Because our middle level learners are ready for more independence, age-appropriate challenges, and they crave mastery of skills, we need to teach them differently. Middle level learners need to spend less time memorizing content and more time developing skills. They need to imagine more, choose more, produce more so that they like school more. A skill-centered curriculum, using content as a vehicle for skill development, is the future of middle level education.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Why Teach Science (process) to Middle Schoolers?

If your school is still teaching middle schoolers to memorize the periodic table and the muscles in the body and calling that science, it may be underutilizing that aspect of the curriculum. The true lessons of science for the decision-makers of the mid-21st century- aka, our current middle schoolers- is its' process: the deductive reasoning skills, the twin powers of curiosity and collaboration, and the deliberate thinking skills that repeated exposure to use of scientific process imbues.

The idea that so few kids begin high school with an avid interest in the sciences is surprising, given the suite of skills practicing scientists use. Real science is driven by curiosity- something children have in spades- furthered by the bantering about of ideas and insights- and banter is something every middle school classroom is full of- realized by the creation and execution of experiments- and that is always hands on- and culminates with hard-earned discovery and revelation, two things the boundary-pushing, challenge-hungry middle school mind craves. If middle school science were more like real science, wouldn’t our students love it? Wouldn’t it feel most natural to them? Wouldn’t they love their time at school?

Most science at the elementary and middle levels is taught by people who have not been practicing scientists, thus their understanding of the potential of the subject is limited. As a result, the middle school science students taught by these people are exercising parts of their brain that prepare them for managing information. They are certainly not learning to be practicing scientists- nor to be perceptive, creative problem-solvers who approach the pursuit of answers both deliberately and enthusiastically in all aspects of their lives.

The scientific mind is the original human mind: that which tries new things out of the necessity of saving its family, thrives with those ideas' successes, and corrects with their failures (when they were survived!). Such a mind flexes its' strengths in pursuit of solutions, and greatly appreciates its' accomplishments because they improve its' life. 60,000 years ago, these compulsions successfully propelled humanity forth from the cradle of Africa onward to the myriad new environments in which the species has come to thrive. Necessity was the driver for sure, but the behavioral- read, intellectual- adaptations honed along the way, are the offspring. 

The young adolescents of today both bear those adaptations and mirror that perpetual state of evolution, albeit compressed into years 10-15.  They are restless with cravings for novelty, thrilled by success at their own hands, and perpetually purposeful. In the limited environment of an institution- which is metaphorical- the best analog for the experience of saving your family is doing experimental science.  Its process of coming up with the idea for solving a problem, trying out the idea, experiencing the results of that attempt, and deciding whether or not it was a good idea in the first place is what the evolving human has done all along- and it is exactly what the evolving adolescent will find most satisfying today. 

So why teach science to middle schoolers? Because it is their birthright, it exercises their most human instincts, it validates their compulsions. Can you imagine how attached to school your middle school students would be if every day they were doing what was instinctual and validating? Can you imagine how positive they would feel about the institution that facilitated that? Can you imagine how fun they would be to hang around?

And can you imagine how strong our society would be in the middle of the 21st century if the middle schoolers of today carried forth that sense of validation and that good will towards educational institutions? That’s why we need to teach science process to middle schoolers.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

What drives a middle school curriculum?

What drives a middle school curriculum?

Why does deep skill development not dictate the middle school curriculum? Why are we stuck trying to force middle schoolers to absorb information when they could be practicing thinking and interacting skills? We do we insist the middle school day be broken into 50 minute chunks that ask them to transition to different environments and systems instead of allowing them to settle in to spaces that allow variation of activity without demanding navigation skills? Why do we squander the energetic good will, bravery, and creative potential of this age group for the sake of teaching them that mind-numbing data absorption is the predominant function of the educational system? What would middle school feel and look like if it honored the inherent strengths of our students, made them feel proud of their instincts for justice, ownership, and interdependence, and helped them hone those compulsions into practical, life skills? How good could middle school really feel?

These are the questions that lie at the heart of this Blog. Understanding our misconceptions of the 10-14 year old mind is the key to serving them better. And understanding the vision of world- and their place in it- that we project upon them through our educating institutions, is the key to changing how we educate them. And besides, anyone who has stepped out of the traditional paradigm and begun to engage with these people on terms that are natural to them know the great source of inspiration, hope, and entertainment they can be. Yes, I want middle schoolers to like school more- who doesn’t?- but as much as that, I want middle school teachers to like middle schoolers more!

When we think about educating students in the middle years- grades 5-8- we are beset with concern about the preparation they come to us with and the preparation with which we should send them off.  These are valid concerns; as educators, we all want to be part of a system that prepares young people for a successful life, so we want to work within a continuous program designed to meet their needs.  Unfortunately, this system is skewed towards the upper and lower ends- grades 1-4 and 9-12- and the students in the middle are neglected. While I would argue that our understanding of the intellectual and emotional needs of those two groups- thus the educational program perceived to best fit them- could evlove, that is not my field of expertise. So lets talk here about what can drive the middle school curriculum- through a series of philosophical postulations (posts- get it?) and practical suggestions. Join me because Life is a collaborative meritocracy: we get rewarded for what we do together!