Middle Schools Are the Misfits, Not the Kids
Arnie Langberg on the Need for Middle Schools to Mature
Identity becomes a major issue for children entering their early adolescence. It is major for the adults because one of the aspects of establishing the adolescent identity is a rejection of parental authority and, with that, of all adult authority. Adults are further stressed by the emergence of the sexual identity of adolescents. The children themselves, and they are children and adults both (which, I believe, is what the word “adolescent” means) are going through physiological changes that they often have difficulty understanding. This stage of human development has probably always been difficult for everyone, but it has become especially problematic in a society that chooses to ignore developmental needs that challenge its own norms and taboos.
Inquiry also takes on a different tone from childhood to early adolescence. Where younger children enjoy asking questions, sometimes being more interested in their questions than the answers, and their interests roam widely and change frequently, adolescents tend to focus their attention on one thing that interests them, and they will hold onto that doggedly. A misdiagnosis of ADD is often made at this age because students seem to be unable to pay attention to all that they are being asked to do by adults. In many cases, it is their need to do something well, to get their teeth into something about which they are passionate, that prevents them from “moving on” to the next topic that is required of them. They actually have no deficit in attention for what really matters to them!
Interaction is a strong need of adolescents. A sense of belonging to a peer group seems to replace the former desire for approval from the adults in their lives. This, again, causes problems for the adults. For parents, it is the concern that leads them to say things like, “You always do what your friends do. If they jumped off the roof, would you do that too?” For teachers, it is an increase in discipline problems and cheating. For the larger society, it is gangs. Interaction at this stage soon includes attention to romantic and sexual exploration, which the culture of school seems incapable of addressing in a healthy and honest manner.
All three of these areas are ignored or even thwarted by the organization of the conventional middle school or junior high school. The “one-size-fits-all” curriculum is guaranteed to misfit most of them. And then we call them the misfits!
What Can Be Done?
First we must recognize the inappropriateness of the standard curriculum-centered approach as a means for dealing with the actual developmental needs of this age group. They are demonstrating very clearly what their “curriculum” is. They need the personal attention necessary to help them identify the areas which grab their interest and utilize their talents. They need the time to pursue these areas in depth. They need multiple pathways to success. They need the time to be with their fellow students without intrusive adult supervision. They need adults they trust to help them deal with the changes that are taking place in their lives; physical, mental and emotional.
As a parent of two teens in a traditional public system I will say that it is profoundly heartbreaking to see the ‘misfits’ suffer. Most of my 16 year old son’s friends are on some kind of medication or therapy when it is so clear the system is not suited to them. Why our society tolerates this approach to education where children must be medicated to pay attention is a mystery. What Arnie says is so true about the social lessons being primary. I have begged my son to switch systems but his commitment to his peer group overrides his ‘hatred’ of school. My experience in an alternative school led by Arnie Langberg was so different, almost like the school system was an organic entity capable of responding in a flexible way to the individual needs of each young person in the system without losing the organizing structure that allowed the system to function. Imagine that.