Neurocognitive research has demonstrated that adolescent brains structurally alter during learning. We believe that the cerebral cortex grows heavier and thicker after students have interacted with their peers in a challenging and exciting learning environment. Brain cells are altered, the blood supply enhanced. The adolescent brain is shaped by their experiences, so we as educators have a great responsibility to ensure we make learning interesting and stimulating.
But how do we achieve this? An important part of teaching students, especially teenage students, is ensuring high levels of student engagement – keeping them curious – learning because they want to not because the adults in their world are telling them to. Despite the oft presented stereotype of adolescents preferring video games and social networking to study and effort, the desire to learn and interact with the world is actually built into our DNA.
Adolescents, like all human beings, will seek to give their attention to what gives them a sense of achievement and a sense of worth. If they are being successful at the latest video game or visibly valued in their on-line interactions then that will continue to draw their attention. If they are being successful in a particular subject or with a particular teacher, then this too will draw their attention.
And therein lies the challenge for schools: giving students success, authentic success, even in areas where they might struggle. The research tells us the answer is simple yet complex to facilitate. Students need challenging yet achievable goals. Teenagers want that next high score or that next social high. Schools are increasingly recognising that the adolescent is motivated by success and a sense of achievement.
The simple truth is the greater the effort the greater the outcomes. Effort is more important than innate student ability. Effort is the mantra of most successful people in the world. Students will put in the effort if we make it interesting, make it achievable and celebrate their successes with them.
At Calvary Christian College we engage students through a multi-prong approach. Fostering a sense of belonging and value is of course critical to achieving excellence in academic, sporting, cultural and service arenas. When a student feels safe and worthy of attention then they are better enabled to give their best attention to new challenges.
In adolescence the importance of peer relationships as well as the reality of the students growing independence cannot be overlooked in the school setting. Belonging to a group has consistently been demonstrated in the research as important to academic outcomes, that is, there is a significant link between peer relationships and academic achievement. This is an important consideration for educators at Calvary. Focussing on a sense of belonging, student engagement, providing challenging but achievable goals, demanding high standards, facilitating positive peer relationships and recognising the growing independence of our students ensures that we are creating the right environment for our students to meet their potential.
By Lisa Coles is Head of Teaching and Learning at Calvary Christian College