Why Some Schools Are Rethinking The Way We Do Middle School

by Christine Organ
Originally Published: 

As any parent of a tween or teen will tell you, middle school is exciting and wonderful and terrifying and liberating and… all of it. Middle school is hard for everyone – kids, parents, teachers, everyone – at one point or another, and if you don’t believe that, well, you aren’t paying attention. But middle school is also filled with so much hope and independence too. So yeah, it’s complicated.

The trouble, so many middle schools treat these years as if a switch is flipped from childhood to the teen years. Middle school often looks like “high school lite,” with early start times, busy classes, and frenetic passing periods. Individual desks might replace small group tables (except maybe in the science lab) and students now have eight different teachers instead of one or two.

But at Community Lab School, a small public charter school in Virginia, middle school is done a little differently.

“Traditional middle schools are very authoritarian, controlling environments,” Chad Ratliff, the principal of Community Lab School, told PBS News Hour. “A bell rings, and you have three minutes to shuffle to the next thing.”

Learning at Community Lab School, however, is “project-based, multi-grade and interdisciplinary,” as reported by PBS News Hour. “There are no stand-alone subjects, other than math; even in that subject, students are grouped not by grade, but by their areas of strength and weakness. In the mornings, students work independently on their projects; in the afternoons, they practice math skills and take electives.”

The bell doesn’t ring signaling the end of one period, and then ring again four minutes later to signal the start of the next period. Students decide what they should be working on and when. Students collaborate with their peers. And teachers guide them, instead of preaching to them.

“Our day revolves around giving students choice,” Stephanie Passman, the head teacher, told PBS News Hour. “We want kids to feel a sense of agency and that this is a place where their ideas will be heard.”

This new way of approaching middle school has been gaining traction among education experts and researchers. In fact, the Community Lab School has been tasked with testing new approaches to middle school education which its district could scale to its five comprehensive middle schools. The school is also being studied by researchers at MIT and the University of Virginia as a possible way to better align middle school with adolescent development.

Scientists have recently learned that rapid and significant brain development occurs in early adolescence, which is typically ages 11 and 14. At this time, important brain connections form. Scientists also call middle school years “a sensitive period” for social and emotional learning because the brain learns a lot from social cues. Middle schoolers’ brains are particularly pliable, making them vulnerable to risks like addiction, but also more resilient, according to a report recently published by the National Academies of Science.

What’s more, even though middle schoolers crave connections with their peers and strive for independence from their parents, experts also say adolescents still care a lot about what adults think. Accordingly, Elise Capella, an associate professor of applied psychology and vice dean of research at New York University, educators should “capitalize on kids’ interest in their peers” through peer-assisted and cooperative learning.” It is important to activate positive peer influence, Capella says.

The trouble is, not many middle schools are following the researchers’ recommendations. Advocates of middle school reforms say now is the perfect time to rethink the way middle school is structured. The pandemic has sparked a focus on students’ mental and emotional health needs. Remote learning has shown us that there’s more than one way to “do school”. And it’s become apparent that this traditional way of learning doesn’t work – and hasn’t been working – for many kids.

So what can middle schools do to align education with the adolescents’ natural development?

Create wellness breaks, such as recess, meditation, or general free time.

Sixth graders don’t magically stop needing recess. Nor do 8th graders, for that matter. While gym class is great for getting bodies moving, it’s organized and structured. Recess is a time when kids get to choose what to do and with whom. Meditation can also help tweens and teens – whose brains are in overdrive – learn how to quiet all that noise a little bit. And free time? Well, we could all use more unstructured free time, couldn’t we?

Keep students with small groups of peers as much as possible.

Some schools – like the Community Lab School – are following the researchers’ advice regarding peer involvement in the learning process. Some have created “advisory” programs,” according to PBS News Hour, in which students start their day with a homeroom teacher and small group of peers. Other schools – such as White Oak Middle School, in Silver Spring, Maryland – take a group approach to middle school, with sixth graders spending half their day with one teacher who teaches four subjects, rather than moving from a teacher to teacher for the classes. A study of White Oak’s program found it had a positive effect on literacy and eliminated the “achievement gap.”

Give middle schoolers more control.

Experts also advocate for more “voice and choice” with middle schoolers by letting them choose their projects, team members and partners, as much as much as possible. I know it runs counter to what so many of us experienced in our own middle school years, and what we think middle schoolers need, but experts suggest that this approach will tap into the benefits of peer influence. Of course, there are risks for exclusion with this approach, but with compassionate guidance, adults can mitigate these risks.

Prioritize “soft skills” and emotional development.

“Kids have deeper cognitive conversations when they’re with their friends than when they’re not,” said Lydia Denworth, a science writer who wrote a book on friendship, in a recent radio interview. Researchers also say schools should seize on the “sensitive period” for social and emotional learning with time dedicated to teaching students the skills they’ll need to help them succeed in high school and as adults.

Look, I’m no education expert. I’m just a mom of two kids who have been or currently are in middle school. But there’s no doubt that middle school is a powerful and critical time in our kids’ lives. If there are ways we can keep learning joyful and engaging for our kids, while harnessing the potential of all that brain development going on, I’m here for it.

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