Colourful brain sketch

Learning theory: Cognitive development

As we’ve discussed, cognition is the process involving thought, rationale and perception. The brain is at the centre of cognition.

Development intertwined with experiences

It is a feature of adolescence that it is a period of rapid cognitive growth. Physiologically, this is triggered by puberty that marks the beginning of biological change in brain structure and connectivity. This change, in turn, is significantly influenced by the range of experiences of the young adolescent.

Cognitive development is unique

Because each child has a unique brain and is exposed to unique environmental influences, their cognitive development will also be unique. This is demonstrated in terms of timing, rate and shaping of the brain that predominantly occurs during these adolescent years. For example, children engaged in certain types of activities and skills during their adolescent years are likely to have these hardwired into their brains.

Characteristics of cognitive maturity

As individuals progress through adolescence there is increased cognitive development along with behavioural functioning that is directed by the prefrontal cortex, leading to cognitive maturity that features:

  • organisation of multiple tasks
  • impulse inhibition
  • self-control
  • setting goals and priorities
  • empathising with others
  • initiating appropriate behaviour
  • making sound judgments
  • forming strategies
  • planning ahead
  • adjusting behaviour when situation changes
  • stopping an activity upon completion
  • insight

Critical thinking

Taken together, all of these higher order cognitive skills might be described as critical thinking - that is the ability to logically and systematically evaluate problems. This capacity is developed over the course of maturation. It is achieved at the end, not the beginning, of adolescence. Thus, during adolescence, there is an opportunity to intentionally focus on the development of these cognitive abilities through metacognition. Metacognition, is the concept of thinking about thinking. Educators can intentionally engage learners in the process of developing metacognitive understanding.

Learning through experience

Some of the key skills students must develop in order to learn through experience at this sensitive period of brain development are how to:

  • reflect on learning
  • link new knowledge to existing knowledge
  • establish what is true and accurate
  • challenge what knowledge is untrue and inaccurate

Your task

Reflect on the cognitive processes of the adolescent brain.

What are some strategies adults might employ to encourage metacognition in adolescents?

Share your answer in the comments.

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This article is from the free online course:

Supporting Adolescent Learners: Social and Emotional Wellbeing

Griffith University