Middle school is a critical ‘make or break’ moment in the lives of youth, with lasting effects on later school and career success. It is a moment when youth can either become engaged or disengaged as learners. It is a moment when their future comes into clearer focus. Do they see themselves in positive ways? I am going to college, I will have an exciting job, I will travel to new places. Or do they develop a negative self-narrative? I’m not going to college, I’m going nowhere, school is pointless.
It is also a moment when youth can form either positive or ineffectual relationships with adults –relationships that encourage their academic success and help them to navigate social and emotional challenges; or relationships that are perfunctory— or in some cases, hostile—and offer little to no support.
Too many middle schools do not fully grasp and seize this pivotal moment. They fail to ignite in youth a passion for learning or to open their eyes to a world of possibilities. Too few staff form meaningful relationships with youth –and their families— that foster transformative learning experiences.
In these middle schools, academic performance drops, bullying and disciplinary incidents rise, and disengagement and dropout begin.
So how can we make middle school become a positive, transformative moment for more youth?
Typically, efforts to improve middle schools focus on what to teach – e.g. content, standards, and curriculum. Other efforts focus on the structure of middle schools – e.g. deciding between a K-8 school versus a middle school or a junior high school. Still others focus on overall school size – replacing large middle schools with schools-within-schools, for example. However, while these aspects are important considerations, I would argue that the most critical factor is not the content, school configuration or size, but rather program design. In other words, how do we design middle schools to effectively engage middle school age youth in content so that they remain interested in learning, academically challenged, and connected with positive adults and peers. How do we honor the development needs of middle school youth for independence, experimentation, and authentic relationships with adults?
These may sound like complicated or abstract questions, but it truth there is a simple answer: we should get youth out doing real things – lots of real things – and things that have some say in whether they do them. Rather than the usual classroom instruction in content areas, middle schools should provide students with challenging experiential and youth-driven learning opportunities. And in the process of these learning opportunities, schools should connect students with adults who know and work in related areas. In other words, youth should learn science by developing and implementing environmental conservation projects with local scientists. They should learn writing by running online community newspapers and literary journals with local journalists. Thus, the role of middle school teachers is not to “educate”, but rather to balance content instruction—which could be delivered online (see Khan Academy / ‘flipped classroom’) with facilitation of youth-led experiential activities.
In sum, the core components of this approach are:
- Experiential learning. Designing lessons to facilitate direct application of content through community-based projects, apprenticeships, experiments, etc. This might include use of year-long interdisciplinary themes. For example, sixth-graders might learn about and experience our emerging knowledge society /how data, communication, and globalism are shaping out world; seventh-graders might learn about and experience technology and innovation – how they are changing medicine, education, transportation, etc.; eighth-graders might focus on the environment and community service.
- Youth voice. Providing youth with appropriate chose/ decision-making regarding their course of study and projects.
- Teacher as coach. Establishing the primary role of the middle school teacher as not a content expert –thought background knowledge in core content areas is key—but as a facilitator or coach, guiding students through co-development and participation in authentic, experiential learning experiences.
- Connection to community adults. Enhancing lesson through collaboration with appropriate, content-area related adults/professional, as mentors, advisors, tutors, and project partners.
Experiential, project-based, and cross-disciplinary learning approaches are, of course, not new concepts. Re-visioning middle schools as places where these approaches comprehensively define the education experience is a new direction – and one that will help more schools seize the moment, igniting a passion for learning in our youth.