There’s one thing that teachers, parents and teenagers agree on: year nine is the worst year in school. Teachers tell us that the students at this age are the naughtiest and most disruptive in class. Parents suggest that their children at this age are the rudest and most disrespectful and treat them with a kind of disdain. How adults could be as dumb as my parents at this age, teenagers ask me. And the teenagers themselves tell us that school is least interesting, teachers are most boring and the curriculum is totally disengaging at this age. They call it the “sea of blah”.....”blah blah blah”...
How can it be that when we all agree on this we seem unable to do anything about it?
School systems, teachers and parents have tended to treat this age group of students, the teenage years, as an age that somehow needs to be “fixed up”. This is the mistake.
Teenagers, when they display all the naughtiness, disrespect, emotional responses, anger, mood swings, disconnect and so on are actually doing “normal behaviour”. They don’t actually need fixing up. True, we do not tolerate the behaviour and need to make it clear to them what it is they are doing and the effects the behaviour is having, but it is not done deliberately.
Adolescent developmental psychologists can describe clearly the developmental stages in an adolescent brain that causes these behaviours. Neuroscientists can now actually identify the locations and centres in the brain that triggers behaviour or suppresses others. In an adolescent, all this is still developing. The connections and functions in their brain is still a work in progress, connections and wrong numbers are frequent and the result is behaviour that, well we can see and describe so clearly.
So given we cannot “fix” this neurodevelopment, what do we need to fix? We need to change the way we do school at this age group. We have tried and there are a number of great programs in existence, including the school I conduct. We have found measureable outcomes, the stuff teenagers tell us that is good, that has surprised us all. To do this, we had to change the way we conducted the school, the content that was taught and refocus the centre of control of the school.
What we do know is that students, adolescents learn usually in social settings. The main reason they go to school at all at this age is to be with friends. It is not because the maths that day is going to be really good fun. Sorry to the maths teachers, we just know that for a fact from the research and attitudinal feedback we have! So we needed to create a school that focussed on the strengths that teenagers have rather than focus on the “fix” us as adults thought we needed to do to them.
Teenagers enjoy collaboration: unfortunately in schools this has usually been seen as cheating! So team work and team development are crucial. They love to belong, this almost primitive tribal instinct. That’s why we see them hanging out at the mall or shops, so they can identify with a group, wear the uniform of the club: no different to the adults we see wearing the uniform of their craft, maybe a suit and tie, overalls (blue or brown depending on the trade) and so on. Theirs is the cap, the grunge pants with designer underpants visible!
Teens want desperately to know about themselves, who they are, what they think about important stuff like the world, what is going to happen to it. They are concerned about the future and their place in it, the environment and how we are affecting their future world. They are aware and informed people. They are the most instantly connected generation ever. They know who is thinking something somewhere in a nanosecond and will msg or txt that information to their network. Most of all, they want to have a future and be an active part of it and make a difference. They want, like adults, to be seen doing the stuff they are good at and receive the acclaim and recognition they deserve for doing it. They want to make a difference.
Schools need to capitalise on these motivations and use them as the content and pedagogy, the stuff we learn and the way we learn it. Teachers have spent two hundred years asking questions they know the answers to. It is time for a fundamental change in how we conduct school especially at year nine.
In our school we have a focus on what we call community learning projects or social enterprise development or sometimes known as service-learning. The curriculum focuses deliberately on the stuff teens do well and the way they prefer to learn. I realise critics will say we need to individualise learning, and true I am generalising here. However there are certain approaches and contents that engage teens and help them do learning really well.
With that approach to learning and content, the outcomes are amazing. So amazing that when I first showed an education minister the attitudinal results, so far above the means and above the 95th percentile in most areas, the result was the government agreeing to build two more schools in the same model. Hence, we now conduct three schools like this.
Notice how often I use the term “doing” when referring to adolescents and teenagers? They actually want to be active participants in the world and their learning. They secretly don’t want to be in a “sustainable” world. What you might ask? Everyone wants sustainability! Sustain-ability has a sinister undercurrent of “stasis” or staying the same. Teens actually know they are in the most dynamic time in world development and want to be a part of that continuous change. They want to be and make that change and make a difference; they want to “thrive” in the future, their future.
So everyone who has a connection with teenagers can and must do things differently because is not the teenagers who need “fixing-up”. It is all the stuff around our teens that needs fixing. School systems, teaching approaches, parent relationships, curriculum content...and for goodness sake let’s stop measuring them with standardised test!