January 31, 2013 1 Comment
Hollywood has been telling us for years that high school might very well be the most important time of our lives. While there are movies about college years, those films really just take the high school concept (jocks, nerds, princess, criminals, etc) and add legalized drinking (as opposed to the illegal drinking that takes place in high school movies) and at least one snobby college professor. It is the high school movie, perhaps best exemplified by movies like Dazed and Confused, Napolean Dynamite and Breakfast Club (although I’m sure any one of us could come up with our own list) that has the ability to capture a more universal, American idea. In theory, we all go to high school; hence, we all have a place in the high school movie.
Obviously, Hollywood plays on stereotypes, often neglecting some issues in order to focus on sex (American Pie for instance), but the basic concept is that who we are in high school largely shapes and predicts our future selves. For a 4 minute refresher on the high school experience, one need go no further than Bowling for Soup’s “High School Never Ends.” The notable exception, it seems, are the “princesses”– those girls who found self-esteem and popularity in their beauty– become less confident the older they get and the “brainy girls’ grow more confident the older they get. (See the link below for more on this difference.) For the rest of us, well, high school never ends.
Now, as is often the case, neuroscience is catching up to popular ideology. Not only is our self-image especially “adhesive” during this time, “the prefrontal cortex–the part of the brain that governs our ability to reason, grasp abstractions, control impulses, and self-reflect–undergoes a huge flurry of activity.” The net result–“During times when your identity is in transition, . . . it’s possible you store memories better than you do in times of stability.”
Our adolescent years, science tells us, offer us great opportunities to learn. We shape our identity, we develop our capacity for social engagement, and our brains are, quite literally, growing by leaps and bounds. Unfortunately, we also are a hormonal mess of conflicting emotions and we have limited a limited capability to understand what we are learning. It’s why every parent has entertained, at least once, trading in the 15 year old for a newer, more improved model. (Or, perhaps, for the younger version that was sweeter, kinder, and a tad bit more predictable emotionally.)
Regardless of our emotional stability, the memories are being stored whether we like it or not.
I’m not going to pretend, in a thousand words or less, that I can offer a cure for what ills our educational system, but I do think we have to recognize the extraordinary possibilities available when we work with kids whose brains are in transition. First and foremost, we must recognize that these kids are soaking up information and creating memories regardless of their desire to learn. While we all want active, engaged participation and such students definitely master the material, we also have to remember that exposure matters. Life, as I tell people all the time, is a marathon not a sprint.
I’m under no illusions, either, that we can create a sea-change to the social culture at the high school level. I’m sure there are things we can do to ameliorate things, but high school reflects our larger social construct. Pretty people get more stuff. Athletes are more popular. We have a certain cultural distrust of intellectuals and people who play the trombone. Our high school students, quite frankly and for better or for worse, are taking their social cues from the adult world.
But we can use these formative years to build a catalogue, a rolodex if you will, of memories for our students. Many years ago, I used to use a pop culture reader in my freshman composition classes. The idea, simplistically enough, was that the topics would be interesting to my students and, as such, they would be more engaged. We could talk about music, film, tv, sports, and other contemporary topics and those conversations would create intellectual growth and curiosity.
What I found, however, is that my students were so poorly versed in anything outside of themselves and their own self-interests that they had almost no ability to dig deeper than the surface. They had, quite frankly, just spent the last 8 years of their education studying things that interested them and their only reference point educationally was their own ego. Critical thinking amounted to a “It sucks” or “It’s cool.” Or, when they couldn’t decide, they would tell me “It’s all good.”
What we know, if we watch enough John Hughes films and read enough neuroscience, is we must change the way we approach adolescent education. Our students need reference points outside their own experience whether they are interested or not and regardless of whether they “use” that experience in their 9th grade class or on a standardized exam. I’m not advocating we stop teaching certain skills or that we stop using popular culture references. But I am arguing that we force our students to read, see, and listen to works of art that influence the contemporary moment in which they live even if they aren’t a part of that student’s lexicon. I don’t care anymore if the Iliad is boring (and Troy with Brad Pitt more exciting) and it doesn’t bother me if Picasso’s paintings are weird looking.
They may not like it and they may be bored, but education isn’t just about that moment in time. What neuroscience tells us is that what we experience in 1985 is relevant in 1995, 2005, and all points in between. We may not know when it matters, but the memory is there and available. Let’s stop worrying about skills we can measure in a specific place and time, and start focusing a little bit more on the kind of memories we want these kids to store.