Educators should be more like teenagers

We all love our routines and our way of doing things. We’ve been doing them for years and it works like a charm. Well, at least from our perspective.

Change? That’s less favorable. Actually, it’s hard and requires adjustment, learning, and time. 

But change can be good. And change can be especially good when it improves student learning and socio-emotional well-being. But why is it so hard for educators (teachers, leaders, and policy makers) to embrace change?

We have a lot to learn from our teenage students.

The adolescent and young adulthood years (approximately between the ages of 10 to 24) are typically characterized by risk-taking, behavioral and emotional rollercoasters, and novelty-seeking. If you live with an adolescent, I’m pretty sure you’ve had to cope with some tough mood swings and lack of impulse control. Teenagers are also prone to perform thoughtless actions due to peer pressure in the process of “fitting in.” Researchers maintain that this behavior is due to the underdeveloped prefrontal cortex, the front part of the brain. It is the last region of the brain to develop and is thought to reach full maturity around a young adult’s twenty-fifth birthday. 

What’s inspirational about this period in life is the novelty-seeking. Individuals begin to develop their identity, interests, and personality and they are therefore open to new ideas and experiences. For example, they may go through phases during which they listen to different kinds of music and are open to tasting new kinds of food. Teenagers also “try on” different personalities as they explore their identity. Their experiences are eclectic and new.

From an evolutionary perspective, adolescence was a time during which individuals acquired new skills to survive in the world when the time came to live independently. Clearly the world is very different nowadays but this behavior is in our DNA. This adaptive behavior requires openness to novel experiences through which knowledge and skills are gained. In fact, animal studies show that adolescent and young adult rats have an exploratory disposition as well. For example, one study found that adolescent rats spent double the amount of time playing with a new object in their cage when compared to adult rats.

Robert Sapolsky, a professor of neurobiology, suggests that humans’ openness to novelty decreases as they get older. In one study for example, Sapolsky showed that when people were never exposed to a certain kind of music by 25 years of age, there was only a 5% chance that they would be open to listening to it. In addition, his animal studies have shown that adolescent rats are open to try new food when they are in their late teens and early adulthood but not after. According to Sapolsky, the window for novelty preferences closes right after young adulthood. 

It’s kind of a shame that our ability to be flexible and open to new ideas, tools, and experiences decreases as we grow older. 

Having spent over a decade working in various schools around the world, I have seen first hand how hard it is for schools to advance institutional change. Sometimes creative teachers who come up with new initiatives are blocked by an administrator because “that’s how things are done there.” In other schools teachers may not be so enthusiastic about trying new teaching methodologies. And I have also observed parents resist change. 

In almost every field today, companies and institutions embrace or are at the forefront of innovation. For example, in the field of medicine, new medications, treatments, and technologies are continuously developed to improve patient care and quality of life. In the field of e-commerce, companies use artificial intelligence to recommend products and services in order to personalize customer experience. In most industries, if you don’t endorse the advances you risk losing clients and eventually your business. 

So why is it that in the field of education that drive to “be on top of the game” is lacking?

Perhaps it’s time for us educators to embrace our inner-teenagers and not be afraid of the risks. Let’s experiment with new teaching methods and new scheduling models!

To the best of my knowledge, during the pandemic our schools did not make significant adjustments to their educational model. Those who opted for remote learning basically copy-pasted their in-person schedule to online learning platforms. Thus, their students are spending long hours in front of the computer (if they even have access to the internet). Other schools are teaching in person while some of their students choose to join from home. 

By no means am I underestimating the great deal of thought, work, and time that was put into opening schools this year. All my colleagues continue to work around the clock to support their students and community academically, socially, and emotionally. One may claim that teaching during the pandemic did release our inner-teenagers. For example, teachers had to learn how to use new edtech tools within days of school shutdowns. On the other hand, however, most schools did not make novel modifications to their schedules and teaching practices. 

I was hoping that we (including policymakers) would reignite our novelty-seeking and come up with some creative pedagogical reform during these challenging times. Our students are suffering academically and emotionally (student anxiety is through the roof). For example, in some schools, students who struggle to learn from home are allowed to skip assignments because they cannot manage all the work without their school support system. Why not reduce the workload as opposed to letting the child miss out academically? Yes, schools are mandated to dedicate a certain amount of periods to several subjects per week (e.g., math and English language arts). But there have to be creative ways to work around that.

Embracing my inner-teen here, maybe we could adopt interdisciplinary teaching to collapse certain subjects into others. Teachers can develop joint units that tackle skills from two or even three subjects. For example, we can easily develop interdisciplinary math and science units or joint social studies and art units. What prevents us from doing that? 

I wonder what a teenage brain would have come up with? 

Come to think of it, many large tech companies were founded by young adults. For example, Mark Zuckerberg founded Facebook when he was just 19 years old. Bill Gates dropped out of college and developed Microsoft at 23 years of age. Finally, Elon Musk established his first company in his late twenties.

Researchers claim that individuals’ inclination toward novelty-seeking is dependent upon their upbringing and their local culture. This means that your family and environments in which you spend many hours in (e.g., school), impact your attitude towards new experiences. When you work at a place like Facebook, you are expected to have the drive to continuously improve their work, to embrace new technologies, and to adopt new ways of thinking. Schools should strive to have a similar atmosphere. This is important because our students learn how to conduct themselves in this world from observing our behavior. We are their role models.

Let’s gather and think about novel ways of teaching and collaboration to help our students thrive. Let’s all embrace our inner-teenager and not to be afraid of the risks.

About the Author
Rinat Levy Cohen is a PhD Candidate in Contemporary Learning and Interdisciplinary Research at Fordham University’s Graduate School of Education. Her doctoral work focuses on enhancing the design and effectiveness of traditional and digital learning environments for STEAM and Judaic Studies. Rinat has taught English and Hebrew as second languages and STEAM education in both Israel and the United States, for over a decade. She provides professional development for teachers and educational organizations.
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