The Conundrum of Adolescence, and the Middle School Science Curriculum

Sixth Article in the Series on The Artistry of Teaching

Does neoliberal education reform consider the nature of adolescence and the advances in our understanding of how humans learn?  Is it necessary for every American human adolescent to learn the same content, in the same order, and at the same time?  Why should every student be held accountable to policies and plans that don’t consider their needs and their interests?

These are some of the questions that many educators ask themselves every day as they open their doors to their students who come from homes where there might be not enough food on the table, their father is un-employed, their mother is fearful that she might be deported, or their neighborhood school was closed during the summer and now they are in a different school.

Five articles were recently published on The Artistry of Teaching.  Teachers know, but apparently policy makers don’t know, that teaching is not tidy. It involves a willingness to try multiple approaches, to collaborate with professional colleagues, and students to work through the realities of teaching and learning.  It requires a deep understanding of the nature of human learning, the needs and aspirations of children and youth, and a recognition that these students are living a life that is real and not-imagined, and school should be  experiential,  providing activities and projects that are meaningful, risky, and collaborative.

Teachers who do this practice a form of artistry.  Furthermore, artistry in teaching is practiced by educators who know how to mingle theory with practice. Teaching isn’t only the application of strategies or techniques, it’s an art form that involves high level thinking, on-the-spot decision-making, and creativity. As we have suggested on this blog, the magnum principium of teaching is inquiry, which is a democratic and humane approach to teaching and learning.

For more than thirty years I worked with teachers and students who wanted to teach at the middle school and high school levels in science, mathematics and other fields, but principally science.

One of the programs that we designed was TEEMS (Teacher Education Experiences in Mathematics and Science).  It is a four semester program for people who have a degree in engineering, mathematics, or science leading to initial teacher certification in Georgia.  Students also graduate from TEEMS with a Master’s Degree in Education.  The program mingled theory with practice, and was based on Vygotsky’s theory of social constructivism in which science and mathematics teacher education students were involved in a clinical and reflective program of deep understanding of educational theory and experiential learning in clinical experiences.The TEEMS program started in 1992 and is still the teacher education program to prepare all secondary teachers (English, mathematics, science, and social studies) at Georgia State University.

This is a “slideshare” program based on one of the multimedia presentations designed for the TEEMS interns and that I want to share here.  I’ve included it in this sixth article on the Artistry of Teaching to show that teacher education students need not only backgrounds in science or mathematics, or history, or literature, but they need to embrace the content of the learning sciences.  The Learning Sciences (public library), which is an interdisciplinary field, involving among others cognitive science, educational psychology, anthropology and linguistics, is the kind of knowledge that teachers use to do the art of teaching.

Adolescence and Middle School Curriculum

This particular slide show, which I titled Adolescence and Middle School Science, is a critique of the middle school science curriculum in the context of the nature of adolescence.  There is a lot of content here, and when I used this in my course, the TEEMS interns had already spent a semester in clinical practice.  During the presentation, interns were organized into small cooperative teams, and throughout the slideshare, we would stop and explore the implications of and our knowledge of, the “content of adolescence” and application to science curriculum.

In this slideshare, we looked at the middle school science curriculum in the context of adolescent students.   In grades six through eight, no matter where you travel in the USA, kids are going to take a course each year in earth science, life science, or physical science.  I spent several years (in the 20th Century) teaching earth science at the ninth grade level in Lexington, MA.  The curriculum used then is not very different from the earth science curriculum of the 21st Century.

Is there a problem here?  I think there is.

Screen Shot 2013-08-30 at 2.50.33 PMCurriculum tends to start with the content of science math, English/language arts or social studies, and not content of the lived experiences of students in class.  This is not a new dilemma.  It’s been around for a century.  But there have been educators, starting with people like John Dewey or Maria Montessori who believed that learning should not only be experiential, but that it should engage students in real problems and issues in their own lives.  Content should be in the service of students, not the other way round.

So, in the presentation, we face this conundrum, and suggest some ways that curriculum should be:

  • Structured more in terms of student interests
  • Social concerns
  • Human agenda
  • Human ecology

Science should be for people, and in that light, we suggest these directions:

  • Select those concepts and principles in science relevant to students’ daily life and adaptive needs
  • Do not based curriculum on preparing more scientists
  • Science must be put into the service for people and society
  • Connect students with today’s world
  • Develop life skills that improve the quality of living


Enjoy the presentation.  Teaching certainly isn’t tidy or easy.  But it is an art form practiced by lots of educators.

What are your ideas about the relationships among students, their needs and aspirations, and the curriculum? Are we moving in the right direction? What do you think?

The Radical Idea of Helping Students Construct Their Own Ideas

Helping students construct their own ideas is considered by some educators a subversive idea that runs counter to the present impetus of the Race to the Top and NCLB Waivers. These Federal programs, especially NCLB, have created a narrowing of the curriculum, a data-driven, test-based school culture, and the despicable use of student tests as the main criterion of teacher accountability.

The theory of learning that underlies these Federal reform efforts is behaviorism.  It’s a theory that is very good if you want to teach behaviors.  But it is a theory that tends to retard the teaching of thinking.  When we want our dog to sit, we hover a treat over the dog’s head and move it backwards so that the dog sits.  Do this a few times adding the work sit, and you have it.
Continue reading “The Radical Idea of Helping Students Construct Their Own Ideas”

Experiential Science Education: The Real Core of Teaching

Experiential education is not a new idea, and it certainly is not a new construct for science teachers, especially those teachers that involve their students in inquiry and problem-based learning.  However, experiential education has not at the top of the “to-do” list in the minds of many leaders and advocates for the No Child Left Behind approach to education.  It may be that change is coming, and experiential education might be returned at the real core of teaching.

Experiential education as I think about it represents a paradigm of learning that is in stark contrast to the kind of education experiences that most students “experience” in school.  As I’ve discussed before, experiential education is a humanistic approach to science teaching, and has been well documented in the literature of science education.  Glen Aikenhead’s book, Science Education for Everyday Life describes the humanistic science experience, and provides the research base for experiential science education, which in my view is the real core of teaching.

The real core of teaching is providing environments, formal or informal, in which students can experience their education—whereby students can inquire into, discuss, become involved in moral and socially relevant issues, and perhaps make real change in themselves, and their community.  This is the kind of education that allows students to ask questions such as: “Why should I learn this?” “How is this experience relevant to me and my fellow citizens?” and “How will this experience contribute to my and others growth?”  

You can probably discuss and describe teachers in your own education, or colleagues with whom you have worked that were experiential science educators.  I have had the privilege to know many, and have worked alongside others who embodied the spirit that underscores an experiential educator.  I received an email from one of my colleagues who I consider one of the most outstanding experiential science teachers that I have known.

I had not heard from him for nearly a decade, and his email note was:

Hello Jack,
I’ve though of you often. Just checking in, and I’m glad to see that you’re
still at it. ;>)
Hope you’re well.


It was note a from Ken Royal, who is now Senior Editor at Scholastic, and you can read his interviews, tech how-to’s, and opinions at the Royal Treatment blog, which is now part of Scholastic.  I first met Ken in the mid-1990s when he was teaching science at Whisconier Middle School, Brookfield, Connecticut.  At the time I was conducting national seminars for the Bureau of Education and Research, and I met Ken at one of my seminars in Hartford.  At Ken’s invitation, I visited his school and classroom, and actually presented a seminar at his school for science teachers in his district.  His classroom was a model for the experiential science approach, and he was also a pioneer in the use of technology as a tool to enhance student learning in science.  His students were involved in global conversations and research with students in at least three continents, and his students were posting results of their research using digital cameras and text at a time when the Web was in its infancy.  His classroom was an environment where students were involved in active inquiry, and with the rapid development of technology in the 1990s, Ken was one of the leaders pioneering ways that this technology could be harnessed to help students get excited about science.  He later became technology coordinator for the Brookfield School District, and then started writing as a freelancer about technology, and making presentations around the country.  Scholastic saw one of his presentations, and hired him as senior editor in the area of technology and teaching.  

Experiential educators are out there making learning interesting and fun, and returning the core of teaching to experiential knowing.  Ken Royal is one of those educators.

Tell your story, or a story about a colleague who is making experiential science teaching happen.


Association for Experiential Education–nonprofit, professional membership association dedicated to experiential education and the students, educators and practitioners who utilize its philosophy

National Society for Experiential Education–Founded in 1971, NSEE also serves as a national resource center for the development and improvement of experiential education programs nationwide.

Minnesota State University Master’s Degree in Experiential Education–there are others, but this is the oldest degree program in experiential education.

Experiential Education–an article from Wikipedia

David Kolb’s Experiential Learning Model–Article related to Kolb’s four element model of experiential learning as shown here.


Experiential Learning Model by David Kolb
Experiential Learning Model by David Kolb