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Teens, Their Brains, & Working In Groups

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I’ll soon be publishing a “The Best…” list on resources to learn about the brain. An article just published in National Geographic, though, is probably the most readable one I’ve seen. It’s titled Teenage Brains and was written by David Dobbs.

I was particularly struck by his analysis of research and experiments about how teens are particularly motivated by social rewards — connecting with their peers (of course, this is no great revelation to those of us who are parents or high school teachers):

The teen brain is similarly attuned to oxytocin, another neural hormone, which (among other things) makes social connections in particular more rewarding. The neural networks and dynamics associated with general reward and social interactions overlap heavily. Engage one, and you often engage the other. Engage them during adolescence, and you light a fire.

He then talks (a little less convincingly — at least to me) about its evolutionary purpose:

Yet teens gravitate toward peers for another, more powerful reason: to invest in the future rather than the past. We enter a world made by our parents. But we will live most of our lives, and prosper (or not) in a world run and remade by our peers. Knowing, understanding, and building relationships with them bears critically on success. Socially savvy rats or monkeys, for instance, generally get the best nesting areas or territories, the most food and water, more allies, and more sex with better and fitter mates. And no species is more intricately and deeply social than humans are.

But, whether you “buy” the second part or not, it’s just another reminder to us teachers about the advantages of having students work in small groups. Earlier in the article, Dobbs quotes a researcher saying that teens give “more weight to the payoff” of social connections than adults do. Given this scientific evidence, and most of what we just see in the classroom, why wouldn’t we teachers try to take advantage of it by incorporating small group work in our lessons as much as possible?

I’ve previously posted The Best Sites For Cooperative Learning Ideas. Tomorrow, I’ll be posting a more specific “The Best…” list sharing posts about the nuts and bolts of using small groups effectively in the classroom.

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Author: Larry Ferlazzo

I'm a high school teacher in Sacramento, CA.

One Comment

  1. Hello Larry,

    I always find it fascinating to see the evolution of a group of people (especially teens) when they first meet–whether its for a club, party, or a project. One of my good friends is a teacher, and she’s actually had the students using a program called group table (I think…?) which allows her students to interact for projects outside of the classroom on the computer. She said that the really great attribute to the program is that she can be a “guest” to each group and see the progress and evolution from beginning to end of the student’s strategy, communication, and outcome–which is accounts for a large portion of the grade evidently.

    Either way, she says that its great to see the students progress in their relationships and dialogue with one another while working on these projects–as you mentioned in your post.

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