01 October 2011

Schools that matter

People who've heard me talk about middle schools have probably heard me say something like, "this age group has a million legitimate things to worry about every day, and none of them are in our curriculum."

I say this repeatedly because (a) I believe it to be true - that the evolutionary purpose of adolescence is unrelated to our program of schooling - and that (b) those who misunderstand this drive kids between, say, 12 and 25 crazy - and not in good ways - with special damage happening to the 12-16-year-old group, many of whom lose complete interest in what we call "education" and never really return.

I sometimes put this in microeconomic terms. Attending school, just "paying attention" in school, has an opportunity cost for kids. If what we offer is not perceived as having sufficient value to them, they will either not show up - if their community culture tolerates that - or they will mentally 'check out' and drift through the school day - investing in other thoughts - until they can leave.

What do adolescents need to work on? Primarily understanding themselves and their place in their future society. Understanding their bodies and brains, and how those will work for them or limit them in that future. Understanding the social webs which will define them. Discovering their passions through trial and error. And sucking in information in ways the typical educated adult can no longer remember.

Adolescence is not a problem, it is a human necessity. (Photos by Kitra Cahana for National Geographic)
This month's National Geographic Magazine - which is one of those things everyone should support, by the way - offers a must read for adolescent educators. The New Science of the Teenage Brain debunks most of what has been said about adolescents in the past fifty years, and offers those of us in education a new way to begin comprehending our work.
"[The "unfinished brain" studies of the past two decades] help explain why teens behave with such vexing inconsistency: beguiling at breakfast, disgusting at dinner; masterful on Monday, sleepwalking on Saturday. Along with lacking experience generally, they're still learning to use their brain's new networks. Stress, fatigue, or challenges can cause a misfire. Abigail Baird, a Vassar psychologist who studies teens, calls this neural gawkiness—an equivalent to the physical awkwardness teens sometimes display while mastering their growing bodies.

"The slow and uneven developmental arc revealed by these imaging studies offers an alluringly pithy explanation for why teens may do stupid things like drive at 113 miles an hour, aggrieve their ancientry, and get people (or get gotten) with child: They act that way because their brains aren't done! You can see it right there in the scans! [this also provides an easy excuse for both a legal system and school discipline codes which deny adolescents rights and privileges but holds them responsible for their actions - is]

"This view, as titles from the explosion of scientific papers and popular articles about the "teen brain" put it, presents adolescents as "works in progress" whose "immature brains" lead some to question whether they are in a state "akin to mental retardation."

"The story you're reading right now, however, tells a different scientific tale about the teen brain. Over the past five years or so, even as the work-in-progress story spread into our culture, the discipline of adolescent brain studies learned to do some more-complex thinking of its own. A few researchers began to view recent brain and genetic findings in a brighter, more flattering light, one distinctly colored by evolutionary theory. The resulting account of the adolescent brain—call it the adaptive-adolescent story—casts the teen less as a rough draft than as an exquisitely sensitive, highly adaptable creature wired almost perfectly for the job of moving from the safety of home into the complicated world outside."
As I worked my way through this article - celebrating the kind of "confirmation bias" we all love - I thought about another bit of research I recently read. Neuroscientist Alison Gopnik writes that, "there are more synaptic connections in baby brains than in adult brains," and shows that as our ability to "focus" in what we see as "traditional ways" (the ways of the Industrial Age) strengthens, our ability to perceive all the rest of our environment, truly our ability to learn, diminishes. "As we know more," she says, "we see less."

This is essential stuff. Basically, Gopnik reports from fMRI work, that the rationalist modern educational structure is all about taking humans who see "everything" and turning them into focused or hyper-focused workers capable of doing just a few things very well.
"...in the psychological case even more than the physical one, what counts as a problem depends on the context. When nobody read, dyslexia wasn't a problem. When most people had to hunt, a minor genetic variation in your ability to focus attention was hardly a problem, and may even have been an advantage. When most people have to make it through high school, the same variation can become a genuinely life-altering disease. To say this doesn't imply, as [author and New York Times blogger Judith] Warner seems to think, that these are made-up problems, rather than real neurological ones. But it does suggest that changing the social context in which children grow up can be as important as directly changing their brain chemistry." (Gopnik, 2010)
"As we know more, we see less."
For me, this suggests why adults working in schools, all schools, often fail to perceive either the physical or the human environment surrounding them in real ways. The adults have been trained relentlessly in what "school" means. They come for a purpose - no, it is not usually a paycheck Mr. Gates and Mr. Duncan - to "educate" children, and they have also been trained relentlessly in what "educate" means. The adults see the task in front of them, and they see the impediments to that task, but they do not see the rest.

If your focus is on delivering content,
you will see nothing else
This is why school adults "see" much less bullying than kids see, in study after study. And why adults think they intervene to stop bullying far more than their students see them doing that. It is why adults stop seeing how depressing most school entries and corridors are, or how distracting fluorescent lighting can be, or how uncomfortable kids are in school chairs. It is why adults have no idea what is happening in classrooms below the desk level, or why I have been in middle school and high school classrooms where the only students awake and asking questions were called "ADHD" by teachers. Those teachers - you know the ones - who view themselves as UPS drivers delivering content - are focused on only that, and even questions seem impediments to what they believe their job focus is.

These two sets of brain studies come together in a critical way in how we educate children. Especially in our "secondary schools."

Why would you move here..
There was a reason the world of the Protestant Reformation and the Industrial Revolution wanted single-focus individuals. As Max Weber suggested long ago, one of the missions of nascent Protestantism/Capitalism was to break the complex ties between a person and their community and their environment. Labor could not "move freely" to where it needed to be concentrated if people were deeply committed to their families, communities, and the natural world they had been born into.

How could you get folks to move from places where everything they see is important to them - their extended families, their neighbors, the way their church bells sound, the way the sun rises over the eastern rim, the way the salt smells in the air - and get them to move to London and Newcastle-upon-Tyne or Hamburg and Berlin or to the mines of Silesia and Pennsylvania - unless you dramatically narrow their focus to (a) money, and (b) a single task which allows them to work all day doing one thing?

...from here, unless single-focus became important?
The secondary education system we live with today is designed to still do exactly this. The reward isn't money, but it is the same reductionist kind of currency, grades. And the focus isn't quite yet single, rather it is "serial single focus" - we work on one thing at a time, blowing our factory whistles to indicate the changes.

And we continue this despite knowing that the world, and even the capitalist world of work, has changed beyond the comprehension of most in education, despite all those who fight back by trying to claim bizarre things like "multitasking is a myth."

Which creates two problems - first, we continue to prepare coal miners, tens of millions of coal miners - and second, this means that we fight every day against the natural evolutionary means for which adolescence was created in the human genome.

While we want to "focus" them through sensory deprivation, the brains of our kids want to learn focus through the processes of risk and experimentation.
"[This drive for the new learning experiences] explains why an openness to the new, though it can sometimes kill the cat, remains a highlight of adolescent development. A love of novelty leads directly to useful experience. More broadly, the hunt for sensation provides the inspiration needed to "get you out of the house" and into new terrain, as Jay Giedd, a pioneering researcher in teen brain development at NIH, puts it.

"Also peaking during adolescence (and perhaps aggrieving the ancientry the most) is risk-taking. We court risk more avidly as teens than at any other time. This shows reliably in the lab, where teens take more chances in controlled experiments involving everything from card games to simulated driving. And it shows in real life, where the period from roughly 15 to 25 brings peaks in all sorts of risky ventures and ugly outcomes. This age group dies of accidents of almost every sort (other than work accidents) at high rates. Most long-term drug or alcohol abuse starts during adolescence, and even people who later drink responsibly often drink too much as teens. Especially in cultures where teenage driving is common, this takes a gory toll: In the U.S., one in three teen deaths is from car crashes, many involving alcohol.

"Are these kids just being stupid? That's the conventional explanation: They're not thinking, or by the work-in-progress model, their puny developing brains fail them.

"Yet these explanations don't hold up. As Laurence Steinberg, a developmental psychologist specializing in adolescence at Temple University, points out, even 14- to 17-year-olds—the biggest risk takers—use the same basic cognitive strategies that adults do, and they usually reason their way through problems just as well as adults. Contrary to popular belief, they also fully recognize they're mortal. And, like adults, says Steinberg, "teens actually overestimate risk."

"So if teens think as well as adults do and recognize risk just as well, why do they take more chances? Here, as elsewhere, the problem lies less in what teens lack compared with adults than in what they have more of. Teens take more risks not because they don't understand the dangers but because they weigh risk versus reward differently: In situations where risk can get them something they want, they value the reward more heavily than adults do." (National Geographic)
"Cars and parties, first cigarettes and first dates, school demands and free time—teens encounter risks both large and small every day, and their choices can be puzzling at times. Think of it as an equation, says psychologist Laurence Steinberg, where consequences aren't given the weight they should be. And when teens are around friends, that throws off the equation even more."  Really? "should be"? If humans worried more about consequences than rewards, we'd still be living in the jungle with the bonobos.
This, of course, is both good and essential, as well as completely at odds with the "safety" we prize in our secondary schools and our middle class homes. We need big rewards to push us out of childhood, whether we are the Decorah, Iowa eagles (who hung around the family nest getting fed by their parents for a full season after learning to fly) or humans. And we probably need huge rewards if we are to give up the beauty and possibilities of "seeing everything" in exchange for any kind of focus.

The approval of our peers may be part of a "big enough" reward, but neither grades nor adult approval are going to touch that status for most kids. ("...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," says David Dobbs in National Geographic)Which is why, whatever "we" say, most kids simply don't care - we are just not compelling enough in any way.

Now, on Monday, as you re-enter your secondary school, especially your middle school, try to bring your brain back - try to see as if you are ADHD yourself - try to take in the whole scene and see it as your students do. Are you offering their evolutionary brains anything they crave?

- Ira Socol


Jim Connolly said...

"Teens take more risks not because they don't understand the dangers but because they weigh risk versus reward differently: In situations where risk can get them something they want, they value the reward more heavily than adults do."
This one line explains so much of what has, as a member of the ancientry, vexed me about the teens I've worked with for the last 14 years. Thanks for a great post.

Dan McGuire said...

We have enough adults, we have the spaces, we have most of the tools necessary, and we have enough money. We just need to reorganize almost all of the junior highs in the country. We've been filling desks in classrooms in buildings in districts instead of starting with what and how a teenager learns.

Rachel said...

Thanks for a fascinating, insightful post.

It's unfortunate that middle schools are still functioning bases on theories and assumptions that held maybe 25 years ago.

Today, so much about what the "world" values has changed, in particular the tendency to focus on such narrow outcomes.

As the world becomes more visual, more associative, and more "real-life" than ever, our kids are stuck in linear hell.

Anonymous said...

Fabulous post. Why don't those who create the curriculums understand this.

Gabe said...

You make a great point but I believe that schools should look at how each individual learns and not how "teens" learn. Teens shouldn't be seen as different from adults in the way they learn as if they are a different species.