Teaching in the Middle: What constitutes excellence in teaching?

Kirksville, Missouri 1961

How can one find excellence
by teaching in the Middle?

Teaching in the Middle Division, I am always at the crossroads.  For those that like to know where they’re going and where they’ve been, crossroads are a bother.  The choices and the traffic can be distracting.  For me, the crossroads are a reality check.  A couple of years ago, my family and I were traveling in Ireland.  Notorious for poorly designed roads and almost no road signs, Ireland was a daunting challenge for the tourist who rents his/her own car.  We decided to rent a car with a GPS.  Its voice inspired us to give it a name.  “Bridget” seemed to fit and Bridget guided us through the winding country roads and single lane tracks that dotted the surface of Western Ireland.  Every so often Ireland would cause even Bridget to get lost.  She would bleat "processing… processing…" as she vainly searched for satellites behind the ever-present, thick and foreboding cloud cover.  We would breathe a sigh of relief when we came to a crossroads and pulled out our map. For a brief moment we felt like we knew where we were.

Middle division is found at the crossroads between lower and upper divisions.  But it’s far more than just an arbitrary demarcation between grades.  I taught for a half my teaching career in elementary school.  I’ve taught briefly in high school.  Middle school is a horse of an entirely different color.  People characterize elementary school as the place where children begin to amass enough skills and self-confidence to become students.  They go on to say that high school is where students begin to amass the knowledge they’ll need to become adults who can make a difference in the world.

Finding middle school at the crossroads

We are here, in the Middle Division, at the front lines.  The battle between child and student, between skills and content, is fought in sixth, seventh, and eighth grades every day.  It is a dynamic place in child development.  Middle Division students are beginning to define who they are in relation to and sometimes in opposition to the grown-ups that raise and educate them.  Like a battleground, anything can change at any moment.  New conditions can appear without warning.  The bravery and resolve of those fighting can wax and wane.  Fatigue is a big factor.  So is idealism.

This is my world, right in the middle of the action, in the middle of the forces that combat one another for dominance.  Often I find myself behind enemy lines.  Those I thought were my allies have turned against me.  My army of little soldiers has disappeared.  But sometimes I am standing on a hill in the sunshine, my banner flapping in the wind, victorious.

Clearly, being in the middle is not for everyone.  How does one keep calm amid chaos?  How does one know which way is forward and which way back?

In the middle of developmental psychology and middle school students

If we were to invite two great luminary thinkers for a smack-down on how to best reach adolescent thinkers, we'd probably want to see Jean Piaget versus Lev Semenovich Vygotsky.

Piaget is very popular in the Western World because his ground-breaking work on the intellectual development in children has informed much of modern western education. It may be an unfair oversimplification of Piaget's work, but I feel he observed and researched children as if they were hothouse flowers. His experiments rarely intervened with the children beyond testing knowledge for mastery and developing conclusions that marked at which points in biological development children are ready to move up. He carefully and thoroughly mapped out transitions in intellectual development from concrete understanding to abstract functioning, when they are independent learners and when they can literally put two and two together. However, I feel that in the process he divorced intellectual development from the nurturing aspects of teaching, rather relegating the role of the teacher to gate keeper.

For all his groundbreaking findings, his research could not explain why the children of potters could understand conservation of mass (how volume relates to shape) as many as five years earlier than their non-potter child peers. This indicated that Piaget's assumptions about children as learners left the teacher on the outside, rather than in the middle of the educational process.

My hero, Lev Semenovich Vygotsky, is probably less known because his work wasn't translated into English from the Russian in which it was first published, and because for many years it was the dominant theory of educational development behind the Iron Curtain.

A student aspiring to become a doctor, Vygotsky was shut out of Russian medical school because he was Jewish. Rather than give up, he became obsessed with Russian theater as an educational force for a better society. Soon afterwards he was researching the thinking processes of education and publishing findings that turned those processes upside down.

Vygotsky grabbed Piaget's potter child conundrum and ran with it. Recognizing the role of the teacher in tandem with the student, he posited the theory of the Zone of Proximal Development. Basically, Vygotsky put the teacher smack dab in the middle of the educational process, noting that in the educational exchange, the teacher stretches the lesson down to the child's reach and the child in turn stretches up to meet the teacher's instruction.

That's why in a developmental psychology smack-down, my money's on Vygotsky over Piaget every time. He truly understands the kind of roll-up-your-sleeves teaching that I find most rewarding and meaningful in my classroom. I believe that in order to be effective, a teacher must be in the middle of the process. Stretch up and stretch down, and in the middle (where we meet) learning happens. Design that meeting so that it is natural, elegant and fluid, and I believe that is excellence in teaching.