http://akomblog.org Making Sense of Adolescent's Ascent Dr. Mel Levine As they set out in search of success in secondary school, the minds of students unknowingly confront a series of steep challenges, as they are required to move from one educational peak to the next. They must ascend toward ever higher, more complex and sophisticated realms of learning and thinking. The tasks they face contrast with the more basic, concrete, and straightforward demands of elementary school. While all secondary school students have to struggle to succeed, some falter, fail, or frustrate themselves and their parents. Tragically, they have little or no understanding of the specific demands they have been unable to satisfy. Let's examine some of the more prominent of these demands. First, there is the incessant demand for more output or productivity, much of which is likely to involve writing. Written output, in turn, calls for the rapid and simultaneous implementation of motor function, language, recall of rules (such as spelling and grammar rules), generation of ideas, retrieval of specific facts, and effective use of resources. Writing also is a test of student's ability to organize time, to arrange ideas in a coherent fashion, and to problem solve systematically. The increased volume of required writing means that a secondary school student has to satisfy the above demands with tremendous efficiency. Language requirements also grow. In elementary school much of verbal input and output is very concrete, to the point, and it often describes experiences with which a student is quite familiar. Secondary school students have to interpret and use what is called higher language, comprised of longer passages in books, more abstract vocabulary, sentences and paragraphs that might be interpreted in more than one way, highly technical terminology in math and the sciences, sentences that are ambiguous or reflect a particular point of view, and text that requires careful interpretation. There is also the challenge of foreign language learning; students who are not highly proficient in English are likely to falter when it comes to second language learning. The memory demands intensify and expand during secondary school. Students have to be able to recall precise information quickly on quizzes and during class discussions. Much of what they have learned in the past has to be recalled instantly and effortlessly, a process called automatization. Theres no time to think about how much is 8 times 7; it must be remembered automatically and instantaneously or else an adolescent could well fail algebra. Much of spelling, word identification, letter formation (or perhaps keyboarding), and basic mathematical calculation needs to operate on this kind of automatic pilot, so that students can superimpose sophisticated thinking while doing math or reading or writing. There is also a need for greater active working memory. This process entails a students ability to hold several different things in mind at once while working with them. She can think about how to punctuate a sentence without forgetting what she intended to say in the next sentence or remember where she is in the middle of a math problem or a textbook she is reading. There are also growing strains on attention. There is an explosion of detail that must be learned and applied. Distractible students who have trouble concentrating may deteriorate when faced with the heightened requirement to in-depth concentration on relevant details in a history, biology, or literature class. Higher order cognition, encompassing the loftiest forms of thinking, comes into the limelight in middle and high school. Students are expected to grasp abstract concepts, such as irony, fundamentalism, and meiosis. They are expected to be able to engage in brainstorming activities, conjuring up their own original thoughts or insights from scratch. Formal logical thinking, such as that demanded in solving a geometric proof, becomes a requirement, as does critical thinking the ability to evaluate with some rigor ideas, people, and products. Secondary school also taps a students use of strategies and study habits. There are some adolescents who seem to possess excellent tactics for getting work done, preparing for examinations, completing projects, and allocating their time. Others may feel overwhelmed in contending with the workload. These are individuals who tend to do too many things the hard way or without any preconceived methodology. For them work is an awful lot of work! Secondary school students also face intense social pressure. This is a time of life when kids are heavily preoccupied with their peers. In particular, most are striving to gain the respect of their classmates. They crave acceptance into a group. They are experimenting with a multitude of techniques designed to embellish their image and market themselves to peers. Many are on a relentless campaign to seem cool. The powerful social forces may sometimes stand in the way of academic productivity and family life. Last but not least, high school is a time when students need to come to grips with their own identities. What am I good at? Whats a problem for my kind of mind? What am I interested in? Where is my head headed in life? How am I reasonably unique or special? Secondary school can be a time of tremendous growth and gratification. It can as well be a tragic period in the biography of a developing mind. Students need to be prepared for the intellectual agendas of middle and high school. Teachers and parents must be able to identify and support early adolescents who are falling short in areas such as higher language, active working memory, and conceptual abilities. These students need to understand themselves at the same time that they are helped to address their weaknesses directly. They must be actively involved in using their weak functions, as if these were muscles that require intensive workouts. All too often the processes that are weak get even weaker through disuse. We can't let that happen during the critical years of secondary education.