Middle schools are unique places largely due to their unique student population. Students ages 10 – 14 undergo vast social, emotional, intellectual, and physical changes and it is the role of middle schools to provide an academically challenging curriculum with developmentally appropriate instruction and assessment practices. They must also assist students in becoming knowledgeable and socially aware of themselves and the world around them. Furthermore, middle schools that employ practices that inspire and empower their students to take ownership of their learning will enable them to make better decisions about their personal and educational lives as they grow toward adulthood.
Academically, middle level schools work to provide students with a vigorous curriculum that will, simply stated, move them through their own development from predominantly concrete thinkers to primarily abstract thinkers. This needs to be done by well-trained middle level educators who are not only experts in their specific disciplines but are artisans in the area of teaching early adolescent children. Studies suggest that successful students are taught by teachers who are not only proficient in their discipline (history, math, art, science, etc.) but also have a high level of understanding and training around working with middle level students specifically. The same is true about middle level administrators.
Teachers, specifically trained in middle level pedagogy, can create developmentally appropriate curricula that utilizes existing skills while scaffolding opportunities to broaden content and expertise. It is necessary to possess a wide assortment of methods to teach and assess the variety of thinkers that make up middle level students. These educators will use technology, project-based learning, and interdisciplinary links to provide opportunities for authentic learning that fits better with the natural curiosity of young adolescents.
Middle level educators embrace academic rigor, balanced with creating relevance and trusting relationships, to guide their practices in the classroom. Many of these practices are outlined in the Carnegie Corporation’s Turning Points 2000 and the Association for Middle Level Education’s This We Believe. Turning Points 2000 specifically encourages practices that support middle schools where every student is enabled “to think creatively, to identify and solve meaningful problems, to communicate and work well with others, and to develop the base of factual knowledge and skills that is the essential foundation for ‘higher order’ capacities” (p. 10-11). Practices that support these recommendations fit in with today’s initiatives to prepare students for their future and can help them gain a clearer understanding of their unique learning processes. These practices should encourage them to take risks and learn from their mistakes as well as their successes.
Achievement cannot be measured accurately for middle level students by traditional standardized testing alone. Educators must assess and provide frequent feedback in many forms, such as classroom discussions, essays, debates, labs, tests, projects, and performances. Authentic assessments, both formative and summative, that focus on content and creativity, grit and compassion, should inform instruction to assist the teacher in developing lessons that move students toward higher order thinking skills. “Nontraditional” assessment practices, such as portfolio reviews and thesis defense, are often overlooked in districts in lieu of more standardized approaches, yet can be strong components of a quality middle level program.
Middle level schools can also support academic vigor by supporting the learning that occurs outside the classroom setting; encouraging faculty and students to take advantage of field trips, extra-curricular activities, and social events. Participation in these activities can be risky for some young adolescents, but they are often successful when they are supported by a deliberate program of student advocacy. This advocacy (or advisory) and the activities that are often centered on them, can serve to encourage students to stretch their social and cognitive boundaries. Some of the best learning I have witnessed has been part of an outdoor “ropes” course program, where students need to work together, take risks, and encourage each other. All aspects of middle level academics benefit when students are open to seeing risks as opportunities for growth and challenges as obstacles to overcome.
When examining the role of middle level schools, it is important to look at the entirety of programs, much like middle level teachers look at the whole child. Middle level educators have always embraced the importance of academic standards within developmentally responsive education; in fact, it is a founding philosophy. In our current quantitatively fixated, data focused climate, “developmentally appropriate education” often gets lost. However, they are not “buzz words”, they are a necessity. As the future of education unfolds, middle schools will continue to look toward the challenge of providing educational programs that provide an overall vigorous educational experience that truly meets the unique developmental needs of our students.
Turning Points 2000: Educating Adolescents in the 21st Century. The Report of the Task Force on Education of Young Adolescents (New York: Carnegie Corporation, 2000)
This We Believe: Successful Schools for Young Adolescents. A position Paper of the Association for Middle Level Education (Westerville, Ohio. 2003)
Chris Sousa and Robert C. Spear Ed.D. (2007) Academic Vigor and Meeting the Learning Needs of Middle Level Students, Middle Level Issues (NELMS Vol. 7 #1, January 2007)
Chris Husbands and Jo Pearce (Autumn 2012) What makes great pedagogy? Nine claims from research. National College for School Leadership. Nottingham, UK.
What makes a teacher effective. (2010-2014) A summary of key research findings on teacher preparation. The National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE). Washington DC