Getting a head start on the teen brain

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 28 February, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 28 February, 2004, 12:00am

WHEN DR LORRAINE Hammond announces she will talk about the teenage brain the jokes usually begin, comments ranging from 'that won't take long' and 'what brain?' to 'short talk'.

But her audience at a recent lecture at the Korean International School was more polite, listening intently as the lecturer in special education at Edith Cowan University, Perth, Western Australia, argued that brain development during these formative years can rival the importance of the first months of life.

An expert in literacy, Hammond's interest in neuroscience was reinforced during her travels last year as a result of being awarded a Churchill Fellowship, which enabled her to visit colleagues and fellow academics in the United States, Canada and Britain.

'Many of the people I visited were interested in the concept of neural plasticity; the idea that the brain will develop and grow given the right conditions and environment,' Hammond said.

She said that when neurons 'fire' and respond repeatedly to the same stimulus they begin to team up with each other. The more these teams work together to exchange information, the more efficiently and quickly the exchange occurs. Neurologists call the physical changes in the brain 'dendritic growth' and myelination.

Hammond quotes studies that suggest the more a brain is used and given the right stimuli, the stronger are the connections that make learning possible.

'It was once thought that IQ was completely genetically determined because the IQ of children was usually within 10 points of their parents,' she said.

'But evidence has shown that IQ rises and falls depending on the type of stimulation to which children's brains are exposed. This makes neural plasticity a crucial concept.'

She refers to the work of neuroscientist and researcher Susan Greenfield, who demonstrated that the section of London taxi drivers' brains responsible for memory - the hippocampus - was significantly larger after absorbing what they call 'the knowledge', rote training to remember city routes.

In the brains of teenagers, the heart of the issue is the frontal lobe region, responsible for judgement and planning. Recent work using brain scans shows how this develops during this stage of life. But the fact it lags behind hormonal and emotional development associated with puberty makes the behavioural characteristics of typical teenagers more understandable.

Hammond illustrates the point with the case of Phineas Gage. He was a US railroad worker living in the 1840s. An accident drove a rod under his chin, took out an eye, the prefrontal lobes of his brain and made a large hole in his skull. A doctor washed out his wound carefully and he recovered, but he was not the same man. Once the headaches passed, Gage transformed from an easygoing man whom everyone loved, to someone who was easily provoked, could not think through the consequences of his actions, swore a lot and was extremely moody.

Hammond believes schools need to take account of research that shows what happens in the teenage brain and says they should be prepared to be more flexible in the way teenagers are taught.

Given that the teenage brain is a work in progress, Hammond believes teachers need to be more focused on learning and how it occurs rather than teaching to a pre-prescribed formula.

'As the frontal lobes are still developing, this affects teenagers' ability to develop an argument, plan an essay, solve maths problems and organise ideas into words. Teachers need to coach, mentor and support this development.

'Thinking is a natural activity, but organising, linking and committing new ideas to memory is a learned activity beyond the development of some teen brains. We need to create the optimal conditions to make learning take place,' she said.

'Boys are not being lazy when they can't drag themselves out of bed. They really do need more sleep. It would be ideal if school could start at 10 in the morning and boys could also get to do more running around.'

Hammond said schools in Western Australia had allowed students to complete the final years of formal education in a more relaxed three years rather than two. Some gave greater responsibility and freedom while facilitating the learning process.

'When I worked in Willeton Senior High School there were no bells, no surnames. If students had no lessons they were not forced to attend. It really worked. They responded very well,' she said.

'Secondary teachers tend to be subject driven. Whenever I hear a teacher say something like 'I teach history' I tell them, 'no, actually you teach kids'. Schools need to be less content and more process orientated. Children need to know how to search for and negotiate information and strategies to learn about anything.'

During her talk, Hammond demonstrated the effectiveness of techniques and strategies commonly referred to in research but less common in classrooms. These included the adoption of effective questioning strategies that require thinking and processing rather than regurgitation.

She said she was keen to promote techniques that increased attention. 'If there is no attention, there is no engagement and no learning. There are many ways to improve attention but, for example, calling students by name, using colour creatively and having students believe that every so often something interesting [for them] might happen can really help.'

Allying this to helping develop students' memory could be very potent, in her view.

'The problem is that our long-term memory is very selective about what it will take on. It only likes to store information that it finds absolutely necessary or uniquely interesting. So trying to remember things that we aren't overly excited by means we have to convince the brain it is important.'

Hammond believes the final piece of the jigsaw is teaching teenage students how to think independently and creatively.

She showed how by using a combination of well-documented techniques, such as Bloom's Taxonomy, Gardner's Theory of Multiple Intelligences, De Bono's Six Thinking Hats or Ryan's Thinker's Keys, teachers could support the sort of thinking that maximises learning. 'These strategies empower students,' she said.

Hammond suggests teachers create a more stimulating and creative classroom environment, and quotes in support a dictum written by Gary Phillips, the founder and president of the US National School Improvement Project: 'If the fish are getting sick don't blame the fish. Change the water.'