WATCH: How teenagers' brains work

Researchers have launched a project to build up more information on the teenage brain to help teachers

Annie Brookman-Byrne and Georgina Donati

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Can finding out more about the teenage brain and how it learns inform teaching in a meaningful and practical way? Educational neuroscientists, like us, firmly believe it can. 

Admittedly, the field of educational neuroscience is still young, so the evidence base is at an early stage.

But its ultimate aim is to bring together all disciplines relating to learning (not just education and neuroscience), conducting scientific research, to provide teachers with information and tools that help to improve teaching and learning.

We are, we hope, the stepping stone between theory and practice. 

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Much more research will be conducted over the coming years to help establish what works in the classroom and why. But even at this early stage, there is a great deal that is known about how the brain develops and learns that could be helpful and instructional for teachers. 

For example, the prefrontal cortex (the area of the brain just behind the forehead) supports cognitive control processes. Understanding that this brain region continues to develop through adolescence might lead teachers to use strategies that help students enhance their cognitive control. 

The teenage brain: impulse control

One cognitive control mechanism is inhibitory control (the ability to stop an automatic response). One strategy might be to help students use and develop inhibitory control in school by getting them to actively practice, and allowing time for students to "stop and think" before giving their answer. It is thought that giving the first answer (rather than stopping to think first) might lead to the incorrect answer, particularly where the concept is counterintuitive.

Limbic structures deep in the brain are also changing during adolescence, which is associated with many adolescent-specific behaviours and an increased risk of mental health problems. Understanding that the adolescent brain may be particularly vulnerable to mental health problems suggests that this is a really important time for supporting healthy strategies to manage complicated emotions. 

Informed teaching

Teachers might use this information to provide students with resources that can help build resilience, dedicating protected time in the school calendar for this purpose. 

Those are just a couple of examples of how understanding the teenage brain might inform teachers’ practice in school. 

With this in mind, we have created a three-minute video (above) summarising what is currently known about the adolescent brain. This is intended to act as a springboard for teachers to find out more and think about the strategies they use.

Video and resources

The video is hosted on a website full of further information about the adolescent brain, with links to relevant resources. 

But we are not aiming to just throw this resource out there and let you get on with it. We are seeking to crowdsource strategies and resources from teachers, to find out how they are using this science every day in their classrooms. 

Alternatively, perhaps watching the video or reading the information on the website will spark a new idea. If so, we want to hear that, too. 


On the website there are anonymous forms for sharing strategies, and we will update the website to share these with other teachers. 

Ultimately, we want a rich online resource full of useful science, and teacher-recommended strategies, so that teachers can try out each other’s ideas. We hope you will watch our video, send it to your colleagues, talk to us on Twitter and share your science-informed strategies. We look forward to hearing from you. 

Annie Brookman-Byrne and Georgina Donati are research fellows at Birkbeck, University of London

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Annie Brookman-Byrne and Georgina Donati

Annie Brookman-Byrne and Georgina Donati are Research Fellows at Birkbeck, University of London

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