We tend to do everything wrong for kids between 12 and 15. We pretend they are "adults" in terms of care needs and responsibilities, which they are not. We pretend they are children intellectually and physically, and in terms of rights, which they are not. We dismiss their capabilities and hype their potential as threats. We are cruel to them, and we send every possible message that we don't care about them.
And then we're surprised that they don't like us, or do what we want them to do.
And then we're surprised that they don't like us, or do what we want them to do.
|We need to stop denying who these kids are..|
I begin by being stunned that every teacher of teens has not read this National Geographic article on the New Science of the Teenage Brain. This was not written in "journal speak," it is not long, and yet, it captures the essence of contemporary brain research regarding teens, and a professional educator not reading it (since it is free to read), smacks of malpractice.
Here is a key passage from that article: "We're so used to seeing adolescence as a problem. But the more we learn about what really makes this period unique, the more adolescence starts to seem like a highly functional, even adaptive period. It's exactly what you'd need to do the things you have to do then." Followed by a critical analysis: "Let's start with the teen's love of the thrill. We all like new and exciting things, but we never value them more highly than we do during adolescence. Here we hit a high in what behavioral scientists call sensation seeking: the hunt for the neural buzz, the jolt of the unusual or unexpected ... Although sensation seeking can lead to dangerous behaviors, it can also generate positive ones: The urge to meet more people, for instance, can create a wider circle of friends, which generally makes us healthier, happier, safer, and more successful. This upside probably explains why an openness to the new, though it can sometimes kill the cat, remains a highlight of adolescent development. A love of novelty leads directly to useful experience. More broadly, the hunt for sensation provides the inspiration needed to "get you out of the house" and into new terrain, as Jay Giedd, a pioneering researcher in teen brain development at NIH, puts it."
|National Geographic photo by Kitra Cahana|
The problem is that, despite claims to the contrary, many, or most of the actions of "middle schools" seem to be designed to keep kids at age ten, and seem designed around only the idea of training compliance. But that is not what our kids need, and it really is not what our society needs.
What kind of "school" would these early teenagers really need? What could it look like? How would it work?
Middle School often begins with the definite division of learning into so-called "content areas," an idea pushed firmly into law in the past twenty years with the myth of the "highly qualified teacher." Of course being a "highly qualified teacher" is not about subject/content knowledge, as anyone who has attended a university lecture can testify, it is about being a leading learner for a group of kids. But this "qualification" mentality - "subject area" mentality - is exactly the opposite of what kids, especially 12-14-year-olds, need. They need a holistic view of learning which encourages them to build bridges across knowledge areas, and across areas of the brain.
|no comment necessary...|
|'"Bully," an documentary about the nation's teen-bullying epidemic, would exclude much of its intended school-aged audience if the Motion Picture Association of America refuses to ease its R rating"|
Our Middle Schools frown on all of these needs. "We" don't tolerate time flexibility. "We" don't want kids touching. "We" don't want them off on their own.
In all, our Middle Schools are a recipe for disaster. And the recipe works in most places.
Our early adolescents need something completely different. They need schools designed for them, not for us. Schools designed for growth and learning, not compliance and conformity. Schools designed to build the skills teens need, not designed to be the holding cages we have created.
First of all, teens need ownership, they need to believe that spaces and programs are "their's" not "our's." Is that really such a foreign concept?
Well, begin by stopping your references to how your middle schoolers don't respect "your things" or "your room." I'm sorry folks, few prisoners respect their prison - and prison, according to Barack Obama's State of the Union speech and the statements of many other "leaders," is exactly what school is for most adolescents.
|School as a learning studio suite... Brussels, Belgium|
|Classroom furniture from Herman Miller|
Finally, adolescents need a curriculum which engages. If you read that National Geographic article you will learn all about adolescent decision making, and, you'll realize that every kid in that Middle School is making perfectly logical decisions about what you, the teacher and administrator, are offering.
If this was 1832... and it was, in the book which "designed" the American classroom: "Again—no provision has been made for the pupils standing at higher desks a part of the time, because it is believed they may sit without injury for about half an hour at a time, and then, instead of standing, they ought to walk into the garden, or exercise in the play-ground a few moments, either with or without attendants or monitors. Sitting too long, at all events, is extremely pernicious...
William A. Alcott
"the comfort, welfare, or
"The relative position of each pupil should occasionally be changed from right to left, otherwise the body may acquire a change of shape by constantly turning or twisting so as to accommodate itself to the light, always coming from a particular window, or in the same general direction.
"If a portion of the play-ground is furnished with a roof, the pupils may sometimes be detached by classes, or otherwise, either with or without monitors, to study a short time in the open air, especially in the pleasant season. This is usually as agreeable to them, as it is favorable to health. A few plain seats should be placed there. A flower garden, trees, and shrubs, would furnish many important lessons of instruction. Indeed, I cannot help regarding all these things as indispensable, and as consistent with the strictest economy of space, material, and furniture, as a judicious arrangement of the school-room itself.
"Sensible objects, and every species of visible apparatus, including, of course, maps, charts, and a globe, are also regarded as indispensably necessary in illustrating the sciences. They not only save books, time, and money, as has been abundantly proved by infant schools, but ideas are in this way more firmly fixed, and longer retained. In the use of books, each child must have his own ; but in the use of sensible objects and apparatus, one thing, in the hands of the instructer, will answer the purposes of a large school, and frequently outlast half a dozen books," how have we gotten so stupid in the 180 years since?
Is there any reason that any adolescent would care about what you are offering?
In a favorite school moment, a math teacher walked up to a school librarian and complained, "This kid drives me crazy, he'd rather go to Saturday School than come to my class." The librarian looked at the teacher and said, "Well, you have to think about that."
Indeed. As I once wrote in a short story, "They all say I "make bad decisions." Everybody says that. But they're wrong about that too. I make decisions they don't like, but they're not bad." Keep in mind, there are two sides to decision-making, and "reasonable alternatives" lead to better decisions.
So if you offer adolescents project-based learning which connects with their passions, you may suddenly find a bunch of kids lined up and ready to work. If you offer them pointless arithmetic, or books no one really wants to read, they will - they should - make other choices.
The time to change is now. Every year, in almost every place, 5th graders doing great work turn into sullen, unhappy 6th graders who fail those high-stakes tests. That's not genetics, and its not hormones, that is "us," with our high-school-styled, classroom-changing, grim-corridoring, bell-ringing, subject-divided, planner-driven, recess-missing Middle Schools.
So before another school year begins, if you are in the business of Middle School, there is probably damn little that you are doing that shouldn't be changed. And there are really no good excuses for not making those changes.
You're the adults, right?
- Ira Socol