Developing the Social Brain: Insights from the Science of Adolescence

social brain

Adolescence is the period between childhood and adulthood that largely coincides with the years of secondary schooling. This stage of life is characterized by many cognitive changes. One such change is in social signal sensitivity. Recent research has provided evidence for adolescence as a time of heightened receptivity and sensitivity to complex social signals in the environment, which are reflected in typical brain development patterns1.

Developmental tasks

We are faced with certain developmental tasks at different points in our life. This means that we are expected to acquire certain skills or abilities at certain developmental stages. For instance, infants and young children are tasked to develop certain sensory and motor skills. And the human brain at this period of life reflects this, as it produces an excess number of connections between brain cells (called synapses) in sensory and motor cortices in early infancy, which are then pruned (or lost over time) to their adult levels across the first decade of life.

When it comes to the connections in the brain, more does not always mean better.

In fact, ‘synaptic pruning’ often allows the brain to communicate more efficiently.

The human brain also overproduces synapses in other regions of the cortex during infancy, such as the prefrontal cortex. However, unlike the sensory and motor cortices, the connections formed in this part of the brain continue to be pruned across the teenage years and into the twenties2,3.

This prolonged development of the prefrontal cortex has intrigued developmental neuroscientists for decades. Given that synaptic pruning coincides with an increase in abilities associated with a given cortical area, perhaps the prolonged synaptic pruning of the prefrontal cortex coincides with the increased abilities associated with this part of the brain? This question underlies many developmental neuroscience studies.

In flux: The prefrontal cortex

The prefrontal cortex is often discussed as the hallmark of human cognition. Many complex cognitive abilities, such as inhibiting inappropriate behavior, planning for the future, and inferring the mental states of others, require the prefrontal cortex. It might be intuitive to many educators that an area of the brain involved in these complex behaviors and abilities is still developing throughout the teenage years.

However, the prefrontal cortex is not the neurological root of all behavioral changes between adolescence and adulthood.

The brain operates on a network level, which means that many different brain regions are constantly communicating with each other. While each region might have its own specific role, it is how the networks interact that ultimately matters. You can think of it as kind of like a team. Each member has its own role to play—and if a member gets weaker or stronger then it can change the way the team works—but the end result is a product of the whole team working together.

In flux: The nucleus accumbens

While the prefrontal cortex is often lauded as the seat of rational behavior, the nucleus accumbens is often demeaned as the cause of human hedonism or impulse. This subcortical brain region, hidden deep within the brain, is best known for its involvement in reward processing. Early research in rodents found evidence for dramatic remodeling of dopamine receptors in the nucleus accumbens during puberty4. This means that there was a change in how cells process dopamine, which is a neurotransmitter often connected to the experience of pleasure or rewards. Early fMRI studies then found increased recruitment of the nucleus accumbens in adolescence during reward processing5. This finding prompted developmental scientists to hypothesize that adolescent behaviors might be more influenced by nucleus accumbens signaling (or the sensitivity of this area to neurotransmitters like dopamine), which could explain why adolescents are drawn to risky or rewarding behaviors6. This heralded a change in thinking in developmental neuroscience. Rather than simply attributing adolescent changes to the developing prefrontal cortex, this new model posited that the changing interactions between the prefrontal cortex and nucleus accumbens underlie behavioral differences between adolescence and adulthood.

Not so simple

The model that I just described is more complex than can be described in a short blog post (see Further Reading). However, at its core is the interplay between two systems: one involved in socio-emotional processing and the other in cognitive control6. Subcortical regions such as the nucleus accumbens are considered part of the socio-emotional processing system because they are recruited during rewarding social interactions or emotional scenarios. However, we know that cortical regions are also involved in social cognitive processing (see previous blog post), and therefore these systems are starting to be taken into account when considering the neural correlates of adolescent behavior7,8.

Social brain development

The network of brain regions involved in understanding or inferring the mental states of others (i.e. mentalizing) continues to develop across adolescence. Although they aren’t exclusively involved in mentalizing, these regions—the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, temporal parietal junction, posterior superior temporal sulcus and anterior temporal cortex—are consistently recruited when individuals perform tasks that require understanding or inferring the mental states of others. Longitudinal studies of brain structure have found that these regions undergo substantial changes in structure throughout adolescence9.

And as described in my previous post, adolescents utilize the medial prefrontal cortex more than adults in tasks that require understanding the mental states of others10. Taken together, these changes in structure and function provide evidence for the continued development of a brain network involved in complex socio-cognitive processes that influence how we navigate the social world.

The developmental tasks of adolescence

Now, why would we expect adolescence to be a sensitive period for social brain development? The period of adolescence, which can be defined as beginning around puberty, is typically considered finished when one has reached a relatively stable role in society. Therefore, one of the major developmental tasks of adolescence is to learn how to navigate the complex social world of one’s society. Adolescents are more equipped to do this than children because they have the necessary cognitive abilities as well as the motivational drive to learn from their social environment. Educators can build on these capacities in learning settings if social motivation is used to bolster learning rather than seen as another behavior to inhibit in the classroom.

An aside on the nucleus accumbens and risk-taking

Earlier I described the nucleus accumbens being involved in reward processing. While this is true, it is also true that the nucleus accumbens is involved in learning. In a way, we can think of the nucleus accumbens as a sort of salience detector—it helps us know what to pay attention to in the environment. Therefore, the heightened sensitivity of the nucleus accumbens in adolescence presents a great opportunity for learning. Further, risk-taking is not inherently a bad behavior. In fact, we need to take many risks in order to succeed in the modern educational environment.

Encouraging these educational risks, which can be as minor as raising one’s hand to answer a question in front of one’s peers, or as substantial as spending the time to learn a new programming language, might be one way to take advantage of the natural inclinations of being young and flexible.



  1. Blakemore, S.-J., & Mills, K. L. (2014). Is Adolescence a Sensitive Period for Sociocultural Processing? Annual Review of Psychology, 65(1), 187–207. [Paper]
  2. Huttenlocher, P. R. (1979). Synaptic density in human frontal cortex — Developmental changes and effects of aging. Brain Research, 163(2), 195–205. [Paper]
  3. Petanjek, Z., Judaš, M., Šimic, G., Rasin, M. R., Uylings, H. B. M., Rakic, P., & Kostovic, I. (2011). Extraordinary neoteny of synaptic spines in the human prefrontal cortex. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 108(32), 13281–13286. [Paper]
  4. Andersen, S. L., Rutstein, M., Benzo, J. M., Hostetter, J. C., & Teicher, M. H. (1997). Sex differences in dopamine receptor overproduction and elimination. Neuroreport, 8(6), 1495–1498. [Paper].
  5. Galvan, A., Hare, T. A., Parra, C. E., Penn, J., Voss, H., Glover, G., & Casey, B. J. (2006). Earlier Development of the Accumbens Relative to Orbitofrontal Cortex Might Underlie Risk-Taking Behavior in Adolescents. The Journal of Neuroscience, 26(25), 6885–6892. [Paper]
  6. Steinberg, L. (2008). A Social Neuroscience Perspective on Adolescent Risk-Taking. Developmental Review: DR, 28(1), 78–106. [Paper]
  7. Crone, E. A., & Dahl, R. E. (2012). Understanding adolescence as a period of social-affective engagement and goal flexibility. Nature Reviews. Neuroscience, 13(9), 636–650. [Paper]
  8. Pfeifer, J. H., & Allen, N. B. (2012). Arrested development? Reconsidering dual-systems models of brain function in adolescence and disorders. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 16(6), 322–329. [Paper]
  9. Mills, K. L., Lalonde, F., Clasen, L. S., Giedd, J. N., & Blakemore, S. J. (2014). Developmental changes in the structure of the social brain in late childhood and adolescence. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 9(1), 123–131. [Paper]
  10. Blakemore, S.-J. (2008). The social brain in adolescence. Nature Reviews. Neuroscience, 9(4), 267–277. [Paper]

Further Reading

  • Casey, B. J., Getz, S., & Galvan, A. (2008). The adolescent brain. Developmental Review: DR, 28(1), 62–77.
  • Gardner, M., & Steinberg, L. (2005). Peer influence on risk taking, risk preference, and risky decision making in adolescence and adulthood: an experimental study. Developmental Psychology, 41(4), 625–635.
  • Mills, K. L., Goddings, A.-L., Clasen, L. S., Giedd, J. N., & Blakemore, S.-J. (2014). The developmental mismatch in structural brain maturation during adolescence. Developmental Neuroscience.
  • Somerville, L. H., & Casey, B. J. (2010). Developmental neurobiology of cognitive control and motivational systems. Current Opinion in Neurobiology, 20(2), 236–241.
  • Somerville, L. H., van den Bulk, B. G., & Skwara, A. C. (2014). Response to: The triadic model perspective for the study of adolescent motivated behavior. Brain and Cognition.
  • Steinberg, L. (2010). A dual systems model of adolescent risk-taking. Developmental Psychobiology, 52(3), 216–224.

Learning & the Brain® Presented the “2015 Transforming Education Through Neuroscience Award” at Its Educational Conference in Boston on Sunday

Learning & the Brain presented Dr. Fumiko Hoeft from the University of California, San Francisco with the “2015 Transforming Education Through Neuroscience Award” for her contributions to bridging the gap between brain research and classroom practice during the Learning & the Brain educational conference in Boston, MA..

Learning & the Brain presented Dr. Fumiko Hoeft from the University of California, San Francisco with the “2015 Transforming Education Through Neuroscience Award” this past Sunday. Dr. Hoeft is a groundbreaking researcher whose research lies at the intersection of education and cognitive neuroscience was awarded the eighth annual prize for “Transforming Education Through Neuroscience.” The $2,500 award was established to honor individuals who represent excellence in bridging neuroscience and education and is funded by the Learning & the Brain Foundation.

Fumiko Hoeft, MD, PhD, is being honored for her work on learning difficulties and social-emotional learning. Dr. Hoeft received her Doctorate in Medicine and Neurophysiology from Keio University in Tokyo in 2003 and did her post-doctoral work in Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience at Stanford University under neuroscientist John Gabrieli. Now at the University of California, San Francisco School of Medicine, Dr. Hoeft is an Associate Professor of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, Director of the UCSF Hoeft Laboratory for Educational Neuroscience (, and a member of the Advisory Board of the Bay Area’s Center for Childhood Creativity.

Dr. Hoeft uses neuroimaging, behavioral tools and demographic data in her research to further the understanding of the brain mechanisms behind neurodevelopmental conditions such as dyslexia and autism and educationally relevant concepts such as resilience and motivation. Much of her current research examines the interplay between genetic and environmental factors and how they influence the development of language and reading skills. Not only does she hope to help identify the most effective classroom practices and interventions for early reading education but to promote the importance of integrating education and neuroscience.

According to MIT’s John Gabrieli, “Fumiko Hoeft has made seminal discoveries about the brain basis of dyslexia that have important implications for educating children with dyslexia. Her incisive experiments have revealed neurobiological evidence relevant for etiology, diagnosis and prognosis in dyslexia.”

“As the 2015 Transforming Education Through Neuroscience Award recipient, Fumiko Hoeft, is now recognized as one of the most talented and deserving scientists working today within the emerging discipline of neuroeducation,” according to Dr. Kenneth Kosik, Harriman Professor of Neuroscience at the University of California, Santa Barbara and a co-founder of the Learning & the Brain® conference. “Her distinguished stature among both neuroscientists and educators demonstrates her remarkable ability to synthesize these two disciplines. She has created within the interface a novel and unmistakable intellectual force for unity between neuroscience and education.”

David B. Daniel, PhD, Professor of Psychology at James Madison University and the 2013 winner of the award, also had praise for the new recipient. “Dr. Hoeft’s work is a wonderful example of how innovative design in neuroscience can be used to complement, challenge and extend psychological and educational explanations of important issues.”

Dr. Daniel presented the prize to Dr. Hoeft at the upcoming Learning & the Brain® educational conference in Boston, MA on Sunday, November 15, held at the Westin Copley Hotel. The Learning & the Brain® Foundation wishes Dr. Hoeft our heartiest congratulations.

The Problem with Believing in Innate Talent

Girl Math

“It’s OK, some people just aren’t good at math”.

We’ve all heard this before. In fact, some of us have probably even thought it about ourselves (“I’m just not a math person”, “I’ve just never been great at spelling”).

But there’s a problem with this mindset: Not only is it not true, it’s hurting our children.

By believing the myth that talent is hardwired in our brains, and that some of us are naturally better at certain things than others, it keeps kids (and us, as parents and educators) from knowing that with a little hard work, dedication, and self-confidence they can improve.

The idea that math ability, or any ability for that matter, is an immalleable trait perpetuates the harmful myth that intelligence and creativity are mostly genetic. Research has pointed to two orientations of individual’s conceptions of ability: incremental orientation and entity orientation, sometimes also thought of as Fixed and Growth mindset1. Students who lean towards a more incremental orientation believe that intelligence is malleable and can improve with effort. On the other hand, individuals whose ideas of intelligence align with an entity orientation believe that their abilities are fixed; you are born with a certain level of intelligence and no amount of effort can change this.

In other words, incremental orientation suggests that what you do affects what you know. Entity orientation suggests that who you are affects what you can do.

An entity orientation can lead to students giving up in subjects that they aren’t excelling in, likely because they believe that they are inherently incapable of excelling and any efforts to improve would be wasted energy2. Another study found that women who believed their math abilities were fixed and unchangeable showed less interest in math related tasks and were therefore more likely to “fall prey to the gender gap that exists in mathematics fields”3. In this way, an entity orientation may make people more susceptible to “stereotype threat”, or the tendency to believe that you are more or less prone to something because of the innate abilities of the groups that you are a part of.

A recent nationwide, longitudinal study also supports these findings, suggesting that both male and female students who believed that their abilities were fixed genetic traits may keep them from later majoring in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields4. One author of the study suggests that “students may need to hear that encountering difficulty during classwork is expected and normal,” and that anyone can be good at math, or any other subjects they’re struggling with. This mentality, what scientists refer to as the “growth mindset”, seems to equally benefit both boys and girls5 and suggest that teaching this message in schools will help encourage more girls to pursue careers in STEM fields.

However, there are still a disparagingly low number of women in STEM fields, with men outnumbering women 3 to 16. Recent research is pointing to one possibility: academics that believe in the concept of innate talent may lead to bias. Findings suggest that the more professors thought that innate talent was necessary to succeed within certain fields (namely philosophy, music, economics, and math), the less likely women and African Americans would dominate that field7. This mindset may be limiting people’s opportunities before they even get started. In other words, it may be just as important for teachers, professors, and leaders to believe that students have an incremental orientation as it is for the students themselves.

So how can we fix this? For starters, we can focus on teaching people of all ages the science behind a growth mindset. The first step towards incorporating these ideas in the classroom is making sure that teachers themselves believe them. Innate talent is a myth and our brains are constantly developing, even into adulthood8. This is evident in the dynamic memories of New York City taxi drivers9 or even playing games like Tetris (which research has found may thicken the cortex, or outer layer of the brain, in adolescence10). And this concept isn’t only relevant to students who are struggling; even students who advance in math can improve their cognitive abilities11.

Teaching students these facts about the brain can actually help them learn. A new study has found that students who struggle in school actually improve once they’ve been taught that intelligence isn’t fixed and can advance with hard work12. Researchers have called this concept “mindset interventions” – students spend around 45 minutes reading and writing about articles on the brain’s ability to grow and develop. While improvement in grades is only around one-tenth of a letter grade, this is still really impressive considering students spend less than an hour on these ‘interventions’. The key to these interventions is a supportive teacher who “encourages students to take advantage of such opportunities”12.

Psychologist Carol Dweck and colleagues have shown that experiences as early as elementary school often reinforce mental habits that support the myth that intelligence is a fixed, genetic trait13. She has found that children come to an unconscious assumption that tasks given at school (such as quizzes, in-class assignments, or homework) are actually opportunities to measure how smart they are rather than innovative ways to challenge their intelligence. For these children, performing poorly on these assignments shows that they lack intelligence rather than being an indicator of how much more they have to learn14. Because they believe that the main reason behind these tasks is to measure their competence, these kids try to pick the easiest task to complete, which unfortunately means that they aren’t challenging their intelligence and often lose out on the full benefits of learning.

Dweck and colleagues have also shown ways to improve kids’ outlooks about their intellectual ability. They explained to a group of at-risk junior high school students that intelligence is highly malleable and can be developed with hard work. Most importantly, they explained to these students that they were in charge of their intelligence and with hard work could guide their brain’s improvement during the learning process. What they found was that convincing students that they could make themselves smarter made them work harder and achieve higher scores. This effect was seen even more so in students who initially believed that intelligence was an innate, genetic trait. Dweck reported some very emotional stories of junior high school boys who were “reduced to tears by the news that their intelligence was substantially under their control”15.

While these kids felt as though they were given a second chance, they actually had the right tools all along. Teachers face many challenges that are outside of their control and that may impede the learning process; but this is one thing every educator can offer their students that may have tremendous impact on their lives. By adopting a growth mindset themselves, educators can model, nurture, and share the value of an incremental orientation. It’s important to start explaining to children while their young that they have full control of their futures, and intellectual abilities.

Just because something doesn’t come easily or naturally doesn’t mean they aren’t smart or can never be good at math – all it really means is that they may have to keep trying.

References & Further Reading

  1. Linehan, P. L. (1998). Conceptions of ability: Nature and impact across content areas. Purdue University: PhD Thesis. [Dissertation]
  2. Burnette, J.L., O’Boyle, E.H., VanEpps, E.M., Pollack, J.M., Finkel, E.J. (2013). Mind-sets matter: A meta-analytic review of implicit theories and self-regulation. Psychological Bulletin, 139(3), p. 655-701. [Meta-Analysis]
  3. Burkley, M., Parker, J., Stermer, S.P., & Burkley, E. (2010). Trait beliefs that make women vulnerable to math disengagement. Personality and Individual Differences, 48(2), p. 234-238. [Journal Article]
  4. Nix, S., Perez-Felkner, L., & Thomas, K. (2015). Perceived Mathematical Ability under Challenge: A Longitudinal Perspective on Sex Segregation among STEM Degree Fields. Frontiers in Psychology, 6(530). [Journal Article]
  5. Good, C., Rattan, A., & Dweck, C. (2012). Why do women opt out? Sense of belonging and women’s representation in mathematics. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 102(4), p. 700-717. [Journal Article]
  6. Miller, D. & Wai, J. (2015). The bachelor’s to Ph.D. STEM pipeline no longer leaks more women than men: a 30 year analysis. Frontiers in Psychology, 6(37). [Journal Article]
  7. Leslie, S., Cimpian, A., Meyer, M., & Freeland, E. (2015). Expectations of brilliance underlie gender distributions across academic disciplines. Science, 347 (6219), p. 262-265. [Journal Article]
  8. May, A. (2011). Experience-dependent structural plasticity in the adult human brain. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 15(10), p. 475-482. [Journal Article]
  9. Maguire, E.A., Woollett, K., & Spiers, H. J. (2006). London Taxi Drivers and Bus Drivers: A Structural MRI and Neuropsychological Analysis. Hippocampus 16, p. 1091–1101. [Journal Article]
  10. Haier, R., Karama, S., Leyba, L., & Jung, R. (2009). MRI Assessment Of Cortical Thickness And Functional Activity Changes In Adolescent Girls Following Three Months Of Practice On A Visual-spatial Task. BMC Research Notes, 174. [Report]
  11. Miller, D. & Halpern, D.F. (2013). Can spatial training improve long-term outcomes for gifted STEM undergraduates? Learning and Individual Differences, 26, p.141-152. [Journal Article]
  12. Yeager, D., & Walton, G. (2011). Social-Psychological Interventions in Education: They’re Not Magic. Review of Educational Research, 267-301. [Journal Article]
  13. Dweck, C. (2007). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Ballantine Books: Random House, NY. [Book]
  14. Edmondson, A. C. (2008). The Competitive Imperative of Learning. Harvard Business Review. [Web Article]
  15. Nisbett, R. (2009). Intelligence and how to get it: Why schools and cultures count.W. Norton & Co: New York, NY. [Book]


Do metaphors make learning a piece of cake?


At first glance, metaphor and science might seem to inhabit opposite ends of the things-we-learn-in-school continuum. We usually learn about metaphor through lessons on works like Langston Hughes’s Life ain’t been no crystal stair, and we associate science with topics like crystallization, the process of transferring a liquid to a solid. But metaphor is a mischief that doesn’t like to stay confined to the language arts classroom. It lurks in political discourse (the wealth gap), in music (you ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog), and – you guessed it – in education.

Analogies link two topics in order to bring attention to some of their commonalities, and metaphors are one way of using analogy in language. In most cases, metaphors describe a more novel target, an abstract concept that we can’t see, touch, or experience physically, by linking it to a familiar source concept, something more concrete that we do have experience with. For that reason, it might not be surprising that we often draw on real-world experiences to describe complex scientific concepts. The domain we’re drawing from is often called the source, while the domain we’re trying to explain or understand is the target. We describe molecules as excited when they have a lot of energy, and we learn that when they’re attracted to other molecules, they often form bonds. Whether these descriptions were intentionally metaphorical or not, our language to describe electron dynamics borrows heavily from the language we use to talk about human interactions, a context we’re much more familiar with than subatomic particle behavior. Once you start paying attention, metaphors seem to be everywhere: People who have diabetes are often told that insulin is the key that unlocks their cell doors. And the ozone layer is often described as a blanket that protects the earth. And DNA is often referred to as a blueprint or a recipe. Are these just convenient ways of talking? Or do the linguistic metaphors we use shape the way we think about the complex topics they describe?

Metaphor shapes thought
A growing body of research suggests that we don’t just use metaphors to talk; we use them to think as well. In a series of experiments by Paul Thibodeau and Lera Boroditsky1, people read either that crime is a “wild beast preying on” or “virus infecting” the city of Addison (a fictional city). They then read some fake statistics, like “In 2004, there were 330 murders in the city, in 2007, there were over 500,” and they were asked what they thought Addison should do about the crime. People’s proposed solutions differed systematically depending on the metaphor they read earlier to describe the crime. Those who read that crime was a beast tended to make suggestions related to containing it and enforcing penalties, things people would probably suggest if an actual beast were loose in the town. The virus readers, on the other hand, were more likely than the beast readers to suggest that the city find the root causes of the crime problem and remedy those, in line with how they would likely eliminate a literal virus. People were still swayed by the metaphor even when they were given options to choose from instead of generating their own solutions. This work shows that the metaphor people encounter for a topic as complex as crime can influence the way they reason about it.

Metaphors in the classroom
How might metaphors affect students learning about complex topics? Since metaphors usually describe intangible ideas or processes by referring to things we actually have experience with, teachers often feel that they are an effective way to teach. In 1983, Dedre and Donald Gentner investigated this intuition more closely2. They noticed that there are two common analogies for teaching electricity. The first is the water-flow analogy: just as water flows through pipes, electricity flows through the wires of an electrical system. The second is a moving-crowds analogy: the flow of electricity through the wires can be seen as similar to a crowd of mice running along an enclosed track.

Although both analogies demonstrate the gist of electricity flow, there are other features of electricity that they make less obvious. For example, what happens when multiple resistors are introduced in an electrical circuit? If it’s a series circuit (meaning that each component is connected in a series), the result will be different than if it’s a parallel circuit (meaning that the current divides in at least two paths before completing the circuit). The image below gives an example of each type of circuit.



If a student is thinking about the circuit as similar to water pipes, every blockage (created by a resistor) might seem to affect the circuit in the same way since all blockages slow flowing water down. However, this is not the case with electricity; in the case of a parallel circuit, more resistors actually create more current. Consistent with this idea, people who used the water-flow model to think about electricity were less likely to understand resistors than those who thought about electricity as moving crowds. The moving-crowds analogy was not a conceptual panacea, however: people using that mental metaphor had more trouble with questions about the effects of including multiple batteries in the circuit. This is likely because it’s not clear what the batteries in the circuit are analogous to in the moving mice model. In the water model, however, the battery’s analog is much clearer – it corresponds to a reservoir. This work shows that the metaphors used to teach complex concepts have consequences, both helpful and misleading, for how students understand the phenomena they describe.

Metaphor abounds in education about the brain as well. Because we can’t see or touch the brain and definitely can’t see or touch the many dynamic processes occurring within it, metaphors make neuroscience more tangible. The brain is frequently compared to a computer when we want to emphasize its ability to take in information from the world, “process” it, and behave accordingly. It’s a muscle when we want to emphasize our ability to change what we know and how we think. Metaphors are used to talk about the different parts of the brain, too. Neurons are often described and diagrammed as tree-like (which is the meaning of the Greek root in dendrite!), and neurons’ dynamics are almost inevitably talked about in terms of human communication. Neurons are seen as messengers that send and receive the messages underlying all cognition. And once those messages arrive at the frontal lobe – the area most known for its involvement in higher-level thinking like decision-making, inhibition, and rational thinking – we often say that they have reached the brain’s control center. In many cases, these metaphors shed light on the complexities of the brain that are far from our direct experience, but it’s important that we also keep in mind the hidden inferences each might contain about how the brain really works.

Effective metaphor use
Although metaphors can open doors to many useful insights, they can also encourage misunderstandings if students make unintended links between the source and target domains. The solution for avoiding these misleading inferences is not to abolish metaphor from the classroom completely. Not only would that be nearly impossible, but it would also bar us from the helpful insights that metaphors do foster. In addition, some research shows that metaphors can evoke more emotional responses in the brain (specifically, more amygdala and anterior hippocampus activation) than literal sentences containing the same content3. Since emotional stimuli tend to be remembered better than unemotional stimuli4, it’s an open question as to whether metaphor can help students learn by tapping into emotional cognitive resources.

Although it is difficult to provide advice for metaphors that will hold for all students, subjects, and topics, Benjamin Jee and colleagues have articulated some general guidelines that educators can follow to ensure that their analogies are as effective as possible5:

● Make sure that students can explicitly map the features of the analogy (a blueprint, for example) to the new concept (DNA). Instructors may first need to explicitly point out the mappings in order for the students to make the connections
● Acknowledge the incorrect inferences that students might make. Point out the ways in which DNA is not like a blueprint, in addition to the ways that it is.
● Keep the metaphorical source available. While explaining the ways that the analogy extends from one domain to another, keeping the source present helps students focus their mental energy on connecting the topics, instead of working to recall the example at hand.
● Introduce more similar source-target pairs before expanding to metaphors that have fewer surface similarities. The more similar the features are of the two concepts being compared, the easier it will be for students to extrapolate the conceptual similarities that the metaphor aims to highlight.

Instead, we might be better off adopting an everything in moderation mentality, a mentality that we strive to apply to many of the great things in our lives. When we indulge in a piece of chocolate cake, we savor it as something rich and satisfying. But we know that a diet consisting only, or even primarily, of chocolate cake would be harmful, so we try to balance our cake consumption with other foods. We can think of our metaphors in the same way: they’re worth savoring, but if consumed with reckless abandon, they may clog up our figurative arteries and prevent us from deep understandings.


  1. Thibodeau PH, Boroditsky L (2011). Metaphors We Think With: The Role of Metaphor in Reasoning. PLoS ONE 6(2): e16782. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0016782 [Paper]
  2. Gentner, D. & Gentner, D. (1983). Flowing waters or teeming crowds: Mental models of electricity. In D. Gentner & A. L. Stevens (Eds.), Mental models (pp. 99-129). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. [Chapter]
  3. Citron, F.M. & Goldberg, A.E. (2014). Metaphorical sentences are more emotionally engaging than their literal counterparts. J Cogn Neurosci, 26(11), 2585-95. [Paper]
  4. Hamann, S. (2001). Cognitive and neural mechanisms of emotional memory. TRENDS in Cognitive Science, 5(9), 394-400. [Paper]
  5. Jee, B. D., Uttal, D. H., Gentner, D., Manduca, C., Shipley, T., Sageman, B., Ormand, C. J., & Tikoff, B. (2010). Analogical thinking in geoscience education. Journal of Geoscience Education, 58 (1), 2-13. [Paper]

Further reading:

  1. Richland, LE, Zur, O., & Holyoak, KJ. (2007). Cognitive supports for analogies in the mathematics classroom. Science, 316(5828), 1128-1129. DOI:10.1126/science.1142103. [Paper]
  2. Hendricks, R. (2015) A metaphorical tour of the brain. [Article]

Overloaded and Underprepared: Strategies for Stronger Schools and Healthy, Successful Kids by Denise Pope, Maureen Brown and Sarah Miles

Many middle and high school students are exhausted, stressed, tempted by maladaptive behaviors, and not necessarily optimally prepared for adulthood. Challenge Success is an organization that addresses these issues by advising schools about best practices for improving learning, supporting social emotional development, and fostering students’ long-term success. In Overloaded and Underprepared: Strategies for Stronger Schools and Healthy, Successful Kids Denise Pope, Maureen Brown, and Sarah Miles synthesize a decade of experience as leaders of Challenge Success and recent educational research about student learning and engagement. The result is a clear and practical guide for parents and educators interested in changing their school cultures to promote more holistic, ethical, creative, and analytic development in students.

Pope, Brown, and Miles outline the elements of a process for changing a school’s culture. Reform comes about when all stakeholders (i.e., school administrators, staff members, faculty, parents, and students) collaborate and listen to one another to identify knotty problems, understand their root cause, and work together towards solutions. Impending changes should be communicated clearly to all parties and changes should be made incrementally.

The authors summarize their recommended changes with the acronym SPACE. That is, reformers can consider: (s) students’ schedule and use of time; (p) project- and problem-based learning; (a) alternative and authentic assessment; (c) creating a climate of care; and (e) education not only for students but for parents and faculty too.

With regard to scheduling, the authors suggest that the school day be restructured to start later thereby aligning with adolescents’ natural circadian rhythm. They urge more breaks in the day for reflection and socializing and a block schedule in which classes have longer but fewer meetings to facilitate deep learning.   They suggest also that the school calendar be adjusted so that semester exams occur before winter break to make the vacation more restful.

A major contributor to students’ exhaustion is heavy homework loads. In high preforming schools teenagers spend about three hours per night on homework. However, the vast majority of students do not think that their homework is helpful. Indeed the authors argue that homework is not necessary for a rigorous curriculum or for developing a strong work ethic. Given the contribution homework makes to students’ stress and academic disengagement, it should only be used to review skills or prepare for in-class activities. Further, worthwhile homework allows for student choice, is tailored to each students’ skill level, and connects to the overarching concepts in the course.

Pope, Brown, and Miles argue that maintaining student engagement—their excitement about school, their willingness to put effort into their work, and their belief that school is worthwhile—is essential for maintaining physical and mental health and reducing cheating. Project-based learning (PBL), in which students have a driving question that they try (often for a couple weeks) to answer, can improve engagement.

Testing, especially when it is based heavily on memorization, is another contributor to student stress. The authors reconceptualize assessment as a montage of frequent and diverse forms of measuring progress and showing a students’ full range of abilities. Teachers can create this montage by including assessments in which students must apply knowledge to real world problems, allowing for self-assessment, and providing feedback to students with the opportunity for revision.

Well over two million students took Advanced Placement (AP) exams in 2013. Pope, Brown, and Miles, however, urge caution before adopting an AP curriculum and they suggest critical examination of existing AP programs. They recommend considering the cost of the program and the risk of teaching to an imperfect test. If AP programs are adopted, they should be part of a larger reform effort and available to all students. The authors state that AP programs do not make students better prepared for college or more likely to gain admission. Additionally, they are not an efficacious way to close achievement gaps.

The authors conclude with several recommendations for overall wellness. Schools with a “climate of care” seek to promote social emotional learning, a sense of belonging, healthy relations with teachers, and opportunities for counseling. They teach stress-relief practices to students and teachers, promote an integrative, mind-body wellness and fitness routine, and recognize that wellness need not come at the expense of academic excellence. Schools and parents should work together to protect students’ time for play, day dreaming, and family.

As many Challenge Success schools have shown, when everyone affiliated with a school works together to identify why students are overworked and underprepared and when they are willing to consider the reforms to school policies outlined above, it is possible for students to have both a more rigorous academic experience and a more balanced life.


Pope, D., Brown, M., & Miles, S. (2015). Overloaded and Underprepared: Strategies for Stronger Schools and Healthy, Successful Kids. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons.

Meta-Learning: The Importance of Thinking about Thinking


“The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn”1 

The Issue

When we think about what we teach our students, the first thing that comes to mind is knowledge; the curriculum and standards are full of concepts students should learn and understand. As we think about it further, we realize it’s important that their knowledge does not remain inert: students should be able to apply what they know through skills like critical thinking, creativity, communication, and collaboration. We also realize that our students should embody certain character qualities in how they engage with the world: grit, perseverance, mindfulness, etc.

We may think that sounds like a complete, multi-dimensional education.

But there is one more dimension we are missing: the “meta” dimension. “Meta” is a term that means “referring to itself”. In other words, students must learn how to learn. They must be reflective about their growth. They must learn to set goals, select strategies, and evaluate their progress. They must internalize a growth mindset, believing effort matters and approaching challenges with excitement.

The Research

Metacognition (the process of thinking about thinking) has been shown to enhance learning,2  and to transfer across disciplines.3 To illustrate how this works on the level of student behavior, we can look to mathematics education research.

In one study, students were compared to seasoned mathematicians. The students consistently selected a seemingly useful strategy and continued to apply it without checking to see if it was actually working. They wasted a significant amount of time on fruitless pursuits. The more experienced mathematicians on the other hand, exercised metacognition, monitoring their approach all along the way to see if it was actually leading to a solution or a dead end. Rather than just using what they had learned, they thought about how they were using what they had learned – and that made a huge difference.

Of course, with such an abstract learning goal, it is important for us to be precise with how to teach it. Traditional methods of improving students’ learning strategies often focus on prescribed procedures such as note-taking, self-testing, and scheduling. These typically result in initial motivation and some short-term improvement, but ultimately a reversion to old habits.4 While these tactics may work in the short term (e.g. to cram for an exam), they don’t actually result in a deep, lasting change.

In The Classroom – Generally

There are four general aspects to teaching metacognition:
1. Promoting general awareness of the importance of metacognition
2. Improving awareness of cognition through modeling
3. Improving regulation and applications of cognition
4. Fostering environments that promote meta-learning.

First of all, it is important to explicitly talk about metacognition. Since the challenge is to teach students to consciously monitor and regulate their cognition, they should first consciously think about it, and choose to set it as a goal. We can remind students that learning isn’t something that just happens, and it doesn’t happen the same way for all of us all of the time. By watching how we’re learning, making note of our struggles, strengths, and patterns, we can actually become better learners. If a student fails at a math problem, for example, it may be valuable to talk about how thinking processes, attitudes, motivation, and context may have played a role in how they chose their method of solving the problem; not just the correct but mechanical application of a mathematical procedure.

Next, although metacognition is largely a student-centric practice, teachers play an important role in fostering it by modeling appropriate metacognitive practices explicitly as they teach, so that students can follow the thought process of an expert, and eventually internalize it for themselves. That means saying how you’re thinking about your own thinking, and reminding students why that’s important. As you’re teaching a class on grammar, for example, you might start a dialogue about how you put the lesson together: “Why do you think I decided to teach it this way?” Students can also model good metacognitive practices for each other. This can sometimes be even more effective, as students are often closer to peers’ levels of metacognitive development.

Third, it is important to move beyond simple “awareness,” to regulation and application. You can imagine being aware you are procrastinating, or not studying in the most efficient way, and yet not taking action in accordance with your awareness. This step seems like a given, and yet it is important to highlight it separately, because it is often the biggest roadblock to improvement. Mapping out a plan to make improvements based on self-awareness can be a challenging and cognitively demanding undertaking. By carving out classroom time dedicated to developing these skills, we send the message that it’s normal for these changes to not happen automatically. They take dedicated thought, practice, and reflection. Students can work alone or in groups to reflect on common obstacles like procrastination or test anxiety, and how they’ve been working to overcome them. This shows students that strategies are possible, they take time to find, and ultimately, they’re worth it.

Finally, as described above, it is important to foster a classroom climate that promotes a view of intelligence as malleable with hard work (a growth mindset) and the goal of learning as mastery, (rather than performance). This way, students can focus on internalizing skills and competencies rather than achieving a high but short-term, superficial and non-transferable level of performance. This means talking about these things. It might sound like a lot of talking, but if we can spend a semester teaching biology, we can interweave conversations about how to learn biology, too.

You might be thinking something along the lines of: “This may be hard to grasp for many students. Sure, I can introduce it to the students who are already excelling, but those who are struggling already have so much on their plates!” Metacognition can always be developed in students in the context of their current goals and can enhance their learning5 as well as transfer of learning,6  no matter their starting achievement level. In fact, it may be most useful for lower-achieving students, as the higher-achieving students are most likely already employing strategies that have proven successful for them.7 

Research has shown that for learning disabled and low achieving students, metacognitive training can improve behavior more effectively than traditional attention control training.8  It has even been shown to increase academic self-confidence of non-Caucasian students in the STEM disciplines,9 counteracting the effects of stereotype threat.

Action Items

When students get back an exam, how often do they glance at the grade, and never look at it again? Exams can be very useful teaching tools. Many teachers offer students incentives for correcting their mistakes, hoping this will encourage them to fill in their gaps. Going one step further, Marsha C. Lovett at Carnegie Mellon has developed “exam wrappers” to scaffold students in digging deeply into their meta-cognitive process, reflect on their strengths and weaknesses, and adapt their strategies. These wrappers are basically tools for reflecting on and enhancing learning post-exam, reminding students that the grade is not the end goal. Below is an example wrapper from a physics test.

Meta Reflection

Exam wrappers help students to spend time thinking carefully about their strategies, and learn from understanding their performance on a test. Of course, this doesn’t have to apply only to exams. Wrappers can be developed for and activity, including homework assignments, in-class exercises, projects, and so on. For some more examples, check out the Eberly Center website.

Metacognitive scaffolding can enhance all parts of the learning experience, not just exams. Wrappers can be designed for homework assignments, in-class exercises, projects, etc. Discussing the learning goals and rationale behind assignments before students begin assignments has been shown to help students master the content.

So What?

When we teach our students, we hope they will apply what they learn to their lives. In teaching ethics, for example, we believe that we are helping them to become more ethical people. But the evidence suggests that ethicists “are no likelier to donate to charity, to choose a vegetarian diet, to reply to student emails, to pay conference registration fees they owe, to return their library books, to vote in public elections, to stay in regular contact with their mothers, to be blood or organ donors, or to behave politely at conferences.”10 

It turns out that we have been skipping a step: meta-learning is crucial for the translation of understanding into action.

Meta-learning helps within subjects, and it helps to reach outside of them. It makes us more likely to transfer what we know from one sphere of life to another, to figure out a more optimal way of achieving our goals, and to live according to our principles. And it is not only achievable in our classrooms, it can enhance learning at every stage.


To learn more, check out Maya Bialik’s new book Four-Dimensional Education. [Hint: Meta-Learning is the fourth dimension; the first three are knowledge, skills, and character].

References & Further Reading

  1. Psychologist Herbert Gerjuoy as quoted by Alvin Toffler, Futurist, in “Future Shock” (1970) [Book]
  1. Schmidt, A. M., & Ford, J. K. (2003). Learning Within a Learner Control Training Environment: the Interactive Effects of Goal Orientation and Metacognitive Instruction on Learning Outcomes. Personnel Psychology, 56(2), 405–429. [Paper]
  1. Ford, J. K., Smith, E. M., Weissbein, D. a., Gully, S. M., & Salas, E. (1998). Relationships of goal orientation, metacognitive activity, and practice strategies with learning outcomes and transfer. Journal of Applied Psychology, 83(2), 218–233. [Paper]
  1. E. Martin and P. Ramsden, “Learning Skills and Skill in Learning,” in J.T.E. Richardson, M. Eysenck, and D. Warren-Piper (Eds.), Student Learning: Research in Education and Cognitive Psychology (Guildford, Surrey: Society for Research into Higher Education and NFER-Nelson, 1986) as cited in J. Biggs, “The Role of Metacognition in Enhancing Learning,” Australian Journal of Education 32, no. 2, (1988): 127–138 [Paper]
  1. Schmidt, A. M., & Ford, J. K. (2003). Learning Within a Learner Control Training Environment: the Interactive Effects of Goal Orientation and Metacognitive Instruction on Learning Outcomes. Personnel Psychology, 56(2), 405–429. [Paper]
  1. Ford, J. K., Smith, E. M., Weissbein, D. a., Gully, S. M., & Salas, E. (1998). Relationships of goal orientation, metacognitive activity, and practice strategies with learning outcomes and transfer. Journal of Applied Psychology, 83(2), 218–233. [Paper]
  1. McKeachie, W. J. (1988). The need for study strategy training. In C. E. Weinstein, E. T. Goetz, & P. A. Alexander (Eds.), Learning and study strategies: Issues in assessment, instruction, and evaluation (pp. 3-9). New York: Academic Press. [Chapter]
  1. Larson, K. a., & Gerber, M. M. (1987). Effects of Social Metacognitive Training of Enhanced Overt Behavior in Learning Disabled and Low Achieving Delinquents. Exceptional Children. [Paper]
  1. Winkelmes, M (2013), “Transparency in teaching: Faculty share data and improve students’ learning” Liberal Education 99/2 (Spring 2013), 48-55. [Article] See also Illinois Initiative on Transparency in Learning and Teaching, for
  1. Schwitzgebel, E. (2013). The Moral Behavior of Ethicists and the Role of the Philosopher. [Paper]

Celebrating Media Literacy Week: Does Media Shape Reality?

Cloud Media

In our hyper-connected world, we interact with media all the time. Popular press, flash news, advertising, memes, and viral videos shape the way we interact with the world today. What are some of the cognitive consequences of such exposure? How can educators build awareness around how media messages impact us on a daily basis? The upcoming launch of the first annual Media Literacy Week on November 2-6 in the United States is a great opportunity to talk about how media is impacting students’ lives in the 21st century.

Media, media everywhere!

If you have opened your Facebook today, you know that we have come a long way from Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press to the massive amount of media that we are exposed to on a daily basis. Today, 92% of American teenagers go online on a daily basis, including 24% of them “almost constantly.”1 Online, we like to chat, share, or stream videos on social media like Twitter, Youtube, and other blogging websites. With social, scientific, and cultural knowledge literally at our fingertips, modern media is constantly competing for our attention..

Of course, media has also been changing the way we spend our time and communicate with others. But why do we, as human beings, crave media so much? What drives us to spend hours reading people’s comments on a post, following celebrities’ gossips, or watching cat videos?

Media matter to us because it lets us have access to experiences that we otherwise would never have in “real” life. We can go deep sea diving with bizarre, vibrant creatures, gain access to the daily musings of our favorite authors, or instantaneously garner compliments on our latest accomplishment. It is our window to a world that we can’t always access – nearly any world we want. With the autonomy and relevance it offers, it makes sense that we may be cognitively inclined to learn through media, and that’s exactly what the research suggests.

When we are little, we begin understanding the world around us through fairy tales or bedtime stories. We pretend-play and use our imagination to make sense of experiences we might never live first-hand. And thankfully so! I’d much rather read a book about dinosaurs or watch Jurassic Park than go figure out on my own whether a dinosaur is friendly or not…

Even before the days of the Internet, Olson and Bruner (1974) explained that there is a difference between “learning through experience” and “learning through media”2. They highlighted that knowledge is always mediated. That is, we rarely experience reality first-hand. As a consequence, we create a picture of reality in our minds that is based on our vicarious experience of said reality. But in a society that is flooded by media, we can’t always look at all the information available in detail. So we rely on automatic processing of information. Our minds go on autopilot mode, and we screen out all information until something valuable triggers our attention. Potter (2004) explains that this is a cognitive advantage because we can avoid some messages while at the same time filter the ones we want 3. A perfect example is when we go through our Facebook newsfeed: our mind can go on autopilot, and we do not read absolutely everything on the screen, but posts that are interesting to us will catch our attention. However, it is important to note that even unconscious exposure is exposure, and we still attend to the information we might not be interested in seeing.

The information we deal with unconsciously through automatic processing, adds Potter, is more likely to lead to faulty interpretations. Roggeveen & Johar (2002) showed that often, people tend to believe repeated statements more than new ones, also known as the “truth effect” 4 or “familiarity bias”.This means that if we are repeatedly exposed to the same idea from multiple sources, we may believe it as true. While this could be beneficial in certain cases (e.g., inspirational quotes), it could lead to more negative effects in other cases (e.g., stereotypes).

A cognitive construction of reality

There are many studies highlighting the influences of media on social behaviors, like violence, gender roles, or body image (I invite you to read about Bandura’s famous Bobo doll experiment to learn more about these influences). While media allow us to have access to a multitude of experiences and perspectives, it can also create a false belief of what reality is like, or give distorted examples of social behaviors. One of the most important realities that media creates for us is about specific groups of people For instance, men and women are generally portrayed in the media through stereotypical roles and behaviors, therefore perpetuating social norms that may not reflect reality. These representations can also be based on occupation, ethnicity or age, to name a few.

Not only can we process information on “auto-pilot mode,” like Potter explained, we are often exposed to information that is superficial and decontextualized in nature. Altogether, this means that we can accept many beliefs that are not based on evidence, because we don’t always consciously think about them. Take how the media reported the announcement that World Health Organization recently made: “bacon causes cancer.” Even though this statement was decontextualized, and should be understood within the context of the specific study that yielded results about processes meats, it is hard to not take this statement as a fact and separate the evidence from belief.

Researchers in social cognition have been studying the distortions in people’s perception of other people and social situations. These errors actually help us understand our cognitive processes better. Bless et al. (2004) explain that as social thinkers, we tend to perceive the world the way we believe it is 5. They describe four types of social thinkers who rely on different cognitive processes to understand information about the world:

• Some individuals can act as consistency seekers, that is, they look for consistency between what they already believe about the world and their interpretation of new information, sometimes creating inaccurate constructions of that reality.

• Others are naive or lay scientists, who need to perceive the world accurately and gather all relevant information to construct reality in an unbiased manner. This type of thinking requires high motivation and time–which we unfortunately don’t always have.

• Another type of thinker is the cognitive miser, who simplifies cognitive processes because of time pressure. While they also aim for high accuracy, they often rely on simplifications that might not be accurate, for the sake of time (“well if this top model likes this lipstick, it must be good”).

• Finally, some individuals, or motivated tacticians, adopt multiple strategies that can be applied depending on the constraints they face (time, pressure, consistency, etc).

As a result, the way we process media on a daily basis can have repercussions on the way we perceive reality. Our automatic processes of media can lead to faulty views of the world and the people that surround us.

What I’d like to emphasize is that media in itself is neither good nor bad. What matters is that individuals possess the skills to choose for themselves and decide whether to accept or reject media messages. This can be accomplished by creating awareness in students about how media systems operate in our digital era, and about their own thinking habits. This process is called media literacy.

Media Literacy

What exactly does media literacy entail? What does it mean to be media literate? The National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE) states that:

“The purpose of media literacy education is to help individuals of all ages develop the habits of inquiry and skills of expression that they need to be critical thinkers, effective communicators and active citizens in today’s world”. 6

The core principles of media literacy education are the following:

1. Media Literacy Education requires active inquiry and critical thinking about the messages we receive and create.
2. Media Literacy Education expands the concept of literacy to include all forms of media (i.e., reading and writing).
3. Media Literacy Education builds and reinforces skills for learners of all ages. Like print literacy, those skills necessitate integrated, interactive, and repeated practice.
4. Media Literacy Education develops informed, reflective and engaged participants essential for a democratic society.
5. Media Literacy Education recognizes that media are a part of culture and function as agents of socialization.
6. Media Literacy Education affirms that people use their individual skills, beliefs and experiences to construct their own meanings from media messages 6

These skills can be implemented in any classroom and adapted to any subject areas. Think of it more like a pedagogical approach or a mindset than a stand-alone topic. For instance, you could talk about the Emmys to discuss gender representation in the film industry, use TV commercials to discuss the function of media, or even televised debates to uncover the analyze angles or visual representations. All the while relating it to the topic that you’re teaching in class.

There are lots of good resources online (use your own media literacy to detect which ones are good for your purposes!). NAMLE provides great examples to get you started, and Powerful Voices for Kids also has examples of lesson plans in addition to a great overview of what media literacy is.

Media Literacy Week

The first US Media Literacy Week is currently going on (November 2-6)! You can follow the event on Twitter using the hashtag #MediaLitWk.

The National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE) suggests the following activities for that week:

❏ Gather teachers for a professional development workshop
❏ Organize a screening and panel discussion at your school or in your community
❏ Create a film festival of youth media projects developed in your classroom
❏ Take your students on a tour of a local television station
❏ Host a webinar about news literacy
❏ Partner with your local maker space and explore new forms of reading and writing with emergent technology
❏ Explore a community issue and have children come up with civically-minded creative solutions
❏ Debate the ethical opportunities and challenges of what “free” or “private” means online

Of course, these are only a few examples. Other ideas can be found at MediaLiteracyNow. I also particularly like the documentaries from The Representation Project called “Miss Representation” and “The Mask You live In”. They look at gender bias and gender roles in the media and give a good overview on how to use of media skills in everyday life. Common Sense Media is a great tool for teachers (and parents): it reviews and rates shows, apps, games, box office movies, etc for children and teenagers. It also provides excellent resources for teachers wishing to integrate media and digital citizenship in their classroom.

Media literacy can be challenging to implement as a way of thinking about thinking (also called metacognition). It is important to start early and to understand the cognitive reasons underlying the need for media literacy. It will not only give students the critical thinking skills they need in the 21st century, but also give them control over their interaction with media.


References & Further Reading

  1. Lenhart, A. (2012). Teens and online video: Shooting, sharing, streaming and chatting-social media using teens are the most enthusiastic users of many online video capabilities. Washington DC: Pew Research Center. [Report]
  2. Olson, D. & Bruner, J. (1974). Learning through experience and learning through media. In d. Olson (Ed.) Media and symbols: The forms of expression, communication, and education (73d yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education). Chicago: University of Chicago Press. [Book]
  3. Potter, W. J. (2004). Theory of media literacy: A cognitive approach. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications. [Book]
  4. Roggeveen, A. L., & Johar, G. V. (2002). Perceived source variability versus familiarity: Testing competing explanations for the truth effect. Journal of Consumer Psychology12(2), 81-91. [Paper]
  5. Bless, H., Fiedler, K., & Strack, F. (2004). Social cognition: How individuals construct social reality. New York: Psychology Press. [Book]
  6. National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE). Core principles of media literacy education. [Report]

Family Matters: Do Obligations Encourage Teens to Play it Safe?

Grocery Help

The teenage years have long been described as a period of “storm and stress.” It’s a time for parental clashes, moodiness, risky behaviors, and a lot of cringe-worthy confessional songwriting.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Teen angst isn’t universal or inevitable, as these “storm and stress” behaviors are less pronounced in more traditional non-Western cultures1.

Why is this the case? One hypothesis is that it has to do with Western culture’s focus on individualism. This focus might set the stage for conflict by putting a premium on exploration and risk as teens figure out how to be independent from their families.

What can families and educators do to help kids weather the storm of adolescence? Here, we’ll explore one potential buffer identified by developmental science: having meaningful familial obligations.

The “Terrible Teens”

Before we continue, it’s worth thinking about whether “storm and stress” is necessarily a bad thing. Some aspects of the underlying neurobiology may be related to teens’ interests in new learning experiences, especially those involving their peers. These experiences might teach valuable skills for navigating complex social decisions. Similarly, the “Terrible Twos” are as much about social, cognitive, and motor milestones as they are about moodiness and tantrums.

On the other hand, while risks taken by two year-olds are largely managed by their caregivers, risk in the teenage years may have more profound, adult consequences. Adolescence may also be a vulnerable period for developing mental health disorders, including addiction, depression, and psychosis2. It’s important to keep this balance in mind: how do we support the benefits of the teenage experience while minimizing potential long-term damage?

Risk & Reward

Some researchers have theorized that teen behavior is influenced by two brain systems: a sensitive “acceleration” system and a developing “braking” system. The acceleration system is thought to be well-developed and sometimes hypersensitive during adolescence. It is related to teens’ penchant for rewards, like positive social feedback or financial gain3. The braking system is thought to still be developing during adolescence, such that it may be more difficult for them to control their impulses in rewarding situations. These theories suggest that the different rates of development for these systems may inform our understanding of adolescent risk-taking behavior.

Of course, this research is still new and many researchers believe this explanation does not capture the full complexity of adolescent development. Some think that the evidence connecting changes in the brain systems to real world behavior is not strong enough4. Others believe that adolescent risk taking might be more calculated or planned than we give them credit for.5

Despite ongoing questions in the field, we know that in some situations, teenagers tend to take on more risk in their decisions than other ages. We know that’s not true for all teenagers, or all of the time. So this led researchers to ask the question: why do some teenagers decide to play it safe?

Resisting Temptation

One 2013 study led by University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign scientist Eva Telzer asked teens to complete risk-taking and inhibition activities in an MRI scanner.6

In the risk-taking activity, teens saw a series of red balloons with a dollar amount written on them. For each balloon, they were faced with two options:

Choice A: They could press a button to “cash out,” and win the dollar amount that they saw.

Choice B. They could press a button to inflate the balloon, in which case the balloon might increase in size/value. However, this could also lead the balloon to explode, in which case they would win nothing.

So, choosing to inflate the balloon was the risky option, but it came with the chance of a greater reward. In this case, researchers were interested in how this risky decision related to the value teens place on family obligations. In a survey, they asked teens how much time they felt they should spend helping out with household responsibilities and participating in family life, like attending meals and weekend activities.

The adolescents in the study that more strongly valued family obligation tended to cash out with lower balloon pumps. In other words, they were willing to give up a chance at a greater reward to avoid the risk of winning nothing. On average, these teens were more “risk-averse”.

Using fMRI, the scientists also found increases in blood flow to one region of the brain called the ventral striatum (suggesting that area was more active) as teens claimed bigger rewards while “cashing out” in the balloon game. The ventral striatum is a part of the brain often found to be sensitive to the size of rewards and highly involved in processing rewards.

Interestingly, teens that placed a higher value on family obligations had, on average, lower ventral striatum activity during the “cashing out” part of the balloon experiment. This suggests that those teens might have taken fewer risks because they weren’t as sensitive to the reward in the first place.

Learning When to Push the Brakes

With the same participants, researchers also studied teens’ regulatory abilities.

In the scanner, teens were presented with single letters in rapid succession. They were told to press a button to all of the letters, except for the letter X, which appeared 25% of the time. Participants got used to mostly pressing the button. But when the X appeared, they needed to quickly resist the impulse to respond.

Performance on this task wasn’t related to how teens thought of their family obligations. Teens that placed lower value their family obligations did just as well as those who thought that family obligations were really important.

However, Telzer and her colleagues saw differences in the dorsal-lateral prefrontal cortex (dlPFC), the upper portions of the prefrontal cortex that are more to the sides of the head than in the center. During inhibition, the dlPFC was more active, on average, for teens that more strongly valued family obligations.

What does this brain data mean?

While we can’t say for sure, generally, the prefrontal cortex is involved in regulation and cognitive control. In this study, there was a positive correlation between dlPFC activation during inhibition and how much teens reported they thought through their every day life decisions.

Taken together, this might suggest that for adolescents, valuing family relationships and obligations can be related to better self-regulation.

We know that families can be an important resource for developing kids of all ages. Could it be that these results are just related to some teens having better family support?

Researchers asked this question, and it turns out the answer is “no”. It seems that having a warmer, more supportive family isn’t related to risk taking or inhibition. Instead, how much teens valued their family obligations made the difference in these behaviors and related neural processes.

The researchers suggest that adolescents who value family obligations may have more practice prioritizing others’ needs and regulating their own. They might also be more motivated to stay out of trouble, as one kind of obligation to their family.

This may also help explain why teens tend to express lower levels of “storm and stress” behaviors in more traditional, family-obligation oriented cultures.

Implications for Education

How teens deal with the often-rocky transition to adulthood depends, in large part, on their social worlds. An aspect of this, the value that adolescents place on giving back to their families, may be related to less risky decision-making and better regulation.

Though challenging, one way to put this research into action is for educators to plan creative ways, like projects or community discussions of research, to encourage caregivers and teens to see the value in meaningful household responsibilities and family time. It might also be that these findings go beyond family obligations. Though more research needs to be done in this area, it’s plausible that having meaningful responsibilities in the classroom, school, and community may help teens’ well-being and the development of valuable regulatory skills.

What We Don’t Know

However, before considering sweeping changes, you may have noticed that the study we’ve been discussing doesn’t address causality. Causality is a way to describe the relationship between two things – namely that one thing caused the other. In this case, it’s the question of whether valuing family obligations causes what we see in the lab. Having meaningful family obligations might be protective for developing teens, but it could also be that teens who are risk averse and better at regulation just happen to also like structured, safe activities like family time and household chores.

Another caveat to this study is that its participants were Mexican-American teens, who are part of a culture that tends to value family obligations. These teens were also of low socioeconomic status. It’s not clear how well these particular results generalize to other cultures and groups.

Of course, limitations don’t mean these studies aren’t useful. Thankfully, in science, we can turn to a larger body of work to get more answers (and more questions!). In my next post, I’ll talk about a few studies in different groups looking at changes over time. This kind of long-term research is one way of disentangling the issue of causality by asking “Which came first?” I’ll also introduce the concept of “protective pro-sociality,” or the ways that doing things for others may benefit personal well-being. I’ll explore what this might mean for classroom structures and community service programming.

So far, we’ve examined one example of “protective prosociality”: Beyond being an affordable babysitting option, having teens care about giving back to their families might benefit their abilities to resist temptation and self-regulate.


References & Further Reading

  1. Arnett, J. J. (1999). Adolescent storm and stress, reconsidered. The American Psychologist, 54(5), 317–326. [Paper]
  2. Paus, T., Keshavan, M., & Giedd, J. N. (2008). Why do many psychiatric disorders emerge during adolescence? Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 9 (December), 947–957. [Paper]
  3. Casey, B. J., Jones, R. M., & Somerville, L. H. (2011). Braking and accelerating of the adolescent brain. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 21(1), 21–33. [Paper]
  4. Pfeifer, J. H., & Allen, N. B. (2012). Arrested development? Reconsidering dual-systems models of brain function in adolescence and disorders. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 16(6), 322–329. [Paper]
  5. Willoughby, T., Good, M., Adachi, P. J. C., Hamza, C., & Tavernier, R. (2013). Examining the link between adolescent brain development and risk taking from a social–developmental perspective. Brain and Cognition, 83(3), 315–323. [Paper]
  6. Telzer, E. H., Fuligni, A. J., Lieberman, M. D., & Galván, A. (2013). Meaningful family relationships: neurocognitive buffers of adolescent risk taking. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 25(3), 374–87. [Paper]
  • Steinberg, L. (2008). A Social Neuroscience Perspective on Adolescent Risk Taking. Developmental Review, 28(1), 1–27. [Paper]




October 26, 2015


Kristin Dunay

(781)-449-4010 x 104



Researchers have found that we can use the brain’s neuroplasticity to train character skills, often called non-cognitive or soft skills, in students through instruction, video games and meditation.

Next month, a distinguished group of neuroscientists, psychologists and educators will explore the science behind these character strengths and why they lead to academic and life success. They will discuss the importance of “character skills,” such as self-control, conscientiousness, resilience, grit, empathy and social-emotional skills in education and share some of the research on how to train these skills before 1,500 educators at the Learning & the Brain® Conference in Boston, MA.

SPONSORS:  The program is co-sponsored by several organizations including the Mind, Brain & Education Program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, the Athinoula A. Martinos Imaging Center at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Center for Emotional Intelligence at Yale University, the Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives, the Massachusetts Consortium for Social-Emotional Learning in Teacher Education, the Learning & the Brain Foundation and both national associations of elementary and secondary school principals. The event is produced by Public Information Resources, Inc.

Renowned Psychologist Walter Mischel, PhD, will present on “How Mind and Brain Enable Self-Control: The Marshmallow Test and Beyond” during a keynote on Friday, November 13. Dr. Mischel, author of The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control (2015) and pioneer in the study of self-control, will discuss his key findings from the “marshmallow experiments” – which examined the brain mechanisms that underlie and enable self-control and delay of gratification. Dr. Mischel is the Robert Johnson Niven Professor of Human Letters in the Department of Psychology at Columbia University and received the Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award from the American Psychological Association.

On Sunday morning, Fumiko Hoeft, MD, PhD, will receive the 2015 Transforming Education Through Neuroscience Award from the Learning & the Brain Foundation. This award has been presented annually since 2008 to a researcher who has made significant contributions to connecting neuroscience with education. Dr. Hoeft is Associate Professor of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry and Director of Hoeft Laboratory for Educational Neuroscience ( at the University of California, San Francisco.

In addition to Drs. Mischel and Hoeft, the program features some other leading experts on the learning sciences including:

▪   Roy F. Baumeister, PhD, Francis Eppes Professor of Psychology, Florida State University; Co-Author, Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength (2012); Editor, Self-Esteem: The Puzzle of Low Self-Regard (2014) and Handbook of Self-Regulation: Research, Theory and Applications (2013, 2nd Edition)

▪   Kenneth R. Ginsburg, MD, Professor of Pediatrics, The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and the Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania; Author, Raising Kids to Thrive: Balancing Love with Expectations and Protection With Trust (2015) and Building Resilience in Children and Teens: Giving Kids Roots and Wings (2011)

▪   Rick Hanson, PhD, Senior Fellow, Greater Good Science Center, University of California, Berkeley; Founder, Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom; Author, Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm and Confidence (2013) and Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love and Wisdom (2009)

▪   Neal H. Mayerson, PhD, Clinical Psychological; Chairman/Founder, VIA Institute on Character, who collaborated with Renowned Psychologist Dr. Martin E.P. Seligman on the founding of positive psychology and VIA; Co-Founder, Mayerson Center for Safe and Healthy Children

▪   Kimberly Schonert-Reichl, PhD, Applied Developmental Psychologist; Professor, Human Development, Learning and Culture, Department of Educational and Counseling Psychology and Special Education, University of British Columbia

▪   Laurence Steinberg, PhD, Distinguished University Professor, Temple University; Author, Age of Opportunity: Lessons from the New Science of Adolescence (2014) and Catching Up or Leading the Way (2009)

WHEN: Friday, November 13 – Sunday, November 15. Conference begins 1:30 PM. General Registration is $579 through November 6 and $599 after November 6.   Contact Kristin Dunay at 781-449-4010 x 104 for media passes.
WHERE: Westin Copley Place, Boston, MA

Learning & the Brain® is a series of educational conferences that brings the latest research in the learning sciences and their potential applications to education to the wider educational community. Since its inception in 1999, more than 50,000 people in Boston, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., New York and Chicago have attended this series.


For more information about the conference, visit

Mindfulness in the Classroom: What’s All the Buzz About?

Mindfulness in Classroom

“Mindfulness” is a buzzword popping up everywhere from the New York Times, prestigious science and education journals, to grade school and university curriculum. Headlines offer intriguing statements like, “Mindfulness meditation may have positive effects on stress, anxiety, and reshape the brain!” If you’re curious about the bold claims of mindfulness but are not quite sure what mindfulness is, you’ve come to the right place.

Like the start of a fresh classroom unit, our first post in this mindfulness series begins at the root of Bloom’s Taxonomy: defining what mindfulness actually is. What is its goal? We’ll start in digestible terms and even try out a brief practice before introducing scientific definitions and research application in the classroom.

As we explore deeper questions in meditation and education research, see this post as a way to reground in common understanding of mindful practices.

What mindfulness is not:

One of my favorite teaching strategies is to offer learning by way of contrast. In other words, first identifying what mindfulness isn’t. Thich Nhat Hanh, world-renowned peace leader and poet, reminds us of the simple opposite of mindfulness: forgetfulness.

“Most people are forgetful; they are not really there a lot of the time. Their mind is caught in their worries, their fears, their anger, and their regrets, and they are not mindful of being there. That state of being is called forgetfulness—you are there but you are not there.”1

If you’re now laughing to yourself thinking about when you forgot where you placed your keys earlier this week, I mindfully invite you to come back to the present moment. Let’s now draw attention to what mindfulness is.

What mindfulness is:

Mindfulness, put simply, is being aware of and allowing yourself to be in the present moment. In the words of Thich Nhat Hanh:

“The opposite of forgetfulness is mindfulness. Mindfulness is when you are truly there, mind and body together. You breathe in and out mindfully, you bring your mind back to your body, and you are there. When your mind is there with your body, you are established in the present moment. Then you can recognize the many conditions of happiness that are in you and around you, and happiness just comes naturally.”1

Right now, take a moment to observe yourself where you are. You may notice yourself sitting with your chin resting on your wrist in a chair, breath long and slow. You might be standing on a subway platform scrolling through this article on a phone, breathing in and out quickly, the strap of your bag tugging at your shoulder.

Now try taking a full inhalation deep into the belly and into the chest, feeling the ribs comfortably expand. What does it feel like to inhale fully? Now exhale slowly and completely, lungs and belly hollowing comfortably. What does it feel like to exhale fully? Continue this practice of fully inhaling and fully exhaling for a few more cycles of breath. How does your body feel? Where are your thoughts focused? Allow yourself to observe your own thinking without judgment and come back to your breathing.

Perhaps just now from focusing attention on the in-breath and out-breath you feel a little different. Scan your body and mind. Perhaps you find yourself feeling less tense and a little less caught up in the future or past. The changes may be subtle or distinct.

In mindfulness, the breath often serves as a physical tool to help bring the mind and body back to the moment at hand. Breathing awareness – observing the length and sensations of your breath – is one way of practicing being mindful. Body awareness – noticing the physical position of and sensations within your body – is another way. Awareness of emotions and thinking as well as different forms of meditation such as guided visualization, insight meditation or tuning “inward,” are also forms of mindfulness practice.

Mindfulness is historically rooted in Buddhist practices and Indian yoga, though evidence of mindful practices exists across cultures, religions, and even in acts of creating music, art, cooking, knitting, and exercise. As aptly suggested by Kabat-Zinn in framing mindfulness in the West, we are all inherently mindful as humans.

The scope of “mindfulness practices” is far-reaching and varied to meet the needs of children and adults, but the fundamental experience of all is similar: to practice being attentive to the present moment.

What is the goal mindfulness?

The intent of mindfulness is to relieve the natural human suffering that often occurs from maladaptive habits of which we’re unaware2. In other words, the more we do something with or without our awareness, the more connected the underlying neural pathways become, making it more automatic even if the habit doesn’t make us feel good. For example, we might unknowingly rehearse self-critical thoughts that lead to negative emotions. Mindfulness is meant to help relieve us of those patterns by building awareness and practicing change.

Much of today’s neuroscience and psychology research seeks to relieve the same symptoms of human suffering – anxiety, depression, indecision, stress, lack of focus, and memory loss. Mindfulness has therefore been adapted for scientific study as possible treatment for wellbeing in children and adults. Growing data is promising, allowing mindful practice to begin making its way into more schools than ever before.

Overview of Mindfulness Research 

Researchers in mindfulness have adapted research-friendly definitions from Eastern practice. Ellen Langer, social psychologist and founding mindfulness researcher at Harvard University, defines mindfulness as “a process that cultivates sensitivity to subtle variations in context and perspective about the observed subject rather than relying on entrenched categorizations from the past.”3 The operating definition used by Jon Kabat-Zinn, professor of medicine, student of Thich Nhat Hanh, and originator of the renowned Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program, is “the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment.”4

The last four decades have featured numerous neurological and psychological studies that support mindfulness practices in adult populations. In healthy adults, mindfulness meditation has been associated with increased attention and reduction of stress.5 In physically, mentally, and emotionally-demanding professions like teaching, such practices like breath awareness and meditation may help teachers sustain their own well-being as leaders in the classroom.

More inquiry is under way on the benefits of mindful practice for adolescents and children. One pilot study of note by Karen Bluth and colleagues assessed the effectiveness of the BREATHE mindfulness program as compared to a substance-abuse control program in ethnically diverse, including at-risk adolescents. Students in the mindfulness program showed more reduction in symptoms of depression and stress as compared to students in the control group.6 Such results suggest that mindfulness may support adolescents in psychological wellbeing, making more room for academic and social success.

More studies in mindfulness are emerging in elementary and early childhood settings as well. Lisa Flook and colleagues recently found that second and third graders who were less self-regulated showed more improvement in executive functioning after participating in an 8-week long mindful awareness program (MAP) as compared with those in the control group.7 Flook since teamed with Richard Davidson, known for his brain meditation research with monks, to develop a mindfulness-based Kindness Curriculum (KC) to evaluate prosocial and self-regulatory behaviors in preschool children. The mindful kindness group showed greater gains in socio-emotional development and social competence as measured on report card grades by the teacher as compared to the control group, which demonstrated more selfish behaviors over time.8 Such findings suggest that mindfulness practice may developmentally appropriate not only for adults and adolescents, but for young children as well.

The present challenge in evaluating mindfulness research in academic settings is that most existing studies rely on teacher or parent observation of change in young students. As unbiased as we like to be as caregivers, our perceptions may be unintentionally skewed. Bias may also exist in adolescent reports of their own wellbeing.

With initial promise of mindfulness in children and young adults, however, more rigorous inquiry will likely involve magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and functional imagining to observe structural and functional changes in the brain. Given the jam-packed days we already face as teachers, corroborating or clarifying results from brain research could help inform time and type of mindful practice that is both reasonable and still beneficial for academic settings.

The journey of mindfulness in Western science and education may be just beginning, but its roots are deep and its practices simple. As research starts to stabilize in a crisper understanding and evaluation of mindfulness, implementation in the classroom will become clearer. For now, let’s mindfully navigate the bumps together and trust in its unfolding.


References & Further Reading

  1. Hanh, T. N. (2010). Thich Nhat Hanh on the Practice of Mindfulness. [Web Article]
  2. Vago, D. R. (2014). Mapping modalities of self-awareness in mindfulness practice: a potential mechanism for clarifying habits of mind. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1307: 28–42. [Paper].
  3. Langer, E., Cohen, M., & Djikic, M. (2012). Mindfulness as a Psychological Attractor: The Effect on Children.Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 42(5), 1114-1122. [Paper]
  4. Kabat-Zinn, J. (2003). Mindfulness-based interventions in context: Past, present, and future.Clinical Psychology-Science And Practice, 10(2), 144-156. [Paper]
  5. Lazar, S. W., Bush, G. L., Gollub, R., Fricchione, G., Khalsa, G., & Benson, H. (2000). Functional brain mapping of the relaxation response and meditation. NeuroReport,11(7), 1581-1585. [Paper]
  6. Bluth, K., Campo, R. A., Pruteanu-Malinici, S., Reams, A., Mullarkey, M., & Broderick, P. C. (2015). A school-based mindfulness pilot study for ethnically diverse at-risk adolescents. Advance online publication. [Paper]
  7. Flook, L., et al. (2010). Effects of mindful awareness practices on executive functions in elementary school children. Journal of Applied School Psychology, 26(1), 70-95. [Paper]
  8. Flook, L., Goldberg, S. B., Pinger, L., & Davidson, R. J. (2015). Promoting prosocial behavior and self-regulatory skills in preschool children through a mindfulness-based kindness curriculum. Developmental Psychology, 51(1), 44-51. [Paper]