The Association for Middle Level Education (AMLE) has set forth its vision of the educational program needed to provide a fully effective program for young adolescents in This We Believe: Keys to Educating Young Adolescents (National Middle School Association [NMSA], 2010)). This paper is a supplement to that foundational document focusing on the critical areas of curriculum, instruction, and assessment.
The Association for Middle Level Education fully recognizes the challenges inherent in attempts to develop curriculum, instruction, and assessment that respect and meet the distinct learning and developmental needs of young adolescents. Like elementary and high schools, middle schools must respond to local, state, and federal standards; manage growing diversity among students in a complex society; and balance effective learning practices with high-stakes accountability. In addition to these demands, designing learning activities for middle school students requires tailoring curriculum, instruction, and assessment to the variable characteristics of 10- to 15-year-old learners who are actively involved in maturing as well as in learning (Smith, Strahan, Patterson, Bouton, & McGaughey, 2018).
Meeting the challenges of designing engaging learning opportunities for young adolescent students does not mean, and has never meant, that middle schools shy away from challenging content in favor of making students feel good about themselves (NMSA, 1995). Nor does it mean that classroom activities are all “fun” and devoid of any real learning. Instead, it means that middle school curriculum must be relevant, challenging, integrative, and exploratory in a climate of high expectations. Instruction has to embrace multiple teaching approaches and assessment measures.
Middle Level Curriculum
A relevant curriculum enables “students to pursue answers to questions they have about themselves, content, and the world” (NMSA, 2010, p. 22). Relevant learning opportunities
- Immerse students in rich and significant content knowledge.
- Lead students to demonstrate higher levels of learning and understanding.
- Include students’ questions, ideas, and concerns.
- Expand the learning community beyond the school.
- Allow young adolescents to study concepts and skills in areas of interest.
- Provide a variety of educational materials, resources, technology, and instructional strategies.
- Ensure curriculum is developed by careful and continuing study of students, social trends and issues, and research-supported school practices.
(Arnold, 1985; Brown & Knowles, 2014; Pate, 2013; Springer, 2013)
A challenging curriculum targets state and national standards, actively engages young adolescents in substantive issues, and provides them “with opportunities to contribute and take ownership of their own education” (NMSA, 2010, p. 19). Challenging learning opportunities
- Move beyond covering content and rote learning activities.
- Help students become skilled writers, thinkers, and researchers.
- Engage students in demanding problem solving activities.
- Explore how and why things happen.
- Examine assumptions, principles, and alternative points of view.
(Jackson & Davis, 2000; Nesin & Brazee, 2013)
An integrative curriculum focuses on coherent ideas and concepts irrespective of arbitrary subject boundaries and enables students to see connections and real-world applications. Integrative learning opportunities
- Engage students in rigorous, in-depth study.
- Address reading, writing, and other fundamental skills within all subject areas.
- Enhance critical thinking, decision-making, and creativity.
- Require students to reflect on their learning experiences.
- Enable students to apply content and skills to their daily lives.
(Beane, 1997; Brodhagen, 1995; Pate, 2013; Springer, 1994, 2006, 2013)
An exploratory curriculum directly reflects the curious, adventuresome nature of young adolescents. Exploration is not a classification of content; rather, it is an attitude and approach to all curriculum and instruction. Exploratory learning opportunities
- Broaden students’ views of themselves and the world.
- Help students discover their interests and aptitudes.
- Assist students with career exploration and decisions about their futures.
- Contribute to the development of well-rounded, self-sufficient citizens.
- Open doors to new ideas and areas to investigate.
(Beane, 1993, 1997; Brodhagen, 1995; Nesin & Brazee, 2013; Springer, 1994, 2006, 2013)
Middle Level Instruction
Learning approaches meet the needs and characteristics of young adolescents and provide the foundation for selecting learning and teaching strategies, just as they do for designing curriculum. Learning approaches should
- Augment the skills, abilities, and prior knowledge of young adolescents.
- Cultivate multiple intelligences and students’ individual learning styles.
- Offer students choices in how best to learn.
- Involve students in establishing and assessing personal goals.
- Help students acquire various ways of posing and answering questions.
- Include both student-centered and teacher-facilitated strategies.
- Provide opportunities for self-directed learning.
- Emphasize collaboration among teachers and students.
- Utilize varying forms of group work and cooperative activities.
- Involve families and utilize community resources.
- Incorporate technology in the learning process.
(Bishop, Downes, & Farber, 2019; Brodhagen & Gorud, 2012; Jackson & Davis, 2000; Pate, 2013; Tomlinson, 2013).
Learning experiences bring curriculum to life. Learning experiences should
- Value the dignity and diversity of all individuals.
- Allow students to learn and express themselves in a variety of ways.
- Use the full range of communication skills and technologies in purposeful contexts.
- Engage students in problem solving through a variety of relevant experiential learning opportunities.
- Involve students in meaningful service that encourages them to make a difference in the world around them.
- Involve students in setting goals, planning, and assessing their own learning.
- Include continuous, authentic, and appropriate assessment of students’ progress in academic achievement and the acquisition of desired behavioral attributes.
(Bishop, Downes, & Farber, 2019; Brinegar, Harrison, & Hurd, 2019, Jagla, 2016; Pendergast, 2016, Tomlinson, 2013).
Learning environments create a safe and engaging space for all students. Learning environments should
- Challenge content in partnership with appropriate learning strategies.
- Ensure students and staff are safe, cared for, understood, trusted, and respected.
- Ensure each young adolescent can experience success.
- Empower and support staff in creating developmentally responsive curriculum and instructional approaches.
- Provide positive staff role models.
- Encourage families to be actively involved in students’ educational endeavors.
- Expand the learning community beyond the school.
(Beucher & Smith, 2019; Brinegar, Harrison, & Hurd, 2019; Ellerbrock, 2016; Moulton, 2019; Musser, 2016).
Middle Level Assessment
A continuous, authentic, and appropriate assessment program provides many evidences of students’ progress in meeting their curricular goals or objectives. Assessment strategies should honor the learning characteristics of young adolescents and increasingly de-emphasize competitive comparisons with other students. Such programs
- Monitor students’ progress and document students’ mastery of both essential knowledge and skills.
- Assess critical thinking, independence, responsibility, and related behavioral traits.
- Offer students’ choices in how best to demonstrate their learning, specify assessment criteria in advance, and incorporate examples of quality work as models.
- Include a variety of formats such as journals, portfolios, demonstrations, publications, and multimedia presentations so student learning can be shared with others.
- Inform and involve families in the assessment program.
- Provide teachers with data for informing and planning instruction.
(Black & Wiliam, 2009, 2018; Cowie, 2005; Hammond, 2015; Hattie & Timperly, 2007; Pate, 2013)
Moving Middle Level Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment Forward
Some elements of effective middle grades education, such as organizing teams, have taken hold in schools across the country. Making changes in curriculum, instruction, and assessment, however, has been more difficult. Despite expanding research and improved understanding of how best to educate 10- to 15-year-olds, curricular and instructional aspects of middle schools have tended to follow traditional secondary practices (McEwin & Greene, 2013). Teachers and school leaders, with the support of parents and families, must implement non-traditional practices to adequately address the learning needs of middle level students.
Classroom teachers should
- Establish learner-centered classrooms that encourage and honor student voice.
- Develop standards-based curricula that integrate subject area disciplines along with students’ concerns and questions.
- Design instruction to meet the diverse needs of every student.
- Measure student progress and development with a variety of authentic assessments.
- Guide students in discovering their aptitudes and interests.
- Participate in professional learning that promotes and supports developmentally responsive practices.
(Andrews, Moulton, & Hughes, 2018; Ellerbrock & Kiefer, 2014; Flowers, Begum, Carpenter, & Mulhall, 2017; Hagerman & Porath, 2018; Kiefer & Ellerbrock, 2012; Worsham, B. W., 2015)
School leaders should
- Lead in creating a shared vision focused on the needs of young adolescent students.
- Establish ongoing, school-based professional development that deals with teachers’ identified needs.
- Provide organizational structures that enable teachers and students to develop collaboratively relevant, challenging, integrative, and exploratory curricula.
- Expect teachers to use a variety of student-centered instructional approaches that meet the individual needs of students.
- Hold teachers accountable for using multiple and varied assessments that measure continuous student progress.
(Ellerbrock & Kiefer, 2014; Flowers, Begum, Carpenter, & Mulhall, 2017;
Parents and families should
- Understand their child’s individual strengths, weaknesses, interests, aptitudes, and talents.
- Insist that schools and teachers address the learning needs of their 10- to 15-year-old.
- Work with schools and teachers to establish appropriate learning outcomes for their child.
- Expect teachers to use a variety of instructional strategies and assessment methods in their classrooms.
- Engage in the learning process by attending classroom events, conferences, and other school activities.
- Be organized in ways that encourage ongoing collaboration and teaming to focus on student needs and curriculum.
- Provide opportunities for students to participate in advisory activities, discussions, and service-learning projects.
- Open doors to new ideas that evoke curiosity, the desire to explore, and awe and wonder.
- Develop caring, responsible, and ethical citizens who practice democratic principles.
(Glickman, Gordon, & Ross-Gordon, 2014; Leonard & Andrews, in press; Sanchez, Usinger, & Thornton, 2019)
The middle level curriculum needed for today’s young adolescents is complex. Criteria of high quality call for both depth and breadth as well as the inculcation of habits of mind that will equip youth to be productive citizens and lifelong learners. Instructional and assessment practices used in implementing such a curriculum must be imaginative, varied, and involve the students in all phases. Strong leadership that understands fully the challenges middle schools face in fulfilling their heavy and distinctive responsibilities is essential all the way from the central office to the classroom.
Andrews, P. G., Moulton, M. J., & Hughes, H. E. (2018). Integrating social justice into middle grades teacher education. Middle School Journal, 49(5), 4-15.
Arnold, J. (1985). A responsive curriculum for early adolescents. Middle School Journal, 16(3), 14-18.
Beane, J.A. (1993). A middle school curriculum: From rhetoric to reality (2nd ed.). Westerville, OH: National Middle School Association.
Beane, J.A. (1997). Curriculum integration: Designing the core of democratic education. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
Beucher, B., & Smith, A. (2019). #NoDAPL: Collaboratively designing culturally responsive curriculum. In K. Brinegar, L. Harrison, & E. Hurd (Eds.), Equity & cultural responsiveness in the middle grades (pp. 181-205). Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.
Bishop, P. A., Downes, J. M, & Farber, K. (2019). Personalized learning in the middle grades: A guide for classroom teachers and school leaders. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.
Black, P., & Wiliam, D. (2009). Developing the theory of formative assessment. Educational Assessment, Evaluation, and Accountability, 21, 5-31.
Black, P., & Wiliam, D. (2018). Classroom assessment and pedagogy. Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy, and Practice, 25(6), 551-575.
Brinegar, K., Harrison, L., & Hurd, E. (2019). Establishing a pedagogy of equity and cultural responsiveness. In K. Brinegar, L. Harrison, & E. Hurd (Eds.), Equity & cultural responsiveness in the middle grades (pp. 335-348). Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.
Brodhagen, B.L. (1995). The situation made us special. In M.W. Apple & J.A. Beane (Eds.), Democratic schools (pp. 83-100). Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
Brodhagen, B. & Gorud, S. (2012). Multiple learning approaches: Educators use multiple learning and teaching approaches. In Association for Middle Level Education (Ed.), This we believe in action: Implementing successful middle level schools (pp. 47-61). Westerville, OH: Editor.
Brown, D.F., & Knowles, T. (2014). What every middle school teacher should know (3rd ed.). Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Cowie, B. (2005). Student commentary on classroom assessment in science: A sociocultural interpretation. International Journal of Science Education, 27, 199-214.
Ellerbrock, C. R. (2016). Developmental responsiveness. In S. B. Mertens, M. M. Caskey, & N. Flowers (Eds.), The encyclopedia of middle grades education (2nd ed.), (pp. 133-137). Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.
Ellerbrock, C. R., & Kiefer, S. M. (2014). Fostering an adolescent-centered community responsive to student needs: Lessons learned and suggestions for middle level educators. The Clearinghouse, 87, 227-235.
Flowers, N., Begum, S., Carpenter, D. M. H., & Mulhall, P. F. (2017). Turnaround success: An exploratory study of three middle grades schools that achieved positive contextual and achievement outcomes using the Schools to Watch i3 project. Research in Middle Level Education Online, 40(8), 1-14.
Glickman, C. D., Gordon, S. P., & Ross-Gordon, J. M. (2014). Supervision and instructional leadership: A developmental approach (9th ed.). San Francisco, CA: Pearson.
Hagerman, D., & Porath, S. (2018). The possibilities of teaching for, with, and about social justice in a public middle school. Middle School Journal, 49(5), 26-34.
Hammond, Z. (2015). Culturally responsive teaching & the brain: Promoting authentic engagement and rigor among culturally and linguistically diverse students. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
Hattie, J., & Timperly, H. (2007). The power of feedback. Review of Educational Research, 77(1), 81-112.
Jackson, A.W., & Davis, G.A. (2000). Turning points 2000: Educating adolescents in the 21st century. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
Jagla, V. M. (2016). Service learning. In S. B. Mertens, M. M. Caskey, & N. Flowers (Eds.), The encyclopedia of middle grades education (2nd ed.), (pp. 346-349). Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.
Kiefer, S. M., & Ellerbrock, C. R. (2012). Caring and fun: Fostering an adolescent-centered community within an interdisciplinary team. Middle Grades Research Journal, 7(3), 1-17.
Leonard, S. Y., & Andrews, P. G. (in press). Hope is work: A critical vision for middle grades education. In D. Virtue (Ed.), International handbook of middle level education theory, research, and policy. New York, NY: Routledge.
McEwin, C. K., & Greene, M. W. (2013). Programs and practices in America’s middle schools: A status report. In P. G. Andrews (Ed.) Research to guide practice in middle grades education (pp. 75-104). Westerville, OH: Association for Middle Level Education.
Moulton, M. J. (2019). The (un)muted voices of middle grades youth experiencing homelessness. In K. Brinegar, L. Harrison, & E. Hurd (Eds.), Equity & cultural responsiveness in the middle grades (pp. 69-92). Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.
Musser, P. M. (2016). Family involvement and partnerships. In S. B. Mertens, M. M. Caskey, & N. Flowers (Eds.), The encyclopedia of middle grades education (2nd ed.), (pp. 165-169). Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.
National Middle School Association. (1995). This we believe: Developmentally responsive middle level schools. Columbus, OH: Author.
National Middle School Association. (2010). This we believe: Keys to educating young adolescents. Westerville, OH: Author.
Nesin, G & Brazee, E. (2013). Developmentally responsive middle grades schools: Needed now more than ever. In P.G. Andrews (Ed.), Research to guide practice in middle grades education (pp. 469-493). Westerville, OH: Association for Middle Level Education.
Pate, P. E. (2013). Academically excellent curriculum, instruction, and assessment. In P.G. Andrews (Ed.), Research to guide practice in middle grades education (pp. 165-186). Westerville, OH: Associationfor Middle Level Education.
Pendergast, D. (2016). Instructional methods/strategies. In S. B. Mertens, M. M. Caskey, & N. Flowers (Eds.), The encyclopedia of middle grades education (2nd ed.), (pp. 211-213). Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.
Sanchez, J. E., Usinger, J., & Thornton, B. (2019). Perceptions and strategies of a middle school principal: A single case study of school change. Middle School Journal, 50(1), 24-32.
Smith, M. L., Strahan, D., Patterson, B., Bouton, B., & McGaughey, N. (2018). Developmental aspects of young adolescents. In S. B. Mertens & M. M. Caskey (Eds.), Literature reviews in support of the middle level education research agenda (pp. 3-23). Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.
Springer, M.A. (1994). Watershed: A successful voyage into integrated learning. Westerville, OH: National Middle School Association.
Springer, M.A. (2006). Soundings: A democratic student-centered education. Westerville, OH: National Middle School Association.
Springer, M.A. (2013). Charting the course of curriculum integration. In P.G. Andrews (Ed.), Research to guide practice in middle grades education (pp. 187-215). Westerville, OH: Association for Middle Level Education.
Tomlinson, C. A. (2013). Differentiating instruction as a response to academic diversity. In P. G. Andrews (Ed.), Research to guide practice in middle grades education (pp. 217-246). Westerville, OH: Association for Middle Level Education.
Worsham, B. W. (2015). How middle school teachers construct understandings of their job-embedded learning experiences. (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). University of Georgia, Athens, GA.
Adopted October 2019