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Great Lessons from Adolescent Learning

Saskia Traill

Saskia Traill is TASC's vice president for policy and research.

TASC recently held a forum at the Ford Foundation with some of the best minds in practice, research, policy and philanthropy to develop strategies that would create effective adolescent learning experiences.
During the research panel, NYU Professor Eddie Fergus asked fellow scholars Robert Halpern, Camille Farrington and Abigail Baird how adolescent development and adolescent learning are linked. Here are some key takeaways:

  1. Adolescent brains are on developmental overdrive, with the most intensive brain development second only to infancy.

  2. We underestimate the degree to which teens desperately want to be a part of the adult world.

  3. Development in the adolescent brain is largely about the uniting of cognitive and emotional processes -- you can’t (and shouldn’t) take the emotion out of learning.

  4. Adolescents are physiologically tooled to respond to reward not punishment. Positive peer pressure (social reward for doing something) is a way more potent force than negative peer pressure (social punishment).

  5. Adolescents use different parts of the brain and take longer than adults to make decisions about whether an action is a good idea or a bad idea. Building the decision-making system they’ll use as adults requires failing, hopefully in safe ways.

  6. Adolescents rewind and replay social situations because they are making connections between the social world and their identity.

What does all of this mean? If we cultivate learning experiences grounded in these lessons, we’ll have an enormous opportunity to help adolescents become faster, more critical learners and better able to make good decisions crucial to all different types of life successes. And whether they’re in a chemistry lab, on a stage or on a soccer field, adolescents need supportive, nurturing environments where they can practice real-life skills in applied settings. We’ll be thinking with our colleagues a lot in the coming weeks and months about how to create those conditions for learning.


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