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Adolescent Psychology Statement Savannah L. Windham Duke University




Introduction If the ultimate aim of education is to engender and facilitate learning, one must first understand how students learn. Throughout the Educating Adolescents course, we have explored a variety of cognitive, psychological, social, and cultural factors that influence learning in adolescents. Touching on brain development, adolescent identity formation, and the roles of socioeconomic background, race, gender, and sexuality (to name a few), it has become evident that the factors affecting adolescent learning are multitudinous and diverse. In this statement, I aim to touch on the areas that I have found most relevant to my teaching and to discuss how these concepts will affect my future classroom. While I cannot address the complexity of this topic within the confines of this essay, I do hope that the following information informs the reasoning behind my personal teaching methodology and overall philosophy of teaching adolescent learners.

Cognitive and Psychological Factors Affecting Adolescent Learning When an adolescent student learns, that new information or skill is stored in their memory through an extraordinarily complex (and yet to be fully understood) biological process. Louis Cozolino (2013) emphasizes the role of emotion in this process in A Social Neuroscience of Education when he states: “… there is no cognition without emotion, and it is impossible to separate the internal experience of the learning from the material being learned” (p. 83). Moreover, a student’s ability to understand and make sense of the information as well as the information’s applicability to his or her own life has a profound effect on its retention in longterm memory. (p. 43) If a student is only taught knowledge (defined here as facts or skills) without a tangible context, it is probable that the information will not be retained. Without



making these initial connections, transferability of learning to new contexts and situations cannot be achieved. Drawing from these ideas, when I introduce new material to my students I will always try to situate it within a larger context that resonates with my students. I will attempt to create assessments that require them to demonstrate an ability to transfer new ideas (as opposed to recall information obtained through rote memorization) to check for understanding. Furthermore, I must make sure that the “meaning” of my content is clear. This could require ensuring that my own material is not ambiguous, asking the “right” questions to students, predicting their misconceptions about the topic, and so forth. How a student feels about him/herself, the subject, and the learning environment can affect his or her performance in the classroom. A student’s self-concept, a part of their cognitive belief system that dictates the way they see themselves in the world, affects the attitude with which they approach the material (Sousa, 2011, p. 56-57). Past performance and recognition can also affect self-concept; when a student has a negative learning experience (e.g. difficulty comprehending the material or receiving a failing grade), this can result in a “mental block.” Sousa references this phenomenon when he states that “…if past experiences produced failure, then the sensory register is likely to block the incoming data…the learner resists being part of the unwanted learning experience and resorts to some other cerebral activity… to avoid the situation” (Sousa, 2011, p. 57). For these reasons, it is especially important for teachers to build self-confidence and engender positive learning experiences for students who may have struggled with their subject in the past. Sousa (2011) also discusses that how students “feel” about a learning situation is largely an unconscious response to their environment. The way teachers respond to student questions, approach conflicts, and exhibit genuine interest in their subject and students has a great effect on



the learning atmosphere. Furthermore, he asserts that this emotional climate is directly related to classroom climate, both of which are managed by the teacher (Sousa, 2011, p. 89). Cozolino (2013) echoes Sousa’s ideas that “a secure classroom allows students to cope with the stress of new learning and to regulate their fear of failure with the support of their teachers and fellow students” (p. 83). This has far-reaching implications for every educator, leading to the idea that one’s ability to create an emotionally stable, positively charged, and inspiring classroom largely stems from the capacity to control one’s own emotions, provide appropriate positive feedback, and present oneself as a genuine, empathetic person. If a teacher cares about their students’ performance, they must carefully examine the psychological effects of their words and actions in sculpting their students’ attitudes. This is a skill I seek to embody as an educator and practice every day in my classroom. One phenomenon that plays an important role in adolescent learning (especially in schools that have longer class periods or “block” scheduling) is the Primacy-Recency effect, which argues that students “tend to remember best that which comes first and remember second best that which comes last” in a learning episode (Sousa, 2011, p. 95). Studies have shown that teaching in 20-minute increments followed proportionately by periods of downtime (defined as time spent off task) minimizes downtime and maximizes “prime-time” in lessons (Sousa, 2011, p. 95-96). “Prime-time” here signifies the productive, high-quality learning time within a lesson. Several implications are that teachers should preferably present new information at the beginning or end of lessons, create 20-minute “mini-lessons” within a longer class periods, and recognize that off-task time is an important tool in maintaining attention and engagement throughout a class period. This technique could have added benefits for ESL or learning-disabled students



who face additional cognitive barriers to learning. While planning my lessons, I will be mindful of these facts and switch between various instructional methods to keep students engaged. Finally, the concepts of positive versus negative transfer and difficulty versus complexity in performance tasks are important to think about when deciding when and how to present new information. Sousa (2011) says that negative transfer occurs with a learner’s past learning “interferes with the learner’s understanding of new learning, resulting in confusion or errors” (p. 146). For example, teaching two new concepts that are similar at the same time should be avoided because the learner may have a hard time distinguishing one from the other. Adhering to this theory can make a huge difference for “slow” learners who need extra time to process new information. As for complexity versus difficultly, not being conscious of the definition can allow almost teacher to create activities whose purpose are more work-focused instead of understanding-focused. A “complex” task typically requires higher-order thinking and is independent of the length or time required to complete the task. Contrastingly, “difficult” tasks often require lower-order thinking and might contain a larger, more time-consuming amount of work. While both higher-order and lower-order thinking are necessary in learning, it is important to remain cognizant of the overarching goals in order to design assessments and performance tasks that best suit the intended outcomes.

Social and Cultural Factors Affecting Adolescent Learning The second two factors that affect adolescent learning as discussed within this paper reflect the influence of culture and society on an adolescent’s self-concept, identity, and academic expectations within the classroom. Given Ronald Dahl’s (2004) definition of adolescence as “that awkward period between sexual maturation and the attainment of adult roles



and responsibilities,” we see that the definition itself is contingent upon the unique social and cultural expectations contextualizing each adolescent’s reality. When thinking about a general American adolescent experience, today’s adolescents seem to be faced with increasing rites of passage that will justify their arrival to the adult word: owning a car, buying a house, having a good job, getting married, and perhaps even having children. This creates a substantial amount of pressure on adolescents to perform well during this time in order to start working toward these goals. Given that adolescence “…now stretches, in many cases across more than a decade, with pubertal onset often beginning by 9 to 12 years of age and adult roles delayed until the early twenties,” these high-stake rites of passage, in my opinion, will have a profound effect on adolescents, especially if they come from lower socioeconomic backgrounds where financial and material resources may be limited. As an educator, even though I have survived adolescence, sometimes it might be difficult to relate to students struggling under the burden of so many societal pressures. Despite this challenge, I aim to remain aware of my students’ journeys through life and empathetic toward the unique challenges they face. A child’s social environment at home and the treatment they receive from their parents plays a crucial role in brain development, mental and emotional health, and socialization during adolescence. While it is commonly known that children who have suffered from neglect or abuse are more likely to develop mental or emotional problems, Cozolino (2013) defines the effects of that behavior more specifically: When a parent, teacher, or institution abuses, neglects, or abandons a child, they communicate to the child that he or she is not a valued or accepted member of the family or tribe. Non-loving behavior signals to the child that world is a dangerous place and warns him or her not to explore, take chances, or trust others. (p.14)



This has significant implications for students’ academic performance in the classroom. Students lose their sense of novelty-seeking (an important factor in student engagement and motivation), and many times don’t trust their environment enough to take risks in learning. They become defensive and establish their own limitations. However, these barriers can be overcome. By attempting to understand students, presenting ourselves in a genuine way, and creating this “tribal” or community-centered atmosphere that Cozolino suggests, this optimistic scientist shows us that these children can be reached. He states: We often see that high-risk children and adolescents who eventually have successful lives describe with great affection the one or two people who took an interest in them—a mentor, a teacher, a ballet or karate instructor—someone who gave them time, believed in them, and encouraged their success. These reports should not be taken lightly; they reflect the biological reality that we learn better when we are face-to-face and heart-toheart with someone who cares about us. (p. 50) This quote shows that the best teachers are the ones who care, and that simply exuding kindness toward an individual can help them to overcome the myriad challenges they face. When I doubt myself as a teacher, this fact will empower me and remind me that my compassion and love can change lives. Adolescent identities as related to gender and sexuality can also impact learning and behavior in the classroom. In Jeffrey Arnett’s book Adolescence and Emerging Adulthood: A Cultural Approach, Arnett differentiates between sex and gender by stating sex refers to the “biological status of being male or female,” whereas gender designates “the social categories of male and female” (Arnett 123, emphasis added). Thus, while our sexuality is determined at birth,



our concept of gender is socially constructed and is dependent upon social, cultural, political, and even historical contexts. How a student identifies their gender affects how they socialize with their peers. According to differential gender socialization, boys and girls socialize according to different attitudes and behavior related to each gender (Arnett, 2013, p. 132). Problems arise when a student’s adherence to these expectations becomes too polarized (or when they find themselves not fitting into a traditional gender schema, often meeting rejection from their peers). In girls, this can manifest in low self-confidence, body image issues, and eating disorders. In boys, it can often result in increased verbal or physical aggression. Dealing with these issues is not my specialty—I do not intend to offer counseling to students dealing with larger psychological or emotional problems. However, I do aim to be an advocate for my students and know how to get them the help they need if necessary. Beverly Daniel Tatum (2003), author of Why are all the Black Kids Sitting Together, claims that in America, “we have deeply embedded stereotypes that connect racial identity to academic ability, and children become aware of these stereotypes as they grow up in the school context” (p. 29). In this way, adolescents’ perceptions about race and the perceived beliefs associated with their race’s academic performance can negatively affect learning. Tatum also briefly presents the research of Ogbu and Fordham who argue that minorities (especially black students) from all socioeconomic backgrounds develop oppositional identities that lead them to view schooling as a form of forced assimilation to white cultural values” (2003, p. 28). Such groups, the researchers claim, can ultimately come to “equate academic success with ‘acting white’” (Tatum, 2003, p. 28). While students may not be aware of this at a conscious level, it has the potential to motivate students to create barriers between themselves and students or



teachers of other races. Such barriers are a hindrance to creating a safe, communal classroom. Tatum (2003) further asserts that: “The stereotypical images we hold of certain groups are powerful in influencing what people see and expect of students. Unless educators consciously try to undermine and work against these kinds of stereotypes, they often act on them unconsciously. Our assumptions of race are so deeply entrenched that it is virtually impossible for us to not hold them unless we take conscious and deliberate action.” (p. 38) The most important thing teachers can do to prevent their assumptions about sexuality, race, and gender from influencing their teaching is to remain conscious of how what they say or do can affect their students. Even if we consider ourselves “open-minded,” we are still the product of a certain socioeconomic and cultural background, and with that come certain privileges and “ways of seeing.” I subscribe to the four things Tatum (2003) suggests educators can do to “debunk” racial stereotypes: (1) educators can make sure students are not segregating themselves into racially defined groups in the classroom, (2) educators can encourage students to pursue things that are not traditionally associated with members of their group, (3) educators can find ways to incorporate information related to the history and culture of students into the curriculum, and (4) educators can inspire students to overcome anti-academic tendencies by getting to know them (p. 32-33). I think keeping these in mind with my future students will help me to constantly reflect on my own actions to ensure they are supporting my students as much as possible. I want to be able to acknowledge difficult subjects in my classroom and have open discussions about how it affects my students, our society, and the characters in the texts that we read. I will strive to continually educate myself on issues affecting adolescents, empathize with their struggles, and



set a positive example of how to treat others regardless of differences.

Conclusion It can be daunting to think of the multitude of difficulties that our adolescent students face as they come to learn in our classrooms. One of the greatest personal challenges I encounter is establishing boundaries between my problems and my students’ problems; it is easy to be brought down by the weight of the obstacles that so many of “your children” confront. Cozolino (2013) poignantly addresses this subject with the idea of “the shadow:” Carl Jung said that the answers to our most important questions are to be found in the shadow. The shadow is the repository of our own pain and shame; hidden with it is the pain of our families and the demons of our inner lives. The heroic teacher acknowledges the pain, suffering, hypocrisy, and lack of fairness in the world. Because you can't completely banish the shadow, you must learn to develop a relationship with it. If the shadow can be acknowledged and included as part of the emotional reality of the classroom, the teacher becomes transformed into a guide on the path to wisdom. Wisdom is knowledge mixed with compassion and presented in a manner that helps others to heal and grow. In other words, wisdom is knowledge in the service of others. (2013, p. 200) The amount of “pain, suffering, hypocrisy, and lack of fairness in the world” can be overwhelming. It is something that, for one’s own survival, has to be approached from a small level. I know I cannot change all the negative things that might influence my students’ learning, but I can acknowledge them, and make them real enough that my students can acknowledge and confront them. This acknowledgement of reality as it really exists is so important for adolescents who as they progress into adulthood no longer want to be deceived. In the end, I think students



respond to real teachers, and real teachers are capable of creating a nurturing, safe, stimulating, and supportive environment that, according to research, can melt away all the cognitive, psychological, social, and cultural challenges students face to learning in the classroom. This, of course, is not an easy task, but it does show that it is a possibility. If I see that my students feel that they can take risks and engage with new or difficult ideas without hesitation, I will know that I am doing my job well. This is something I will always strive for.



References Arnett, Jeffrey Jensen. (2013). Adolescence and Emerging Adulthood: A Cultural Approach. (5th ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson Education, Inc. Cozolino, L. J. (2013). The social neuroscience of education: optimizing attachment and learning in the classroom. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.. Dahl, Ronald E. (2004). Adolescent Brain Development: A Period of Vulnerabilities and Opportunities. New York Academy of Sciences. Sousa, David A. (2011). How the Brain Learns. (4th ed.) Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press. Tatum, Beverly Daniel. (2003). Why are all the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria: And Other Conversations About Race. New York: Basic Books Group.