According to an urban legend Socrates said 2500 years ago: “Our youth now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority, they show disrespect for their elders and love chatter in place of exercise, they no longer rise when elders enter the room, they contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up their food and tyrannize their teachers.”

Whether or not this quotation is accurate I think many of us can relate to his opinions. But was Socrates wrong? According to the recent brain research his observations might be right, but now we are also beginning to understand the reasons behind this kind of behaviour.

According to a Psychologist Laurence Steinberg the human brain remains changeable well into the early 20s. His experiments have shown that adolescents respond differently to rewards, are more likely to take risks and are more sensitive to peers than adults. But he argues that our education, legal system, and our parenting have yet to incorporate these insights. Read the full interview here.
So how should we take these observations into consideration when we are teaching teenagers (under 25 year olds)?

Give instant rewards

We should give rewards instantly or very quickly after the effort. In a classroom this could mean a teacher saying “Good answer.” If the answer is incorrect the comment could be something like “Good try, but…” Especially if we want to give feedback on a more complicated issue like helping a team mate in an exercise the comment or grade should be given instantly. If the comment comes after the course or written in the margin of the exercise weeks later, teenagers will not remember what it was for and will discard it. The teenager’s brain is focused more in the moment so our feedback should be personal, motivating and current.

Moderate time span in to the future

The frontal cortex of our brain will continue to develop until we are 25 years old. In this area of the brain we can plan our future and consider the consequences of our actions. This explains to some extent the willingness of teenagers to take risks. Especially under peer pressure teenagers will take more risks. This can be seen with rude comments to adults in a group situation.

From a learning perspective this can also be a good thing. If we motivate and give the students some space to try out new challenges and do it their way they will not hesitate too long. Failing is not a catastrophe. We should also not give them tasks that will require conceptual thinking far into the future. A fully developed adult brain can plan things on a very abstract level far into the future, but a teenager can’t. This is a trait that can be practised in small steps so when it comes to teaching the exercises should be moderate when it comes to the time span in to the future. I.e. teacher could ask: “Now that you have practised this skill and done well this week, what could be starting point for you next week?”

Encourage peer opinions

Jones et. al. found out in their research that sensitivity to peer approval during adolescence goes beyond simple reinforcement theory accounts and suggest possible explanations for how peers may motivate adolescent behaviour. This is a negative thing if the comments from other teenagers are discouraging and even hostile.

But used as a positive force this will bring huge impact to group work. Some students give encouraging feedback without advice but sometimes they need to practise in this. Teacher could give an assignment to students to give a positive comment on some skill the others have displayed. That comment could be related to any skill i.e. listening, creating ideas, supporting others, drawing, remembering a lot of facts etc. After some practise the students will notice how motivating a positive peer comment can feel and will change their own way of communicating too. Teacher has to allow some freedom for comments but he/she has to intervene if someone is still being very negative.

Avoid strictly structured tasks

Teacher should also not give too structured tasks for group work. The group has to struggle a bit and even do some mistakes with the problem. After they come up with their own solution they will think it was their personal effort that solved the problem. After this experience students can give real and personal feedback to peers. This will be more motivating to hear than a praise from the teacher.

So if Socrates would have known all of these aspects of teenager brain development would he have changed his own thinking accordingly?