Back in March 2015 I heard the following episode of Jim Al-Khalili’s ‘The Life Scientific’ with Sarah-Jayne Blakemore.
In listening to this short programme, I felt a real ‘eureka’ moment; after many long years of working with teenagers and knowing instinctively that they are amazing, full of potential and worthy of being treated as different to both children and adults, a scientific, intelligent and sensible voice on the radio was backing up my instinct with research.
I was desperate to know more. I looked up Sarah-Jayne’s Ted talk (https://www.ted.com/talks/sarah_jayne_blakemore_the_mysterious_workings_of_the_adolescent_brain), read as much as I could about her ideas (https://www.edge.org/conversation/sarah_jayne_blakemore-sarah-jayne-blakemore-the-teenagers-sense-of-social-self) and began to get evangelical about her ideas. At the time I was an acting education support officer working in schools and training on behaviour, learning and additional support needs and I began to use her ideas in my training. I talked about how we need to understand that ‘teenage’ behaviour (such as risk-taking and sensitivity to peer influence), so often maligned and seen as ‘difficult’ is in fact a key part of adolescent development and crucial to the teenager’s un-attachment from care-givers (who won’t be around for ever) and attachment to those of a similar age (who are more likely to be around for longer). But I also talked about the fact that the brain’s plasticity means than teenagers must not be written off as unable to learn new things – including positive attachments and behaviours – and that we have to resist the obsession with putting all of our money and efforts into the early years and to fight against the misconception that EARLY INTERVENTION is EARLY YEARS INTERVENTION. I have known numerous children over the years who sailed through childhood with no issues or difficulties but then suddenly fell apart in adolescence, only to find that support from agencies was inaccessible as they were ‘too old’. As if it would be a waste of money or too costly to intervene with them instead of intervening with a younger child with more ‘potential for recovery’. Grrrrr.
Sarah-Jayne’s science and research helped me to champion the cause of the adolescent in a way that I had never been able to before.
In the summer of 2015 I was delighted to hear that a play had been produced with Islington Youth Theatre and the National Theatre ( http://www.companythree.co.uk/brainstorm-1) and more delighted to discover that Ned Glasier, the director, had been a drama pupil of mine back at Shene School in 1994, and a very fine Salieri at that. These small world coincidences keep me going.
On returning to my school and Deputy Head post last May, I took my passion for Sarah-Jayne’s ideas with me and introduced a module in PSE for all of our 4th year pupils on the teenage brain and how understanding the science is so important for learning. I reference her regularly in my assemblies (https://lenabellina.wordpress.com/2017/04/01/the-end-of-a-momentous-few-months/) and blogs
Last week I made my first foray into the world of being a ‘teacher voice’ in a TESS article and quoted Sarah-Jayne’s ideas when commenting on the fact that girls seem to feel that their voices go unheard at the time of transition from primary to secondary school.
And so last night it was an absolute joy and privilege to hear her speak live in Edinburgh at the RSA Scotland annual Angus Miller lecture.
It was great to see a number of young people in the audience and to learn that Young Scot had played a large part in the organisation of the event.
It was also a privilege to be accompanied to the event by my thirteen year old daughter. Aside from Sarah-Jayne’s own children, I think that she may have been the youngest person there. And she loved it.
(On the way home she quietly told me that I can’t have a go at her for going to bed too late, sleeping in late and wanting to be on her screen….because Sarah-Jayne says that those things are ok.)
Every secondary teacher in Scotland should have been in that room with us. Everyone who has chosen to accept the privilege of working with this fascinating and inspiring tribe should know about these ideas and listen to Sarah-Jayne.
I am hugely grateful to her for coming to Scotland and to the RSA for making it happen.
Below are some notes that I took and photos of the slides. This is what I heard Sarah-Jayne say and what I took from it: others may have heard or interpreted differently and I sure there will be other posts about the lecture. If you want to know more, look at Sarah-Jayne’s research and read her books.
If you don’t have time, these are the three messages that you need to hear right now:
- The education system we have does not suit what we know to be true about the teenage brain. Things need to change.
- We need to listen to teenagers when designing their education
- Let’s not give up on people who have not done very well early on.
(and a PS to the lady who spoke who spoke so very well in the Q and A about children who are vulnerable: I am a drama teacher and will fight tooth and nail to preserve it in schools; I was a dramatherapist and it informs every bit of my educational practice and I hope to be a head teacher one day…..There is hope.)
Sarah-Jayne began with explaining her reasons for coming into this field:
Degree and post doc on schizophrenia
Asked question re when symptoms started (eg voices and delusions)
Found that it was mostly between ages if 18 and 25
Why does late teenage brain dev go wrong in those individuals?
Little research back then into teen brain so went into that – ended up making that her main focus.
75% of adult mental health disorders start in adolescence
Adolescence is defined as the period of life that starts with the biological, hormonal and physical changes of puberty and ends at the age at which an individual attains a stable, independent role in society.
Adolescence starts with puberty (easy to define)
Ends with when you take independent role in society (woolly!)
Unique period of biological, psychological and sociological development.
Expectations around age of independence are culturally varied – may stay with parents until mid-20s or leave much earlier.
However Sarah-Jayne says that there are commonalities in all adolescents across all cultures.
Risk taking, socialisation are key factors.
Studies done on mice who have about 30 days of adolescence:
Study published about 3 weeks ago:
Shows similar patterns across different cultures.
Based on experimental tasks and questionnaires.
Strikingly similar patterns across cultures and across history:
Adolescence is period when social self goes through profound transition.
Most of our memories that are most vivid are from the teenage years and early 20s.
Moral and political beliefs and sense of self develop hugely in teenage years .
Lots of research on risk taking and teens has been done.
There is some evidence (no of deaths etc) that teenagers take increased risks.
In some ways this is to be expected as teenagers are given more freedom…
Peer influence is critical issue.
Larry Steinberg research:
Friends standing behind a teenager during a lab test on risk-taking has a HUGE effect.
This is backed up by insurance company data.
Young person is most likely to have car accident with more peer passengers in car… Up to age of 25. Adults with passengers are less likely to have an accident.
Are adolescents sensitive to fear of social exclusion?
Used cyberball experiment.
(Seemed advanced tech in 2000! Not now)
The experiment was about excluding the player from the game (manipulated by the tester)
Low mood and anxiety in adolescents is SIGNIFICANT when excluded by others.
When we make decisions there are always different elements at play.
Social pressure is important (eg football hooligan phenomenon).
Social element iS VERY important for teens.
Eg smoking – health risk would be less important than peer ostracism .
Experiment at London Science Museum:
Asked people to rate the risk of various situations.
Then told them what other teens and adults had allegedly said:
Then tested again to see the change in rating after the provided rating:
All five age groups shifted rating significantly.
What about whose provided ratings they were?
Children, young adults and adults are more influenced by adult ratings.
Mid adolescents are equally influenced by adults and adolescents.
Young adolescents are influenced most by other adolescents.
Adolescents are influenced by social norms and peer influence.
Health awareness and public health advertising should be aware of this and look to change social norms and engage peer influence.
Sarah-Jayne referenced an anti bullying campaign I the US – most effective where there was child led interventions
Effect was greatest where the popular kids led the campaign.
Was not much on teenagers when Sarah-Jayne was studying:
Just WRONG! Now know that myelination goes on into 20s.
Everything has changed due to MRI scans.
Mentalising is same as theory of mind- being able to understand people’s hidden mental states through facial expression or behaviour.
Used to think that children develop this around 4 or 5 but have realised it is probably more like 18 months
What about adolescent mentalising?
Scanners show that these parts are activated when we think about others/ mentalising
How do these 4 regions develop in adolescence?
Study done by Jay Giedd – longitudinal study so very useful.
Grey matter peaks in late childhood then decreases in adolescence.
Replicated in a Dutch study.
Only part where grey matter does not decline is adolescence is the part related to vision at back of brain.
Decline in grey matter then levels off for many years before declining again in old age.
In adolescence the brain becomes more white (myelination) and less grey.
Synapses and connections are made in childhood- more that will ever be needed.
Connections which are used are kept but are pruned away if not used during adolescence.
No such thing as an average teenager.
Casey and Steinberg thought risk taking occurs when there is a mismatch between the limbic regions (getting a kick) and prefrontal regions:
They suggested that limbic brain matures sooner that prefrontal cortex.
Sarah-Jayne and colleagues wanted to prove this:
Average data suggested yes but individual data was messy!!!
What accounts for the big differences between individuals?
Can’t tell from the Casey/Steinberg data as done 10 yrs ago- no risk question was asked.
More research being done now.
This is a big assumption in education but Saarh-Jayne wanted to challenge this:
This is used in IQ and entrance exams as they think it is not trainable. (It is!!)
Non verbal is very trainable and IMPROVED across adolescence.
Learning does not always decline with age.
Can do lots of really useful tests on animals around social interaction and the impact of brain development.
Education – what are the key issues?
Sleep patterns are important
We make them get up in the middle of what is their night!! Does not suit them but DOES suit society which wants to get up and out at 8.
Does not suit adolescent brain.
Evidence suggests that we should let them sleep later.
Suggestion- involve adolescents in designing their education.
UCL academy in London- not a Shakespearean school – good model.
Break out spaces
Peer to peer learning
Young people influential in the design.