How the brain changes in
Implications for modern
language teachers
Dr. Pandora Giles
Senior Educational Psychologist
 Brain changes in adolescence
 The development of executive functions
 The relevance of executive functions to modern foreign
 How teachers can use meta-cognitive approaches to
support the development of executive functions
“Adolescence is a new birth, for the higher and more completely
human traits are now born” (G Stanley Hall)
“The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt
for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in
place of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of
their households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room.
They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up
dainties at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannize their
teachers.” (Attributed to Sophocles)
“Adolescence is society’s permission slip for combining physical
maturity with psychological immaturity” (Terri Apter)
“When I was 14 my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to
have the old man around. But when I got to 21 I was astonished at
how much the old man had learned in 7 years” (Mark Twain)
Brain Changes in Adolescence
 Until recently it was assumed that the brain was fully
developed at approximately 5 years of age
 We now know that the brain continues to develop
throughout childhood and into early adulthood
 Adolescence is a critical period for brain development
 During adolescence the frontal lobe of the brain
develops rapidly and is restructured through a process
called ‘pruning’. Pruning in adolescence is mostly in the
prefrontal cortex in the frontal lobe
Brain Changes in Adolescence
 The frontal lobe enables humans to
plan and make decisions based on logic
and reason rather than relying on
emotions – in other words it is
responsible for ‘higher order’ functions
such as executive functioning
 Executive functioning in adolescence is
still very much developing. As
educators, parents and members of
society we have a tendency to assume
that EFs are more developed than they
Executive Functions
 Executive functions (EFs) can been described as the boss
of the brain. This boss organises and tells the different
parts of the brain what to do, when to do them and how
to work together
 EF is an umbrella term that includes a number of
cognitive processes
Executive Functions
 EFs include:
 Initiating
 Inhibiting
 Goal setting
 Planning/organising/prioritising
 Shifting attention flexibly
 Self monitoring
 Working memory
 EFs are also responsible for making decisions about
social behaviour and emotional regulation
EF Difficulties…or Executive
 A difficulty with producing - the child with EF difficulties does
not necessarily have learning difficulties but may do
 Children with EF difficulties often experience overload of
information so input exceeds output. They struggle to plan,
organise and prioritise so information gets clogged
 In the classroom EF difficulties can be attributed to personality,
for example being seen as lazy or inattentive
 Children with EF difficulties “forget to remember”
 Executive functioning difficulties are seen in conditions such as
 All young people have some difficulties with EF…do we as adults
as well?
Which EFs are Important for
Learning Modern Foreign Languages?
 Activity:
 Work with the person next to you
 One person gives the other person
directions for how to walk between
Piccadilly Circus and Newport Place…
 … in Dutch
Which EFs are Important for Learning
Modern Foreign Languages?
 Key words in Dutch:
 Straight ahead - recht door
 Turn left - links afslaan
 Stop: stop
 Turn right - rechts afslaan
 Keep going - ga door
 Turn around - draai om
Reflections on Activity
 Which EFs did you use as the person giving directions?
 Which EFs did you use as the person following the
 Are you able to identify which EFs you find easier and
 How would your students have found this task?
 What adaptations could I have made to reduce the EF
Research on EF and Bilingualism
 Inhibition and selective attention are stronger in
 Both languages are active in the pre-frontal lobe –
bilinguals don’t ‘switch’ languages on and off but can
move between languages in conversation and thought
 A study found that bilingual children performed better
on EF tasks that required the children to manage
conflicting attentional demands. The bilingual children
did not perform better on EF tasks requiring impulse
control (Carlson & Metlzoff, 2008)
How can you support EFs in the
 Corn field analogy
 Reduce the EF demands:
 Visual supports and structures e.g. writing frames, mindmaps
 Give instructions in ‘chunks’
 Be explicit about the structure and purpose of learning
 Practice and repetition lay pathways in the brain
 And, most importantly…teach young people how to
learn through developing their ‘meta-cognition’
How can you support EFs in the
 Meta-cognition means ‘thinking about thinking’
 Embed how to learn in your lesson planning
 This might include teaching young people about
executive functions explicitly, and it definitely means
reflecting on learning strategies that support EFs
 Use meta-cognitive structures and questions to support
young people to plan, monitor and evaluate learning
 Reflect out loud on your thinking
 Research indicates that meta-cognitive approaches are
high impact and low cost (Sutton Trust, 2012)
Ending on a Positive…
 Adolescence is a critical period for learning and for
the development of identity, beliefs and
 After the process of pruning the brain is more
efficient. Young people gain greater control over
their behaviour, better planning of work and
improved social interaction
What are you going to take away
from this talk?
Further Reading
 Blakemore, S.-J. & Frith, U. (2005) The Learning Brain:
Lessons for Education. Oxford: Blackwell
 Kaufman, C. (2010) Executive Function in the
Classroom: Practice Strategies for Improving
Performance and Enhancing Skills for all Students.
Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.
 Meltzer, L. (2010) Executive Function in Education:
From Theory to Practice. New York: The Guildford

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