On Middle Grades Education

I’ve spent the better part of the past few weeks wrapped in thought about whether or not my middle grades classroom meets the developmental needs of the preteens that I teach.  My struggles started when I sat down with the National Middle School Association’s This We Believe—a document outlining the characteristics of highly effective middle grades learning environments. 

The first challenge to my classroom practices started with this quote:

Young adolescents reveal growing capacity for thinking about how they learn, for considering multiple ideas, and for planning steps to carry out their own learning activities. Such evidence heralds growth toward more mature and abstract ways of thinking. However, because cognitive growth occurs gradually and irregularly, most middle level students require ongoing, concrete, experiential learning in order to develop intellectually. 

These thoughts reflect the kinds of learning experiences that I’ve largely left behind in the past few years in my quest to produce results on our end of grade tests. “Ongoing, concrete, experiential learning” takes time that I just plain don’t have if I’m going to get my kids to score well on the formative assessments that I’m required to give every three weeks—and “planning steps to carry out their own learning activities” isn’t exactly essential when multiple choice questions are the only form of assessment used to judge learning.

I guess what I’m wondering now is whether our nation’s focus on results has hurt preteens more than anyone else. Has our emphasis on standardized testing created middle schools where instructional practices run completely counter to the developmental needs of the children that they serve?  What exactly would “adequate yearly progress” look like for kids whose “cognitive growth occurs gradually and irregularly”?

I guess I’m ashamed of myself for tailoring my instruction to better match the tests that we’re required to give rather than to match the developmental needs of my students—but I’m also buckling under the pressure of having the lowest scores on the hallway year-after-year. 

Whose fault is that?

I was also challenged by this quote:

Successful middle schools are grounded in the understanding that young adults are capable of far more than adults often assume. Educators recognize that students are curious and concerned about the world and their place in it, and they understand that students thrive when engaging in genuine activities that make a difference in their schools and communities.

Easily what I love the most about my kids is their passion for issues that involve justice and injustice. Even though they’re twelve, each is intellectually curious, idealistic and motivated by action. They’re cause-driven creatures who will stick up for the little guy regardless of the situation. 

What I wonder is whether I’m doing enough to channel this passion towards the borderless challenges that are facing the world today. Poverty, deforestation, loss of biodiversity and pollution have devastating effects across continents—and are going to require solutions shaped by countries working in partnership with one another. As a result, the citizens of tomorrow must see themselves as responsible contributors to international efforts to protect our world. 

With a bit of effort, couldn’t global problems and solutions explored from the lens of global responsibility serve as a motivating vehicle for delivering my required curriculum?

Finally, I was challenged by this quote:

Achieving high academic performance for every student requires more than just raising standards or gaining an adequate score on a standardized test. It means empowering students to learn, to become intellectually engaged, and to behave as responsible citizens. It calls for them to develop initiative and responsibility so they can reach their potential. 

While it may make me a few enemies, I think I can safely argue that many schools are far from empowering places that encourage students to develop initiative and responsibility. In fact, I’d bet that if we surveyed our students, they’d feel anything but empowered. 

Why? 

Because we regularly ignore the tools that have become a part of their daily lives beyond schools. Students who are driven by interactions with peers sit silent for large swaths of hours while in school. Opportunities to collaborate with digital tools are seen as little more than distractions in our classrooms. Quite simply, we unplug our students as soon as they enter the schoolhouse door, showing no appreciation or respect for tools that they’ve readily embraced.

Now, I can’t completely blame teachers for our failure to create learning environments that are responsive to the changing nature of today’s student. Educators prepared during an earlier era are often intimidated by digital tools and unaware of potential classroom applications for services that are becoming ubiquitous beyond the schoolhouse walls. 

What’s more, limited time for professional development and inconsistent access to functioning technology discourage teachers from learning more about the tools that most motivate our kids. Finally, schools are often paralyzed by fear—afraid to move forward with 21st Century instruction because of risks widely reported but poorly understood by the general public.

But by doing so, I worry that we are leaving students to learn lessons about “behaving as responsible citizens” on their own. In a world where the lines between public and private life are blurred for children who’ve grown up with interactive technologies, cyber-bulling and irresponsible use of digital media are becoming increasingly common. 

Shouldn’t each new story of students who post content designed to embarrass or insult peers, or who use digital forums to harass others, convince middle grades educators that the time has come to extend lessons about personal responsibility into conversations about the responsible use of online applications?

I also worry that we’re becoming increasingly irrelevant to our students because of our determination to hold on to the traditional views of “teacher as expert.” Instead, we should be showing our students how to use digital tools to access knowledge and information. Empowerment should include attempts to embrace the kinds of independent learning experiences that are possible when digital tools form the foundation of one’s personal learning network. 

I guess I was hoping that working through this post would help me to come to some kind of resolution over the work that has formed the foundation of my professional career—but it hasn’t. In fact, if anything, I’m left with nothing but questions. 

Are my struggles to create a developmentally appropriate learning environment for my students unique? Are they a result of my own failures—or are they a result of systematic failures in the approach taken towards middle grades education in my state and nation?

Is there an inherent disconnect between the kinds of learning experiences valued by parents and community members and experts on adolescents like the National Middle School association? Is it possible to bridge the gap between what is and what should be? 

Who bears responsibility for taking the first steps towards creating the kind of middle schools that would allow my students to thrive?

2 comments

  1. Erin Higgins

    This article made me question the true purpose of school-based education. Is the overall goal of teachers to meet predetermined, generalized standards, or is it to inspire a love of learning? So yes, i believe that, an emphasis on standardized testing runs completely counter to the developmental needs of children.
    From my limited experience, my students withdraw from tasks that they have limited personal bearings, or stunt their ability to engage, discover and think for themselves. And there is nothing more exciting to them than student driven investigations- they see personal relevance and have a sense of control over their learning. If memory serves, it was that absence of flexibility and free will that made much of my schooling years seem pointless and frustrating.