S-J Blakemore, Inventing Ourselves: the secret life of the teenage brain

I didn’t think that this book was particularly about the teenage brain. It describes more generally how the brain grows, develops and changes throughout life, and provides scientific explanations for the behaviour of children, teenagers and adults.  This is fine, I suppose, and I may be thinking too much like an arts graduate here but, I am not sure how useful it is for teachers or parents to know, for example, that the reason the teenagers in their life are taking risks is because their limbic system and prefrontal cortex are developing at different rates.

There were, however, two sections of the book that did provoke my interest: one relevant to pastoral care and the other to brain training.  The first of these sections discusses a couple of large scale studies examining how far children and adults are influenced by the opinions of others.  These showed that young adolescents (12 to 14 year olds) are particularly swayed by what they are told to be the views of other teenagers.  Older adolescents (15 to 18 year olds) also care about what others of their generation think but place more faith in the views of adults than their younger counterparts.  One of the conclusions that Blakemore draws from this is that ‘health advertising aimed at young people, rather than focusing on the risks of dangerous behaviours such as smoking, binge-drinking and experimenting with drugs, should perhaps focus on social norms and peer influence’.  I can see this.  Thinking that a potential friend or love-interest finds the smell of cigarettes disgusting is probably more of an incentive to avoid tobacco than knowing that you might develop lung cancer at some unspecified time in the future.

Researchers at Yale and Princeton Universities made use of the finding that younger teenagers are especially mindful of the views of their contemporaries when conducting a trial for a new anti-bullying programme in 56 middle schools in New Jersey.  Half of all pupils at each school were allocated to the programme,  with the other half serving as a control group.  Those enrolled on the programme were ‘encouraged to lead grassroots anti-bullying campaigns’.  One such campaign involved students designing anti-bullying posters.  These were tagged with both the name and a picture of the student-artist, and then displayed around the school. The rationale behind this was to create a clear link between the anti-bullying message promoted by the poster and the named individual who had produced it.  Another student-led campaign encouraged participants to give out orange wristbands as rewards to fellow students ‘observed in engaging in friendly behaviours’.  The schools that took part in these pilot programmes reported a drop in reports of student-to-student conflict of up to 30%.  Follow-up studies that tracked individual students involved in the anti-bullying programmes suggested that the larger a student’s friendship group, the more strongly the programme had influenced them.  I liked the positive nature of this approach, and the results sound great but it would have been helpful to know what other systems these schools had in place for tackling bullying and if the impact of the programmes was transient or long lasting.  Also, as all well-informed teachers know, sometimes just focusing on something helps, and the value of a particular approach can be overstated.  Here, the focus on bullying could have made more of a difference than the grassroots nature of the campaigns.

The section of the book on brain training can be more briefly explained.  Blakemore and her colleagues were interested in whether cognitive skills were better learned at some stages in adolescence than others. To explore this they divided a group of 558 eleven to eighteen year olds into three groups, and gave each group training in one cognitive skill, either non-verbal reasoning, numerosity discrimination (this involved looking at ‘two groups of different coloured dots in quick succession on a computer screen [and judging] which group had the most dots’) or facial recognition.  Tests administered before and immediately after the training, as well as ones carried at sixth months later, provided two key pieces of information. (1) Training on non-verbal reasoning and numerosity improved performance but training on facial recognition yielded no gains.  (2) Older adolescents benefited most from the training.  Whilst this certainly does not suggest that education is wasted on the young, it does suggest that those of us in education need to be cautious about thinking ‘the earlier the better’.

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