California Department of Education
Taking Center Stage – Act II
A summary of young adolescent development, including brain research, as it pertains to the California Department of Education's Recommendation on Relevance.
Note: Following each essay, the Teaching Tips and Parenting Tips demonstrate how to
put the developmental-based strategies into action in the classroom and at home.
As young adolescents emerge from the cloud of childhood, a world comes into view that is new and exciting for them. They are curious about what is going on outside of their childhood sphere, and they want to know how they fit into it. Middle grades educators have a great opportunity to fill their students’ curiosity with deeper knowledge in all subjects. Because of new growth in the brain, there is a window of opportunity for young adolescents to more easily learn new ideas, knowledge, and skills from experience.1 Making the content relevant helps the young adolescent learn.
Relevancy ties information to the brain’s primary role: survival. “Learning is a biological process for survival.” (Dr. James Zull, Case Western Reserve University.) The brain will pay attention to what is important for survival. In Adolescent Characteristics (Part 1): The Survival Instinct and the Development of the Brain, Dr. Janet Zadina explains that it is the survival instinct that drives what people pay attention to and how we learn.2 If there is a bully in the classroom, a student is more likely to pay attention to what the bully is doing rather than to the teacher’s lesson. So, the brain seeks out what is important, which might not be what educators deem important, and favors a survival mentality.3
Learning that is connected to survival activates a part of the brain called the reward pathway. Solving problems and successful thinking brings pleasure, as when students experience those “aha!” moments.4 To ensure that young adolescents experience the pleasure of learning, the material needs to be meaningful and the learning effortful.5
Problems can be made interesting by making the information relevant with “real-world” problems. As middle grades educators know, ensuring student academic success involves understanding the world of their young adolescent students and how young adolescents survive socially, emotionally, physically, and even economically. Applying class lessons to their students’ “world” through real-world connections and meaningful participation will pique the adolescent brain’s attention for survival. At the same time, real-life applications help expand the young adolescent’s growing cognitive abilities found in the part of the brain that is least developed at this age—the frontal lobe.
The frontal lobe in the human brain enables a person to plan, analyze, evaluate, reason logically, anticipate consequences, delay gratification, solve problems, and make sound decisions. The frontal lobe develops with experience so giving middle grades students opportunities to exercise these critical thinking abilities significantly helps in the development of the frontal lobe.7 For instance, when staff members create a college-going culture on campus, young adolescents are able to practice goal setting; at the same time, their interest is heightened because the information is related to surviving in the real world. In her research on parental involvement in middle grades schools, Dr. Nancy Hill found that student achievement increased when parents discussed plans for the future that fostered career pathways or linked what their children were learning in school to real-world activities and jobs.8
Adolescent Development Index
Recommendation 4—Relevance Contents
1Barbara Strauch, The Primal Teen: What the New Discoveries About the Teenage Brain Tell Us About Our Kids. New York: Anchor Books, 2003, p. 17.
2Janet Zadina, "Adolescent Characteristics (Part I): The Survival Instinct and the Development of the Brain" Taking Center Stage—Act II.
3Raleigh Philp, Engaging ‘Tweens and Teens: A Brain-Compatible Approach to Reaching Middle and High School Students. Thousand Oaks: Corwin Press, 2007, p. 99.
4Daniel T. Willingham, “Why Don’t Students Like School?," American Educator, Vol. 33, No. 1 (Spring 2009), 6.
5Janet Zadina, "Adolescent Characteristics (Part I): The Survival Instinct and the Development of the Brain" Taking Center Stage—Act II.
6Daniel T. Willingham, “Why Don’t Students Like School?," American Educator, Vol. 33, No. 1 (Spring 2009), 7.
7Janet Zadina, "Adolescent Characteristics (Part I): The Survival Instinct and the Development of the Brain" Taking Center Stage—Act II.
8Nancy E. Hill and Diana F. Tyson, “Parental Involvement in Middle School: A Meta-Analytic Assessment of the Strategies That Promote Achievement," Journal of Developmental Psychology, Vol. 45, No. 3, 758.
9David A. Sousa,How the Brain Learns (Third Edition). Thousand Oaks: Corwin Press, 2006, p. 72.
10Daniel T. Willingham, “Why Don’t Students Like School?," American Educator, Vol. 33, No. 1 (Spring 2009), 12.
11Raleigh Philp, Engaging ‘Tweens and Teens: A Brain-Compatible Approach to Reaching Middle and High School Students. Thousand Oaks: Corwin Press, 2007, p. 100.
12Daniel T. Willingham, Why Don’t Students Like School? A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What it Means for the Classroom. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2009. p. 50.
13Ibid., p. 49.
14Allan Wigfield, Susan L. Lutz, and A. Laurel Wagner, “Early Adolescents’ Development Across the Middle School Years: Implications for School Counselors,” Professional School Counseling, Vol. 9 (December 2005), 114.
16David A. Sousa,How the Brain Learns (Third Edition). Thousand Oaks: Corwin Press, 2006, p.48.
17Nancy E. Hill and Ruth K. Chao, Families, Schools, and the Adolescent: Connecting Research, Policy, and Practice. New York: Teachers College Press, 2009, p. 132.
Back to Top
California Department of Education
1430 N Street
Sacramento, CA 95814