According to the Romanian understanding of middle school (5th to 8th grade), middle school learners are aged between 10 and 13/14 years, the period when puberty starts and learners are one step closer to adulthood. Learners of this age are usually described as young adolescents and they require curricula specifically designed for their cognitive development, which also takes into account the emotional fragility of the age. According to Lounsbury (The National Middle School Association, 2000), this period is the most accelerated period of growth in the human life cycle, when learners prove to be open and curious students and seek interaction and opportunities to become involved in meaningful activities.
According to Wilson and Horch (2002), during these early adolescent years, brain connections that learners heavily rely upon are strengthened, while unused brain connections slowly deteriorate. The prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain in charge of synthesizing information, planning, organizing information, shifting between moods and memorizing, suffers the most changes. Despite the fact that its actual maturation won’t occur until the age of 18, these early years witness the strengthening of connections that will be used for learning throughout the learner’s entire life.
Middle school learners move slowly from the concrete operational stage (ages: 7-11), when they become more logically oriented and their categorization skills improve, to the formal operational stage (ages: 11-16 and onwards), when they use their abstract reasoning skills and start thinking about thinking, while also becoming more focused on the solving of problems (Piaget, 1952).
The slow shift from a concrete to an abstract understanding of the world allows students to initiate meta-thinking processes and question their own manner of arriving to relevant conclusions. Confusing as this may be, this change needs to be addressed in the classroom and taking into account when preparing materials for learners of this particular age. In addition to attempting to maintain students’ attention span longer, lessons that are based on particular problems that need to be solved are more likely to help students develop critical thinking and self-reflection skills and keep them interested.
Other intellectual changes pointed out by the California State Department of Education (1987) and the National Middle School Association (2001; 2003) include early age learners’ equal enjoyment of intellectual and manipulative activities, their preference for active learning, self-reflection and persuasion skills, the link between student’s motivation and immediate goals, their heightened imaginative skills, the shift towards independent and abstract thinking, their increasing ability to recognize patterns and similarities, as well as their search for a cause-effect relationship to explain the events and phenomena around them, their curiosity and the development of metacognition. On the downside, middle school students don’t seem to be able to retain information they do not deem necessary for too long, and they tend to place social interaction and their preoccupation with their social life above their academic training. This period also marks the formation of resistant attitudes towards learning itself.
The same sources point at social and emotional characteristics that need to be considered when interacting with middle school learners, chief among which their rebellious spirit that drives them to both seek and reject adult interference and advice, and test the limits of what is deemed acceptable behaviour from them. From an emotional standpoint, teachers should bear in mind the vulnerability of students of this age, who link self-esteem with physical traits and academic achievements. At the same time, middle school learners often wish to be the centre of attention, shift dispositions fast, and are extremely sensitive to criticism.
Teaching resources should take into account all these changes occurring in the middle school learner, including the social and emotional shifts. The content of learning is not the only one that needs to be adapted. Middle school learners’ sensitiveness to criticism means that the feedback provided needs to be delivered in a non-offensive manner that would not deteriorate their fragile, barely developed self-esteem. Therefore, a strong knowledge of the developmental stages of middle school children can prove helpful for teachers to adapt their curricula and teaching method in a manner that would appeal to young learners and foster their desire for future education.