brain.  And now there’s scientific PROOF for it.  Sounds like a good reason to give up on teens as far as social skills are considered and wait until those brains develop a bit more, right?

Well think again.  According to Blackmore, precisely BECAUSE the pre-frontal cortex is developing so rapidly at this time in our lives it represents a particularly crucial moment for us as teachers to focus on these important cognitive and social skills.  And that makes perfect sense.  The teen brain is pruning itself – eliminating loads of synaptic connections between neurons and strengthening others.  What’s left at the end of this process of cerebral configuration will be their playbook for social interaction, group collaboration, organizing and planning in their adult life.

Now that’s one heck of a responsibility for us.  As language teachers I’m sure you can think of just how integral these skills (often called 21st Century Skills) are in communication.  And it’s important to remind ourselves of this from time to time.  Because teaching a language, or teaching anything for that matter, is not solely, or even primarily, about teaching a subject or about teaching content.  It’s about forming an individual and giving them the tools to fulfill their potential.

This Friday I’ll look at how this affects the way we teach the use of technology to teens.