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Teens, Brains, and Definitively NOT Zombies


So, my wife gets National Geographic Magazine each month (which I think is an amazing item and certainly an awesome teacher resource), and the October issue that just came to us had this article in it.

Basically, the thrust of the article is that all those fascinating, wonderful, and terribly frustrating things that make up the behaviour and lifestyle of your average teenager is a crucial component of adaptability which is part of what makes humans the most lethal, inventive, fittest-to-survive organism in the history of the planet. Which of course is where the intrigue sets in; I would be willing to bet money that no parent/teacher in the history of the planet has thought that everything teenagers do is a survival strategy (sometimes quite the oppposite, in fact).

The thing that makes me pause is a point where the article says “If offered an extra reward, however, teens showed they could push those executive regions [which carry out organization, planning, etc.] to work harder”. This seems to counteract some of the conventional wisdom about the usefulness of punishment as a deterrent (both in public policy and as a classroom management tool).

And I can see where the controversy might be. It’s all very well to try and use rewards as opposed to punishments, but what if that doesn’t work? Where do you strike that balance between encouragement of positive actions and discouragement of negative ones? I think it would be patently ridiculous to simply say ‘you know what? I’m not going to punish, just implement a reward system’, and then just ignore the behaviours/actions that don’t deserve rewards. A more extreme example of this is found in politics. Here in Canada right now, the government is attempting to pass and implement new crime legislation that cracks down on all sorts of offenses. There is a fierce debate over whether or not the mandatory sentences being proposed will actually do any good.

Granted, not all of our criminals are going to be 13-25 year-olds who are more motivated by rewards. There are many concerns about the rates of youth crime, and in certain areas of the country, there is in fact a real problem with adolescent crime. Could this type of research actually lead to some sort of reform? I don’t know, but I like anything that makes me question, because I learn more.

In the end, I’m still not sure where I draw the line. I don’t believe that I can do any good for students simply by hand-waving away punishments and trying to go simply for a rewards-based system. On the other hand, I, like many teachers, certainly get frustrated with students occasionally, and I don’t always know that I make the right choice. I guess I have to believe that I’m doing the right thing, as best I can, and try and learn wherever I can so that when I run into an issue, I am better prepared to deal with it in a way that leaves all parties better off than when they started.

And hey, thank goodness my wife gets National Geographic!


1 Comment

  1. Interesting piece. Would be interesting to see how some of these results scan cross-culturally as I suspect there would be significant cultural differences just because of how different societies focus on different social environments (which would drive the brain to mature in different ways).

    Another thing, regarding the simplistic models of rewards/punishments is that they only work for a certain class of behavioral activities as Dan Pink says in his TED talk:

    So much depends on how we individually define reward/punishment (as it does on what a particular culture defines as reward/punishment). For example, the risk-taking behavior of teens as this article points out, increases when peers are involved. In a cross-cultural study done on gamblers (the populations studied were Americans vs Chinese) the assumption was that Americans, being more individualistic and prone to taking risks would do so while gambling, while the Chinese, who are members of a more ‘collectivist’ society would take fewer. The idea that culture can constrain behavior was taken as a given but the interesting thing was that the results were actually the opposite of what was predicted.

    The revised explanation was that since Americans are more individualistic, they are more conservative in their risk-taking because there is no social structure which can alleviate the negative consequences (e.g. losing more money) of that risk, while the Chinese, having a much larger and closer familial structure feel as if they can take more risk because even if a big loss happens, there are family members who would be willing (or obligated) to deal with those negative consequences of lost money.

    Even though we have an analogous situation between Chinese gambler behavior with regards to risk because of social network and teen risk-taking behavior with regard to the proximity of their social (peer) network, there are obvious differences. It would be interesting, for example to see how Chinese teens fare in these studies.

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