Education

Research And Reports

March 17, 1982 3 min read
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The “rebellious youth"--epitomized by the late James Dean in “Rebel Without a Cause"--has a well-recognized role in modern life.

This troubled individual is presumed to be suffering from a syndrome known in psychiatric circles as “adolescent turmoil,” characterized by moodiness, confusion, and a desire to rebel against one’s parents. The syndrome was introduced into the psychiatric lexicon by G. Stanley Hall, an American psychologist who was also responsible for inviting Sigmund Freud to visit the United States.

The turmoil--or Sturm und Drang, as Mr. Hall first called it--may be unpleasant for parents, teachers, and others, but the adolescent who does not go through this stage is believed to stay overdependent on his parents, to have trouble developing a sense of identity, and to relate to peers of either sex with difficulty.

From a University of Chicago psychiatrist, however, comes the somewhat unsettling report that this “necessary” stage is something that most adolescents do not experience.

According to a study reported recently by Dr. Daniel Offer, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Chicago, the period of “adolescent turmoil” is neither necessary nor particularly common. In a study of 20,000 normal adolescent students who responded to questionnaires, and 80 adolescents who were interviewed over a period of 10 years, Dr. Offer and colleagues found that only 15 percent of the subjects reported the feelings characteristic of adolescent turmoil. The rest, the researchers found, passed uneventfully from childhood to adulthood, and reported that they felt in control of their lives, were relaxed most of the time, and could cope adequately with stress.

The exploding of the “adolescent turmoil” myth brings some “specific cautions” for those who work with adolescents, including educators, according to Dr. Offer, writing in the New York University Education Quarterly, Winter 1982.

"[T]he supposition that an adolescent in turmoil is only going through a normal stage that will be outgrown may harm the teenager,” writes Dr. Offer. “On the other hand, a psychiatrically disturbed youngster with severe symptomalogy, who cannot function normally, is done no service when his mood swings are inaccurately seen as predictable, his negative affect as typical, and his extreme rebellion as understandable and usual.”

A new study by researchers at the University of Chicago asserts that, contrary to popular belief, boys are no better than girls at high-level mathematical reasoning.

Zalman Usiskin, associate professor of education at the University, and Sharon Senk, a doctoral candidate, found no sex differences when they tested the ability of 1,366 high-school students to write geometry proofs. The researchers considered proof-writing to be a good test because it requires both abstract reasoning and spatial ability, two areas where girls have not fared well on previous tests.

The number of girls taking mathematics courses has increased in the past decade, the researchers note, and that may be a primary reason for the improvement they found in girls’ test scores.

Boys have outperformed girls in recent studies on problem-solving and consumer application of math-ematical principles, as well as on the mathematics portion of the Scholastic Aptitude Test, Mr. Usiskin said. But these tests, he added, rely heavily on knowledge that is not taught in school, leading the researchers to believe that boys do better because of experiences outside the classroom.

“We propose that mathematical ability not be defined by tests of problem-solving, spatial ability, or sat’s whose connection with experience is different for every person who takes the test,” the researchers said. “We believe it is better to define mathematical ability as ‘the ability to learn mathematics.’ With this definition, it is easier to control for experiences, and we find little evidence of sex difference in mathematical ability.”

Their findings are to be presented at a meeting of the American Education Research Association this weekend in New York City.

A version of this article appeared in the March 17, 1982 edition of Education Week as Research And Reports

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