IATEFL: Introducing Ken Beatty and the teenage brain

ken beatty motivating the teenage brain

The 52nd annual IATEFL Conference in Brighton is fast approaching. So far on the blog we have heard from Antonia Clare, Clare Walsh and Sara Davila.

Today, Dr Ken Beatty gives us a taste of what we can expect from his workshop on motivating secondary students.

Don’t miss his talk on Tuesday 10th April at 11.55 in the Oxford Room.

The Teenage Brain: Ideas of Self, Others, and Risk

In 1833, the British Government passed the Factory Act. Children from age nine to 13, who had been working up to 16 hours a day, were limited to nine hours; those up to age 18 could work 12 hours.

Besides also requiring some schooling (two-hours a day), the Factory Act was part of society’s broader realization: children are not miniature adults. The idea of a teenager, as an almost separate species, seeped into public consciousness even later; the word teenager wasn’t coined until 1922.

A modern perspective on teenagers

These days we recognize that teenager brains operate under different rules than those of adults. Teachers of teenagers encounter issues around emotions that flicker from outlandish exuberance to tedious apathy.

As a result, motivating teenagers can be challenging but recent research findings explore how teenagers see themselves, how they see others, and how they embrace risk.

The stereotype of teenagers being self-centred appears to be largely true and likely a primitive self-preservation trait; look out for number one! As part of this response, teenagers tend to lack empathy. It is a mental challenge for them to imagine themselves as those who are less fortunate–the disabled, the poor, the ill. A typical response to poverty might be “Why don’t poor people just get jobs?”

Curiously, although teenagers generally have less empathy than adults, research suggests that this is the time when they first imagine the interior thoughts of others. A boy looks at a girl and she looks away. A child would shrug, but the teenage boy writes a mental script imagining what the girl is thinking, and embroiders it with feelings of rejection. It can be a tragedy on the scale of Romeo and Juliet who were only teenagers themselves, after all.

One response to imagined feelings is to act out and engage in risky behaviors. Studies of the brain show that teenagers need far higher levels of stimulation to reach the same emotional states of elation and fear as adults; it’s no wonder so many teenagers seek out high adrenaline activities and become addicted to violent video games–and find school boring in comparison.

Classroom strategies for working with teenagers

So what is a language teacher to do with a classroom full of teenage brains?

A connected solution to all three problems is a greater and deeper engagement in content. In the language classroom, too much time is spent on superficial and repetitive language tasks, rather than engaging students with the issues of the day.

Teenagers’ lack of empathy stems from a parallel lack of in-depth information about issues that matter, coached in ways that students can see their own possible involvement: “If you lost everything and everyone, and found yourself out on the street, how would you survive?”

This question asks teenagers to position themselves in the mind of a hypothetical other and also engages them in a context filled with risk.

Another equally engaging question is, “What steps might lead to you losing everything?” This question relates to another aspect of teenagers’ engagement in risk: a failure to connect cause and effect.

Sadly, some of our students may have already encountered these questions and have had to live their answers as refugees. That’s a broader classroom conversation of empathy, of understanding the mind of another, and of risk that students should have.

And don’t worry about pedagogy; language acquisition will naturally follow.


  • Farrington, C.A., Roderick, M., Allensworth, E., Nagaoka, J., Keyes, T.S., Johnson, D.W. & Beechum, N.O. (2012) Teaching adolescents to become learners–the role of non-cognitive factors in shaping school performance: A critical literature review. Chicago: University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research
  • Jensen, F.E. & Nutt, A.E. (2015) The teenage brain: A neuroscientist’s survival guide to raising adolescents and young adults. New York: Harper Collins
  • Linderman, M. & Brozek, G. (2008). The teen whisperer: How to break through the silence and secrecy of teenage life. New York: William Morrow
  • Siegel, D.J. (2013). Brainstorm: The power and purpose of the teenage brain. New York: Penguin
  • The National Archives. (n.d.) 1833 Factory Act. Retrieved from http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/education/resources/1833-factory-act/
  • Walqui, A. & van Lier, L. (2010) Scaffolding the academic success of adolescent English language learners: A pedagogy of promise. San Francisco: WestEd Publications

If you are at IATEFL this year don’t miss out on Ken’s talk on 10th April. You may also be interested in these teen themed sessions:

Running with Scissors: Authenticity in the Classroom with Emily Gale and Philip Warwick on Tuesday 10th April from 16:55-17:25 in the Balmoral Room.

Mind the Gap! Helping Teens to Bridge the Cognitive Gap with Clare Walsh on Friday 13th April at 12:05 – 12:50 in Auditorium 2.  

For more information about all the talks from Pearson ELT visit our dedicated IATEFL page.

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