May 2012 • Volume 43 • Number 5 • Page 5
A View from the Middle
David C. Virtue, editor
Reconciling Developmental Responsiveness and Democratic Values
During a recent radio conversation with award-winning children's author Natalie Babbit, the interviewer asked her how she "get[s] into the mind of a young person" when she writes. More specifically, she asked Babbit, "Is there something different about the way children think about big, profound choices that's different from the way adults think about them?" Babbit replied,
"Well, I've got to go out on a limb and say no, there isn't a difference. In this country—and maybe around the world—children are irrelevant because they don't have any power, and they don't have money. And that feeds the way we tend to overlook them and say, you know, what are you going to be when you grow up? Not, what are you going to be now? And that bothers me. We think of children as all alike until they become 18, and then, suddenly, they are introduced to the world as separate people. That's a very bad thing, and it's very hard for kids. So I can get quite, as you can see … quite exercised about that. No, children … they have a lot of the same ideas and they understand a great deal more than we give them credit for."
From Babbit's perspective, young people in our society lack agency; adults do not take them seriously, and important decisions about their futures are made for them rather than with them. Babbit's comments resonate with me, as I share some of her concerns about the status of young people in society and in middle level schools, in particular.
This We Believe: Keys to Educating Young Adolescents urges middle level educators to model democratic practices and processes through their teaching and suggests that middle level learners should live democracy daily by making choices and decisions regarding their education. However, during our attempts to create developmentally responsive middle level schools, we sometimes lose sight of fundamental democratic values. We forget that young adolescent students are, first and foremost, people who deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. Consequently, we sometimes fall short of fulfilling the vision of the school as a democratic learning community in which learners are active, empowered participants.
Middle level educators are rightly concerned with the development (intellectual, physical, psychological, social-emotional) of 10- to 15-year-olds, but human development is just one dimension (albeit, a very complex one) of many that constitute a person. Other dimensions include language, culture, family background, hobbies, and hopes and dreams for the future. Additionally, the developmentally-charged labels we commonly use for young people—"young adolescent," "student," and others—tend to narrowly emphasize particular aspects of their beings. For example, "young adolescent" emphasizes a young person's stage of development in a general sense, while "student" emphasizes intellectual development. Such labels as "child" and "minor" emphasize a young person's status in relation to adults. Each of these labels represents a particular way of constructing and thinking about young people in terms of their development toward adulthood. What often seems implied by these labels is that adulthood is equated with full personhood.
If we take seriously the idea that all persons in a democratic society should participate in making decisions that affect them, but we only allow adults to make decisions in schools, then we undermine basic democratic principles and fail to affirm the full personhood of young people. As middle level educators strive to implement the This We Believe vision, they must find ways to reconcile a concern for the developmental needs of young people with a commitment to fundamental democratic values that honor the dignity and full personhood of the people they teach.
Note: Readers can retrieve the full transcript of Rachel Martin's March 18, 2012, interview with author Natalie Babbitt at: http://www.npr.org/2012/03/18/148858044/
Copyright © 2012 Association for Middle Level Education