Social skills such as empathy exist as powerful latent predispositions. If the environment is not conducive to their development in any one generation, the brain simply reshapes itself to those skills that are “helpful to survival.” This is not simply a moral issue. It has a biochemical base, which, once reversed, is far more difficult to “switch back.” We should be worried.

Adolescence is currently seen as a “problem” in western society: an excess of hormones leaves the rapidly maturing child unaware of his new physical strength, and confused as to how to direct it. Earlier cultures directed this energy in ways that developed skills on which the community’s ongoing survival depended. This also ensured that young people learned and practised what was seen as appropriate social behavior.

Work on the neurological structure of the adolescent brain is beginning to show how these networks draw upon the young child’s earlier dependence on external support. Without support to develop the earliest basic skills, young people just can’t cope with adolescence.

Recent work on cognitive apprenticeship helps us to understand what our brain expects to do naturally. Successful learners need to know the significance of the sub-task to the whole job, and require time for a new structure to consolidate. Learners need to talk to put the task into a larger context. Whole-hearted engagement in a task – where the level of challenge is poised just above the learner’s level of current competence – enables them to reach a stage of highly efficient brain functioning that psychologists call “flow.”

Traditionally, learning followed a strict weaning process. The more skills a leaner mastered, the more responsibility the learner was given for utilizing them. Intellectual weaning based on normal human development goes from a heavy dependency on external support to an increasing autonomy in adolescence. But if the opportunity offered by the various predispositions is not seized when children are very young, then they simply can’t handle the hormonal and other changes of adolescence that crave increasing independence.

Upside Down and Inside Out

Based on current use of resources in schools, class size falls with age. The assumption seems to be that children of five don’t need as many resources as young people of 18 or 21 or 22. At the very moment when children would benefit from the highest level of support, we leave their mental development largely to chance. Isn’t the present system simply upside down?