11 March 2012

Re-thinking the Middle School

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.

We need to stop denying who these kids are..
I wonder if "we" - that collective we - are looking at these kids at all. Sometimes I wonder if we are interested at all.

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
That teenage brain is supposed to be both sensation-seeking and dismissive of adult opinion. If, in evolutionary terms, the teenage brain did not do those things, ten-year-olds would remain ten-year-olds - emotionally, socially, cognitively. 

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.

The Re-Think

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...
Middle School also introduces an absurdly false concept of "adult responsibility" which tells kids that the adults in the school are clueless.We insist that every middle school kid "act like an adult" when it suits us, but never when it suits them, and if you have any memory at all, you know that every middle school kid knows this. "You're old enough to be responsible for yourself," counts when it comes to being marked "late" for class, but not if you are ever out of direct line of sight for a seated librarian. It counts when you get a grade but not when you ask to do something. It counts when they charge you adult admission to a theatre, but not when you want to see a film about high school. Of course it counts if you commit a crime, not if you want a drink.And Middle School starts with violating all sense of teenage time and space. The adolescent brain struggles with contemporary temporal standards - actually - most humans do, but 13-year-olds haven't yet been fully beaten into submission.

'"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"
So teens are either, depending on need and mood, in a great rush, or moving very slowly. Sometimes they run to things without much forethought, other times they need 15 minutes with a mirror, or staring out a window. Sometimes they're up at dawn, more often they really are not functioning before 10 in the morning. And in space, teens seem - to both my observations and memory - to need equal parts touching each other, and being quite isolated. They, and this seems especially true of today's more global teens, are not likely to tolerate the nonsensical Puritan "American Distance" (always an imposed value, never a natural one for most). They want real physical (not necessarily sexual) contact - perhaps because they do not get much of it from adults these days - and they need distance - "alone time" - for private processing.

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
If your school is not a "prison," if students are in control of their time, space, comfort, academic choices, tools, and methods - like adults - then students will have "ownership" of their environment, and like most of God's creatures, they will respect that environment. And you know what? These kids have nothing to prove to you... it is you who have to prove your trust and value to them. Remember, their brains are already designed to ignore the older generation, so it might be wise to stop giving them reasons to do just that.

Classroom furniture from Herman Miller
Second, teens need comfort. Really. Comfort. Just put that word at the top of your list. Not your comfort, teachers - administrators - legislatures, their comfort. ""We too often consult our own convenience, rather than the comfort, welfare, or accommodation of our children," William Alcott wrote in 1832. This means choices in seating - real choices - including standing or lying down. It means choices in work surfaces, choices in tools, choices in time.
William A. Alcott
"the comfort, welfare, or
accommodation of
our children"
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...

"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?
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.

Is there any reason that any adolescent would care about what you are offering?
This is a microeconomic decision. For anything we do, there is an opportunity cost. Even the decision to pay attention to the teacher for five minutes has to be weighed against the other things you might be doing during that five minutes - daydreaming about the boy/girlfriend, wondering who'll get into the NCAA tournament, imagining tonight's soccer game, considering a more interesting subject. If what you are "selling" isn't understood as worth that five minutes, your students would have to be fools to listen to you. And they are not fools.

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


Anonymous said...

Student centered learning is not rocket science..... Those in charge of the hiring and firing have an ethical obligation to place teachers in the right seat to provide the best learning environment possible!

@DrTimony said...

Ira--thanks for the post. It cannot be undersold that adolescents need more and not necessarily from us. I guess one could argue that they need less in some ways, too. Students deserve an entirely different approach that is, in many ways, a non-approach compared to some of the rigid elementary and high school approaches.

I disagree with the idea the previous commenter had of reducing it to "student centered" learning for the simple reason that it is then--just as simply--reduced to another approach-in-a-box.

The needs for agility in the classroom are never more important than in these years. Schools need to stop CYA rule books, "fair" practices, and lists of consequences and start changing. Constantly.

Peter Lydon said...

A thought-provoking article. There is much here I would disagree with. I'm a sure you would recognise that even if they aren't aware of it, teenagers don't always know what is in their best interests. At some level, adults have to mediate this.
That said, a lot of what you say points to the possibility of a more rewarding educational experience for students. It would be foolish to dismiss any idea that has merit; a school of 1000 students needs a 1000 different ways of connecting with them.

Diane E. Main, GCT NorCal 2006 said...

I agree with Peter that adolescents won't always make the best choices in their own best interests. But that's where we come in. Not necessarily to prevent them making poor choices and learning from their mistakes, but to provide a safe environment in which to try these things.

Of course, if too much is dictated to them, by us as educators, parents, government, and society, they won't trust their own ability to try and yes, sometimes fail.

Rebekah Madrid said...

The absolute best thing about middle school is their willingness to play and experiment and try things. I try as hard as I can to make sure they have every opportunity to do that. There are days they drive me crazy, but they can also do amazing things. And nothing is better than when a kid is fully engaged (usually laying on the floor or sitting in an odd position on a chair)directing their own learning.
Thanks for illustrating what is necessary for our students.

Kim Wilkens said...

Want to see middle school rethought - check out a Montessori adolescent program. Unlike the rest of the curriculum which was fairly well tested and laid out by Maria, she only had the opportunity to dream about what an adolescent program might be like (The Erdkinder). These programs are based on her ideas, but are really experiments in their own right, relying heavily on the Montessori foundation of following the child. And I know from personal experience that these children will take you to amazing places. But you've got to be ready to throw out traditional grades and high stakes tests, give up classroom control and admit you don't have all the answers.

Unknown said...

I'm not sure if this is relevant, but . . .

I taught self-contained eighth grade last year. We had loosely structured norms rather than rules. No punishments. No grades. Just portfolios and projects. We did peer-to-peer and student-teacher conferences regularly.

It was the opposite of middle school. It was loosely structure elementary school with more projects, higher-level thinking and more autonomy.

Two counter-intuitive things came out of it:

1. My students had the highest scores. And I am one of the loudest opponents of standardized tests.

2. My students are having an easier time adjusting to high school than one might imagine, because they were prepared academically though not structurally.

I have no journal to back this up. I'm not claiming it as research. I'm not claiming to be amazing. But relationships and autonomy are vital for 13-14 year olds.

McCullough said...

That was an amazing read! My mind is swimming with ideas for not only middle schools, but all schools. Thanks for te post!

Jill spencer said...

John Lounsbury, Nancy Doda, James Beane, Mark Springer and other middle level leaders have been advocating the type of approach Ira is suggesting for years. Before NCLB many "middle" schools across the nation were starting to make changes, however in the last 10 years many schools for young adolescents have become even more rigid than they were before. Mark Springer's Soundings: A Democratic Student-Centered Education is a wonderful book about an actual public school program that had many of the characteristics described in the post. AMLE.org has resources and research to support such a vision. Thank you for your post! John Spencer--I hope you are presenting on your classroom at middle level conferences!

Patti Kinney said...

I have to echo what Jill said above. I head the middle level services for the Nat'l Association of Secondary School Principals (www.nassp.org), am a past president of the Association for Middle Level Education (www.amle.org) and a board member of the Nat'l Forum to Accelerate Middle Grades Reform (http://www.mgforum.org). So much of what the author is saying is what all of these organizations have been saying and promoting for a great many years. Unfortunately current educational policies have moved us away, rather than toward, the goal of creating effective middle level schools that are designed to truly meet the needs of the young adolescents they are responsible for education. Keep up the good work.

smith4429 said...

You are a breath of fresh air, in a world that has become stale. You are inspiring, and you have inspired me. How can I help you share your philosophy with the world?

Susanelle Salter said...

Mr. Socol,

I am a student in EDM 310 at the University of South Alabama. I absolutely LOVED your post!! Wow!! It totally hit home. I have been thinking exactly the same things you brought up. It's ridiculous that teachers treat teenagers like adults when it's convenient but then use the child card in situations so they can get their way. I always felt more mature than I was allowed to be in junior high school. This did not lead to good things for teachers. I generally rebelled against every form of authority. Actually, I still find myself doing it now that I'm older. I can't stand feeling less than anyone, no matter what his/her age. Students should not feel less. It isn't right. Teachers should treat students how they would want to be treated, and I bet students would return the favor.

Susie Salter

Andrew Davis said...

This post is very interesting it warrants further study. Also I am curious about the Nat Geo article. All of us who remember middle school no how much of pain in the neck it can be both socially and academically. I agree with much of the article but I think there needs to be a balance between giving kids the freedom to use there abilities and skills but also expecting them to understand that life is not always going to be free and open it may require hard work to set standards. It does not matter if there brains automatically dismiss what adults say they still need to learn that even they don't like it or agree with it they still need to follow it. Children even middle school kids need rules and structure but balanced with flexibility and openness.

Anonymous said...

I agree we need to think middle school in australia. Before we start thinking about furniture we need to start thinking about the physical space these young bodies need. Many of my schools classrooms were designed at a time when young peoples bodies were much smaller. Even with a traditional seating plan there isn't much space and this is for a generation who may not even have had to share a room with a sibling. Many of the behaviour problems would be solved just with adequate physical space to stretch out and move around.