"As adolescents move through middle school and high school, some adults expect them to automatically make mature decisions, as if these external events [puberty] magically grant adolescents adult-like thinking skills.  This is a recipe for future conflict; adults become disappointed and teenagers feel misunderstood..."  To read more on the article by Terence & Eileen Houlihan, please click here

Terence Houlihan speaking to high school teachers in Akron, OH, 2013.


The S-I-M-P-L-E Classroom

by Terence J. Houlihan

Teaching isn't easy.  If it was, more people would do it. And now that spring is here, keeping a classroom of 12 year-olds interested might be even more challenging.

If you find yourself in need of a change in the classroom or if you're struggling with managing a particular class, keeping it SIMPLE might be the way to go.

Teaching adolescents is very different than teaching elementary-aged children, or even adults for that matter.  Adolescents require a specific type of engagement that is unique to them.  Using the components of the SIMPLE classroom will help keep you connected to your students and your students connected to you and your lesson.

S is for safe and supportive.  The neuroscientist-turned-educator, Judy Willis, identifies the limbic system as a sort of gate keeper to the prefrontal cortex.  What she means by this is that the prefrontal cortex is the area of the brain that is responsible for the synthesis of information, and because the limbic system is the emotional center of the brain, it sort of permits information to pass through to the higher-order area of the brain, the prefrontal cortex.  When students feel safe by walking into a classroom where they know what to expect and that it’s okay to make mistakes and offer guesses, the chances for the material being processed in the more advanced area of the brain increases.

I is for intellectually stimulating.  In 2013, a Gallup poll of 500,000 US students between 5th and 12th grade revealed that 80% of 5th graders felt engaged in school.  By 9th grade, that dropped in half to 40% and by 11th grade, only 30% felt engaged.  What’s even more interesting is that the brain scans of “bored” teenagers look a lot like teenagers who are “stressed.”  Because teenagers are coming into a time of more autonomy, they enjoy debating topics relevant to them.  A colleague of mine - while reading "Catcher in the Rye" - assigns her students to interview school counselors and administrators about the supports that are available to students like Holden Caulfield, while also researching community supports such as hospitals and therapists.

M is for metacognitive skills.  While researchers might argue about the age during childhood at which these develop, the consensus is that adolescence is the time when these skills are growing and being fine-tuned. In addition to the content of the lesson, if teachers can incorporate metacognitive skills, students are more likely to retain the material.   There are a number of metacognitive strategies to employ like peer-to-peer teaching, self-assessments, formative quizzes, rough drafts, exam corrections, student-generated concept maps and identifying the intention behind assignments. 

P is for personal connection.  This is twofold in that students need to feel connected to the material and by whom the material is being taught.  John Maxwell says it well, “Students don’t care about how much you know until they know how much you care about them.” Obviously, this doesn’t mean that we should follow our students on Instagram and like their posts.  If we take the time to get to know them and their world, they will feel like we care, and we can also then figure out ways to connect the material to their lives.

L is for lose the lecture.  With all the group work, project-based learning, experiential activities and nontraditional assessments teachers offer, the lecture can feel, at times, safe and familiar.  Let’s face it – our most recent experiences in school were graduate class lectures and we may draw on that experience.  But we were at least in our mid-twenties and were motivated to be there because we needed the degree for our license or a bump in pay. Teenagers are a bit different.  Glenda Crawford sums it up well: “The traditional classroom where adolescents sit (and listen) passively and memorize discrete, minimally relevant information is not an environment that primes cognitive development.”

E is for emotional engagement.  If you know anything about addiction, you’ve probably heard about dopamine’s role.  In the same vein, dopamine plays a role in learning and motivation.  So, it would make sense that teachers would want to create an environment where dopamine levels are high.  There's a variety of ways to naturally increase dopamine and here are just a few: humor/laughter, music, movement, guessing, games and offering choices.

You don’t need to reinvent your classroom or become a stand-up comic. Just employing different tactics might yield a different, more desirable result.  So, why not try to fist-bump your students tomorrow morning as they make their way into your classroom.

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