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.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Superimposing the Ego: The Primacy of Thoughtful Non-Academic Programming for Middle Level Learners

Thoughtful, proactive construction of middle school culture is extremely important, and non-academic programming is integral to that culture building. Given the developmental state of children in the middle years, their obsession with their immediate culture cannot be neglected by any institution that aspires to impart academic learning to them.

Culture resolves itself in a middle school, one way or the other. Legions of distinctively self-absorbed 11-14 year-olds cumulatively result in a palpable culture as their impulsivity and brazen gratification of ascending ids has primacy.  Anyone who has spent time in a middle school- especially this time of year- knows well the power of this. While student-centered academics must be in place to help channel these energies in the classroom, good affective programming and realistic adult-student interaction systems (discipline) are the key to making students feel both empowered and secure throughout the school day. Those of us who have stuck around middle schools do so for that inspiring blend of bravery and vulnerability, sincerity and clumsy affectation that the halls and classrooms exude. The best of us know we cannot fully control its sum, rather we actively seek ways to manage it to positive results. We admit the students will create the culture, but we know we can direct it.

The default culture of this age group- when more than a few members of it are together- is not positive; there is entirely too much insecurity and jockeying for position to preclude the accumulation of cruelties that serves to undermine its members’ collaborative and benevolent impulses. Programming that exercises the competitive and independent impulses must be thoughtfully facilitated to ensure the validation of the (often recessive) more benign instincts that we know we want our children to actualize in adulthood. In most settings, organized physical activity has been the ready answer to the question of what to do with adolescent energy, but the facilitators of athletic activities rarely have the degree of pedagogical understanding and discipline to deliver deep learning of the affective skills young people need. Athletics is an effective outlet for energy, but it just one of the building blocks- not the foundation- for some positive and inclusive culture. 

The skills we want our students to develop so that they can grapple with their conflicting impulses must be extant in our non-academic programming. If we want students to be collaborative, we must provide them with meaningful projects that only groups can accomplish. If we want them to be creative, we must present them with challenges that they can solve on their own. If we want them to be good communicators, we must facilitate opportunities for them to speak their minds. If we want them to be critical thinkers, we must present them with problems they care about to parse. If we want students to be inclusive, we must create experiences that highlight the value of individuality and difference. And if we want students to develop character, we must model it in our interactions with them and regularly point out examples of it in their actions.

So we must commit time and energy to multiple types of non-academic programming so that our students are most capable of feeling good about themselves and sharing their benign instincts more regularly. The culture they experience in this time will be their guide to the adult world and the palate of the skills needed in it.

Monday, April 1, 2013

The Role of the Administrator in the Teacher Centered School

As we continue our discussion of the “Teacher-Centered School,” we want to clarify a few of its tenets. Any school that values the student-centered classroom and attempts to deliver constructivist learning, deep skill-development, and the products that result from meaningful work, need acknowledge the amount of teacher preparation time required to do this well. It involves a substantially greater amount- and different type- of work than preparing the traditional classroom requires. Such a school should consider explicitly embracing the practices that would truly make it teacher centered. These include: talking about teachers as facilitators of skill-development, not as transmitters of content knowledge; acknowledging just how preparation-heavy the truly student-centered curriculum is; employing people who are committed to actualizing the power of collaboration and community-building and nurturing their abilities to do so; structuring abundant time into the school-year and school-day for program development and culture-building; limiting administrator pay to no more than 150% of average teacher salary; and believing that bright, empowered teachers working in a collaborative setting are the most qualified people to direct the evolution of curriculum that will deliver the skills our young people will need to be fulfilled and constructive members of the communities they will inherit.

If our schools are truly going to be devoted to skill development, we have to rethink the roles the teacher and administrators play. The delivery of the 21st century skills of critical thinking, communication, collaboration, creativity, and technological sophistication is the most meaningful thing that our middle and high school settings can do for our young people, but the institutional culture in education is not currently designed to facilitate this. If we are going to have the kind of student-centered classrooms that can deliver meaningful experiences around skill mastery, our teachers must be prepared and supported in a way they have not yet been. This requires a new vision of the administrators’ roles in our schools. They will be the key to developing the teachers who will thrive in the teacher-centered school.

The primary leader of the school could be considered the “Vision Communicator on Chief.” This person speaks passionately and clearly about the values of the institution to the stakeholders who are not employees. His  ability to convey the primacy of skill development and skill mastery to those audiences will legitimize the novel structure of the school. Clarifying then just how this skill development is facilitated at the school leads to an explanation of exactly how teachers prepare to teach in this model. He must then also be excellent at communicating the value-added to the community. Conceptually, none of this is a radical departure from the standard role to the Head of School in independent schools, but in substance and magnitude of importance it is. It is imperative that the stakeholders of the teacher-centered school fully comprehend, accept, and support this process, as it necessitates a different- read, more involved, more highly administrated, more expensive- commitment than most of them are familiar with.  This leader fully understands- and adores- the philosophy and pedagogy behind the teacher-centered school and devotes his time to ensuring that all stakeholders have the opportunity to do likewise.

This leader works closely with what could be considered the “Substance Securer in Chief,” whose job it is to nurture teachers to develop and deliver a curriculum that will get the students mastering the skills. The analogue in independent schools is the Academic Dean or the Assistant Head for Academics, in the public realm it’s the Curriculum and Instruction coordinator. In the teacher-centered school, this administrator is a master coordinator and support person who fully understands how the curriculum can get delivered, thus what the faculty members need before they step inside the classroom.  Most of her time is spent facilitating the teacher growth, program-development, and culture-building that will deliver the product that the other administrator is presenting to the stakeholders.

This administrator must be very strategic and always be looking at issues from the perspective of backwards design, because she will have to design student and faculty scheduling with the grand end-goals in mind. To execute the job most effectively, this administrator should have three great strengths: she understands skill acquisition in adolescents, what teachers need to feel professional and supported, and believes that her faculty members have the ability to help each other maximize the potential of their subjects.  This person creates transparent structures that reveal the path from ideal to product and works to tweak these paths for the personalities she is serving. She is a master orchestrator of the preparation and work flow of the teachers, and revels in the behind the scenes elan needed to produce the coherent product that the stakeholders value.

Our schools succeed when we programmatically honor the abilities and inclinations of all their members- students, faculty, and administrators alike. When we figure out how to best to do that, we will have thriving institutions that send our young people into the world validated, compassionate, and skilled. Administrators in teacher-centered schools are poised to deliver on this.