- Education & Catastrophe
- Becoming A Guide (And A Friend) To Your Middle Schooler
Becoming A Guide (And A Friend) To Your Middle Schooler
Education & Catastrophe 58
Hey y’all! This is John.
This newsletter is about human flourishing. Ostensibly it’s about better parenting and fixing education, but ultimately what I really care about is helping young people flourish.
In this issue, I’ll be giving a summary of the book Finding The Magic In Middle School by Chris Balme. I learnt a great deal about being a parent to adolescents. In the book, Chris writes about
The psychological developments of adolescents
Becoming the parents middle schoolers need
Going from being a teacher to being a guide
Let’s dive in!
Our task is first to know what question adolescents are asking, and then to help create experiences that lead them to their own authentic and effective answers.
The starting point for any parent or educator who wants to do better by their adolescent child or student is to understand the psychological drives at play as young people emerge from being children to becoming adolescents.
This is the time when the social individual is created.
When young people reach middle school age, typically around 11 to 14 years old, significant changes such as prefrontal cortex development and synaptic pruning occur in their brain structure and function. These physiological changes manifest in multiple ways, most significant of which are self identity exploration and heightened social awareness. As cognitive abilities expand, middle schoolers often begin to explore their self-identity. They may question their values, interests, and beliefs, and seek to establish their own identity separate from their family. This can involve experimenting with different styles, interests, and affiliations.
Their job in middle school is to begin discovering who they are, and what they can do, in a social world.
The maturation of the brain's social cognition networks also leads to increased social awareness during middle school. Adolescents become more attuned to social cues, emotions, and social hierarchies. They may start to navigate complex social dynamics and form stronger peer relationships.
Larry Steinberg, professor at Temple University and a leading expert in adolescent development, coined the term the peer effect to describe how being around peers is a hugely rewarding, pleasurable experience for adolescents. Through a process known as individuation, adolescents strive to establish their own distinct identity separate from their parents. It is a crucial aspect of adolescent development and involves a shift in focus from reliance on parental figures to self-discovery and autonomy. Rather than fight individuation, parents of adolescents can help them find positive peers and groups to be with and give them enough time to socialise, even during school days.
Beyond the sense of self and forming social connections, adolescents need to feel valuable. Maria Montessori suggested all middle schoolers should live on and operate a farm and an inn.
We adults need to position ourselves more as bridges to the world, and less as walls to protect them from it.
As adults supporting middle schoolers, our first task is to locate them developmentally. Belonging, Achievement and Authenticity tend to go in order. As adolescents go through these different stages, what they need to find in us is an adult companion. They often want us there, but they also want us to be in the background. While we are in the background observing, try to take note of and understand your middle schooler’s sensitivities. Young people can find their unique gifts through their sensitivities.
If the inner work is small, the outer work cannot be great. If the inner work is great, the outer work cannot be small.
The inner work involves a profound exploration of the self leading to self-discovery. Studies have shown that young people equipped with social-emotional learning tools to manage emotions, resolve conflicts and generate focus on goals are happier and less anxious.
There are many different considerations like school culture, size, teaching style etc when comes to finding the right middle school, but to me an ideal school would share an ethos with Millennium School, the school Chris started in San Francisco a decade ago. A school that
begins with development science
focuses on students’ long term ability to become wise, loving, capable members of society
gives students ample time to be friends and process social and emotional conflicts
encourages students to participate in academic projects that feel personal, social and relevant to the real world
For educators, the most important transformation is the shift from a traditional teacher into the role of a guide. Aim for the spirit of a wilderness guide accompanying students on an adventure. Young people are highly motivated to learn. Tap on that motivation by making learning an adventure. Here are a series of steps from traditional teaching towards quest-style projects:
make it personal
make it social
connect it to the real world
work in project teams
add an authentic audience
invite guest speakers
break down barriers
create a culmination
The steps above are remarkably similar to how we design online adventures at Doyobi. While we focus on 8-12 year olds rather than middle schoolers, our pedagogical approach is similar to the one Chris alludes to in the book.
Students absorbed the (academic) content because it helped their team solve a problem they cared about.
And in the course of struggling with that problem, they made memories that will help define their sense of what they can do in the world.
As educators, we experience a great deal of joy and satisfaction when we witness the change in a young person as they become empowered, grow in confidence and find their purpose. It takes a village to raise a child, and it takes the same village to help that child grow into a confident young person who can contribute positively to the world.
Chris at Hakuba Forum, organised by Think Learning Studio and Hukaba International School, another middle school Chris co-founded. Image credit: Joann McPike
If there is a young person in your life you can positively impact, read Chris Balme’s book.
If you enjoyed this week’s issue, you may want to check out issue 55 of Education & Catastrophe ‘Visiting Athens With A Traveling High School’.
Till the next issue!