What Were You THINKING? A Glimpse into the Teenage Brain

Posted: September 21, 2010 in brain development

“I just sort of understand things better now. I guess I don’t have to think about things as much to get the point someone is making.” This was the response that one of my 8th grade guys gave me after I asked him to describe one way he was different today than he was a year ago. The cool thing is that Caleb unknowingly tapped into a fascinating fact about adolescent brain development.

Now, before I lose you as you wonder, “Why do I need to know anything about adolescent brain development?”, let me give you a couple hypothetical situations.

-You’re frustrated in the car after school with your middle school student because he got detention a third time for throwing food all over the floor in the lunchroom. You wonder how your student couldn’t foresee the consequences that were coming before he did it a third time.

-After teaching your middle school kids about the substitutionary propitiatory atonement achieved by Jesus at the cross, all you get in response is blank stares and “Huh?” (I imagine I just got a couple blank stares from some of you with that one as well!)

-You ask your 6th grade student what “love” means to them, and the answer you get is something about presents from grandma and not having to do chores.

Have you ever been there? While those are all hypothetical situations, I can confidently confess that I have been utterly embarrassed by some of my middle school students’ responses after what I deemed to be a deep-probing question or teaching point. Even after years of working with this age group, I’ll still get a fresh reminder that these kids do not think like adults… yet.

Simple thought, right? We should probably know that already. But I’m still amazed at how many youth workers and even some parents teach and talk to students as if their brains are as fully developed as an adult’s. Our instincts say, “Talk to them like an adult and eventually they’ll get it,” while human biology says, “Whoa, hold on a second!”

There is a lot of fascinating research out there with big implications for how we interact with our middle school kids. The most respected research comes from a guy names Jean Piaget, who constructed a stage-theory of cognitive/brain development. The question in front of us is, “How do people develop as thinkers?”

Here is a brief synopsis of the stages (Ages are approximate):

  1. Sensorimotor Stage (age 0-2)
    • Learning = Experience. Private and uncommunicative. Kids don’t think about actions; they simply respond.
  2. Preoperational Stage (age 2-7)
    • Language formation is key; highly imaginative; literal-minded in the extreme
    • Kids struggle to discern what is real or simply fantasy
  3. Concrete Operational Stage (age 7-12)
    • Think in terms of concrete objects – what is present or what they know
    • Understand visual problems with props or objects better than word problems that involve hypothetical situations
    • Need something they are familiar with to help them understand something they haven’t encountered yet
  4. Formal Operational Stage (age 12+)
    • Learners can examine abstract problems systematically and generalize about the results
    • New abilities: speculating, empathizing, doubting, emoting, self-perceiving
    • “Practice in solving hypothetical problems and engaging in scientific reasoning may be the catalysts for formal operational thinking” (Yount, “Created to Learn” 90).

Middle school kids in the concrete stage are going to be very limited in their perspective of life. They need to experience learning at their hands. In other words, hypothetical what-if questions are not going to be very effective. This is also another reason the student in the situation at the beginning of this blog could not foresee the consequences of throwing food in the lunchroom. Speculation is an abstract thinking skill that hopefully develops with puberty.

Most of what we teach in church is abstract in nature. Think about it. How many times do you hear the word “love” or “faith” on a Sunday morning? I think we neglect the fact that our younger middle school students don’t have a framework for understanding these abstract ideas yet. They only know what they’ve experienced. (And, as a side note, if the only experience they have of a “father’s love” is a neglectful or absentee dad at home, they will struggle to understand the unconditional and ever-present love of the heavenly Father).

Let me give you an example. Steve Gerali wanted to test the theory of Piaget’s research in a local middle school. He went in to a class of 6th graders and asked the students if they loved animals. Of course they all said, “Yes we love animals!” Then he asked them if they loved their parents. They all said, “Yes we love our parents!” Finally he asked them to explain the difference between the love they feel for animals and the love they feel for their parents. Nobody could answer the question. They had no idea. Their brains had not experienced the divine gift of abstract thinking that God gives them with puberty.

Sometimes I hate to think about my early years of teaching middle school students in the church. I know I was teaching biblical truth, and I’m confident God still planted seeds, but I never really stopped when I was teaching to define some abstract terms I used. In middle school ministry, the fact of the matter is that we’ll have both concrete-thinking 6th graders and abstract thinking 8th graders. They both have unique needs you must address.

Something I try to do often is use props and object lessons. This takes new abstract ideas and connects them with something the concrete thinkers can touch and feel while the abstract thinkers speculate about what it means. For instance, two weeks ago I was teaching our students on the value of community in the church. Now, instantly we have an abstract term: community. It has lots of meanings. So I decided to focus on the importance of having a close support group of Christian friends. I used Ecclesiastes 4:12 – “Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.” To illustrate this verse, I stretched a rubber band as far as possible until it broke in my hands. I explained to the students how it represents us when we are alone in life and do not have community. Then I twisted three rubber bands together and stretched them as far as possible. And guess what? It didn’t break. (Harrison Fowler didn’t believe me, so he tried it and couldn’t break it either… thankfully!).

A simple object lesson like that one can demonstrate truth better than simple vocal explanation. There are lots of creative ways to do this! I encourage you all to explore different options you can teach biblical truth in creative ways.

There are many more implications of this research for how we teach and guide our students, but I will leave it up to you to explore. How have you seen the transition from concrete thinking to abstract thinking in the puberty years? What methods have been successful for you as you adjusted to your students’ concrete and abstract thinking abilities?

  1. Bri McRoberts says:

    Very well organized and well-written! I’m trying to critique but am only nodding my head yes as I have witnessed lots of kids going through what you have written. It is always amazing to see them in 8th or 9th grade and be able to have a full-on conversation with them about abstract topics that they once seemed to not get at all.

    One thing I have found is to make sure we are still teaching the simpler abstract ideas but with well thought-out and clear definitions/explanations (aka your rubber band illustration) so that they begin to exercise and process this higher learning. It’s good to get those neural pathways firing early on 🙂

  2. Does your website have a contact page? I’m having a tough time locating it but, I’d like
    to send you an email. I’ve got some creative ideas for your blog you might be interested in hearing. Either way, great website and I look forward to seeing it expand over time.

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