Middle School Challenge: Content vs. Skills

At today’s staff meeting we talked about many different things. However, the main focus was how we grade our students. I work in a middle school and the debate rages on: should we focus on the mastery of content or teach them strategies to become successful students?

If we are to grade content, how should each grading section be weighted to make everything equal? Should the grades be divided into things such as “Homework,” “Assessments,” and “Participation,” or should they look like “Writing” and “Comprehension.” What shows a more accurate picture of the student? And furthermore, what do we want that picture to show?

A Tough Debate

I am very torn on this and find myself oscillating back and forth, seeing both the pros and cons of each. One thing to keep in mind is the developmental stage of middle school students. I am reminded of a radio episode of This American Life I heard a couple of years back on NPR. It essentially equated the behavior of middle school students to that of toddlers. At around age 12, kids are going through a similar (if not larger) amount of psychological, physical, mental, and emotional developmental change as two-year olds during the “terrible twos.” Would we ask a rapidly changing and growing two-year old to sit in a desk, stare at the front, be quiet, and work hard? Is it realistic for us to ask this of our middle schoolers, developmentally speaking?

On the other hand, are we preparing them to be successful in high school, college, and beyond if we are not helping them practice this sustained reading and writing and sitting and thinking time?

Looking to the Future1.30

While I am still letting these ideas marinate, I am reminded of a recent professional development meeting I attended. The facilitator asked all of us to think of our students when they graduated high school. What kind of skills would we want them to have that would make them successful adults? We brainstormed for a while. We said things such as problem-solver, critical thinker, the ability to work well with others, the ability to be resourceful, solution-oriented, organized, etc.  When we looked back at the list we all noticed something shocking. Nowhere in our list ANYWHERE did we mention a single content standard. We had been functioning under the assumption that, if the students were resourceful, critical thinking, problem solvers, they would be able to obtain the content they needed. It was more important for them to have these skills once they left us as opposed to having memorized content.

In middle school, are we assessing students on their ability to master the content, or the skills  needed to be successful in life after middle school? And finally, is it possible to do both?

Your Turn!

Where do you stand on this debate?  We’d love to hear from you!

Reaching 21st Century Students

Related Resources!

Do you have a similar story? Content-Area Literacy: Reaching and Teaching the 21st Century Adolescent by Tom Bean might help you address similar experiences in your  classroom!