Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Teens: Are Their Brains to Blame?

Teenagers! They’re impulsive. Aggressive. Engage in risky behavior and just don’t know what’s best for them.  And there’s research now that gives a reason for it too.  It’s that their brains are not capable of making reasonable decisions. You know.  It’s their frontal lobes that are not fully developed and that’s why they act the way they do.

Or is it?

In a public radio interview (listen here) Dr. Robert Epstein, Research Psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology, asks adults to consider who might gain from pathologizing teenage behavior?

For one industry doing so has resulted in multi-billion dollar profits off of popularizing this belief.  


Epstein shared that we are now giving more psychoactive drugs to our teens than all other prescription medications combined, including acne medication and antibiotics.

But the teen brain is different right? Epstein says yes, of course it is different. Our brains change throughout our lives to adapt to what we need at the time of development. For example, most forms of memory and intelligence actually peak between ages 13 and 15. After our 20s or 30s, our cognitive abilities decline for the rest of our lives. Brain size follows the same pattern, peaking at age 14. By the time we’re 70 (the age of supreme court justices and our president), the brain has shrunk to the size it was when we were between 2 and 3 years old.

While it is true that the teen brain has different features than the adult brain, in his article in Scientific American Epstein reminds us that correlation does not equal causation. In fact there is not a single study that establishes a causal relation between the properties of the brain being examined and the problems we see in teens. In the article, The Myth of the Teen Brain, we learn that the myths about the teen brain being the cause of moody and naturally depressed teens are simply inaccurate. To prove this Epstein studied other cultures around the world and found that turmoil isn’t present in many other cultures. In fact there are many cultures that don’t even have a word for adolescence. Epstein says this turmoil isn’t natural or inevitable.

That is good news. Once we scratch beneath the research and dig into the real information out there, we can take lessons from history, science, and from other cultures. This enables us to “address” the underlying issues rather than treat the symptoms with medication.  

Epstein makes a compelling case about a primary issue being the infantilization of youth. Young people are ready and capable of doing more than sitting at a school desk for days on end listening to lectures and answering questions processed through textbooks... even if those books happen to be digital.

Epstein expands on the idea John Taylor Gatto brought to light in his book, The Underground History of American Education. In it he revealed how America child labor laws were extended to cover more and more kinds of work, and how school was made as the only avenue to certain occupations. The intention was ultimately to draw all work into the school net. This happened for a variety of reasons. For example, whereas historically young people worked with adults, after the Great Depression labor unions fought to keep teens out of the workforce to combat the high unemployment rates (27%) and provide jobs to help Americanize the large immigrant population.

Epstein points out that “the dramatic changes set in motion by the turmoil of America’s industrial revolution also obliterated from modern consciousness the true abilities of young people, leaving adults with the faulty belief that teenagers were inherently irresponsible and incompetent. What’s more, the rate at which restrictions were placed on young people began to accelerate after the 1930s, and increased dramatically after the social turmoil of the 1960s.” Epstein’s research shows that teenagers today are subject to 10 times as many restrictions as are mainstream adults, to twice as many restrictions as are active-duty U.S. Marines, and even to twice as many restrictions as are incarcerated felons.

The answer is in giving young people more responsibility and opportunity to interact with adults.  Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, is familiar with Epstein’s work and applies his research in her current role. She explains that if we trust our youth with the inevitable responsibilities of modern life sooner rather than later, we can reinvigorate our society.  One way she has addressed this is by creating a youth council giving students a say in issues that are important to them.  

School models like Big Picture Learning are fueled by this message.  At these schools students are out in the world learning with adults who are pursuing careers they find interesting.  Epstein approves.  His research suggests that teenagers are as competent as adults across a wide range of adult abilities, and other research has long shown that they are actually superior to adults on tests of memory, intelligence, and perception. He says the assertion that teenagers have an “immature” brain that necessarily causes turmoil is invalidated when looking at anthropological research from around the world. He explains there is a wealth of data shows that when young people are given meaningful responsibility and meaningful contact with adults, they quickly rise to the challenge, and their “inner adult” emerges.

Brewer puts it this way.  “Dr. Epstein shows not how much we lose by belittling teens, but also how much we stand to gain by empowering them.”

Epstein’s conclusion?

The social-emotional turmoil experienced by many young people in the United States is entirely a creation of modern culture. Teens are trapped in the frivolous world of peer culture and learn virtually everything they know from one another. We produce turmoil by infantilizing our young and isolating them from adults. Modern schooling and restrictions on youth labor are remnants of the Industrial Revolution that are no longer appropriate for today’s world; the exploitative factories are long gone, and we have the ability now to provide mass education on an individual basis using technology. Epstein says that almost without exception, the reckless and irresponsible behavior we see is the teen’s way of declaring his or her adulthood. They are wrongly treated like children when in fact teenagers are inherently highly capable young adults.

Epstein says there is hope. He shares that we know from extensive research that when we treat teens like adults, they almost immediately rise to the challenge. He suggests we replace the myth of the immature teen brain with a frank look at capable and savvy teens in history, at teens in other cultures and at the truly extraordinary potential of our own young people today.

How do we do that?

Epstein says that teens should be learning from the people they are about to become. Here are three ideas for accomplishing that.
  1. Learning outside of school
    Provide school models like Big Picture Learning where founder Elliot Washor explains, in his bookLeaving to Learn,” students are interacting with adults in their world.
  2. Serving the community
    Provide opportunities to serve their community like Gale Brewer has put in practice with youth councils.
  3. Not allowing school to rob families of time together
    Recognize the problem with homework. Education expert Gary Stager explains that there is no reason for children to work a second unpaid shift when returning home from school objecting to the imposition of homework into what might otherwise be domestic tranquility. That domestic tranquility is the crucial time that Epstein points out is so important for adults to use to spend precious time with their children.  

The teen brain is indeed different, but the way to address this is not necessarily in the ways we’ve been led to believe by the pharma companies and mainstream press. These differences need to be embraced, not medicated. There are several ways parents and educators can address this. Which will you consider embracing with the teens in your life?

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Fight Fake News: A @CommonSenseEd #MediaLiteracy Toolkit

Innovative educators understand that they play a crucial role in our democratic society. However, a teacher’s job to ensure students are informed and educated has taken on a new meaning in the age of the internet where information is everywhere but accuracy, quality, and bias often remain unchecked.

Media literacy is a topic innovative educators cover with students within the broader topic of digital literacy. However, during the 2016 election the focus on fake news and alternative facts sped onto everyone’s radar.  It was then that educators began to realize that students were not prepared to evaluate the accuracy, perspective, credibility and relevance of information, media, data or other resources (3B - ISTE Student Standards).

A study from the Stanford History Education group confirms this pointing out that “Our ‘digital natives’ may be able to flit between Facebook and Twitter while simultaneously uploading a selfie to Instagram and texting a friend. But when it comes to evaluating information that flows through media channels, they are easily duped.

Fortunately, there’s help.

Common Sense Education has released their newest educator’s toolkit. The topic: News and media literacy. The toolkit is designed to provide educators with strategies to equip students with the core skills they need to think critically about today's media. The toolkit includes classroom-ready learning resources broken down by grade level. In it you’ll find the following educational content on news and media literacy:
  • Teaching tools and lessons by topic
  • Take-home student activities
  • Videos and interactive educational games
  • Supplemental materials for family engagement
  • Professional development for teachers
  • Materials available in multiple formats (low-tech and high-tech)

For teens there is also “Digital Bytes” where teachers are guided to provide students with interactive experiences on topics such as news literacy, internet hoaxes, and online tracking. For families there is a best-of list that looks at news sources that can be trusted.
Parents can use these kid-friendly sources as a jumping-off point to discuss how news is reported and how to be a critical media consumer. There is also a strand in Common Sense Education's Parent Concerns with articles, videos, and answers to questions about news and media literacy.

Innovative educators ready to get started are invited to join Kelly Mendoza, Director of Learning and Engagement at Common Sense Education, in a live webinar: News and Media Literacy: Building Critical Consumers and Creators. Kelly will lead participants on an exploration addressing these topics:
  • Why news and media literacy is more important than ever
  • Latest research on kids and news
  • What is “fake news” and how to spot it
  • Ways teachers can integrate news and media literacy into their curriculum
  • Rubrics you can use to assess students’ understanding of news literacy
She will also debut the new News and Media Literacy Toolkit. Those who join live will have the opportunity to ask questions and interact with colleagues. The webinar takes place Wednesday, March 29, 2017 @ 4:00 pm - 5:00 pm EDT. For more information visit: http://home.edweb.net/webinar/news-media-literacy-building-critical-consumers

Saturday, March 25, 2017

3 Hottest Posts Most Popular On The Innovative Educator

Haven’t been keeping up with The Innovative Educator? Don’t worry. That’s what this wrap up is for.  Here are the three hottest posts that you don’t want to miss!

What’s hot this week? Innovative school models, misconceptions about charter schools, and increasing parent engagement.

Making its way to the top for the first time is a post I wrote about innovative school models that influence my thinking. I wrote this in part as a result of conversations around the need for charter schools as the answer to bring innovation to public schools.  But it is not. There have long been school models that innovative public school educators have or have wanted to adopt. What got in the way was not their unwillingness to move away from traditional models, but rather the system of standards and testing that was thrust upon schools following No Child Left Behind. This post looks at those models.  The second most popular post on the blog looks at the many misconceptions the public has around charter schools.  Rounding out the top three posts is my recap of the #SXSWEdu panel discussion I participated in that was hosted by Common Sense Education. In the post I outline 9 ways to increase parent engagement using digital media.

So what are you waiting for? Now's your chance. Take a look at the posts below and click the link to read one(s) that looks of interest to you.

Mar 19, 2017, 
Mar 3, 2017, 
Mar 12, 2017, 

If you like any of these posts, I hope you’ll share with others using the buttons below on Twitter, Facebook, email or whichever platform you like best.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Is Your School Modern? Check Out These 10 Principles to Find Out

Innovative educators understand that surprisingly little has changed in how school is done today versus the last century. It is clear we must update and/or throw out outdated practices and possibly do something radically different. But what does it really take for a school to be modern? This is the question educators and authors Will Richardson and Bruce Dixon answer in their white paper 10 Principles For Schools of Modern Learning: The Urgent Case for Reimagining Today’s Schools.

Not only do the authors outline 10 principles for school communities to focus on as they get started in creating an education model that serves the needs of today's students, but they also provide evidence to make the case in support of reimagining schools. 

Take a look at the 10 principles and think about them in relation to schools or school models in which you teach or are familiar.
Read the full white paper to discover why each Principle is important and steps to put it into action.
Educators familiar with innovative schools / models may be able to immediately make connections between the models / schools they know and these principles. For example, Science Leadership Academy immediately comes to mind as I read several of these ideas. For example they discuss and have core values posted in every classroom (Principle 1) and they think deeply about their mission and vision and update it with the passage of time (Principle 2).

A useful exercise for schools interested in starting on this journey could include that they:
1) Select the principles they would like to start with 
2) Discuss what that could look like
3) Come up with a strategy to put that in action
4) Check in to evaluate progress and success

The white paper also provides compelling evidence for why we need to reimagine schools. Here is an overview of that. 
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Visit page 5 of the whitepaper where you can access the source behind each piece of evidence. 

Will Richardson and Bruce Dixon make a solid case but what would it take to really put these principles into effect? There would certainly need to be buy in from the top down, bottom up, and throughout the school community. But how do you get that buy in and how do you move from reimagining school to putting new learning environments into place?  The authors are inviting education leaders to join them on an 8-week journey that is focused on the “how” of change, by thinking, doing, creating, and sharing. The first round is full, but you can sign up for Change.School 2 (CS2) starting in early June and running through late July. You can find information about Change.School and this and future opportunities at https://change.school