The human brain doesn't stop developing until at least 25 years of age. In addition, the brain is an organ with a great deal of plasticity, meaning that the brain is constantly restructuring itself in response to various stimuli in the environment. Stimuli can vary widely and include: exercise, stress-levels, sleep, mood, hormones, and, yes, school. Teens have a reputation for impulsive behavior, taking risks, testing authority, extreme self-consciousness (at the expense of being open to other perspectives), and a persistent to drive to seek independence. Unlike the adult brain, the prefrontal cortex of the teenage brain is still developing. Since this region of the brain is responsible for decision-making, inhibition of risky behavior, and appropriate social interaction, this may explain, in part, the strong drive for teenagers to engage in these behaviors.
As a teacher, I can help shape the brains of my students by modeling and explicitly teaching how to collaborate in groups and form a class community. Not only will this help students develop socialization skills, but it will establish a warm and supportive class community where every student feels respected and valued. The brain learns best in a low-stress environment in order to support students as they take risks, make mistakes, and learn from their mistakes. I can present different perspectives to my students from the content, from my past experiences as a scientist, and from the students. I can also design my lesson plans to fun, interesting and focused on the students. I want the students to have ownership in what they do to teach them how to be independent and how to handle responsibility. Having ownership in what students learn by giving them choices in topics they learn about, assignment due dates, or test formats empowers the student to have control over their learning. The lessons will be structured around hands-on activities in groups. Students enjoy socializing and can group activities can help develop productive cooperativity and communication. In addition, students learn best by doing something your hands. I learned science the best when I was in the lab doing experiments. I want to duplicate this experience for my students.
Engage the Students, Activate the Learning
With everything in mind about the teenage brain, one important goal I have as a teacher is to strengthen neuronal connections to help commit new content to long-term memory storage. This in mind, my lessons must first captivate the interest of my students and their teenage brains. I begin with an anticipatory set to connect student background to the new content. I also begin with a brief review of the previous lesson, helping students understand the connections between different lessons. For my lesson on photosynthesis and cell respiration, we will review the concept of energy and ATP from the lesson before. Then, we will watch a short, 2:00 video about the ocean, phytoplankton, and photosynthesis, followed by a discussion of how phytoplankton supplies the oxygen for every other breath we breathe.
Accessing Memory Lanes and Lesson Planning
We are more likely to remember something if we've seen it in several different ways. This builds connections between neurons, providing the brain with multiple pathways to access the same memory. During adolescence, the brain undergoes remodeling, decreasing the amount of gray matter, where neurons and synapses (the spaces between neurons) are housed. Scientists believe this is because weak neuronal connections are pruned, while strong neuronal connections are strengthened, similar to defragging your computer or organizing your filing cabinet. As a teacher, I need to teach the content in short chunks and in a variety of ways in order to increase the likelihood that students will remember it. Most importantly, I need to help students understand how the content I’m teaching in the classroom is relevant to them in real-life. In addition, graphic organizers, music, movement, teacher enthusiasm, humor, music, and games are all techniques I plan on using in order to activate several different areas of my students’ brains to help them remember how photosynthesis and cell respiration are similar and how they are different. Specifically, having students construct posters in groups that compare and contrast photosynthesis and cell respiration would be an activity that would include many of the ideas listed above.