To Ignite Adolescent Brains School Must be about THEM
Updated: Jul 23, 2020
By Phil Jarvis and Jen Fraser
With artificial intelligence, smart machines, and robots replacing humans in predictable, repetitive tasks, the uniquely human capacities for imagination, empathy, creativity, and nuanced understanding of meaning are final frontiers for humans. Igniting students’ creativity through project-based, experiential learning linked to issues they care deeply about increases their engagement, achievement, and well-being in school and makes them more life-ready by the time they graduate.
Creativity is the fuel of an innovative society. Human creativity is a natural, expandable, and infinitely renewable resource. The adolescent mind has that spark of emotion and social drive, that push to explore new solutions to old ways, that can transform communities and may save life on our planet (Siegel). Rather than fully developing this resource, too often we are caging and stifling it. About 80% of primary students are fully engaged in school. By the end of high school, student engagement has plummeted to 40% or less (Gallup).
Unengaged minds are uncreative minds. High school isn’t about the big, real-world problems students care deeply about. It’s about surviving arbitrary, prescribed curriculum for which many students see no relevance. Creativity is caged when students learn not to risk the shame of giving a wrong answer. Among the students whose engagement wanes most are those with high entrepreneurial potential - our future job creators.
Educators are not the problem. We entrust our children and our future to these caring, patient, and dedicated people. The problem is the system within which students, teachers, and administrators are all caged.
In play, pre-school children often pretend to be grown-ups, imagining where they may fit in an adult world. When they get to school they are told to stop daydreaming and focus on the day’s prescribed learning objectives. Recent advances in neuroscience tell us that for learning to be meaningful and ‘stick’ it must be emotionally relevant and personal. Acknowledging and encouraging kids’ dreams about their future roles, however transient or fanciful they may seem to adults, makes school personal and helps to unlock students’ creativity.
Teachers teach, by example, what it means to be a teacher. At some point, a few students have seen enough to realize that teaching may be their ‘calling.’ Being stable, seniority-based, and unionized, teaching is not a typical career. So, how do other students learn about the vast spectrum of career pathways beyond the school grounds? Most don’t.
Young people’s early career choices, or lack thereof, can impact the rest of their lives. Yet, teachers are not taught how to help students explore career pathways. That task is relegated to school counsellors who heroically, and hopelessly, confront the academic, social, and career challenges of hundreds of students. As a result, millions of students exit the education system each year uncertain how to find good jobs and build a fulfilling adult life. Two in five 16-30 year-olds today are unemployed or underemployed in precarious, low wage/benefit jobs (The Precarity Penalty). Many are wondering at what point they will actually become adults, as are their parents.
In primary and secondary school students are expected to learn the answers to thousands of questions it never occurred to them to ask. Few recall the answers for long beyond the exam. The big, personal questions that engage and ignite adolescent brains are:
Who am I now, not what will I be?
Why am I here? What’s my purpose?
What are my unique strengths and talents?
How can I be happy and healthy?
What are the big, real-world issues I care deeply about?
How can I make a difference in the world?
These questions don’t lend themselves to machine-readable, multiple choice exams. Nonetheless, young brains thrive on them. Adolescence (age 10 to 25) can be a golden age for innovation and creativity. The brain is not fully developed until the mid-twenties - long after all other organs. This is a period of tremendous brain malleability and neuroplasticity, the terms scientists use to describe the brain’s intense sensitivity to its environment and its ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections (Steinberg). In supportive, nurturing, and purposeful environments adolescents have the capacity for prodigious accomplishments, far beyond the limited expectations of the education system.
Adolescence is an essential time of emotional intensity, social engagement, and unbounded creativity (Siegel). We remember hands-on, real-world activities like the school play, the robotics project, writing for the school newspaper, entrepreneurial projects, skills competitions, student exchanges, youth service, and so on lifelong. Art, music, and physical education engage adolescent brains. Whether skateboarding, playing the guitar, chess, hockey, or hacking, whatever the brain focuses on long enough, it gets better at it. Neurons that fire together wire together (Walsh). During adolescence, we need to create environments for students to find their ‘sparks.’ A spark is something that ignites an adolescent and gives purpose to his or her life. Kids who thrive have two important qualities: They know what their sparks are and they have adults who encourage and support them. (Walsh).
Adolescents need to know they can all tap incredible talent and potential within. We are all born with a personal ‘head-held’ device capable of imagining anything and mastering more than we can comprehend. Three elements are essential to developing talent of any kind:
Envisioning and believing in your dream
Deep practice which enhances the brain’s neural pathways
Good coaching from experienced, supportive, patient, wise people (Coyle)
Stars, in every realm and walk of life, are made not born (Coyle). We must incubate talent and grow the unique strengths of individual students, not force-feed them pre-determined, age-based, arbitrary subject-matter they may soon forget. This also causes stress, takes far too much time, and crushes curiosity and passion for learning. Great teachers set free the idealism that lies coiled, waiting to be sprung, in every young person (Coyle).
We must incubate talent and grow the unique strengths of individual students, not force-feed them pre-determined, age-based, arbitrary subject-matter they may soon forget.
For learning to ‘stick’ it must be linked to issues about which adolescents care deeply. Their brains thrive on rigorous, multi-faceted, collaborative projects about real-world issues like entrepreneurship, climate change, cultural tolerance, truth and reconciliation, poverty, homelessness, etc. Projects linked to these issues require them to step out of their comfort zones to create and present their own solutions. Academics should be reverse-engineered into these real-world projects.
An open and excitable brain can also suffer in powerful and enduring ways when exposed to stress, anger, fear, humiliation, or boredom (Jensen) (Kahneman). Bullying, by siblings and peers, is damaging, but by authority figures like parents, teachers, and coaches it’s much worse. Shame - of the red mark, the dreaded X, the lost point, the wrong answer, the lowered grade, the failed year, being benched - is a dream killer (Fraser). It amplifies our fear of fear, keeps us from contributing, and short circuits our willingness to explore. This brings not only emotional pain but actual neural damage.
When a brain circuit is not used, its connections become weaker and weaker. Axons retract, spines die off, and as a result, synapses start to disappear, even to the point that the circuit finally ceases to exist. This process is called ‘synaptic pruning’ (Steinberg).
We need to instill in students the confidence, courage, and creativity to try new ideas and reach higher. They will inevitably make mistakes. Neuroscience tells us this is precisely how we all learn and how our brains grow. If we are not making mistakes our imaginations are not fully engaged, we are not being creative enough, and our brains are not growing.
We all live in two worlds. The first is the external world that was here when we arrived and will be after we’re gone. The second is the internal world, which is unique to each of us and includes our fears, hopes, memories, and dreams. The second world is often neglected and even forgotten in education. Students deserve to be treated like the miracle they are —with education that addresses their inner world. The shift to personalized, real-world, project-based learning is non-negotiable if education is to truly help students reach their potential (Robinson) and equip them to transition from school to success in life beyond school (life-readiness).
The social reorganization of work in the 21st century requires a fundamental reordering of career development theory and practice, as well as the tenets underlying the education system. The idea of actualizing a core self that already exists is now giving way to the view that an 'essential self' does not exist a priori. Instead, constructing one’s self is a lifelong project. We are stories unfolding, dreams becoming, stars being born, not pre-cast objects defined by a list of traits an assessment can identify (Savickas). But if students are fortunate enough to get with career exploration it is often in the form of quick, one-of assessments of interests with little interpretation or follow-up.
Online career information systems can help students identify potentially viable learning and career pathways. But until they experience the work environment first-hand, and meet people doing what they imagine themselves doing in the future, young people can’t make truly informed decisions. Too many future nurses, veterinarians, accountants, or lawyers discover after they have amassed debt and lost months or years that they’re in the wrong program. Work- and community-based learning ‘experienceships’ (job shadows, internships, co-op placements, summer jobs, volunteering, etc.) in elementary and secondary grades enable students to gain essential real-world knowledge and skills to inform their post-secondary learning and career decisions.
Adolescence and brain development extend beyond the ‘school years.’ A significant delay between graduation and finding satisfying work can precipitate mental illness. A 2012 University of Michigan study showed precarious workers are five times more likely than those in good, secure jobs to be at risk of depression and three times more likely to report having an anxiety attack in the past month. Research from Sweden suggests precarious work has a ‘scarring effect’ on young people’s long-term mental health. Stress, unhappiness and an unhealthy home life are consequences of precarious employment, according to a new survey of more than 4,000 workers by the Ontario Federation of Labour.
The trend toward a ‘gig economy’, where temporary jobs are common and employers contract with independent workers for short-term engagements without benefits, is well underway. Intuit Inc. predicts that by 2020, 45 percent of workers will be freelance contractors. Success in today’s workforce demands an entrepreneurial mindset. All youth need to learn entrepreneurial and financial management skills that include the creativity to come up with new ideas, the courage, confidence, and communications skills to sell their ideas, and the initiative, grit, and team skills to make them happen. These skills will serve youth well with any employer and empower them to create their own work should they so choose.
When the latest advances in neuroscience and current and projected workforce and societal trends are juxtaposed, the case becomes compelling for personalized, project-based learning that integrates core subjects with real-world problems that need to be solved. Ideally, teachers work together to create engaging interdisciplinary projects that center on real-world issues that are rigorous, relevant and meaningful to their students. Local employers and community partners play vital roles by helping align and connect projects to industry expertise and standards and to real local community challenges. Parents, play all-important coaching and supporting roles.
Students work in teams to create a final product that demonstrates mastery of content standards and acquisition of key ‘soft skills’ such as critical thinking, collaboration, and communication, and global competencies. One of the most important aspects of project-based learning is a public presentation of the work created. Assessment is based on the student's ability to articulate and demonstrate the content and skills learned. Student progress is measured and assessed through traditional tests and quizzes, public presentations, exhibitions, and digital portfolios.
More and more North American school systems are introducing project-based learning, often aligned with career clusters and pathways. Regional and national coalitions are forming to speed the transition to project-based learning. Examples include:
As with academic results (PISA), the Canadian education system can be among the world leaders in personalized, real-world, project-based learning. But this won’t happen as quickly with diverse public and indigenous education systems working independently. The Transitions Canada Coalition was conceived as a not-for-profit ‘coalition of the willing.’ Its mission twofold:
To foster genuine pan-Canadian collaboration among education ecosystem stakeholders to identify, enhance, and scale transformative innovations; and
To identify and address critical gaps in programs and processes to increase student engagement and prepare students to graduate life-ready.
Transitions Canada Coalition is a vision whose time has not yet arrived. Insufficient organizations are willing, as yet, to leave their egos and competitive instincts 'at the door' and work together to better prepare all youth, including first peoples and new arrivals, for success in career and life.