'Learning by doing' is best for teen brains

The hormonal impact of puberty is not brain-friendly, so concentrated academic study should be avoided by teenagers in favour of motor, visual and auditory learning, says a leading academic

Elizabeth Buie

Teenagers going through puberty should avoid academic study because of the "hormonal storm" taking its toll on their brain and body, says a leading academic. Instead, they should concentrate on "learning by doing".

Jarl Bengtsson, one of the foremost international experts on brain research and learning, spelt out his views to an audience at Glasgow University last week, but they were immediately dismissed by a fellow academic as "rather dangerous".

The Swedish-born professor insisted that brain research showed puberty was "not the period when children should focus on strong academic exercise". Nevertheless, they were forced to make vital academic choices during those years.

Professor Bengtsson, now at the University of Aarhus in Denmark, and previously head of the OECD's centre for educational research and innovation, cited developments in China that recognised the hormonal impact on learning.

"In Shanghai, they have a new international centre for learning by doing. It is not based in a classroom focused only on academic learning, which is not brain-friendly," he said. It was, he added, Confucius who said: "I listen and I forget; I see and I remember; I do and I understand."

This was the basis for his advice that learning for teenagers should involve the motor, visual and auditory systems, particularly the motor system. It was especially relevant to children from the most economically disadvantaged groups, given that one in four young people in the Western world leave school never wanting to learn again.

"We are paying a very high price for that," Professor Bengtsson said. "So if the focus is more on learning by doing, it would be better for some of the more disadvantaged group. It does not mean that you should not have access to academic schooling later - the brain learns throughout life."

But Eric Wilkinson, professor of education at Glasgow University who has a specialism in early childhood education, warned: "Soft-pedalling during adolescence seems to be rather dangerous."

It sat uncomfortably with cross-cultural research and analysis of new approaches in schools, he said.

In Scotland, where schools were reorganising their curriculum and providing more challenges, it was clear that pupils wanted breadth of curriculum and proof of success. Professor Wilkinson suggested such approaches could improve exam performance by up to 50 per cent.

Professor Bengtsson argued that there were times when the brain was particularly sensitive to certain types of learning, for instance, language at the pre-five stage.

"It is a total waste of money and time to start teaching languages later," he said. "Children should start foreign languages in pre-school. A young brain at three or four is capable of learning a second language, and that has implications for pre-school teaching."

Research now showed that the pre-frontal lobe of the brain - which governs the ability to make judgments and decisions - was the last part to mature, usually between the ages of 25 and 30. This had implications for higher education and lifelong learning.

Professor Bengtsson also noted that the average age for financial traders in some markets was 26. Economic theory had always been based on the belief that the rational man always made rational choices - but this was clearly not true.

"We know that in a panic situation the first part of the brain to react is the emotional limbic system," he said, "so there are implications in this finding for the new discipline of neuro-economics."

Fresh thinking

Professor Bengtsson offered what he described as the cheapest way to boost educational performance by 10 to 15 per cent: "Open the windows and let the oxygen in."

Twenty minutes after starting a lesson, teachers should open the classroom windows. They should then get their children to stand up to pump oxygen into the blood.

"We can measure what happens to the brain if it is deprived of oxygen," he said.

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Elizabeth Buie

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