Middle School Brains: Teaching the Distracted

by Alan Haskvitz


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The middle school years are very interesting in that students are making that difficult transition into adulthood while still being confined and confused by their minds and bodies. These easily distracted students are all the more difficult to reach because their brains are allegedly going through a brain spurt and they are also dealing with the onslaught of puberty.

Despite the physical and metal challenges the research does provide some insights and recommendations that can help clarify the teacher’s challenge.

There appears evidence that teenager’s who exercise their synapses more keep what they have learned better. Any teacher or parent who has dealt with a middle schooler clearly knows that their brain is not only a work in progress, but one that at times to appear to be regressing.

An interesting study by Dr. Judith Rapoport found that there was a fresh growth in the brain for girls at age 11 and boys a year later. Of note is the possibility that students have a more difficult time learning new languages after this development has taken place, which is prior to high school. In other words, middle school would be a better time for a second language program to be instituted.

As for emotions, middle school age students in a study done at McLean Hospital, reacted strongly to facial emotions instead of using a more mature, reasoned reaction. In other words, these young teens might be quicker to anger when exposed to stimuli that older students would ignore.

Since the prefrontal cortex, the area that deals with moods and control, is the the last region of the brain to mature, usually around age 18, those things that the student does most are the ones that are going to stay with him or her longest. So teachers are going to be competing for brain space with music, sports, and whatever else is rattling around in the teenager’s brain. Thus it is important to eliminate distractions in the classroom as a way to improve retention of data. Equally important is the need for teachers to retain the middle schooler’s attention by using the senses and emotions and asking thought provoking questions. Encouraging the students to use a variety of ways to solve a problem also helps build memory.

Here are some additional strategies that work with young teenagers. Develop integrated lessons that have a multitude of possible answers. Connect what is being taught to the student’s personal life and making lessons relevant. Understand that stress is treated differentially be males and females. Males seem to enjoy the challenge and females tend to show negative results in similar situations. Games and other competitive strategies should be used, but not overused.

Here are eight steps to creating middle school related lessons based on experience and brain based publications:

First, research from the federal government indicates that students remember material best when it is given in small amounts and repeated at later intervals.

Secondly, listening to music has never proven to improve study skills or memory. Indeed, research has shown that the brain cannot multitask. It can listen to music for a second and switch back to reading, but not at the same time. Although I have heard of some Gregorian chants having a positive effect, the research seems to indicate that using music in the classroom and at home while studying does not appear to have a positive impact on learning.

Third, active learning where the student participates in the process either by presenting or taking part in an activity is highly favored by most teenagers. But be aware the peer pressure is very dominate at this time. Thus having a teen working with those who are not motivated or do not honor work can reflect poorly on a child’s likelihood for success. Peer pressure is of more value to a teenager than a teacher or parent on the whole. That is why it is so important to check on their friends both in person and online.

Next, I use a form of teaching called linking. This means that any new information presented to a child must be linked to previously learned material before it can be considered mastered. I use a drill called three transfers which requires that the student use the information in three different ways. For example, any new fact can be made into a poem, put on a card, used as a mnemonic devise, told to a parent, by part of an art work, or written in code beside being used in their notes.

Drill and kill have been downplayed as good learning tools, but I disagree. They can be very comforting for some students when used within reason. Teens enjoy showing mastery of a subject and if that requires them to memorize a fair amount of information the challenge can be very invigorating. My students feel quite pleased with themselves when they know the 50 states and capitals and like to quiz each other on them. They feel a sense of accomplishment with such concrete forms of learning. However, this is not the best way to learn for those who have not developed the ability to control their concentration patterns. For those a more active approach is better such as creating songs and drawing large maps and labeling them.

Fifth, providing lessons and activities that require problem solving and critical thinking can provide for a better way to individualize and differentiate learning as it provides different styles of learners the opportunity to acquire knowledge. An active classroom is best and the use of a variety of methods is best. However, the recently published book by Daniel Willingham indicated that the brain was not really good at thinking without a substantial knowledge base. This book is a must read for teachers whether or not you agree with what he writes in Why Don’t Students Like School.

Sixth, students need to learn how to study. This requires routines and help in establishing organizational methods. In my class the first thing the students learn is how to study, organize, and develop study methods that best suit them. It is like coaching. You start with the basics.

Seventh, a student needs to understand the essence and importance of metacognition. In other words, knowing about knowing. The strategies for solving problems, evaluating how well that solution works, and having the stamina to complete the task are the basis of education and intellectual growth. A teacher who helps students develop the tools necessary to learn and apply what was learned has truly impacted the future. Especially, when those skills are broad and extend outside the reach of one subject area, which is domain general. Thus the middle school student needs to know both how to learn and how to evaluate if he or she has learned and how to correct weaknesses. That is why teachers who stress end of term or mid-term test over more frequent testing may be allowing to much time to pass between the evaluation of learning and the correction of errors.

Finally, perhaps the greatest need in teaching middle schoolers is “under-explaining.”The rise of the 64 count crayon coloring box from the basic eight and 16 reflects an interesting reflection on decision making for students. With fewer colors students learned how to use tints, tones, and shades of colors as well as mix new ones. With the advent of larger boxes of colors that need became one of choice and creativity pretty much was nipped. Like the small box of crayons, the simpler the assignment details the more the student can show what they have learned and be creative and personalize the learning more. Every teacher has heard the refrain, “How many sentences, words, pages, paragraphs?” This is essentially a request by the student to limit his or her thinking. That is why I recommend that assignments be more general with an an objective that can display the student’s acquired knowledge can be used correctly to identify what they know and offer the teacher an insight into what the pupil needs to learn.