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Brainstorming Middle School

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Looking back, most of us recall a few key things about our middle school years: The often distressing emotional intensity, the urge to express our independent identities, the exciting, unfamiliar, sometimes uncomfortable desire to connect in new ways with peers. We may also recall that the school's and teacher's expectations required that we suppress (or worse, repress) these aspects of ourselves in service of our academic goals. So, we looked out the window, daydreamed and waited for three o'clock to come, when we could have engaging discussions and pursue our own passions and ideas, often through clubs, sports, arts or plain old hanging out with friends.

Today, the science of adolescence teaches us that being driven by those distractions is biologically useful and important, and that they should be respected and leveraged by educators. Daniel Siegel, in his new book, Brainstorm, shows us the possible ways in which these attributes -- what he refers to as E.S.S.E.N.C.E: Emotional Spark, Social Engagement, Novelty, Creative Explorations -- make up the driving forces behind the adolescent brain. Siegel argues that it is because of the courage and creativity of adolescence that our species has been so adaptive and successful. We need this time of incredible brain growth -- matching only the time between birth and age three -- in order for humanity to survive and thrive.

To make the most of this orientation, school should be a mystery, a challenge, a conversation and a process of self and world discovery stemming from adolescents' social and intellectual curiosity. So, in addition to reading or lectures involving the history of the Middle East told from a central place in the classroom, what if middle school students also learned about revolution through the Arab Spring movement? What if they learned to choose a question worth exploring and a problem worth solving? Suppose they began to understand the histories and dynamics that lead to revolutionary action, and they actually formed possible solutions going forward? What if this young person could communicate to a leader or dissenter of that Arab nation through Twitter, or using a video feed? What if all of this understanding was built through consultations with experts at area universities, interviews with community organizations and scholarly research?

Consider that when all of the world's information can be found in an instant, as this article about the teaching implications of Google suggests, and that the "age of knowing is giving way to the age of data navigation," then school learning must look, feel and be different. Technology should free individuals to think, question, plan and communicate in the creative and nuanced ways that are uniquely human. As you read this, some middle school-aged child is "hackschooling," learning about physics through genuine questions and experimentation with materials. Somewhere else, a 12-year-old is transforming his Lego Mindstorm into a braille printer. Yet another 14-year-old has a plan to save the government millions of dollars by changing the fonts it uses. More than ever before, with the power of technology and their innate creative capacities, adolescents are able to make powerful ideas real while they are still in school. These experiences need to become the norm in our schools if we are going to hold their attention and respectfully acknowledge their power to move us all ahead. What if we gave them the tools now to create and question and invent better stuff, ideas and projects? What if we (as parents and educators) let go of the false dichotomy that one set of educational practices leads to happiness and the other to success because science is actually telling us they are one and the same?

At a national level, our urgency around early childhood should be matched and redoubled with urgency for better, more scientifically-grounded middle school educational programs and practices. Doing so would much better align
what we want for our graduates (leadership, creativity, problem-solving) with what employers want (see this New York Times article regarding Google hiring practices) with what humanity actually needs.

At Blue School, we will be opening a middle school in the fall of 2015. We are designing our program to inspire students to high levels of academic scholarship and to develop their abilities to be self-directed learners. Like our pre-kindergarten through fifth grade program, we intend to acknowledge the power of their ideas, their ability to independently use resources and work together on projects, and ultimately to find answers that not only help them fill in the correct circle on a test, but help them envision and create a better future. Through the integration of tried and true thinking on project- and problem-based learning, the best ideas from the Maker movement, and cutting-edge application of STEAM not as a place or person but as a framework for thinking, we work to align what we want to see in the world with what we do in school each day. We are bursting with ideas about and plans to make these ideas real.

The future belongs to them. If we want our children to help us preserve, sustain and re-imagine the world, we have to give them a chance to try it now. What if we did? Who would they be in high school, college and beyond? What are we waiting for?