The Teen brain: Learning and How ‘I Can’ Beats ‘I Can’t’.

As humans we are all always learning. This is neuroplasticity. But the adolescent brain, especially, is going in learning overdrive during the teenage years; making lots of new connections between neurons, as such wiring the brain, which is what learning is all about.

New neural connections fire up braincells and the broader and wider the neural circuit, the more learning takes place. This applies to all learning, from cooking, to playing video games, to doing math or sports. Once a first neural connection has been made, the circuit it has ignited will be reinforced by repeating the action, leading the brain to build a fatty layer around this brain-circuit so that the signal can move quickly through it, not unlike a good electrician would protect their electric wiring with casing. These established circuits eventually become skills, created by repetition. Is anyone ever good or excellent at something the first time? Would you know how to play the piano, solve a math problem, speak a foreign language, or learn how to skateboard the first time around? No one does. But by doing it, practising and repeating it, the brain builds more momentum and ‘flow’ along with establishing new circuits.

When teens understand how their brains get wired up and learn, they will be able to understand too that when they do something for the first time, they will not immediately be good at it (rare exceptions excluded) because they lack the brain circuit to support that skill. If you want to be good at something you must be prepared to spend the time; you have to actually ‘learn’ that skill. And the teenage brain has vast resources for learning anything new, its capability only slowing down around age 25.

Positive learning supposes that you do not believe that you are either ‘good’ or ‘not good’ at something without trying properly. Adults telling you the opposite are doing you a total disservice, says Carol Dweck in her (now very famous) book ‘Mindset’. The teen brain is in a state of heightened neuroplasticity. It wants to grow. It is not a given, pre-set, quantity.

Neither believe that failure is a matter of ‘not being clever’. Making mistakes – research shows – can even lead to more brain growth as brain-cells get fired up when they are, in fact, struggling. So, struggling is good. Just stay with it. And before being tempted to give up, remember the satisfaction of looking at a problem – and not getting it – pacing up and down your room, mulling over it and then having your ‘aha’ moment. This ‘aha’ moment is when the neurons in your brain connect, and you suddenly understand what you were not able to wrap your head around before.

When you are next stuck writing that impossible essay or feel you are totally not comprehending your math homework, do not think you are not good at it, or worse stupid, it will just take more time. Do not fall at the first or at the second hurdle. Let your brain struggle (it is learning!) and it will eventually get there. Thomas Edison famously stated that If we all did the things we are really capable of doing, we would literally astound ourselves….”

So, next time, remind yourself of the words ‘I can’ instead of ‘I can’t. How else could anything ever be learned? Before you know it, your very able teen brain will be buzzing.

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