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Tapping Into the Adolescent Need For Purpose to Motivate Learners

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Teenagers can be a prickly bunch, and getting them invested in learning about algebraic equations, metaphor and simile or American History can seem like an impossible task to many teachers required to teach those topics. At the same time, teens are often derided for their "unformed brains" that lead them to make risky decisions and make it difficult for them to control their emotions. Much of the writing on adolescents makes this group out to be a nightmare to teach, but the more researchers learn about what drives teens, the more complicated that picture becomes. Amanda Ripley dives into research showing how the teen brain can be a double-edged sword when it comes to decision making and learning in her New York Times article:

The brains of adolescents are notoriously more receptive to short-term rewards and peer approval, which can lead to risky behavior. But researchers and educators are noticing that young people are also more sensitive to notions of social justice and autonomy. Teenage rebellion can be virtuous — even wholesome — depending on the situation.

Schools that have found consistent success educating adolescents use this information to craft projects that build academic skills by giving students work that feels purposeful and social justice oriented. When teenagers are working together on something they care about the impulse to resist authority weakens. Ripley gives an example of a middle school project focused on curbing gun violence in Chicago that made a lasting impact on students. She also characterizes many other ways that educators can tap into the adolescent proclivity for rebellion and use it for good.


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