Being Brain Aware: How an understanding of the adolescent brain could improve outcomes for secondary schools

27 September 2018

Author: Fran Haynes

Recently, neuroscientist Sarah-Jayne Blakemore’s Inventing Ourselves: The Secret Life of the Teenage Brain has come to the fore in the world of educational research. In this book, Blakemore shares findings from research on how the brain changes and develops during adolescence (adolescence in this context starting at approximately at the age of 11 or 12 years and ending between the late teens and mid-twenties).

Although full to the brim with fascinating biological facts and details about clinical and social experiments, Blakemore presents three points that seem potentially pertinent for educational practice in secondary schools:

  • Young adolescents are more likely to be influenced by their peers than adults.
  •  Adolescents are more likely to be influenced by immediate rewards.
  •  Adolescents are more likely to be influenced by their own social values when making decisions or choices.

What the Science Suggests

1. The Adolescent Brain and Peer Pressure

According to Blakemore, we are all affected by social factors to a greater or lesser extent, irrespective of age. This principle forms the basis of group behavioural studies in social psychology, which seek to understand the effect of social influences, especially the presence or absence of other people, on our decision making.

Blakemore argues that ‘adolescents are especially susceptible to social influence’ and that for this group ‘social factors weigh particularly heavily’ when making choices. In particular, the main driver for adolescent behaviour is to avoid social exclusion and gain peer acceptance. As Blakemore succinctly explains, ‘social pressure is particularly powerful for adolescents’ because it is ‘acutely important to them not to be rejected by their peer group’. This in turn may lead to what is often interpreted as unnecessary risk-taking by adolescents, when in fact they have evaluated the social risk (or more specifically, the risk of social exclusion) caused by alternative choices to be more costly.

To exemplify this idea, Blakemore describes one study in that took place at the Science Museum in London, and was also later replicated with the same effect. Participants (aged between 8 and 59 years) were shown a series of risky scenarios, for example riding a bike without a helmet, and asked to assess the level of risk. The participants were then shown the risk ratings awarded to each scenario by other people, and told whether these other ‘raters’ were adults or teenagers (these ratings were in fact computer generated). The participants were then given the option to change their risk ratings after seeing what others had decided.

Blakemore reports three main findings from this study:

  1. Adolescents understand risks in the same way as adults – they do not see themselves as any less likely to be harmed compared to other people.
  2. All age groups were affected by social factors – everyone shifted their responses to align more with other people, although the shift was lowest for adults and highest for children.
  3. Young adolescents (12-14 years) were more influenced by the ‘teenagers’ ratings whereas mid-adolescents (15-18 years) displayed a similar level of influence from teenagers and adults.

Consequently, as Blakemore states, ‘what really seems to matter at this age [12-14 years] is what friends and contemporaries think’.

Blakemore goes on to describe research carried out at Yale and Princeton Universities that demonstrates the ‘real-world implications of this peer influence effect’. This study involved 56 middle schools (with students aged 11-16) which ran anti-bullying campaigns. In the test groups, the students running the campaigns publically opposed bullying, and thereby clearly attached their personal identities to the campaign.  The researchers found that in these schools the incidents of reported student conflict dropped by 30%. Furthermore, analysis revealed that if ‘highly-connected’ (or in other words popular) students were part of the campaign, there was an even greater positive effect on behaviour.

Overall, this suggests that the group who have the greatest influence on the behaviour adopted by students is students themselves. Furthermore, Blakemore explains that the brain of a young adolescent is particularly receptive to cultural norms because the young person seeks to adopt those cultural rules and expectations in order to fit in with a group.  Consequently, ‘well-connected’ students are able to influence the social and cultural norms that shape acceptable behaviour in school.

2. The Adolescent Brain and Rewards

The second striking point in this book derives from a 2016 study that revealed how ‘adolescents are less likely to avoid punishment’. In a nutshell, Blakemore explains that the adult brain and adolescent brain appear to learn in different ways. In one particular study, adolescents and adults had to play a game in which they selected symbols. Some of the symbols were associated with reward and some were associated with punishment. The results demonstrated that ‘adolescents and adults were equally good at learning to choose symbols associated with reward, but that adolescents were worse that adults at avoiding symbols associated with punishment’. The notion that, for adolescents, reward is more influential than punishment in itself could have significant implications for school practice. Additionally noteworthy, however, are further studies that indicate adolescents as being more influenced by immediate rewards rather than rewards that will occur at some point in the future.

3. The Adolescent Brain and Social Values

Finally, Blakemore explores how social values play a role in the decisions made by the adolescent brain. In her explanation, Blakemore refers to the outcomes from a series of studies that analysed the effect of health interventions aimed at young people, for example anti-smoking advertisements. These advertisements incorporated a series of messages, some of which were focused on the long-term health risks of smoking, and some of which were focused on ‘more immediate and non-health related consequences’, for example the short-term effect of smoking on physical appearance and the tactics used by tobacco companies to sell their product.

Interestingly, the studies found clear evidence that the health interventions that were most successful were those that focused on social values that are important to the target audience. With the anti-smoking advertisements, for example, the messages that centred on the effect of smoking on non-smokers and the deception enacted by tobacco companies played into the young audience’s sense of social justice. As Blakemore surmises, in order to reduce what we perceive as risk-taking behaviour in young people ‘it would be a good idea to focus on the immediate, social consequences of actions and decisions rather than, or as well as, delivering earnest warnings about long-term repercussions’.


How the Science Could Link to School Practice

At this early point in the academic year, one of the biggest choices that schools encourage students to make is to start putting in the hard effort now, even though the end point may seem far away.  Of course, delayed study does not jump out as a ‘risky’ action in the conventional life-and-death sense of the word. However, research evidence, alongside teachers’ collective experience, tells us that those students who adopt effective and early study patterns will achieve significantly more successful outcomes than those who do not, and will therefore increase their life opportunities (see here for spaced practice). Consequently, September often sees the start of numerous assemblies, intervention sessions and mentoring schemes in which school staff appeal to students to not leave important studying for some a murky, distant future date, when the threat of exams looms so near that avoidance is no longer possible.

Unfortunately, these well-intentioned interventions do not always get the desired results. Most teachers would not struggle to name a student or two from every year who failed to engage with any form of support, and instead chose the riskier path of delayed study, or even no study at all. Ultimately, then, how can the findings from neuroscience about the adolescent brain help to break this annual impasse?


Some Suggestions and Questions for Discussion

  1. Use peer pressure as well as adult pressure.

One of the strongest implications from this body of work is that peer pressure can have a much greater influence on teenagers than intervention from adults.

  • Who do students hear endorsing and repeating important messages in the classroom, assemblies and intervention sessions such as mentoring? Would a ‘well-connected’ student or group of students be more powerful in these roles than the head of year or SLT?
  • Who does your school use as role models? Would it better to promote current students who are making ‘risk averse’ choices rather than adult sport stars, previous students or historical figures?
  • Younger adolescents are particularly influenced by other teenagers. How is your school harnessing the power of Year 10 and 11 students to improve the choices made by the younger years in their everyday learning choices?

2. Award is more influential than punishment, and immediate rewards work best.

How can teachers focus students on short-term results whilst also keeping them working towards longer-term requirements?

  • Have curriculum teams put in place careful aggregate curriculum planning so that topics are broken down into component parts that can be tested and rewarded more frequently?
  • Can teachers make more use of regular, shorter quizzes rather than longer cumulative assessments? Quizzes can make it easier to identify and reward specific aspects that students have done well, which might be masked in more comprehensive tasks.
  • Do teachers use real examples of what students have done well to give feedback (public reward) rather than just sharing what needs to improve?
  • Have you planned the delivery of key messages carefully around the school year so that students will experience the results in the short-term? How useful is an assembly about GSCE results day in September or for Year 7? Could you share a shorter-term goal with students that will still have a positive impact later on?

3. Adolescents are more influenced by their own social values when making choices.

How can schools emphasise the social, as well as academic, consequences of students’ learning behaviour so that it resonates with their personal beliefs?

  •  Could curriculum teams work with pastoral teams to ascertain important social values for specific cohorts? This data could be used to incentivise students into making risk-averse learning choices. For example, if a cohort demonstrates a strong dislike of the stereotypical portrayal of teenagers in the media, how could this be utilised to make students spend more time preparing for exams?

As ever with research, Blakemore points out that these findings will not the case for every individual. In fact, there are plenty of examples of adolescents who do not choose the supposedly ‘risky’ paths at all, and seem quite confident and content to go their own way regardless of what their peers might think. Additionally, it is important to remember that older adolescents (15-18 years) appear to be influenced by adults as much as their peers. Consequently, it would seem unwise the discard previous practices that have worked well in your school: the assembly rota does not need a total overhaul just yet. Instead, it seems prudent to keep alert to this area of neuroscience and the food for thought it may yield in the future.

To find out more about how you can use research evidence to inform your school practice have a look at our training days for 2018-19 here.

Posted on 27 September 2018
Posted in: Blog, News

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