Reimagining Middle School

Robert C. Pianta, Dean of the University of Virginia Curry School of Education, recently wrote an article for RealClear Education in which he discusses the pitfalls of middle school and the possibilities for middle grades education. Excerpts from his piece appear below:

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is evident in our middle schools, the Bermuda Triangle of our K-12 system, where talent and interest go to die, where outdated understandings of adolescence construe teenage autonomy, independent points of view, and the heightened influence of peers as impediments to learning rather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.


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