Ever Wondered About Your Students?

As a long-time college instructor, I have often wondered about the melodrama that small losses and gains bring with them for college students.

I am always interested in someone who I think can offer an explanation that makes sense of things I see as non-sensical. Teenage Brains by David Dobbs does just that.

First, it says this: (which I already knew, having read the Science article)

The first full series of scans of the developing adolescent brain—a National Institutes of Health (NIH) project that studied over a hundred young people as they grew up during the 1990s—showed that our brains undergo a massive reorganization between our 12th and 25th years. The brain doesn’t actually grow very much during this period. It has already reached 90 percent of its full size by the time a person is six, and a thickening skull accounts for most head growth afterward. But as we move through adolescence, the brain undergoes extensive remodeling, resembling a network and wiring upgrade.

Then it goes on and says that teens are more likely to take risks when their peers are in the room or watching them.

[T]eens respond strongly to social rewards. Physiology and evolutionary theory alike offer explanations for this tendency. Physiologically, adolescence brings a peak in the brain’s sensitivity to dopamine, a neurotransmitter that appears to prime and fire reward circuits and aids in learning patterns and making decisions. This helps explain the teen’s quickness of learning and extraordinary receptivity to reward—and his keen, sometimes melodramatic reaction to success as well as defeat.

So, teens are aware of risk but are more likely to take a risk if the reward is valued. The reward is valued more if their peers are watching.

How can we use that in the classroom?

Teens prefer the company of those their own age more than ever before or after. At one level, this passion for same-age peers merely expresses in the social realm the teen’s general attraction to novelty: Teens offer teens far more novelty than familiar old family does.

Yet teens gravitate toward peers for another, more powerful reason: to invest in the future rather than the past. We enter a world made by our parents. But we will live most of our lives, and prosper (or not) in a world run and remade by our peers. Knowing, understanding, and building relationships with them bears critically on success. Socially savvy rats or monkeys, for instance, generally get the best nesting areas or territories, the most food and water, more allies, and more sex with better and fitter mates. And no species is more intricately and deeply social than humans are.

This supremely human characteristic makes peer relations not a sideshow but the main show.

If peer relations are a main point, then allowing or even encouraging the development of those relationships, especially at a residential college, is important to every classroom.

The reason for teens being so push-away from their parents and so gravitating to their peers, or at least what I have always thought the reason was, is that they won’t leave home without it. Taking risks, valuing each other more than someone else, and going for social rewards encourages them to leave the nest, what Dobbs identifies as “the adaptive-adolescent story.”

“Excitement, novelty, risk, the company of peers”… How can we take advantage of these preferences in the classroom?

Just because I thought it was interesting:

Aristotle concluded more than 2,300 years ago that “the young are heated by Nature as drunken men by wine.” A shepherd in William Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale wishes “there were no age between ten and three-and-twenty, or that youth would sleep out the rest; for there is nothing in the between but getting wenches with child, wronging the ancientry, stealing, fighting.”

Grin. Hah! Awareness of what was going on in the lives of those around clearly colored Shakespeare (or whoever)’s work.

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