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Discussion: Middle school curriculum reform: What is your growing edge?

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posted by: Scott Hays on May 10, 1999 at 5:40AM
subject: Moving Forward

In the name of keeping the discussion rolling, let me offer a couple of
thoughts on some of the questions raised in Joni's May 9 message.

She wrote:

>Both Bob Box and Susan Elko report that although their LSCs are K-8 the
>biggest impact has been in k-6. I would like to hear from them (and others
>who share this experience) why you think this is. Do you think this has to
>do with the design or professional development emphasis of your or do you
>think it is due to the structure of middle school, or difficulty reaching
>middle school teachers? Does the lag in reaching the middle school grades
>have to do with availability of good curriculum?

My experience validates the observation . . . . reform efforts, though
attempting to be inclusive of middle school teachers, programs, sites
and/or districts, are much better received and implemented by K-5 (K-6)
teachers/sites/districts than they are by middle schools. Which is not say
that some teachers in middle schools or even the occassional middle school
have not done well with or in reform programs and/or projects, but they are
a drop in the bucket of success stories I have seen. I don't mind going
out on a limb and possibly irritating some people with an opinion about why
this is so . . . . just recognize that my opinion is not offered from the
perspective of authority, just gut-level feelings. The battles waged
(being waged?) here in California over "standards" in many respects boil
down to issues revolving around pedagogy -- its importance, value and even
place in the public schools. At one extreme are those who feel science is
"only the facts" . . . . and that pedagogy maybe does more harm than good
(these are the true believers in the idea that inquiry-based science is
"fuzzy") . . . . at the other extreme are those who practice fun, hands-on
science with no purpose or connecting larger idea (or any idea, at all, for
that matter), the practitioners who give credence to the arguments of the
"traditionalists". Without (re)hashing the merits and fine points of each
argument, let me use the dichotomy to state that -- while there are clearly
exceptions to the rule -- there seems to be an inverse relationship between
the grade level one teaches and the importance or value that one places
upon pedagogy; the higher the grade level you teach, the less importance is
given to how you present the material . . . . the lower the grade level,
the greater the importance. A need to find new ways to present material to
middle school students is not high on the priority list of most middle
school teachers. This is not to say that it shouldn't be (this is also
stating, as directly as I can, that most university professors should
regularly visit kindergarten classes and learn how to teach) -- but that is
not the point to be made here. My suspicion is that it is difficult to
convince middle school teachers of a need to consider alternative
methodologies than the ones by which they were taught. The implication is
that we need to find a better way to convince them that modification of
approach is beneficial -- both to students, and to themselves,

Joni also wrote:

>Another question that was raised by Becky Montano was about the structure
>of middle school. I am curious if schools that are organized according to
>middle school concept (of teams across content area, flexible scheduling,
>integrated curriculum) are having different experiences than those LSCs
>working with middle schools that look quite similar to the Junior High
>model? What is the impact of structure on reform?

I have a particular prejudice here, which clearly is beyond the mainstream
way of thinking and maybe not a useful contribution to this conversation.
But I must throw it into the mix, anyway. I think there is something
fundamentally flawed with the middle school and junior high model, itself
(similarly, I am vehemently opposed to the concept, the politics and the
existences of the unified school district). Middle-school aged children
are kindergartners in big bodies. They need a lot of attention and they
need continuity. They do NOT need, and are not well-served by, bouncing
around from classroom to classroom and teacher to teacher . . . . with
their days fragmented more than their hormones and energy levels have
already fragmented them. There ARE K-8 schools out there that offer an
often overlooked alternative model, and there are myriad examples of how
those schools are structured (often a function of size rather than
conscientious choice). One thing they tend to have in common, though
(especially the smaller ones), is that the middle school classrooms are
self-contained. There is even more power when the middle school students
in these classrooms are combined with younger students (a 4-8 classroom,
for example). Departmentalization is not nearly as efficient as its
proponenets would lead us to believe, and the price payed for anonymity and
fragmented learning is way too costly. I would argue to break up the big
schools and make schools at least through eighth grade have self-contained
classrooms. The problem is not in the question, but in the way in which
the problem is presented.

The other two questions that Joni has posed I also have feelings about, but
have even less direct experience than with the first two. I will speak
briefly about standards based instruction, but maybe not in the same vein
as was intended. In California (at least for the next couple of years), we
have no choice but to become "standards" based. We do have some choice in
how inquiry-driven we want to try to make our middle school curriculums,
and whether that approach will better enable kids to score well on the
augmented sections of the Star 9 test. My direct experience is that most
middle school teachers welcome the California standards since they
deemphasize pedagogy and seem to suggest that you just teach the "facts"
and all is okay -- so far, when trying to convince middle school teachers
that we can modify the content standards in order to present the ideas
within the context of investigation and experimentation, their response has
been to shrug and ask "why?". Integration across subject matters is almost
forbidden in California (except in the approved integrations that were
added, almost -- literally -- as an afterthought). Again, the secret is
going to lie in figuring out how to frame the question so that middle
school teachers will want to find a way to make their instruction more
inquiry-based; how to match the facts to be taught and how to use the
textbooks that will be adopted with an inquiry model that produces learning
measured on the augmented Star 9 Test. Those facing the California
challenge might wish to learn from our simple mistakes -- critics of
inquiry science and integrated science are going to want you to prove to
them that "rigorous" content (whatever that might be) is apparent and can
be measured; you need to cut their legs out from under them by making sure
the content is evident and demonstrate methods of assessment that can be
viewed as "objective" (whatever THAT means). Count on them winning the
argument about how to best measure student understanding of content (given
the current media frenzy that pushes the hard-nosed solutions to the
forefront), unless you start yesterday to actively build a base of support
within the school community for inquiry-based learning. If you don't, you
will end up in the position that many of us in California now find
ourselves in -- trying to make fact-based standards that are at times
arbitrary and disconnected (even irrelevant) fit into an inquiry-based
approach when most of the audience says let's just do what the state tells
us to do.

This may sound somewhat pessimistic; but only a year ago I still thought
the voice of reason would prevail in California.

"Any fool can know. The point is to understand."
-- Albert Einstein

Scott Hays
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