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Graeme Evans: MYSA

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Graeme Evans is the President of the Middle Years of Schooling Association (MYSA) Australia. In this clip, he discusses the philosophy of middle years schooling and how Australia is working to develop effective programmes for students at this level.

Professional learning conversations

These questions and suggested actions encourage you to reflect on your own school context.

In this interview, Graeme Evans states that:

"Children at this age often become disengaged from education – they have been in the system for a number of years and they have a number of years to go again. So disengagement, alienation and boredom are things that often set in to those middle years of school. So middle school philosophy has to actively work to ensure middle school programmes are interesting, intentional and focused on where the students are at in terms of their own personal growth."

Consider this statement in your own school context. As a school, where are you at now? What would you need to change to ensure that your middle school programme is interesting, intentional, and focused on where your students are at in terms of their own personal growth?

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I’m Graeme Evans. I’m the President of MYSA, which is the Middle Years of Schooling Association of Australia.

I’m visiting New Zealand currently to join with the NZAIMS meeting – that’s the New Zealand Association of Intermediate and Middle Schools. The two associations are looking to strengthen the connections between them and offer mutual support.

My current role in a school is at St Phillips Christian College in Newcastle, New South Wales. I’m head of middle school there. The school goes from kinder through to year 12 and has three sub-schools, being junior, middle and senior. My role has been head of middle school since the school commenced middle schooling in 2001.

Middle schooling is a way of intentionally targeting the needs of children in the age range, roughly between 10 and 15 years old. It can happen in any context, it’s not a matter of having a ‘physical middle school’. It could happen in a primary context or a high school context, or intermediate, or middle schooling context. But I think the essential thing is that schools know why they are doing it – it’s not just a matter of jumping on the bandwagon or a marketing tool, or changing the structure so we can say ‘we have a middle school now’. I guess it’s a little bit like looking at the contents of a jar – you could have a jar of Vegemite or Peanut Butter, change the label and put honey on the label, but the contents remains the same. I think it’s critical that schools know exactly what it is they are doing, what they are hoping to achieve, and why they are doing it. When our school went down that path of middle schooling, we spent a lot of time exploring that question. We didn’t want to just have that label, now that we have middle school, but really from a day-to-day point of view nothing had really changed, except we were grouping the children perhaps in a different way.

So there are a few key things to the philosophy that I believe are essential to any middle school – one is that the schooling is all about the needs of the children. I think to have a successful middle school programme, teachers must read, understand, do some research to look at what those specific needs are.

Children at this age often become disengaged from education – they have been in the system for a number of years and they have a number of years to go again. So disengagement, alienation and boredom are things that often set in to those middle years of school. So middle school philosophy has to actively work to ensure middle school programmes are interesting, intentional and focused on where the students are at in terms of their own personal growth. It’s a time where they are going through a lot of changes, more so than any other part of life, apart from birth to the ages of three or four. There are a lot of changes – you are taking children as children and seeing them leave the middle school programmes as young adults. So middle school programmes have to be in touch with the physical changes, the emotional changes, the intellectual changes that are happening with the children at that stage of growth.

There was some work done by Professor Robert Havighurst from the University of Chicago, and a lot of his research helped our school when we were going down the path of looking at middle schooling. In terms of the needs of children and the philosophies of middle schooling, he defines what he calls the ‘tasks of adolescents’. Now these are natural development processes that all adolescent students go through. So looking at the ‘tasks of adolescents’ and working out how they fit into a middle years programme, we can be assured that the middle years philosophy of the school is really meeting the right needs.

Now he defines these ‘tasks of adolescents’ as adolescents’ adjusting to the ‘new physical sense of self’ – they have to adjust to new intellectual abilities as they are growing and maturing. There are increased cognitive demands at school and adolescents must also learn how to cope with those. That they have ‘expanded verbal skills’ – it’s very important that children learn new vocabulary, how to use it and what that means. That they have a ‘new sense of personal identity’ – no longer are they a child, whose identity comes primarily from the family unit, but they are moving through to a situation where they are an independent young person. The peer group is a very important middle part of that step – moving from family to independence, and it’s a whole new identity. ‘Well who am I, as a person with my peers’, rather than ‘who am I as a person with my family’.

He also talks about the ‘tasks of adolescents’ covering things such as vocational goals. For the first time a young child, as they are moving through to adolescence, is beginning to think ‘what am I going to do with the rest of my life?’ He also mentions about the emotional and psychological independence – ‘no longer am I dependant on Mum and Dad, but I want to become independent in myself in terms of my emotions and my well-being’.

He also talks about productive and stable peer relationships, where children begin the think more about what their peers think of them and how they see themselves with their peers, and those relationships with their peers being very critical. Another point he mentions is their ‘personal values system’, and again they are moving from a point of life when children are no longer just believing and taking on the values that the family have, they are thinking through those and asking the big questions. That can be confronting for teachers of middle years’ students because suddenly they are saying ‘why?’ Can you justify what you are saying rather than just accepting blindly, I guess, what teachers are saying to them. So there’s a lot of questioning at this stage of life too.

He mentions, the final one being, the ‘increased ability to control a student’s impulses’ and their behavioural maturity – no more tantrums, we hope, and moving forward to dealing with emotions in a more age-appropriate manner.

When we think of programmes for middle school, I think it’s important to know what that philosophy is, and in terms of the ‘tasks of adolescents’, whatever programmes and practices we do, they have to address the ‘task of adolescents’. There is no point in doing something in a middle schooling programme that doesn’t specifically look towards developing some of those ‘tasks of adolescents’ in the child. If so, really why are you doing it? But people would say that children this age need that engagement, so a programme that really draws in the attention of the children and takes them a step further in their thinking. We know that one of the ‘task of adolescents’ is ‘increased intellectual ability’, so a programme must take them and move them forward. It has to be rigorous; there is no fairy-floss, no candy about it. It has to be fun, enjoyable, but very much engaging and robust.

Students also respond very well to activities that are very hands-on. Children that age find it hard to sit still – the boys particularly like to shift and move and wriggle around. So a programme that allows them to be up and moving and working in groups, moving around the classroom – very different from a traditional setting, where children may be set in rows and told not to move around the class. There has to be that sense of freedom.

In one sense middle school programmes can extend in childhood. By that I don’t mean we keep the children young and treat them as young people, but rather they are not forced to grow up too quickly and instead of thinking that they have to behave like 16/17 year olds, they can feel safe in the context that it’s ok still to do things such as theme days. I know a number of schools that have a special theme day based around a unit of work. So there is the theory and learning side of it in school, but then the outward expression of that in a theme day, where they might come dressed as a character or look at medieval history by creating a medieval village in the playground. These things are ok to do in a middle school context. In a whole school context it mightn’t be seen to be cool that students who are 13/14 dressing up like that. So it extends what they enjoy doing and provides them some very important learning opportunities.

Outdoor learning is very important and we have to realise that learning is not just confined to the classroom – some very valuable experiences can happen outside, be they in the playground or in the local area, or on longer field days. I think it’s very important to have an outdoor education programme where children are taken out of their comfort zone and have a chance to do hiking, canoeing, abseiling, and other physical challenges that perhaps they normally wouldn’t do. Where they can really stretch and see what they can find deep within themselves as they dig down to overcome some of the challenges that might confront them.

I think it’s very important to have guest speakers and visitors in the classrooms a lot, so children can hear from other adults or perhaps other young people, and find out about different perspectives of the world. Give them the sense that life is not all about them as an emerging teenager but they as a teenager can do something to help other people. I think it’s very important to have a programme that allows children to outwork who they are and how they can help other people.

It is also important to have leadership opportunities and I think in a middle schooling context that’s more possible – groups of students who are at top of their middle schooling group or whatever age that might be in different schools, have the chance to show what they can do as young people, and be given responsibility.

Technology is also a very big part of a successful middle school because it is something that the children have just grown up with, and it’s important that they have access to some of these types of technologies that can strengthen their learning and help them on a global perspective as well.

It’s important also that the learning context of the children is given consideration – group work, individual work, co-operative learning where children can have a bit more of a say in what they are doing and make some choices. Authentic assessment where children are doing their assessment task for a specific reason for an authentic audience, perhaps devising some programme that can be presented to a local council or presenting some historical research to a historical society, where people can look at their work and judge that. I think it gives real meaning to the learning and that’s also a key to successful programmes that children understand why they are learning what they are learning. They are not just doing it because the teacher said so.

A lot of research shows that it’s the teachers that can have the most significant impact on the children’s learning. We can change the structure, we can change the philosophies, we can change the programmes, but without effective teachers it is going to fall flat on its face. So that’s a teacher who has a real heart, desire and passion to do the very best for the children. Someone who is not scared to put aside the textbook and look at programmes that are more engaging. It has to be also someone who relates well to children. It’s been said that you can’t teach a child that you don’t know, and in those middle years if you don’t have a teacher who really relates well to children, that makes a special effort to chat with them in the playground to get to know them well, you won’t really have an effective middle school teacher. So that relationship is really a very key part of what middle schooling is all about.

Published on: 30 Aug 2010