Day 69: Adolescents are just as smart as adults (in some ways)

A lot of Earth-saving has to do with understanding the psychology of people and how to reach them better. It’s not about what you present to people, it’s how you do it – just like what you say isn’t as important as the tone of voice you say it with. Here, I’ll explain why I think adolescents are just as smart as adults. (All the information about brain development was gleaned from Steinberg, full reference below).  


John TaylorFile:The Limbic System and Nearby Structures – John Taylor.jpg ; Taylor, John. General Science. Taylor Electronics. Archived from the original on 9 June 2013. Retrieved on 27 March 2014..

When you study adolescent psychology, one of the things you’ll learn is that adolescent brains are developing in a way that makes them more prone to risk-taking than thinking about the consequences of their actions. This is because our limbic system, the one responsible for emotions and feeling “rewards” is almost fully developed in adolescence, while our prefrontal cortex, the system that is responsible for making better decisions and controlling behavior, is still under development. Biologically speaking, this makes sense – as a species, humans should be taking more risks during adolescence because that would lead to traveling away from the family and procreating – which means securing descendants and keeping a varied gene pool. Regardless of what adolescence means today, this is likely the reason brains developed this way to begin with.

Research shows that the brains of adolescents are similar to adults in some ways. Our logical reasoning capabilities reach full development by age 16. This means that an adolescent can reason logically with the same precision as an adult, and is just as capable at processing information. What they do with the information is another story entirely. Since their cognitive-control network is still in formation, they might not choose to listen, to act on the new information, or to be interested in it at all.


I’ve seen adolescents learn new science information the same way a college student would. The complexity of the subject never seems to be an issue – as long as it was structured the right way, you could teach the same subject matter to a thirteen year-old or a thirty-year old. The only differences from teaching a complex subject to an adolescent when compared to teaching adults is their lack of background knowledge and dealing with a person who’s not entirely sure what they will do with the new information, since their brains are still selecting the networks they think are “important”. That’s where using a differentiated approach to teaching adolescents comes in – it’s all in how you teach the material, not what you teach.

My point is that adolescents are smart. They are as sharp as adults. Many adults, I feel, misunderstand the amplitude of adolescent smartness and think less of them because they are not fully physically developed. But it is possible to teach complex issues (say, what greenhouse gases are) and why they should care (because the planet is superheating). It is especially important that we teach why they should care because their brains are still deciding which neurons to favor, and what reaches them during this period will have an impact on their adult thinking life.

Also, we shouldn’t think less of adolescents just because we’re older, because that reinforces the idea that “I’m superior, you’re inferior” that we see a lot of in the world. Treat children as capable beings, every bit as capable as you are. You’ll be surprised by the results. Good teachers will often say “I learn something new from my kids every day” – and we’re not talking about getting to know kids better, we’re talking about new concepts. Like wondering: Will the proportion of oxygen in the atmosphere decrease because we’re injecting more CO2 and destroying trees that release oxygen? Is anyone out there researching to see if we’ve seen such a drop? (True question from an adolescent).

Teaching adolescents and reaching them on what they feel is important is a whole other story, and one I hope to write about soon. For now, my wish is for everyone to understand that children and adolescents aren’t partially formed humans – they’re still human beings with thinking capabilities, just like adults, but in a different physical phase and maybe a different thinking phase. Giving them a chance to be smart is giving the world a chance to have better citizens – and that is the best chance at world-saving you’re going to get.


Steinberg, L. (2007).  Risk Taking in Adolescence:  New Perspectives From Brain and Behavioral Science.  Current Directions In Psychological Science, 16, 2, 55-59.


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