Sandra Bond Chapman, Ph.D.'s  picture
Sandra Bond Chapman, Ph.D.
Founder and Chief Director, Center for BrainHealth
University of Texas, Dallas
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Jacque Gamino, Ph.D.'s  picture
Jacque Gamino, Ph.D.
Director, BrainHealth Teen Reasoning Initiative
University of Texas, Dallas
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Teen Reasoning: Not an Oxymoron

Brain growth during the teen years can help adolescents improve critical-thinking skills

Parents and teachers rightly spend a great deal of time and effort stimulating cognitive development in the early years to build strong language, literacy and simple computational skills—this is, after all, the period when the brain forms most of its connections. But what about other critical periods of growth, such as during the pre-teen and teenage years? Are there things parents can do to help adolescents take advantage of this formative stage of cognitive development?

The Teen Brain: Primed to Acquire Higher-Order Reasoning Skills

Teenager and Mom Use LaptopThe brain undergoes more change during the teenage years than any other time except for the first two months of life. This is one of the most optimal yet vulnerable stages for cognitive development in the areas of advanced reasoning, imagination and innovation. The brain changes are most dramatic in the frontal lobes, the brain’s “control center.” The frontal lobe networks are responsible for reasoning, planning, decision-making and other high-level cognitive functions. The teen years are a critical time for developing long-term, life problem-solving skills because the brain is primed to undergo rapid development if the proper training is provided.

Unfortunately, advanced reasoning skills in American adolescents are falling behind those of teens in other developed countries. Students are being trained to stuff facts, leading to rote memorization and stymied creativity. Regurgitation of isolated facts fails to excite students about learning, and the brain does not develop its highest potential.

Can Advanced Reasoning Be Taught?

Controversy exists over whether critical reasoning skills can be taught, acquired and used regardless of context or subject area. Researchers at the Center for BrainHealth at the University of Texas at Dallas are getting positive results doing just that using their Strategic Memory Advanced Reasoning Training (SMART) program, which focuses on teaching students how to learn rather than what to learn. Developed by cognitive neuroscientists Sandra Bond Chapman and Jacquelyn Gamino, SMART trains students to think strategically, enabling deeper understanding, abstraction of meaning and creativity. Their research indicates that using the SMART program, students can learn to go beyond surface-level facts and glean generalized principles and meanings in as few as 10 hours. And teaching students to construct novel generalized meanings appears to transfer across subjects such as science, history, math and reading, as shown in the figure below.

SMART graphThis graph illustrates a significant advantage of SMART-trained eighth-grade students (dark green) as compared to those who did not receive SMART training (light green) at the same campus on the standardized Texas Assessment of Knowledge Skills (TAKS) measurement across core content areas. The scores represent percentage of students who were commended, a level that is the TAKS gold standard over simply passing. The benefit was doubled in most content areas.

Brain science has shown that constructing novel, generalized meanings is how the brain best learns. Teaching young students to construct new meaning enhances their independent thinking capacity and reinforces the learning of facts. The key is to train strategies in the earliest stages of new learning.

Real-Life Improvements in Advanced Reasoning

Fourteen-year-old Kyle had always been successful in elementary school, getting mostly As, but in middle school, his test and homework scores began to drop to the C level. His parents would spend hours helping him with homework. Kyle was frustrated and overwhelmed by the massive amounts of information he was trying to learn.

Kyle’s SMART pre-test showed that he was attempting to learn everything verbatim. After 10 sessions of brain training, he learned how to engage in top-down processing (such as identifying themes and abstract ideas, and giving interpretations) instead of bottom-up learning (retaining isolated facts). At post-testing, Kyle was able to condense complex information, abstract meanings from readings and generate innovative solutions to problems. Moreover, his ability to remember the basic facts improved.

Kyle’s study time was reduced by 75 percent when he began to think about and learn bigger ideas first, rather than memorize isolated facts. Kyle’s grades improved from Cs back to As across all courses. “After training, I was able to think about my assignments in a different way and break them down step by step. I was able to write more creatively, and my grades got better,” Kyle said.

5 Ways Parents Can Promote Advanced Reasoning in Teens

1.    Ask your teen to give you a “teen message” and a “parent message” from a movie rather than give you a long-winded synopsis.

2.    Have your teen interpret the lyrics of her favorite song from both a positive and negative perspective.

3.    Ask your teen how a science lesson could be applied to his pet.

4.    Have your teen imagine a new phone app and use math concepts to figure out how much money she could make.

5.    Challenge your teenager to create as many public service announcements (one-sentence messages) as he can about the good and/or bad effects of technology on his generation or yours.

LEArn More:

“Understand Your Teen’s Brain,” by Timothy Myers

“Boost Your Teen’s Growing Brain,” by Timothy Myers

Related Reading:

Interview with Jay Giedd, a neuroscientist at the National Institute of Mental Health, on the adolescent brain, PBS Frontline

“Summer Camp Helps Kids With ADHD Put the Pieces Together,” a Dallas Morning News story about SMART

“Effects of higher-order cognitive strategy training on gist reasoning and fact-learning in adolescents,” journal article, Frontiers in Educational Psychology