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.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

What's in a Name? Labels are Driving the Middle School Curriculum

We need to continue to refine our understanding of what form of education best serves children ages 10-14. Exciting work is being done on this front, but the scale of our misunderstanding of the task is belied by the nomenclature we use to label the schools that serve the group. Until we move away from the term “middle school,” students ages 10-14 will continue to experience a curriculum which is not truly for them.

Middle school used to be called junior high school, but that name fell out of favor as new understanding of the age group’s developmental realities suggested that there was more to its members than being just smaller versions of high schoolers. This was certainly a positive step in the evolution of the education of this age group. I would suggest, however, that the qualifier “middle” continues to suggest a limiting paradigm about their nature. “Middle” denotes an existence relative to two end members, an thereby connotes relative insignificance. That paradigm reveals the purgatorial state of the default educational philosophy for this age group: its need only be transitional, a bridge from the concrete years of elementary school to the elevated thought processes of high school.  Thus, we need only gradationally reform those sheltered, concrete thinkers into the schedule tolerant, information processors they will spend the last 4 years of their pre-college education being. As long as middle school remains defined by its adjacents- and charged with the task of serving them- we will continue to mis-educate the age group and neglect its most valuable attributes. As long as transition defines the curriculum, the specialness of the age group will not be honored. It's time for the developmental realities of the age group to drive the middle school curriculum.

I would suggest a new fundamental pedagogical paradigm for educating the age group. The result would be a 4 year program of spiraling skill development which brought students to a pinnacle state at age 14 that allowed them to really soak up the new skills and content offered in the secondary setting. This paradigm acknowledges that information retention is not a primary strength of the age group, but that collaboration, creative expression, boundary pushing, and content production are. With a goal of launching them into the next stage with maximum curiosity, self-confidence, affinity for institutions, and attachment to community, the new curriculum would be entirely skill driven. Content would matter only because it was an effective medium for skill development. Assessment would be practical: it would show skills being practiced. Knowledge attainment would only be contructivist. Teachers would be facilitators of skill absorption and monitors of student progress on the spiral. The daily experience would be meaningful to the individual students’ developmental realities. The curriculum would be driven by where the children are right then, not some distinctly foreign things they are in between.

When we commit to meeting our 10-14 year-olds where they are and to offer them the opportunity to daily practice the skills they are naturally developing, we will cultivate a culture of learners who want to embrace the challenges of the world they are growing into. Refining the label we place on the schools for that age child will come hand-in-hand with refining the attitude we take towards their educational experience. If we give them something that feels right to them, we ought to name it something that honors them What a nice gift for them- and for all of us who will come in contact with them.

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