What's more important to learn growing up: Content or Process?

Submitted by mfitch on February 13, 2009 - 06:30. ::

What's more important to learn during pre-teen and young teen years: content or process?
This is a very important question for parents to consider, especially with the current trend toward a college--prep emphasis in school culture. School curriculum often teaches toward test scores. Even Christian schools, who are rarely involved in state testing, often focus on cramming content with an eye to college acceptance.
Many churches take a similar approach: load pre-teens and young teens with info during this formative age, in hopes that it will "stick" and become a guiding force in their lives.
Unfortunately, this is quite misguided.
Just prior to puberty (around 10 or 11 years-old), your child's brain does a wonderful thing: it grows an abundance of new connections. Like a massive infiltration of tree roots grasping for earth, these new connections between various parts of the brain open up a world of possibilities.
However, these new connections are only that: possibilities. There is no good way to use them all. So, those connections that get exercised and used end up forming a dominant part of the brain's function through the rest of life. And those connections that are used less, well, they'll always be used less.
What does this tell us? It's essential that the pre-teen and young teen years be about learning how to think. Process, "what if", and "why?" are critical. Discovery is the best learning mode (for spiritual learning or academic learning). If young teens exercise this part of their developing brains, it will positively impact their lifelong thinking, their spiritual growth (after all, spiritual stuff is abstract), their emotional health, their relational maturity, and their desire to continue growing and learning.
So, make room for "why?" and "what if?" Those are questions of speculation (a brand-new, but wimpy, ability for young teens). Encourage discovery. Don't be threatened by questioned values and boundary-pushing. This is the best stuff of early-adolescent brain development!
"Not Much Just Chillin': The Hidden Lives of Middle Schoolers", by Linda Perlstein (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York)

I've just finished reading the most significant book about young teens written in a decade (in my opinion) – and I read them all. Linda Perlstein is an education editor for the Washington Post. But she took a year off her day-job, and weaved her way into the lives and homes and classrooms of the average public middle school kids Wilde Lake Middle School in Columbia, Maryland (a suburb of Washington, DC).
Perlstein writes as a journalist (not a researcher, nor a storyteller). But she warmly riddles the book with research and stories. Reading this book will give parents a wonderful extended glimpse into all the issues we only touch on in this column. Every parent of a current or future middle school student needs to read this book:
Mark Oestreicher is the president of Youth Specialties (www.YouthSpecialties.com), the leading provider of resources and training for Christian youth workers. Marko speaks to parents, teens and youth workers around the world, and writes books (mostly for youth ministry and young teens). He lives in San Diego with his wife, Jeannie, and his two kids, Liesl and Max.