The Adolescent Brain

My son is scheduled to begin middle school next year. It is a bigger school. Students do not stay in one classroom. Very likely, there is homework. There are indeed plenty of reasons to be worried. Yet, when I look at the people I have as friends on Facebook, I find classmates in high school and there are even a few from the latter years of elementary school. It is then becomes clear to me that these years signal a dramatic extension. Being social is no longer limited at home. Middle school in the United States primarily exists for the early adolescent stage as a preparation for the more demanding high school stage of basic education.

My high school classmates and I pose in front of the White House 
Not having gone through middle school, my recollections of basic education are indeed filled with memories from sixth grade and the four years of high school. And with results from brain research in the past few decades, I now understand why first year in high school seems to be extremely chaotic. First, the amount of gray matter is changing a lot through these years.

Above copied from

Nitin Gogtay, Jay N. Giedd, Leslie Lusk, Kiralee M. Hayashi, Deanna Greenstein, A. Catherine Vaituzis,Tom F. Nugent III, David H. Herman, Liv S. Clasen, Arthur W. Toga, Judith L. Rapoport, and Paul M. Thompson
Dynamic mapping of human cortical development during childhood through early adulthood. PNAS 2004 101 (21) 8174-8179; published ahead of print May 17, 2004, doi:10.1073/pnas.0402680101
As the human brain develops, networks are made efficient by coating with myelin, a white fatty substance. From the above figure, it can be seen that the frontal part matures last. This is the part of the brain where decisions are made. And it coincides with the years of middle school and high school. It is therefore understandable why this stage in life is exciting and stressful. In the Journal of Adolescent Health, a team of researchers from Johns Hopkins concludes:
Among the many behavior changes that have been noted for teens, the three that are most robustly seen across cultures are: (1) increased novelty seeking; (2) increased risk taking; and (3) a social affiliation shift toward peer-based interactions
All three may lead to addiction, substance abuse, gang membership, teenage pregnancy and other problems. As an educator, however, these three can be viewed as excellent opportunities for learning. Discovery-based learning, game-based learning, and perhaps, most important of all, peer-learning and group projects cater to these behavioral changes.

Becoming an adolescent means becoming social and a photo of my son shown below, I think, captures this quite well....