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Middle Years Commentary – Robert Bollard

The middle years are an important period of learning, in which knowledge
of fundamental disciplines is developed, yet this is also a time when
students are at the greatest risk of disengagement from learning. Student
motivation and engagement in these years is critical, and can be
influenced by tailoring approaches to teaching, with learning activities and
learning environments that specifically consider the needs of middle years
students. Focusing on student engagement and converting this into
learning can have a significant impact on student outcomes. Effective
transitions between primary and secondary schools are an important
aspect of ensuring student engagement.
Australian governments commit to working with all school sectors to
ensure that schools provide programs that are responsive to students’
developmental and learning needs in the middle years, and which are
challenging, engaging and rewarding. 1
Thus, in a grand total of 137 words, the “Melbourne Declaration”, signed by all
the Education Ministers (states, territories and federal) in 2008, identified the
Middle Years of schooling as deserving special attention. The identification of a
problem with middle years education is not new. The identification of the middle
years as “a time when students are at the greatest risk of disengagement from
learning” may have begun with American educational literature in the late 1980s
(see, for instance, this report by Californian educators in 1987 2), but the
identification of adolescence as a “problem” in a more general sense dates back
at least to the 1950s. The only significant shift appears to be from identifying
adolescent hooliganism and misbehaviour in the 1950s, to youth rebellion in the
1960s and ‘70s to the current concerns about literacy and numeracy. These
historical shifts appear to indicate that the concerns say as much, and perhaps
more, about the changing nature of society in general as they do about the
reality of adolescent behaviour.3

cational_Goals_for_Young_Australians.pdf accessed 18/6/2016.
2 James J. Fenwick, Caught in the Middle. Educational Reform for Young
Adolescents in California Public School. Sacramento: California State Department
of Education, 1987.
3 For an example of a concern about the Middle Years which pays more attention
to rebelliousness than to intellectual development, see Joan Lipsitz, Growing Up
Forgotten, Lexington Books: Lexington, Mass., 1980.

A search of the digitised Australian newspapers on the Trove website using the
keyword “teenager” is revealing in this regard. The site contains digitised copies
of every edition of the vast majority of Australian newspapers (including local
papers and most magazines) up to 1954. After 1954 only the Canberra Times has
been digitised. In all those papers between 1930 and 1939 there were only 100
mentions of the word “teenager”. In the 1940s there were 13,986 and in the
1950s 42,194. Note that, between 1955 and 1959, only the Canberra Times was
available to search.4 The only conclusion one can draw from this is that either
teenage behaviour was not a problem before the Second World War or that any
problematic behaviour they may have exhibited was, for some reason, not
identified as being due to their age.
As with so much, we appear to have followed American trends in this regard. As
Robert Epstein points out, the origins of concern about adolescents, in fact the
origin of the concept of adolescence as a category, was in a book titled
Adolescence, written by an American psychologist, G. Stanley Hall in 1904. 5 That
Hall based his work on a now discredited biological theory would not necessarily
embarrass contemporary purveyors of panic about teenagers as there are new
theories to explain their concerns. As Epstein conveniently summarises:
A variety of recent research--most of it conducted using magnetic
resonance imaging (MRI) technology--is said to show the existence of a
teen brain. Studies by Beatriz Luna of the Laboratory of Neurocognitive
Development at the University of Pittsburgh, for example, are said to show
that teens use prefrontal cortical resources differently than adults do.
Susan F. Tapert of the University of California, San Diego, found that for
certain memory tasks, teens use smaller areas of the cortex than adults
do. An electroencephalogram (EEG) study by Irwin Feinberg and his
colleagues at the University of California, Davis, shows that delta-wave
activity during sleep declines in the early teen years. Jay N. Giedd of the
Child Psychiatry Branch at the National Institute of Mental Health and
other researchers suggest that the decline in delta-wave activity might be
related to synaptic pruning--a reduction in the number of interconnections
among neurons.6
The problem with such neurological theories is that they can’t explain the
historically and geographically specific nature of the phenomena they are
attempting to explain. If teen behaviour is a product of brain development it

4 Accessed 18/6/2016
5 Robert Epstein, “The Myth of the Teen Brain”, Scientific American, 1/6/2007
Accessed online at 18/6/2016.
6 Epstein, Op Cit.

should be identical in all societies, but, as Schlegel and Barry have shown, this
was and is evidently not the case in pre-industrial societies. 7
Epstein explains the neurological phenomena as a consequence rather than a
cause of problems which have a social cause, specifically the infantilisation of
Today, with teens trapped in the frivolous world of peer culture, they learn
virtually everything they know from one another rather than from the
people they are about to become. Isolated from adults and wrongly
treated like children, it is no wonder that some teens behave, by adult
standards, recklessly or irresponsibly. Almost without exception, the
reckless and irresponsible behavior we see is the teen’s way of declaring
his or her adulthood or, through pregnancy or the commission of serious
crime, of instantly becoming an adult under the law.8
This argument is important as a diagnosis inevitably informs a prognosis. If
adolescent behaviour is biologically determined than all teachers can do is
accept that adolescents are somehow different and treat them differently as a
consequence. If, however, our treatment of them involves infantilising them,
then we may be contributing to the problem.
At the level of policy and curriculum development, these arguments are not
evident. The Melbourne Declaration is typical in that it simply states that
students are at risk of disengagement and that the cure for this disengagement
is a focus on engaging them. How this is to be done is not specified. By itself, the
revelation that the cure for disengagement is engagement is not particularly
startling.9 The Ausvels site specifies what content is to be taught at each level,
but not how it is to be taught, leaving it up to teachers to make the content
engaging.10 The implication is that what is to be taught is a different question to
how it is to be taught.
7 Alice Schlegel & Herbert Barry, Adolescence: An Anthropological Enquiry, New
York: Maxwell Macmillan International, 1991.
8 Epstein, Op Cit.

9 Though this didn’t stop the authors of a New Zealand study from making a
lengthy dissertation about the definition of “engagement”. See:
file:///C:/Users/home/Downloads/940_Student%20Engagement.pdf accessed
10 See for instance, this summary of the curricula at various levels for
Mathematics: - accessed 18/6/2016

If we accept Epstein’s explanation for student disengagement, this is a mistake.
He contrasts the troubled adolescent of today’s First World societies with
adolescents in other places and times for whom these years were a time of entry
into the adult world – years in which they would learn alongside adults how to
function in the adult world. Viewed from this perspective, some aspects of the
curriculum may be impossible to teach in a way that is engaging. To raise an
example from a previous assignment, if no-one in the real world uses Stem and
Leaf Plots to record data why are they being taught at all?
As a teacher, I may not be able to resolve this issue if I have limited choice about
what content to teach. It all depends on the level of autonomy granted to
teachers by the school. Nevertheless it underlines the centrality of relating what
is being taught to the real adult world in which students expect to be living.
The specifics of how to do this with regard to numeracy were addressed in the
previous assignment. With regards to literacy, it would also be valuable to give
students texts that have meaning and relevance and which they could imagine
themselves reading in later life.
It may appear more difficult with my other discipline, History, given the arcane
nature of some of the curriculum. Nevertheless it is good for historians to be
reminded from time to time that the point about studying the past is to
understand the present. It is no surprise that one of the most successful and
engaging exercises conducted in my Year Seven class was during a lesson on the
Terracotta Warriors in Ancient China. I distributed some “Heaven Money” I had
bought from a local Asian grocery and asked the students if they knew what it
was (it is burned every Chinese New Year to provide the ancestors with money in
the afterlife). As there were one or two Chinese students in class, between us we
were able to explain what the money was for. The parallels with a tomb full of
Terracotta Warriors and modern Chinese attitudes towards death and ancestor
worship were apparent.
Similarly a dangerously dry topic, the life of Confucius, was made more relevant
by a discussion of how Mandarin culture – the fact that in China and Vietnam the
ruling class was chosen by exam rather than birth and was defined by
scholarship rather than martial skills – explains the attitude of modern Chinese
and Vietnamese to education.
In all of this the key is to treat adolescent students, not as big children, but as
apprentice adults. Teachers need as much as possible to make the education
process appear as a beginning of entry to the adult world rather than, as it so
often is, an unnatural and enforced extension of childhood.

Ausvels curriculum – Mathematics, Foundation to Level 10: - accessed 18/6/2016

Epstein, Robert, “The Myth of the Teen Brain”, Scientific American, 1/6/2007
Accessed online at 18/6/2016.
Fenwick, James J., Caught in the Middle. Educational Reform for Young
Adolescents in California Public School. Sacramento: California State Department
of Education, 1987.
Gibbs, Robyn and Poskitt, Jenny, Student Engagement in the Middle Years of
Schooling (Years 7-10): A literature Review. Report to the ministry of Education,
New Zealand Ministry of Education, 2010:
file:///C:/Users/home/Downloads/940_Student%20Engagement.pdf – accessed
Lipsitz, Joan, Growing Up Forgotten, Lexington Books: Lexington, Mass., 1980.
The Melbourne Declaration, Ministerial Council on Employment Training and
Youth Affairs, 2008:
cational_Goals_for_Young_Australians.pdf accessed 18/6/2016
Schlegel, Alice & Barry, Herbert, Adolescence: An Anthropological Enquiry, New
York: Maxwell Macmillan International, 1991.
Trove Digitised Newspapers (National Library of Australia): - accessed 18/6/2016.