A core philosophy which drives recent initiatives in pedagogy is a developmental responsiveness to the learning needs of adolescents in the middle years of schooling (Beane, 1999:5). Cummings has described this period as “a phase of schooling that bridges the conventional primary/secondary divide with a view to responding more effectively to the specific developmental needs of adolescents” (1998: 5).
As it did in the USA, the push to re-evaluate education in the middle years of schooling emerged in response to growing concerns related to
student alienation during this period (i.e. Years 5 to 8). Initial research focused upon student disengagement with schooling, focusing “on
those who appear to be ‘switched off’, ‘tuned out’ or simply not achieving at school.” (Braggett, 1997: 13). The movement towards ‘custom
designed’ curriculum for the middle years has consequently increased in momentum (Hardingham, 2000: 28) in response to both this alienation,
and to concerns related to a perceived decline in success for some at risk groups of students during this age group (Middle Phases of
Learning State School Action Plan, 2004: 3). The desire to address the distinct and unique needs of adolescents as a group in transition
from childhood into adulthood (Dickinson & Butler, 2001) and to ensure this transition is successful, both in terms of the individual
needs of students and in addressing wider social goals is the primary motivation behind moves to initiate distinct middle years philosophies
of teaching, learning and assessment.
If middle years initiatives are to be successfully implemented in schools which have a conservative approach to education; schools where teachers are primarily transmitters of particular knowledge which has been determined to have high cultural value; then a dramatic rethink in teaching, learning and assessment is necessary. It is best if such a fundamental reshaping of teachers’ perceptions of their role in the learning process takes place in the context of a whole school re-enculturation, but the reality is that many schools are at different stages in this re-envisioning process, that within these schools, different departments are at different stages, and even within each department individual teachers differ in their preparedness and readiness to undergo a process of reinvention of pedagogy.
How, then, to introduce an approach to teaching, learning and assessment that sits comfortable with current research into ‘best practice’ in the middle years in an educational context characterised by traditional, conservative pedagogy and curriculum? How to develop a shared philosophy of effective middle years pedagogy and a clear articulation of what this means in practice in schools which have not addressed the issues associated with the unique needs of adolescents? This paper examines issues associated with an attempt to introduce inquiry learning as a meaningful and practical way of achieving these goals in Queensland schools.
As Mathews (2002) points out, while there is “broad agreement as to the concept of middle schooling, no single model of middle schooling exists”. While the ideal approach to the redesign of middle years curriculum takes place in a context where schools systematically unpack their vision of middle years education as part of a collaborative process involving students, parents, teachers, and the community, the reality in many schools is far from this. It is because no clear, shared vision and philosophy of middle years education has been developed by schools, that the implementation of middle years innovations is often doomed to the same failure as many other reform agendas of the past twenty years.
Andrew Seaton argues that a review of educational innovation in Queensland reveals that” little of significance has changed” (2002: 33). While new schools, especially those with purpose designed middle schools may be on the road to a successful transformation of education for young people, the reality is that older, conservative schools (particularly many private schools) have changed little over the past decades despite the significant cultural changes which have radically transformed our society and, consequently, the needs of learners in the twenty-first century. In such schools, as Seaton points out, educational innovation is “incongruent with the values that fundamentally characterise schooling: hierarchical structures, competition, evaluation and ranking, and dissection of the world into discrete units of the world.” This is particularly true of the disparity between the values which underpin middle years philosophies and current practice in many schools.
Despite this disparity, it is still possible for teachers committed to improving middle years practice in Queensland schools is to re-conceptualise ‘best practice’ in teaching, learning and assessment in these middle years by using the growing body of research into how adolescents learn best, recognising the unique needs of students as citizens of the twenty-first century and identifying goals of education for such a future.
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