Education System and Student Brain

The malleable minds

“The idea that the adolescent years don’t serve a purpose other than annoying parents or hanging out with friends, is … misguided,” said Adriana Galván, associate professor of psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles. “All of the experiences that happen during adolescence are important for the individual’s growth.”

Galván found that teenage emotions actually augment their learning capabilities.

However, ages ago it was assumed that by the time a child was around 5 years old, they were expected to act and think like adults.

Artwork by Reyna Yang

“Recent research has found that adult and teen brains work differently. Adults think with the prefrontal cortex, the brain’s rational part,” the University of Rochester Medical Center wrote. “Teens process information with the amygdala. This is the emotional part.”

Some educational systems don’t seem to be up-to-speed with the implications of technology in classrooms and the evolving divergence in ways students are successful in school (AKA everyone learns differently).

Professor of cognitive neuroscience at University College London Sarah-Jayne Blakemore explains that environmental factors work in conjunction with the rapidly developing teen brains to heighten neural activity.

Each individual has a unique learning style that impacts how their brain develops, or doesn’t develop, during their schooling years. For instance, some adolescents are more alert and attentive at nighttime while others function more proficiently early in the morning. Likewise, some work better in groups, while others prefer working alone.

Artwork by Reyna Yang

Although there is a debate about what the perfect curriculum should be for the ever-evolving student brain, some teenagers require specialized learning to boost their individual creativities.

Chairman of the Department of Neurobiology at Scripps Research Institute Gerald Edelman said that every student should have the opportunity to learn through sensory, cultural and problem layers.

According to Howard Gardner, a psychologist and professor of cognition at Harvard Graduate School of Education, intellectual strengths and weaknesses can be explored through what he calls the “theory of seven intelligences” including linguistic, mathematical, spatial, musical, intrapersonal, interpersonal and bodily-kinesthetic intelligence.

School psychologist Stephanie Walker-Sean described the ways in which OPHS teachers appeal to the various forms of learning.


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“The psychological processes utilized by the brain include visual processing, auditory processing, sensory-motor processing, attention, association, conceptualization, executive functioning, and memory. Each processing area is utilized in the absorption of material,” Walker-Sean wrote to the Talon. “Teachers strive to include a variety of processes in the teaching of material, as well as in the work assigned to maximize the learning of their students.”

According to AP Psychology and Economics teacher D.J. Cook, the Oak Park Unified School District is a top-down system: The Common Core standards, Collegiate system, standardized testing and the College Board decide what high schools of the nation must follow, what the high schools do usually dictate what the junior highs do and what the junior highs do may dictate what the elementary schools do.

“OPHS is a pretty incredible institution, but certainly there is room for improvement,” Cook wrote to the Talon. “The school is beholden to its responsibilities, which is to help the next generation take over the economic, political and social structures that our society relies on.”

Artwork by Reyna Yang

Creativity expert Sir Ken Robinson said in a 2010 TED talk that “industrial” models of modern education are all about building the global economy. He said that schools are trying to “meet the future by doing what they did in the past, and on their way, they’re alienating millions of kids who don’t see any purpose in going to school.”

“The current system was designed, conceived and structured for a different age,” Robinson said. “It was conceived in the intellectual culture of the Enlightenment, in the economic circumstances of the Industrial Revolution.”

Robinson said that educational systems have evolved to create a binary outlook on academics: students either feel they are labeled academic or non-academic. This doesn’t actually mean there is a binary system — students can fall within a spectrum of intelligences, as mentioned before.

“Many brilliant people think they’re not,” Robinson said.

Artwork by Reyna Yang

The Eisenhower Southwest Consortium for the Improvement of Mathematics and Science Teaching has published work on the idea that intellectual development is dependent on external stimulation, primarily stimulations that induce brain activity.

“The old paradigm of students as empty vessels waiting to be filled with knowledge has given way to the constructivist belief that students continuously build understandings based on their prior experiences and new information,” wrote.

Cook wrote about a shift in the overall schooling system at OPHS.

“I think education is due for an overhaul and a rethinking of its paradigms and goals,” Cook wrote.  “What could OPHS do better under those restrictions? We could make the prerequisites for AP classes more stringent so that students do not get in over their head.  We could also actively work to reduce the homework requirements for our classes as long as it doesn’t interfere with the practice and process of comprehending and remembering the curriculum.”

Director of Curriculum and Instruction Jay Greenlinger describes a new style of education that OPUSD has implemented that leaves the role of the  teacher as, what he calls, “sage on the stage” and/or “guide on the side.”

“In recent years, the vast majority of teachers have been trained in the Inquiry Based Learning model. This form of instruction relies on the progressive idea that students should be solving meaningful, authentic problems,” Greenlinger wrote. “This is in contrast to the factory model.”

Some teachers have moved away from teacher-centered or “factory” system learning, in attempts to make education more student-centered. English teacher Tristine Wenker implements learning techniques that, as she says, allow students to “explore and discuss” rather than “sit, lecture and write notes.”

“Once you leave school your life is very collaborative [so] you have to get those interpersonal skills,” Wenker said. “I like to have my students spend a lot of time connecting not only with their material but with each other and bouncing ideas off of each other. I facilitate and guide where the discussions go.”

Student Brain and Technology

School curriculums have joined in the widespread technological movement. It’s part of what some school districts are calling “experiential learning,” much of which goes on in OPHS. Science and English departments at OPHS have gone 1:1 for students and technology.

“Our children are living in the most intensely stimulating period in the history of the Earth,” Robinson said.

Students now live in what is called the Information Revolution, meaning computer screens and smartphone usage is pervasive.

“I use technology because it allows for formative assessment — checking for understanding where there isn’t a consequence in a grade — and that provides feedback to both the student and myself on things I may need to change so I can adjust to the specific class,” Science Department Chair Winnie Litten said.

Litten said that balance of “high-tech” and “low-tech” moments allow students to augment their learning capabilities.

“How a student follows through with the information they’re given is up to each individual student. A ten second video can do so much to help a student understand it. I see that as allowing me to jump to the application levels through discussion,” Litten said. “What I teach my students now is more than what I’ve been able to do in the past.”

International consultant in educational neuroscience David A. Sousa and the Australian Council for Educational Leaders (ACEL) stated that educators should adapt to new research in the field of neuroscience and advancements in technology to foster the optimal learning environment for students.

What does that mean? It means phones and computers can actually help kids learn.

“The brain is transforming itself because of its interactions with our technological world. [It] is intimately involved in and connected with everything educators and students do at school,” the ACEL wrote. “Already there are research findings revealing short-term distinct changes in students’ attention, memory function, thinking processes, and social behavior as a result of early and regular use of technology.”

These changes can be both good and bad in classroom environments. Walker-Sean wrote that she advocates for technologically-heavy learning environments, as long as they cater to student needs.

“The child’s brain has been trained to pay attention to shorter and shorter amounts of information with accompanied visual stimulation, resulting in diminished ability to sustain focus especially when the presentation is of a more traditional approach,” Walker-Sean wrote.

However, technology has both its ups and downs in classrooms.

“The stress levels that our students are currently going through are directly tied to the lack of options that people feel they have,” Cook wrote. “Add into that equation the fact that our phones and the internet our rewiring the neurochemistry of our brains and you’ve got a recipe for a generation that is having trouble coping with their stress levels.”

Student Brain and Mental Health

Freshman Francis Jereb wrote to the Talon that particularly in Oak Park, academic and social experiences are intertwined in schools.

“With extreme pressure from schools, parents, and peers, the teen mind is easily overwhelmed. In order to succeed in academic and social settings, teenage brains simply need mental health,” Jereb wrote. “When a teen has good mental health, they can navigate school and relationships with comfort and ease. However, with poor mental health, teens will become easily anxious and have trouble working and paying attention.”

Anxiety affects 25 percent of kids ages 13–18, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. Anxiety disorders often co-occur with other disorders such as depression, eating disorders and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

“You’re more than your mental disorder, but it’s still an important part of you,” Jereb wrote.

Because mental health plays such a large role in the functioning adolescent brain, schools have taken it into consideration. Oak Park implements mindfulness techniques, schedule alterations and specialized programs and clubs.

“This generation differs from others when it comes to schooling and mental health because of its openness and vocalization about mental health support,” Jereb wrote. “Schools are offering their support, but still remain vigorous in their academics.”

Cook wrote that students should include an equilibrium of both CP and AP classes in their schedules so they can better manage course rigor.

“In life, there is always a balance,” Cook wrote. “In this case, there should be a balance of what is the appropriate amount of stress in order for students to achieve their goals.”