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April 1, 2005
Vol. 62
No. 7

EL Study Guide / The Adolescent Learner

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Adolescent learners are a study in contradictions. Teenagers yearn for freedom to make all their own decisions, yet they don't always display the sound judgment needed to do so. Adolescents are often risk takers, as Lisa F. Price (“The Biology of Risk Taking,” p. 22) notes. But most teens are also racked with fears about looking foolish and keep up a fiercely protected image; even as they strive to assert their individuality they seek emotional safety and a sense of belonging. Articles in this issue give educators clues on how to teach adolescents while keeping these students' conflicting needs and learning tendencies in mind.

Differentiating Instruction

  • Consider how your students collaborate with their teachers in shaping learning experiences and activities. Discuss ways to give students significant input into the activities a course employs.
  • Brainstorm nontraditional assessment activities that teachers in different content areas might use to connect students' demonstration of knowledge to typical interests of teenagers. For example, geography teacher Chad Prather asked his students to write rap-style song lyrics for a unit on the earth's power.
  • What classroom routines could you use to learn something about your students as individuals? Carson, for example, briefly yields the floor to any student with a well-crafted tale to tell, even on test day.

Methods for Motivation

  • Discuss whether Vaughan's approach might work with the subject matter you teach, particularly among students who don't seem to “get it” or who don't care.
  • What reservations would you have about letting students learn material at their own pace and in their own way rather than through whole-group work?
  • Do the article's portraits of students who cynically admit to cutting corners, currying favors, and cheating to pack their transcript with honors courses resemble any students you know?
  • Through anonymous surveys or a focus group run by an outside leader, poll high-achieving students in your school. How many high-level courses do they take each semester? Are they skipping lunch to take more? Do they do homework for one course while faking attention in another? Do they sleep less than six hours a night? Also solicit these students' views through open-ended questions: Do students get excited about what they are learning in any course—or do they cram in content and forget most of it after the test? What classes would they find of interest if grades were not a significant factor?
  • Discuss what students told you. Does ambition put your “good” students on a treadmill rather than on a path to real learning? Could your school try any of the strategies recommended by Pope and Simon to ease pressure on students?

The Sleep Factor

  • Observe several classes in your middle or high school, watching specifically for how awake students seem to be. Compare early morning to afternoon classes, and classes that get students involved and active to those with a lecture format. What did you observe? What changes in scheduling or teaching approach might your school make to wake up students who sleep in class?

Effects of Digital Technologies

  • Do you agree that tools like the Internet and instant messaging change the way young people think? Or are students thinking, writing, and learning the way they always have, but with different media? Give examples from your classes to support either position.
  • Adolescents definitely have instant access to information from sources distant from their own lives and geographic areas. What evidence is there that the pace of adolescents' lives is faster than that of previous generations?

Naomi Thiers is the managing editor of Educational Leadership.

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