Retool Middle School – Replace Testing with PBL and Apprenticeship

Anybody who has taught middle grades (generally speaking, 6th through 8th grades…. ages 11 through 14) know that it’s, well… a different beat altogether.

There are so many interesting and wonderful things that happen during this time of development in the students’ lives. There are also many (many) challenges.

This time period of early adolescence and  the onset of puberty is marked by growing independence (and, with it, exploration of boundaries); a quest for both personal identity and social acceptance; and a lot of physical growth, emotions, and chaos that can accompany the sudden hormonal changes in the body.

It is a special — but not altogether easy — time.

After successfully surviving middle school (and swearing I never wanted to revisit that period of my life again), I have now spent the last 14 years of my life teaching this age of students (as well as high school, and all the way down to kindergarten — so I have a good scope of experiences for comparison!) It isn’t easy, but it does have its rewards:

  • Students are generally independent — you don’t have to explicitly hold their hands through mundane tasks like opening a book, tying their shoes, or operating a pair of scissors.
  • They want to be independent. With their bodies transitioning to adulthood, they are on a sudden quest to learn how to become adults as quickly as possible (this can be both a good and a bad thing!)
  • They appreciate jokes and sarcasm that would be completely lost on younger kids.
  • They (sometimes) have unbridled energy (again, this can be a good and a bad thing!)

All of the above makes early adolescence essentially a collective ball of chaotic energy. Like most types of energy, it can be dangerous if not harnessed correctly. Generally, the process of doing so looks something like this:

If all goes well, and you are an “expert cat herder” (not sure how you reach that echelon — after 14 years, I still feel like there’s always something to learn. Such is the nature of pure chaos, I suppose), then everybody survives to the end of the year relatively unscathed. Hopefully, the negativity and bullying have been kept to a minimum, the self-esteems have been kept mostly intact and (if you’re lucky) some semblance of learning occurred somewhere along the way.

Lost in the Middle

The problem is… “learning” is the least of a students’ concerns during middle school years. Hormones, self-awareness, a quest for acceptance, and insecurities all come bubbling to the forefront, and these things will turn even the most bookish of children into an educational train wreck in short order.

I know, because I was one of them. I was someone who, while fairly (okay, very) introverted, had managed to make friends and socialize okay in elementary school. I never really had any enemies. School was a pretty okay place (although I was a gifted student, and not always challenged enough… the teachers didn’t always know what to do with me.)

Then came middle school. I stopped reading books as much… I still liked to read, because reading had been instilled as a joyous activity from a very young age. But suddenly I didn’t want to pick up a book quite as often.

I did, however, care an awful lot about what brand of clothes I was wearing (Just to date myself and show my age: Guess jeans were out of the question — too expensive; so were Air Jordans and most of the cooler shoes. Eventually I was able to have my own Starter jacket, though), and what other people thought of me, and whether I was going to get bullied that day, and whether that girl I had a huge crush on knew it, because I wanted her to, but was too shy and too scared of rejection to actually do anything but freeze in fear (and, eventually, put worms in her hair at a bus stop as a weird, awkward way to get her attention. Note to young men everywhere: this is not a good way to express affection to the ladies.)

I also became obsessed with video games. I mean, obsessed, to the point where parents had to put time-limits on game time, and stories (all true) about “Nintendo thumb” were going around.

Now, don’t get me wrong — I have been a computer nerd practically since birth, and I’ve loved video games since I discovered the Atari 2600 at about the age of 4 or 5. As a first grader, I would spend some of my free time designing some of my own video games (sketching out levels and characters on paper) for fun. When I turned 8, I started learning BASIC programming on our DOS computer to start making games for real.

But something about adolescence turned video gaming from an interest into an obsession. To the point that I would go out of my way to check books out of the library and teach myself how to program the computer!

Meanwhile… my grades were slipping in school. I wasn’t doing the homework. I probably wasn’t doing half of the classwork (it’s all kind of a blur.)  I simply didn’t want to learn what they were teaching, nor via the way they were teaching it. And I had always been a good student!

The reason for telling this personal anecdote is not to give one example of a middle school student. It’s to illustrate that, even though I was gifted, and even though we are all unique… my aversion to the type of work that I was fine with in elementary school (and would be fine with again later on, in high school and college) does not seem to be unique.

There is a lot of documented data and evidence of “middle school malaise” or “middle school slump” that sets in during this time period.  Many students don’t complete as much homework, don’t care as much about classwork, aren’t as motivated to come to school, and — lo and behold — also score poorly on tests (such as the high-stakes standardized state tests.)

Rethinking Testing The Middle

The fact that I started struggling in (and hating) school once I got to middle school doesn’t mean I was lazy or didn’t want to learn!  I asked for chemistry sets, microscopes, dissection kits, and art supplies every Christmas. I didn’t want to “learn” — I wanted to DO, to EXPLORE, to CREATE!  I wanted to be an inventor, an artist, a Renaissance man… and school simply was holding me back from that!

When I’ve asked my students what their favorite activities and subjects at school have been, a few topics generally tip the scales: Art (always #1), Computers/Technology, PE/sports, and Science (but, when required to read a science textbook or think about science, to answer questions or take quizzes or do the “traditional schoolwork” stuff, it’s outright rebellion. “I just like the FUN science! Like exploding volcanoes and electricity and stuff!”)

Notice anything about the above list? None of them require a lot of “sitting still and thinking” work.  It’s not just about internalizing (such as reading a book)… it’s about hands-on… about kinetic activity and about creating things.

And yet…  what does school traditionally expect students to do? A lot of “sit still and think” work: Read a book. Write on a paper. This is not kinetic, it’s not creative.  It’s not good for middle school.

I run into these frustrations with my own students, year after year. Of course, I keep them at bay by supplementing our curriculum with more exciting and appropriate, 21st-century activities like PBL (project-based learning) and coding (programming) and CAD design / 3D printing, and, more recently “Breakout” games (another post coming about that soon!)

The problem is this: none of the above successfully meet the needs of passing state-mandated standardized tests. The above tasks are amazing, rigorous, real-world relevant tasks that meet the 4 C’s of 21st century education (communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity)… but on their own I have found them to be very insufficient for getting all of the “standards” knowledge needed to pass the CAASPP (California’s end-of-year SBAC test.)

So, I get frustrated that we have to do more mundane “traditional” learning tasks, which the kids hate (and, frankly, aren’t as fun for me to teach, either), and then I think back and realize: I, too, loved the same things these kids love when I was that age! The only things I remember learning from  middle school are: art, music (I was never much into music as a kid, but then loved playing with and getting to hands-on explore the electronic synthesizer in that class!), cooking/home-economics, and industrial arts/woodshop… plus memories of a few cool labs/experiments in science (an astrolabe comes to mind.) In other words, the only things I even remember from middle school were the hands-on activities!

This is not the norm for me. I did great with just plain reading and writing and arithmetic all the way up until 5th grade. I did great with them in high school and college — I read a lot, and even joined the Writer’s Club and Literary Magazine. But such activities were dead to me when I was in middle school!

So the sticky wicket preventing excitement and success in middle school seems to be this: Perhaps we should stop doing standardized testing during middle school.

There, I said it. There are a lot of people (mostly teachers, students, and parents) who would laud that statement because they are vehemently anti-standardized-testing, in general. Well, I’m not one of them. I actually think that, by and large, standardized tests are a pretty good thing.  Without standardized testing, every school (perhaps every teacher) can just make up its own criteria for what students “should know” — this leads to discrepancies in knowledge (a problem when heading into college and workplace) as well as grade inflation, unfair competitive advantages, and — worst of all — incompetence.

However, it seems to make very little sense that we avoid testing primary students (a time period during which it is critical to ensure students are getting a good foundation in key skills like reading) — and many grades of high school (CAASPP only tests 11th grade; why not 9th and 10th, when those are time periods when the hormones tend to settle down and students return to “normalcy” and ability to better process and handle academics?), while we insist on placing so much testing weight during one of the most chaotic, tumultuous, and, well, “unique” times of a person’s development.

A Modest Proposal

It seems like it would make a lot more sense to do standardized testing in grades one through five — a time span in which, in my experience, students are pretty content to be at school, and reading books, and doing the traditional “school work” and, therefore, a more apropos time to be testing those traditional skills.

Then… when a natural “hiatus” (onset of puberty/adolescence) occurs in students’ developmental growth, perhaps it makes sense to take a “hiatus” academically, as well, and shift the focus.

Adolescents are energy — pure, untapped, potential energy!  When I have strayed from the curriculum and done “grown up” skills with them — teaching them the actual, professional tools and techniques to make business documents and spreadsheets, create 3D CAD models, program computers, build robots, design airplane wings (air foils), conduct experiments, produce movies and animations and plays, and create works of art — they plug right in! The motivation and the results can be astounding!

Rather than fight the current of resentment and rebellion and quest for independence, why not go with the flow of what the kids already want to do: they want to feel they are productive and doing authentic, grown-up things!  

Let’s give them the opportunity to make that happen!

Instead of doing the traditional book (or ebook) and pencil-and-paper (or finger-to-keyboard) work, perhaps a shift should be to what I will call “New Vocational Education.”  The reason I call it this is because we want kids to learn future-ready, real-world relevant skills. Not just basket-weaving and fingerpainting. However, this could include a lot of different things, from modern construction techniques (including old-school woodworking), to mechanics, to more high-tech engineering: biotech, circuitry/electronics, industrial design (CAD, 3D printing, etc.), cooking, coding, and more.

Project-Based Learning is a fairly good fit for this, but is also fairly ambiguous. Often, the projects are not authentic — they don’t actually serve a purpose or solve a problem in the real world. Middle school students can see right through that, and often call it out for the “waste of time” that it is.

Perhaps a better idea is “Apprenticeship.”  What would be wrong with plugging middle school students into authentic work to be done in 21st century jobs?

(In fact, I also wouldn’t be opposed to having a hybrid system in which much of the learning is done “independently” such as an online-school model.  If you paired this with a group-based apprenticeship/PBL program, it could cut down on the bullying and social anxieties, while also boosting the motivation through hands-on activity!  But this whole “Let’s quarantine middle schoolers” idea might be best to explore in another post…)


Just a bunch of food for thought, but I’m pretty sure of this: something’s got to change.

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