International Perspectives on Middle Level Education

Working collaboratively to create and sustain effective middle schools.

Harrington Emmerson, a U.S. efficiency engineer and business theorist, said, “The man who knows how will always have a job. The man who also knows why will always be his boss. As to methods there may be a million and then some, but principles are few. The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods. The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble.”

Principles are important. Like many novice teachers, I looked forward to my first day with students in my own classroom. I had been a teacher for many years, but in contexts quite different than the seventh grade special education history class that was the first step in my journey as a middle level educator in a large suburban public school system.

In an era before No Child Left Behind and “highly qualified teachers,” I spent a lot of time qualifying myself. Among the library of teacher self-help books I added to my shelf was Harry Wong’s The First Days of School: How to Be an Effective Teacher. One of the most important things I took away—and used immediately with my new charges—is the distinction between policy, procedures, and rules.

Policies define the things we value most; they describe at the highest level what our community holds as common beliefs and understandings about education.

Procedures are, conceptually, a level down; they define how we put those principles into practice in the day-to-day operation of individual learning communities (teams, departments, and individual classrooms).

Rules stipulate the agreed-upon limits of community which explain at a very specific level what must be done when and by whom (and the natural consequences that follow from following or failing to follow them). But at my school, principles had priority.

Like the late 19th-century industrial practices that Emmerson had set out to improve, the process of education works better when we use principles as the basis of decisions about methods. Why comes before what and how.

Introducing IB

On my first day as a middle school teacher, I quite by accident entered a global community of practice with its own policies, procedures, and rules. My first middle school was in the process of becoming an International Baccalaureate (IB) World School. IB programs help prepare students for living and working in a complex, highly interconnected world.

The IB Middle Years Programme (MYP), designed as an inclusive, whole-school program for young adolescents, offers 11- to 16-year-old students opportunities to make practical connections between their studies and the real world, preparing them for success in school and in life. Working together, the MYP community translates these educational goals into the standards, practices, and requirements to which we hold ourselves mutually accountable.

What distinguishes the IB’s programs from the world’s many excellent educational opportunities is the fact that the IB embraces a community of educators who believe that international education can help create a better and more peaceful world.

For all the diversity that we encounter in global education systems, the IB has found over the years a wide swath of common ground in which we can work with many different kinds of schools. The goal is to develop a shared understanding of excellence in education.

This collaborative process is distilled into program standards and practices that outline a set of criteria against which IB World Schools and the IB can evaluate success in the implementation of the MYP and the IB’s other programs.

IB standards provide a broad, wide-ranging perspective from which to make judgments about how to engage in the IB’s mission to make a better world through education. They consider educational philosophy, school organization (leadership and administration, resources, and support structures) and curriculum (collaborative planning, written curriculum, teaching and learning, and assessment).

Individual practices are concerned with pedagogical leadership, language, inclusion/special education needs policy, academic honesty, professional development, interdisciplinary learning, learning objectives for each year of the program, skills development, curriculum mapping within and across grades, conceptual and contextual curriculum design, unit planning, curriculum renewal and review, inquiry-based teaching practice, agreed-upon standards for student achievement, and service learning.

At the discipline-specific level, requirements are specified to ensure that the curriculum remains broad and balanced. For example, physical and health education courses must engage students in physical activity for at least 50% of the allocated teaching hours. To provide a globally assured standard, students’ grades for achievement in the programs’ culminating project must be externally moderated by the IB.

Elements of Excellence

We are finding international agreement on excellence in middle level education that extends well beyond the IB community. Important research from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) highlighted seven aspects of high-quality learning and three dimensions for organizing powerful learning environments. In the Nature of Learning and Innovating Learning Environments reports, the OECD noted the importance of

  • Making learning central, encouraging engagement, and being a place where learners come to understand themselves as learners.
  • Ensuring that learning is social and often collaborative.
  • Being highly attuned to learners’ motivations and the importance of emotions.
  • Being acutely sensitive to individual differences, including prior knowledge.
  • Being demanding for each learner but without excessive overload.
  • Using assessments consistent with these aims, with strong emphasis on formative feedback.
  • Promoting horizontal connectedness across learning activities and subjects, in and out of school.
  • Innovating the pedagogical core (all elements and the dynamics that connect them).
  • Becoming “formative organizations” with strong learning leadership.
  • Opening up to partnerships and creative synergies—especially with other schools and learning environments.

The OECD’s most recent discussion of Schooling Redesigned: Towards Innovative Learning Systems continues this line of thinking. This international approach focuses on “the need to ground innovative learning environments in knowledge about how people learn and the circumstances in which they do this most powerfully; the need to understand in detail and to be inspired by actual learning environments; and the need to move beyond individual cases to deep understanding of how to grow, scale and sustain innovative practice.”

The most current list of good practices includes

  • Attending to learners’ motivation and agency.
  • Ensuring high levels of teacher collaboration.
  • Promoting mixed, personalized pedagogical practices.
  • Providing for interdisciplinarity.
  • Developing partnerships.
  • Creating chains, networks, and communities of practice.
  • Establishing global connections beyond local system boundaries.

What strikes me about all this “emerging” international consensus is that middle level educators and the IB community have known what works all along!

There are in fact many interesting parallels between the IB and the middle school movement. Both emerged in a global wave of education reform in the 1960s. As the first edition of This We Believe was being approved in the 1980s, international educators were conceiving what would eventually become the IB Middle Years Programme.

A “re-vision” was in place that described what it means to be a developmentally responsive middle level school by the early 1990s—within months of the first international schools being authorized to deliver the MYP.

Supporting Students

Today, the IB works with AMLE to support schools that are committed to similar standards and practices about curriculum, instruction, and assessment; leadership and organization; and culture and community. Together we have moved from concepts, toward institutionalization, and on to a forward-looking concern for individual actors and actions.

Most important, the MYP continues to care most about one thing: how to meet the needs of students in early adolescence. Guiding principles attuned to the needs of learners ages 11–16 have marked the MYP since its beginning. The MYP continues to encourage students to become active, compassionate, and lifelong learners who are inquiring, knowledgeable, and caring.

Contemporary MYP educators still focus on how best to meet the needs of early adolescents: young people who are confronted with a vast and often bewildering array of choices in a complex and rapidly changing world. The MYP frames opportunities that students in this special age group need so that they can explore their expanding concerns—as well as a growing awareness of themselves and the worlds we construct with them.

There are thousands of MYP classrooms around the world. As Emmerson said, “as to methods, there may be a million and then some” that MYP teachers use to engage their students; there are myriad ways to lead MYP students in inquiries that empower them to become responsible citizens of local, national, and global communities.

From the novice to the most seasoned teachers of middle level learners, there are clear and largely agreed-upon principles that explain why we think about education this way. Happily, those principles are few in number, and widely shared. From an international perspective, we are working ever more collaboratively to create and sustain effective schools for turning what one country has called the “wasted years” into years of wonder.