After decades of conflicting beliefs about the intellectual capacity of young adolescents, scholars see a growing consensus, backed by research, that middle school students' brains are ready for learning.
The National Middle School Association's own mission statement, written in 1982, cautioned against setting expectations too high for 12- to 14-year-olds. Instead, educators should emphasize "learning new facts and information within the profile of thinking skills initiated prior to this plateau period" of brain growth, said the guiding force behind the middle school concept.
But scientists are discovering that early adolescents' brains are undergoing profound changes that are not only a necessary part of growing up, but also signal a shift in how children approach learning.
"There is evidence that there are spurts in the power and the coherence of brain activity that occur during this time," says Kurt W. Fischer, a professor of education at Harvard University and the director of the Mind, Brain, and Education graduate program there. "They have these new capacities, but they are still very limited."
Structural changes in the brain continue well into the teenage years, according to an increasing body of research. "People used to think the brain settled down very early," says Paul M. Thompson, an assistant professor of neurology at the University of California, Los Angeles. He is one of the authors of an article about growth patterns in the brains of young adolescents published earlier this year in the journal Nature.
In the article, researchers from UCLA, the National Institute of Mental Health, and McGill University in Montreal reported that after age 6, brain-tissue growth shifts from the frontal lobe of the brain—the area involved in planning and organizing one's actions—to the temporal and parietal lobes, areas involved in memory and manual skills.
Between the ages of 7 and 11, growth in the temporal and parietal lobes is rapid but then begins to slow down at middle school age, suggesting, Thompson says, that these might be the ideal years for learning to play a musical instrument or studying another language.
Moreover, he and his colleagues found that during adolescence, the frontal cortex, which also controls inhibition, quickly loses tissue, at a rate of 3 percent a year. Tissue loss usually indicates that redundant brain cells are being "pruned" away, leaving stronger, more efficient connections, Thompson says.
While he says that doesn't necessarily mean that youngsters at that age will be more outgoing or more reserved, it does suggest that a lot of changes are occurring. It may also help explain why the middle school years are often a time when children are testing their boundaries, and when risky behavior, such as experimenting with drugs, becomes a concern.
As a next step, scientists at the NIMH plan to examine the brains of dozens of sets of twins over at least a six-year period in hopes of determining which areas of the brain change as a result of academic, athletic, and other learning- related activities. Middle school twins make good subjects because at that age they begin to pursue individual interests, even though the environments they live in generally remain the same.
"Scientifically, we can observe that a lot is going on," says Jay N. Giedd, the chief of the child-psychiatry branch at the national institute. "The next question is, what influences that?"
Conflict and Controversy
Middle schools try to accommodate the changing social and emotional needs of young adolescents, but changes in the school structure and the curriculum are not enough, says Peter C. Scales, a senior fellow at the Minneapolis-based Search Institute, a research and training organization that focuses on adolescents.
Instead of viewing adolescents' newfound and unbridled brain power as negative, teachers should look at how certain traits, such as being argumentative, egocentric, and highly emotional, might contribute to, rather than detract from, the learning process, Scales says.
"The whole notion of conflict and controversy is often ignored in schools, but intellectually, that's the stuff that engages middle school kids," he says. In fact, the middle grades are the perfect time to teach about courts, legislatures, or any other place where issues are debated, he suggests.
"It helps them to argue, so argue with them," adds Fischer. But instead of trying to win, he says, adults should keep in mind that "this is a young person who is learning."
Many middle school teachers may not be aware, however, of the best way to approach their students. While information on child development is common in training programs for early-childhood educators, very few middle school teachers have specific training in adolescent development, Scales says.
"I think we have underestimated the ability of middle school students," says Stanley W. DeJarnett, an assistant superintendent of the 2,900- student Morgan County schools in Georgia. The district recently held a training session for middle school teachers on brain development during the preadolescent and adolescent years.
"I think the key is getting the right person in the classroom," DeJarnett adds.
While middle school students need well-trained teachers and a challenging curriculum, both Scales and Fischer caution against introducing advanced mathematics and science concepts too early.
Students in the middle grades respond much better to discovery methods and science-lab experiments, according to research conducted by Fischer and his associates. But, he says, they still tend only to scratch the surface with what they are able to absorb from the experiments.
"We present stuff that requires abstract thinking, and students aren't capable of it yet," Fischer contends.
'All Bets Are Open'
Some experts worry that, as with all the recent media attention given to the findings about children's first three years of development, scientific conclusions about the adolescent brain will be misinterpreted and blown out of proportion.
"So what?" John Bruer, the president of the St. Louis-based James S. McDonnell Foundation, says about the finding that brain growth continues during the teenage years. He contends that the public and some educators are operating under the "naive belief" that a period of increases in young people's synapse density is optimal for learning. It's not that simple, he argues.
"What people interested in educational policy need to pay attention to is that any progress we are going to make is going to come from very careful study of what goes on in the classroom," says Bruer, whose foundation specializes in underwriting cognitive-science research.
The notion of a "window of opportunity" in the brain is dangerous, the NIMH's Giedd adds."The message there is that if you've missed that window, you're out of luck," he says.
Teachers, he says, should stay hopeful about even the most difficult students.
"In middle school, all bets are open," Giedd says. "People can make dramatic turnarounds."
UCLA's Thompson agrees that people learn throughout life, but he believes that the recent findings about the brain point to "key periods" and might someday have important implications for educators.
"If I had a wish list, it would be to know how different ways of teaching affect the brain," Thompson says. "What are the key skills that are best to teach at different times? These are very broad questions for education."
Vol. 20, Issue 5, Pages 20-21