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Monday, September 28, 2015

The Fractured Landscape of Adolescent Education

Elementary schools are largely set up to be warm, welcoming places for young students.  Primary colors, hopeful books, and consistent teachers make up an academic world, where 6-year olds learn what to expect, when to expect it, and how they should participate.

Imagine the shock to the system, when you start to have different teachers, in different classrooms, for each subject.  Rotating schedules, bells, and constant variety rule, where once consistency was the major theme.  

Are our middle and high schools set up purposefully in response to changing adolescent needs?

Does the variety serve a need for excitement and experimentation as the young develop?

Are we helping our students figure out WHO THEY ARE?
As Nakkula and Toshails recommend as the pivotal task of adolescence?

I am not sure our schools are purposefully doing this.  It may be a by-product of some administrators and many teachers who devote their careers to building young people up, but to me it feels less the primary goal than creating conformity in the most efficient way possible.

Our education system is often driven by economics, and linear solutions, rather than sound individual student based practices.  I hear the question "how many students can we fit in a classroom?" much more often than "how can we inspire our students to crave knowledge?"  I still see more rows and desks, than tables and learning centers.  School boards and unions discuss test scores, salary and benefits much more contentiously than the citizens who graduate from their programs.

As Erikson takes us through the adolescent attempts to fit or MISfit, we can see how our model would allow students to sample various classroom settings, interact with adults who have very different styles, and experience a range of course offerings, hopefully connecting in one or more areas, and discovering elements of their identity.  The unfortunate reality, is that far too often, the school day is something to "get through" and many students are lucky to connect with one or two teachers in middle and high school, whose "co-authoring" resonates valuably.

In place of these connections, we have standards, and test scores, and limitations (for a variety of reasons), and lose sight of the fact that we are in the critical position of growing humans.  I found myself, throughout the reading of the text this week, reminiscing over my teaching practice, and core beliefs over my career.  I found this snapshot of the essential questions driving my first semester work from two years ago, and if I still had the same phone from 10 years ago, I think I would be able to pull up a similar whiteboard:

I have always been interested in learning about my students, and helping them develop through their adolescence.  I was fortunate enough to have a couple of teachers, mentors, and coaches in high school who were there to help me question and figure out the path I was on, and the path I wanted to be on, and how to get there.  I hope to be that person for my students as well.  This is often, though, in conflict with the academic tasks I have been given as a teacher, and I have had to creatively restructure my practice to accommodate my requirements with my beliefs.  Thankfully literature lends itself perfectly to this task, and young adult literature specifically offers the chance to explore risky themes, and deep questions in safe environment.

I believe deeply in the transcendent possibilities of literature, and that a young person who is searching, and maybe not able to trust other humans with risky questions, can find connections and the collective mind/flow experience detailed in the Nakkula and Toshails text.  

Risk is discussed in depth in chapters 2 and 3, and we adequately cover the normalcy of teenage risk taking during this period.  What I think needs to be taken further, is the role peer pressure plays in the types of risk that is being taken.  There is powerful motivation found within the need to fit in, and when coupled with the natural desire to test the limits of adult parameters, can often lead to what was referred to as spontaneous or intuitive risk taking.

Check out this video on Peer Pressure and Risk:

I am reminded of my own efforts in tanking exams so as not to stand out academically, which probably began in 6th or 7th grade, and my first experience with power drinking in the 9th grade, and it is clear to me that peer pressure was more of an influence in those cases than risk taking on its own. Marcia touches on this in the Erikson extension, but I believe it is an even bigger factor than what is stated, and much more complicated to intervene in.


  1. Wow Brian! What an fascinating video. Similar to the host, I thought that the friends would cause his behavior to change because they were distracting and actively encouraging him to make riskier choices. However, the experiment showed that all it took was THINKING that his friends were watching. I guess I shouldn't be too surprised though, considering what I know about how this sometimes works in the a runner on the xc or track teams, I often had a voice in my head telling me that my teammates/friends were watching and counting on me. I guess this leads me to wonder, how do we help adolescents leverage that peer pressure for positive risk taking?

  2. Brian, just like the tug-of-war that students are going through during adolescents I think you picked up on the tug-of-war going on with teachers. I am constantly trying to meet the requirements of my many roles in the classroom and the school setting, with connecting with students, connecting with curricula and completing the tasks set in front of me by administration. I loved the video, it's amazing that just the fact that the participant thought his friends were watching him, he was willing to take more risks.

  3. Brian, I think you hit the nail on the head "...we have standards, and test scores, and limitations (for a variety of reasons), and lose sight of the fact that we are in the critical position of growing humans." This is exactly my thinking a few years back. I felt like I was robotic in my own teaching, teaching to the standards and not truly understanding the scope of the whole student. I find it troubling that I thought of students as a "separate being." Reading through these chapters and thinking about how I was as teacher in the beginning made me feel. Now looking at my own growth (adolescent) it makes it clear that we all go through these stages (quadrants on a graph). I guess being better mentors than my mentors at school can make such a difference.