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Middle school is critical in helping pubescents to bridge the childhood-adolescence gap

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Greg Theron is Executive Head of Reddam House Waterfall.

While puberty poses challenges, it can also be an exciting time during which some big questions are asked. It is also a very experimental time when children try many things to see what works for them, and what doesn’t. Middle schools incorporate the development of body and mind into the structure of the school to meet the needs of students as they transition from childhood to young adulthood.

While the concept of middle school is common throughout the world — there are comprehensive descriptions of the programmes in at least 60 different countries available on the internet — it is still fairly unusual in South Africa. In other countries, it may be called a junior high school or junior college but, in essence, is the same kind of school.

So, what is middle school and why do some schools opt to go with this model of education?

First, it is important to consider some facts about puberty, which we know is a process of physical development that begins anywhere between the ages of eight and 15. Lesser understood consequences of puberty are the mental processes that accompany it. Most pubescents feel very strongly about something or are prone to unpredictable swings of emotion because the hormones pumping through their bodies for the first time cause confusion. It can be a time of tremendous anxiety about changes in body shape and how others perceive them.

For most, while puberty poses challenges, it can also be an exciting time during which some big questions are asked. For example, children begin to consider what kind of adult they will become; and start thinking about what line of work they will pursue. They begin to assess how they learn and communicate with others and start to understand what is important to them, which means it is also a very experimental time when children try many things to see what works for them, and what doesn’t. Certainly, they act as each other’s “mirrors”, testing their impact on each other in terms of speech and behaviour while figuring out who they hope to become as they mature.

So, while middle school may be called different things in different places, it is the schooling that takes place between preparatory schooling and senior schooling — which means from Grade 7 to Grade 9 in South Africa. And no matter where it takes place, middle school needs to incorporate the development of both body and mind into the structure of the school to meet the needs of students as they transition from childhood to young adulthood.

Middle school retains elements of both phases that come before and after it, but it comprises a unique model of schooling that is designed primarily to provide an optimal learning experience for students in early adolescence or puberty, which means schooling needs to reflect life outside the school.

Accordingly, middle school should reflect the following characteristics (each of which is designed to help students flourish during their early adolescent years):

  • Employ a more experiential and experimental approach to learning, that is less based on assessment than the later schooling stages and which involves more student input;
  • Encourage the student voice to emerge;
  • Provide leadership opportunities for the Grade 9 students through committees; and
  • Service aspects of the curriculum.

All these aspects lead to a boisterous and vocal place which motivates the thinking behind separating the middle from the senior schoolers as their purposes are different in emphasis. Academics, culture and sport remain important in middle school, but students are examined in a slightly different way that appeals more to the experimental minds of the students.

In so doing, pubescent students are better prepared for the more individual focus of the adult adolescent phase which follows it. It is here that students build on the innovation and growth of middle school to go on to flourish. DM

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  • A seething mass of hormonal froth was one description of Middle School. It is true 7th graders drive the Primary school teachers crazy, the 8th graders in high school drive the 10th graders crazy, and the grade 9s drive everyone crazy. So why not stick them all together, preferably on the outskirts of civilisation. But having taught Middle school 6,7,8 and Junior High 8,9 grades in the USA and 8 to 12 in RSA, I think something is lost when 7th graders are not challenged to take on the role of leadership at a Primary school. Or when 8 and 9th graders look up to the Grade 12s as leaders. School within a school is a compromise so that the 8 and 9 graders can have their own assemblies, programmes but still part of the High School.

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