Every grade is said to have its unique features. In elementary school, much is made of kindergarten being special as the introduction to public schooling and a vital time to develop foundational skills and a positive attitude toward school and learning. Grades 1-2 are vital years for literacy development; Grade 3 is essential for, ideally, students transitioning from learning to read to reading to learn; Grade 4 is the first intermediate grade and while “primary” and “intermediate” are just words, there is an increased expectation of independence and responsibility for Grade 4 students; and many Grade 5 students have an idealism that makes this stage ripe for formulating and solidifying beliefs and gaining a sense of self-efficacy. And what of Grade 6-7?
In November 2017, we announced the decision that 2017-2018 would be the last year of outside45 and that we would be redesigning our 6-7 programming. The decision was made not because outside45 was not successful and well-suited to the community of Bowen Island, it was both of those things. However, operating an academy with a fixed number of spaces with a varying level of interest and numbers in the program created many challenges. The program was designed because many students at the 11-13 years old, Grade 6-7 level, needed a change in their programming. Like the stages before, Grade 6-7 students have unique characteristics to be mindful of as we consider the future of our 6-7 programming. I will spend the rest of this blog post noting some of them.
First, though, a caveat on singling out any grade level as being unique. Grade levels are not unique, students are, so any attribution of characteristics to a grade level is a huge generalization; students within any grade level vary significantly from developmental capacity, maturity, and skills and abilities. Furthermore, school is cyclical; there are few things taught only once, and most skills and concepts/big ideas are developed over many years and few things are unique to one age group.
Nevertheless, there are some features of Grade 6-7 students that while perhaps not unique to these grades, are more pronounced and in need of recognition.
First, students are craving independence but still very dependent. At an age where students are at risk of transferring their dependence from their parents and teachers to peers, meaningful, authentic opportunities to be independent are essential. Executive functioning (time management, taking care of belongings), self-control, critical thinking and providing opportunities for the development and demonstration of leadership are essential. Authentic accountability to demonstrate responsibility and independence is also important.
Second, students can reap the benefit of their six formal years of schooling and life-experiences with their families to learn about important topics and big ideas that solidify and unify their previous learning that help them understand themselves, others, and the world. The skills they have acquired can be put to use and incorporated into sustained project management and design thinking.
Third, after six formal years of schooling, a change in routine may be needed. Imagine the recess bell going at 10:22 AM for six years. This is part of the reason that students (and educators!) are so in need of winter and spring breaks: routine keeps things organized but we also need a break from it. To accept, and hopefully appreciate this routine, more than ever, learners must see their learning as relevant, both to themselves and to important issues of the day. Learning must be interesting or important, ideally both, and while this is true of all grades, it is perhaps most important that grade six and seven students know that what they are learning about is important and that it is relevant. The expression, “Not only must justice be done, it must also be seen to be done,” suits education in that not only must learning be relevant, it must be seen and understood as relevant.
Fourth, students are becoming intensely interested in social connection. Attachment to peers and an inclusive learning and social environment is essential. And similar to point three, learning must be so interesting, relevant and important, and seen as such, so as to make space in the hearts and minds of students amid other interests, including intense interest in social relations. It is helpful for students to work cooperatively often so that their social interests can be met while advancing their academic development rather than being a distraction to it.
When we shared with families that the 2017-2018 school year would be the last year of outside45 and that we would be redesigning our 6-7 programming, we invited families to share their thoughts on what their hopes and dreams are for students at this age level. We solicit input from families not because we have a blank slate of what programming should look like for students of these ages. Years of experience have convinced BICS educators of some deeply held beliefs of the needs of students of this age-level and some key features of learning environments and learning experiences. However, we also know that families have many insights into what students need for their personal, social, and academic development, and also an understanding of what the world needs from our students.
We look forward to speaking with families about our beliefs about students at this age level, some ideas for what they need in their education, and we look forward to hearing from families on these topics as well. Some questions we will consider include:
- What are the unique characteristics of a middle-school learner with respect to their emotional, intellectual, and social development?
- What do you think are the skills, knowledge and understandings that students need to leave school with in order to be “successful” in 10-15 years?
- What do students want at this stage of their learning career?
- What does the world need from this generation of young people once they are adult workers and citizens?