Wired Up and Fired Up: Secondary Social Studies and the Teenage Brain

By Zarra, Ernest J. | Social Studies Review, Fall 2009 | Go to article overview

Wired Up and Fired Up: Secondary Social Studies and the Teenage Brain


Zarra, Ernest J., Social Studies Review


There is much interest in educational neuroscience, also known as "brain research," in terms of its implications for teenage learning and classroom instruction in secondary schools. The results of this newly-emergent area of research are highly interesting and quite impacting for teachers of all levels, as well as content specific areas such as secondary social studies. (Cahill 2005) The latter is the focus on this column.

Secondary teachers, like many at all other teaching levels, are keenly aware that the "brain matters," (Wolfe 2001) and that constructing highly engaging and interesting lessons often equates to students' definitions of "fun." Yet what one student considers fun, another student might not consider it as such. Whatever the term that is applied to secondary classroom instruction and learning, the engagement of students' learning of content through the use of their "emotional centers" as affective filters should be goal.

Overcoming Student Boredom

Ever wonder why teenage students are bored half of the time? Could it be the content, or is the teenage student just a package of boredom in-and-of himself? What can teachers do to work with the teenager's state, and conquer student boredom? A significant response to these questions can be found in an examination of the teenage brain.

It turns out that much of what social studies teachers struggle with in the classroom can be viewed through the avenue of that gyrating and impulsive teenage graymatter, the brain. Every instructor is aware that teenagers' boredom cannot be pinned solely on externalities in education. Without constant stimulation, teenagers have one default option: boredom. As social studies educators, we owe it to students to demonstrate lively and engaging lessons that affect their natural learning styles. Considering all the areas of content, the luxuries of technology at our disposal at the secondary level, social studies ranks near the top for interest and excitement. But what is the problem and what can secondary social studies teachers do to heighten interest and excitement? Here are a few suggestions.

Check the Wires Under the Hood

First, teachers must realize that teenagers are wired to learn via the emotional centers in their brains - enter the amygdala. They are geared more toward impulses at this age than any other time - and teenage males are more prone to impulsivity than the girls. Just as a practical confirmation of teenage male impulsivity, have you ever asked a young male his rationale for doing something deemed out-of-character for him, only to receive the answer of "I don't know"? The truth is that he probably did not "know" why.

Second, because teenagers learn through the emotional centers of their brains, this does not necessarily mean that the expression of emotion is equivalent to learning. What it does mean is that when there might very well exist deep-emotional connections to what is being learned and processed. This is where secondary teachers need to focus.

As a result of these connections made by the teenagers, there are greater chances for the information to be transferred to long-term memory and be recalled at a later time. That being said, this transfer has much to do with the ways the teenage brains are "wired up," as it does with learning, itself.

Teach to the Wiring

Boys are wired differently than girls. Researchers have found that boys are losing ground fast in schools and part of the reason is that teacher-training and instructional methods do not emphasize enough of the differences between learning styles. Gurian and Stevens (2004) write: "Because there is greater blood flow in the cerebellum - the 'doing' center of the human brain - boys more easily verbalize what they are doing than what they are feeling." (p, 24) Do teachers utilize this for the sake of learning, or are male expressions disciplined and set aside, for the sake of classroom order and decorum? …

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