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Understanding the teenage learner

General   Cambridge Schools ConferenceEducational researchLearning processes

Nicola Morgan highlights a selection of points from her Big Ideas talk at the Cambridge Schools Conference. She has also provided a handout which she created for that talk so you can investigate the supporting science. She covers all those points – and more- in her training sessions and talks.

I’ve always loved knowing how things work. As a child, I had a reputation for being able to fix things. One of my childhood triumphs was mending a car door and saving my parents the cost of a trip to the garage. I love to know the mechanisms that make things work or stop working.

Humans are very complicated machines. If we can understand how we all work, why we do what we do, and why we sometimes don’t work well, we can control and improve performance. If, in my younger years, I’d had the understanding I have now, I could have saved myself a lot of blame, stress, failure and illness.

In the same way, if we want to make teenagers learn better and fix them when they are broken, we need first to understand how they work and how they may work differently from other age groups. Once we have this understanding, we need to share that knowledge with them, to help give them control over their own machines.

Of course, not all teenagers are the same. Despite the negative stereotypes, many deal brilliantly with the physical, mental and social changes that they’re experiencing. Many behave with extreme dynamism and focus whilst many adults do not. However, there is vast evidence that adolescence brings typical behaviours and definable physical brain changes. (My book, Blame My Brain – The Amazing Teenage Brain Revealed, gives the detail.) So, while acknowledging individualities, we must understand the underlying biology that moves a protected, dependent baby towards being an unprotected, independent adult.

What exactly must we understand about the adolescent machinery if we are to help it function better? I could speak for a whole day (and often do!) on the subject but I’ll just select a few examples.

Prefrontal Cortex vs Limbic System 

The last part of the brain to develop fully (not until the mid 20s) is the prefrontal cortex (pfc). This is responsible for controlling emotions and impulses, prediction of consequences, decision-making, and good choices. In contrast, the Limbic system, including the powerful amygdala, is well developed from birth: here we find activities surrounding reward, instinct, impulse, gut reaction and emotion.

So teenagers know it would be sensible to listen in class, do homework before going on social media and resist temptations. But the temptations are just so strong, the rewards so great. By rewards, I mean biological rewards from the system that floods the brain with dopamine – what I call the YES chemical – when we do certain things. Exciting things which biology and instinct drive us to do and which society often tries to prevent like taking risks, living for the moment, being led by friends and gaining status in a group.

Peer Pressure and Social Behaviour

Humans are social mammals, biologically driven to form bonds and groups. In fact, lacking social bonds is a factor in mental illness. But there’s a reason why this is even more important for adolescents: they are moving away from the secure family group and making new groups. They can afford to offend and annoy parents and teachers because those parents and teachers will not desert them. They cannot say this about their new friends and tribes. Biology drives them to do what it takes to be accepted.

Brain Bandwidth and the Doomed Attempt to Multi-Task 

Every mental or physical activity in effect uses brain ”bandwidth” and that bandwidth is finite. If something is occupying bandwidth, other things happen less well or less quickly. Some activities, including learning new material, use a lot of bandwidth. Others, such as walking, routine tasks and listening to background music, use little.

Any attempt to multi-task – such as having social media on while working – predicts some loss of performance and expends more energy. To work at our best, we should minimise multi-tasking, yet internet-enabled classrooms demand it.

This is a huge and fascinating topic and one I talk about often. I am no doom-monger about it, but I am aware that this is somehow affecting how we all work.


All of the below occupy bandwidth and affect learning. They can affect other age groups as well but are particularly problematic for teenagers.

  • Social embarrassment
  • Negative intrusive thoughts and anxieties
  • Scarcity of time – too little time/too many tasks
  • Problems in friendship groups
  • All the changes teenagers go through – uncontrolled change is usually stressful
  • Lack of sleep or poor sleep – with both biological and social reasons


Introverts can suffer in a world/school that values extroversion, with pressure to be public and little chance to be quiet. We all need time to switch off but introverted personalities may need it more. These frequent, small and often invisible pressures occupy brain bandwidth, increase stress and can negatively affect performance.


We need to accept and understand how teenagers work. Then we need to teach them how they work. By doing this we empower them to take control of their wellbeing. As younger children their machinery was driven by adults and they were the passengers. Teach them how their brains and bodies work and they can start to drive themselves – including operating the brakes…

We know so much more about the human machine than we did when I was an adolescent but we need to understand this knowledge properly and then share it clearly. We – and they – can have more control than we – and they – think.

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