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Reimagining Middle School


Teachers and administrators from around the country will converge on Washington Tuesday to re-imagine middle school – using the science of brain development to guide new approaches to teaching kids in early adolescence. 

Ask anyone about the middle school experience, and you’re likely to get a negative response according to UVA Professor of Education Nancy Deutsch.

“People tend to groan.  They roll their eyes," she says. "Everyone sort of has this image of middle school as this place we would never want to revisit, and so when we approach middle school like that, in some ways we’re setting up a negative experience for young people in middle school, and that really does not need to be the case.”

That’s because early adolescence is an important time for growth.

“There is increasing evidence from the science on brain development, for example, about how many amazing changes are going on with kids, how open their brain is to change and to stimulus from the environment, and adolescence is actually the time second to that early childhood critical period of the greatest change in their brains,” she explains.

Credit UVA
Professor Nancy Deutsch is head of Youth-Nex, a research arm of UVA's Curry School of Education.

But Deutsh, who heads a special research-based program called Youth-Nex, says few middle schools meet key needs of their students. It’s important, for example, that they have at least one adult they can talk to at school. It could be a teacher, a coach, a counselor or even the school secretary.

“Teenagers still need adults,” Deutsch says. “A lot of schools are now using special advisory periods where a student may have a period with a teacher where they’re not necessarily talking about academics, where they’re starting their day and checking in.”

The approach to teaching might also change as administrators recognize the student’s need for independence.

“We know that during early adolescence there’s a great desire for increase autonomy, so we can capitalize on that to have more kind of project-based learning, more learning where young people are thinking critically and bringing their own interests into the classroom and into what they’re learning.”

And even the classroom could be restructured to accommodate small learning groups or to facilitate movement.

“Some schools I’ve heard have experimented with doing things like replacing chairs with exercise balls and other things.  Rather than sort of fight against the need to move, you can allow kids a way to do that while they are still cognitively engaged.”

Often, Deutsch adds, parents and teachers worry about the tendency of adolescents to take risks, but that need not be bad. By trying new things academically – by failing at times – students can learn and grow stronger. 

All of these topics will be explored at the Reimagining Middle School conference in D.C.  Before attending, the organizers have asked participants to talk with at least one middle school student or with their anxious parents.

“The minute you say, ‘We’re doing this – re-making middle school,’ they say, ‘How soon can you have that?’ or ‘Can you talk to my kid?’”

And the conference will open with a panel of real experts – a group of middle school kids.  For more information, go to: