Reimagining Middle School
Compliance. Restraint. Passivity. These are the behaviors and habits of mind that our education system — from discipline policies and curricula to teacher training and school buildings — is designed to impose on teenagers. Our approach to educating teens in America is governed by the damaging and mistaken notion that young people are predisposed to disruption, apathy, and noncompliance. They are taken to create, by nature, conditions that make teaching and learning difficult. Bluntly put, we view young people as presenting threats that need to be controlled rather than assets to be cultivated.
This containment strategy of education is fundamentally out of line with what we know about adolescents’ capacity and motivation. Containment privileges discipline and obedience over intellectual and social exploration. It favors regimented learning rather than creativity, mastery, and autonomy. It results in over-disciplining and under-supporting students. Above all, it quashes the very strengths — which should be the foundation on which educational strategies are built — that young people bring to the classroom and thereby forecloses on opportunities that can enrich education.
More than anywhere else, this is evident in our middle schools, the Bermuda Triangle of our K–12 system, where talent and interest go to die, where outdated understandings of adolescence construe teenage autonomy, independent points of view, and the heightened influence of peers as impediments to learning rather than the assets that they are. It’s no surprise, then, that middle schools are places where both teachers and students disengage. Zero-tolerance policies, multiple-choice tests, and stand-and-deliver teaching methods make it clear that these are environments to be survived rather than places to thrive.
A robust body of research in human development show that the oft-maligned developmental tendencies of teens can, and should, be seen as assets. And seeing them as assets forces us rethink how we educate young people. The middle school years can be a period of transformative and emboldening educational experiences that set teens on a path to real success in life. Reimagining middle school as an environment that fosters and channels the unique strengths of adolescents is the most salient challenge for education in America.
Re-imagination must be anchored in the recognition — among educators, school leaders, parents, school boards, community members, and employers — that young people are capable of much more than we give them credit for or expect of them. For evidence, one need only look at the inspiring courage and activism on the part of the students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in response to the tragedy at their school. They’ve done more and behaved more “maturely” than most adults — certainly more than most elected officials. They have communicated clearly and effectively, maintained cohesion and focus, utilized resources, and, above all, behaved with a combination of composure and savvy to enroll support and confront powerful social and political forces. Throughout, they have relied on those very characteristics and tendencies the education system so often suppresses.
We are starting to see a slow and selective infusion of this asset-based understanding of what adolescents need to thrive. Gradually, examples are emerging of schools and educators who are fostering learning experiences aligned with what we know about teenagers interests and strengths. In High Tech High, for example, the typical instructional model has been upended to prioritize authentic learning opportunities such as project-based learning in spaces designed to encourage creativity. At other schools, personalized learning and precision delivery of individualized programming has freed up time from academic knowledge and skill-building to focus on creativity and application. All of these initiatives recognize, embrace, and draw from the unique assets young people bring to the classroom. Importantly, they also require the transformation of adults: Instead of focusing on discipline and content, they must build relationships with their students and become mentors and facilitators.
We know how to better educate our teens. It is well past time we recognize that the assets on display in places like Parkland are not exceptions but the norm. Educators should be developing these assets rather than stifling them.
Robert C. Pianta is the Dean of the University of Virginia Curry School of Education.