BYee Dissertation - October 2015 PDFA

BYee Dissertation - October 2015 PDFA
Doctoral thesis submitted to
the Faculty of Behavioural and Cultural Studies
Heidelberg University
in partial fulfillment of the requirements of the degree of
Doctor of Philosophy (Dr. phil.)
in Education
Title of the thesis
Leading, teaching and learning “in the Middle” – An international case study narrative
examining the leadership dimensions, instructional practices and contextual philosophies
that have transformed teaching and learning in the middle years.
presented by
Brandy Yee
year of submission
2015
Dean:
Advisor:
Prof. Dr. Klaus Fiedler
Prof. Dr. Anne Sliwka
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Promotionsausschuss
der
Fakultät
für
Verhaltensund
Empirische
Kulturwissenschaften der Ruprecht-Karls-Universität Heidelberg
Doctoral Committee of the Faculty of Behavioural and Cultural Studies of Heidelberg
University
Erklärung gemäß § 8 Abs. 1 Buchst. b) und c) der Promotionsordnung der Universität
Heidelberg für die Fakultät für Verhaltens- und Empirische Kulturwissenschaften
Declaration in accordance to § 8 (1) b) and § 8 (1) c) of the doctoral degree regulation of
Heidelberg University, Faculty of Behavioural and Cultural Studies
Ich erkläre, dass ich die vorgelegte Dissertation selbstständig angefertigt, nur die
angegebenen Hilfsmittel benutzt und die Zitate gekennzeichnet habe.
I declare that I have made the submitted dissertation independently, using only the specified
tools and have correctly marked all quotations.
Ich erkläre, dass ich die vorgelegte Dissertation in dieser oder einer anderen Form nicht
anderweitig als Prüfungsarbeit verwendet oder einer anderen Fakultät als Dissertation
vorgelegt habe.
I declare that I did not use the submitted dissertation in this or any other form as an
examination paper until now and that I did not submit it in another faculty.
Vorname Nachname
First name Family name
Datum, Unterschrift
Date, Signature
Brandy Yee
_______________________________________
LEADING, TEACHING AND LEARNING IN THE MIDDLE
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Abstract
Through the exploration of the lived experiences, beliefs and values of instructional
leaders, lead teachers and students in Finland, Germany and Canada, this study seeks to
answer the question, “What factors contribute to the establishment of developmentally
responsive, intellectually engaging middle level learning environments for early
adolescents?” Provoked by current research emerging from the Canadian province of
Manitoba calling for the transformation of middle level learning environments, leading,
teaching and learning in the middle years are examined through the lens of Robinson’s
(2011) “leadership dimensions,” Friesen’s (2009) effective instructional practices and
Dweck’s (2008) “growth mindset.” Consideration of these three research perspectives in the
context of early adolescent learning and middle level learning environments, placed against
an international backdrop, provides a previously undocumented perspective into this
phenomenon.
Aligning with a social constructivist, qualitative research paradigm, the research
design for this study incorporates collective case study methodology, along with
constructivist grounded theory methods of data analysis. Three case study narratives are used
to share the rich stories of study participants in Finland, Germany and Canada, selected using
maximum variation and intensity sampling techniques. Interview transcript data was coded
using processes outlined in Charmaz’s (2006, 2012) constructivist grounded theory. A crosscase analysis yielded a conceptual framework, highlighting key factors that were found in the
data to be significant in the establishment of developmentally responsive, intellectually
engaging middle level learning environments.
Although this study focuses on 12 schools in Finland, Germany and Canada, it
informs the practice of all those working with early adolescent learners in middle level
learning environments in all corners of the globe. Using the insight and practical wisdom
LEADING, TEACHING AND LEARNING IN THE MIDDLE
4
shared by study participants as a catalyst to reflect on and question current practices related to
leading, teaching and learning in middle years will provide educators and education systems
around the world with the awareness needed to support the next generation of early
adolescent learners.
Keywords: middle level learning, middle years, early adolescents, early adolescence,
instructional leadership, leadership dimensions, instructional practices, student agency,
developmentally responsive, intellectually engaging
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Table of Contents
Approval Page ............................................................................................................................ 1
Declaration ................................................................................................................................. 2
Abstract ...................................................................................................................................... 3
Table of Contents ....................................................................................................................... 5
Acknowledgements .................................................................................................................. 11
Dedication ................................................................................................................................ 13
List of Tables ........................................................................................................................... 14
List of Figures .......................................................................................................................... 15
List of Abbreviations ............................................................................................................... 16
1.
1.1.
1.2.
1.2.3.
1.3.
1.3.1.
1.3.2.
1.3.3.
1.3.4.
1.4.
1.4.1.
1.4.2.
1.4.3.
1.4.4.
1.4.5.
1.5.
1.5.1.
1.5.2.
1.5.3.
1.5.4.
1.5.5.
1.5.6.
1.5.7.
1.5.8.
1.6.
2.
2.1.
2.2.
2.3.
2.3.3.
2.3.4.
2.3.5.
2.3.6.
2.3.7.
2.3.8.
Introduction: Why Middle Years, Why Now? ...................................................... 17
Background and Significance of the Study ........................................................... 17
Framework for the Study ...................................................................................... 21
International Perspective ....................................................................................... 23
The Core Questions ............................................................................................... 25
Overarching Theme of Questions ......................................................................... 26
Instructional Leader Overarching Question .......................................................... 26
Lead Teacher Overarching Question .................................................................... 26
Student Overarching Question .............................................................................. 26
Research Paradigm, Delimitations, Limitations and Assumptions ....................... 26
Narrative Collective Case Study Methodology .................................................... 27
Constructivist Grounded Theory........................................................................... 28
Study Delimitations............................................................................................... 30
Study Limitations .................................................................................................. 32
Assumptions .......................................................................................................... 32
Definition of Key Terms and Concepts ................................................................ 34
Middle Years Education, Middle Level Education, Middle Schools, Middle Level
Learning Environments ......................................................................................... 34
Middle Years Philosophy, Middle Years Concept, Middle Years Configuration 34
Early Adolescents ................................................................................................. 34
Instructional Leader .............................................................................................. 35
Lead Teacher ......................................................................................................... 35
Developmentally Responsive ................................................................................ 35
Intellectually Engaging ......................................................................................... 36
Student Agency ..................................................................................................... 36
Organisation of the Dissertation ........................................................................... 36
Leading, Teaching and Learning in the Middle: Literature Review ..................... 38
Organisation of the Chapter .................................................................................. 38
History of the Middle Years Movement ............................................................... 40
Current Research Perspectives Supporting Middle Level Learning
Environments ........................................................................................................ 44
New Zealand and Australia ................................................................................... 44
Association for Middle Level Education .............................................................. 48
Breaking Ranks in the Middle .............................................................................. 55
Turning Points and Turning Points 2000 .............................................................. 61
The National Forum to Accelerate Middle-Grades Reform ................................. 67
Rick Wormeli ........................................................................................................ 68
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2.3.9.
2.4.
2.4.1.
2.4.1.1.
2.4.1.2.
2.4.1.3.
2.4.1.4.
2.4.2.
2.5.
6
2.6.
2.6.1.
2.6.2.
2.7.
2.7.1.
2.7.2.
2.7.3.
2.8.
Misunderstanding the Middle ............................................................................... 71
Current Research Adolescent Development ......................................................... 72
The Science and Psychology of Adolescence ....................................................... 74
Adolescent Physical Development........................................................................ 74
Adolescent Brain Development ............................................................................ 76
Adolescence and Sleep.......................................................................................... 78
Adolescence and Metacognition ........................................................................... 81
Lerner’s Positive Youth Development .................................................................. 84
Themes Emerging from Current Research Highlighted in the Literature Review
............................................................................................................................... 85
Foundational Research Lens for the Study ........................................................... 86
Transforming Middle Years Education in Manitoba ............................................ 86
Manitoba’s Developmentally Responsive Learning Environments...................... 87
Research Perspectives that Underpin the Study .................................................... 90
Viviane Robinson: Student-Centered Leadership ................................................. 91
What Did You Do In School Today? and Effective Teaching Practices .............. 97
Carol Dweck and the Growth Mindset .............................................................. 104
Leading, Teaching and Learning in the Middle: Literature Review Summary .. 107
3.
3.1.
3.2.
3.3.
3.4.
3.5.
3.6.
3.7.
3.7.1.
3.7.2.
3.7.3.
3.7.4.
3.7.5.
3.7.6.
3.8.
3.8.1.
3.9.
3.9.1.
3.9.2.
3.9.3.
3.9.4.
3.10.
3.10.1.
3.10.2.
3.10.3.
3.11.
3.11.1.
3.11.2.
3.11.3.
3.12.
3.12.1.
A Collective Case Study Examination: The Methodology ................................. 109
Coming to Terms with the Research Process...................................................... 109
Social Constructivist Research............................................................................ 114
Combining Methodologies and Ensuring Methodological Congruence ............. 117
Collective Case Study Format for Reporting Results ......................................... 119
Constructivist Grounded Theory Approach to Guide Data Analysis ................. 121
Role of the Researcher ........................................................................................ 123
Criteria for Quality of the Study ......................................................................... 126
Credibility ........................................................................................................... 127
Transferability ..................................................................................................... 127
Dependability ...................................................................................................... 128
Confirmability ..................................................................................................... 128
Authenticity......................................................................................................... 129
Interpretive and Methodological Rigour ............................................................. 130
Study Participants ............................................................................................... 132
Site and Participant Sampling ............................................................................. 133
Process of Site Selection and Site Entry ............................................................. 133
German School Sites ........................................................................................... 134
Finnish School Sites ............................................................................................ 135
Canadian School Sites ......................................................................................... 136
Site Entry............................................................................................................. 136
Process of Data Generation ................................................................................. 137
Interviews ............................................................................................................ 140
Observations........................................................................................................ 144
Document Review ............................................................................................... 145
The Research Context ......................................................................................... 146
Entering into the Research Context .................................................................... 146
Maintaining the Research Focus ......................................................................... 149
Departing from the Research Context ................................................................. 150
The Process of Data Analysis ............................................................................. 151
Part 1: In-depth Individual Case Analysis .......................................................... 153
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3.12.1.1.
3.12.1.2.
3.12.1.3.
3.12.1.4.
3.12.1.5.
3.12.2.
3.13.
4.
4.1.
4.2.
4.2.1.
4.2.2.
7
Open Coding ....................................................................................................... 154
Focused Coding................................................................................................... 155
Memo Writing ..................................................................................................... 156
Visual Mapping ................................................................................................... 157
Development of Core Categories ........................................................................ 157
Part 2: Cross-case Analysis ................................................................................. 159
The Writing Process ............................................................................................ 160
Images of Leading, Teaching and Learning in the Middle: Discoveries ............ 163
Organisation of the Chapter ................................................................................ 163
The Finnish Research Sites ................................................................................. 164
The Finnish Context for Middle Level Education .............................................. 163
Images of Instructional Leadership in Finnish Middle Level Learning
Environments ...................................................................................................... 172
4.2.2.1.
Philosophies About Early Adolescent Learning ................................................. 173
4.2.2.2.
Most Important Role(s) as an Instructional Leader ............................................ 174
4.2.2.3.
Establishing Goals and Expectations .................................................................. 176
4.2.2.4.
Ensuring Quality Teaching ................................................................................. 177
4.2.2.5.
Leading Teacher Learning and Development ..................................................... 177
4.2.2.6.
Resourcing Strategically ..................................................................................... 178
4.2.2.7.
Instructional Leadership and Early Adolescent Learners ................................... 179
4.2.2.7.1. Student Transitions ............................................................................................. 181
4.2.2.7.2. Communication that Supports Student Learning ................................................ 182
4.2.2.8.
Lessons Learned--Finnish Values ....................................................................... 183
4.2.3.
Images of Instructional Practices in Finnish Middle Level Learning Environments
............................................................................................................................. 185
4.2.3.1.
Preparation for Teaching ..................................................................................... 186
4.2.3.2.
Philosophies on Teaching and Learning ............................................................. 186
4.2.3.3.
Teachers are Designers of Learning.................................................................... 188
4.2.3.4.
Work Students Undertake is Worthwhile ........................................................... 189
4.2.3.5.
Assessment Practices Improve Student Learning and Guide Teaching .............. 191
4.2.3.6.
Strong Relationships Exist .................................................................................. 192
4.2.3.7.
Teachers Improve Their Practice in the Company of Their Peers ...................... 193
4.2.3.8.
Unique Supports for Early Adolescent Learners ................................................ 194
4.2.3.9.
Important Finnish Values .................................................................................... 196
4.2.4.
Images of the Student Experience in Finnish Middle Level Learning
Environments ...................................................................................................... 197
4.2.4.1.
What Makes Your School a Great Place to Learn? ............................................ 197
4.2.4.2.
What Makes a Great Teacher? ............................................................................ 199
4.2.4.3.
Engagement in and Relevance of Learning ........................................................ 200
4.2.4.4.
Assessment and Feedback that Improves Performance ...................................... 203
4.2.4.5.
Risk Taking in Learning ..................................................................................... 203
4.2.4.6.
Would You Change Anything? ........................................................................... 204
4.3.
The German Research Sites ................................................................................ 205
4.3.1.
The German Context for Middle Level Education ............................................. 205
4.3.2.
Images of Instructional Leadership in German Middle Level Learning
Environments ...................................................................................................... 214
4.3.2.1.
Philosophies About Early Adolescent Learning ................................................. 214
4.3.2.2.
Most Important Role(s) as an Instructional Leader ............................................ 216
4.3.2.3.
Establishing Goals and Expectations .................................................................. 216
LEADING, TEACHING AND LEARNING IN THE MIDDLE
4.3.2.4.
4.3.2.5.
4.3.2.6.
4.3.2.7.
4.3.3.
4.3.3.1.
4.3.3.2.
4.3.3.3.
4.3.3.4.
4.3.3.5.
4.3.3.6.
4.3.3.7.
4.3.4.
4.3.4.1.
4.3.4.2.
4.3.4.3.
4.3.4.4.
4.3.4.5.
4.3.4.6.
4.3.4.7.
4.3.4.8.
4.3.4.9.
4.4.
4.4.1.
4.4.2.
4.4.2.1.
4.4.2.2.
4.4.2.3.
4.4.2.4.
4.4.2.5.
4.4.2.6.
4.4.2.7.
4.4.2.8.
4.4.3.
4.4.3.1.
4.4.3.2.
4.4.3.3.
4.4.3.4.
4.4.3.5.
4.4.3.6.
4.4.3.7.
4.4.4.
4.4.4.1.
4.4.4.2.
4.4.4.3.
8
Ensuring Quality Teaching ................................................................................. 217
Leading Teacher Learning and Development ..................................................... 219
Instructional Leadership and Early Adolescent Learners ................................... 220
Lessons Learned .................................................................................................. 221
Images of Instructional Practices in German Middle Level Learning
Environments ...................................................................................................... 222
Philosophies on Teaching and Learning ............................................................. 222
Teachers are Designers of Learning.................................................................... 222
Work Students Undertake is Worthwhile ........................................................... 224
Assessment Practices Improve Student Learning and Guide Teaching .............. 225
Strong Relationships Exist .................................................................................. 226
Teachers Improve Their Practice in the Company of Their Peer ....................... 227
Lessons Learned .................................................................................................. 228
Images of the Student Experience in German Middle Level Learning
Environments ...................................................................................................... 229
Tell Me About Your School................................................................................ 229
Friendships and Resiliency ................................................................................. 230
What Makes a Great Teacher? ............................................................................ 231
Engagement in and Relevance of Learning ........................................................ 233
Student Agency in Their Learning ...................................................................... 235
Use of Technology to Support Student Learning................................................ 236
Sources of Student Support ................................................................................. 237
Feeling Safe and Secure at School ...................................................................... 238
Would You Change Anything? ........................................................................... 239
The Canadian Research Sites .............................................................................. 240
The Canadian Context for Middle Level Education ........................................... 240
Images of Instructional Leadership in Canadian Middle Level Learning
Environments ...................................................................................................... 249
Philosophies About Early Adolescent Learning ................................................. 249
Most Important Role(s) as an Instructional Leader ............................................ 251
Establishing Goals and Expectations .................................................................. 253
Ensuring Quality Teaching ................................................................................. 254
Leading Teacher Learning and Development ..................................................... 255
Resourcing Strategically ..................................................................................... 259
Ensuring a Safe and Orderly Environment ......................................................... 260
Lessons Learned .................................................................................................. 261
Images of Instructional Practices in Canadian Middle Level Learning
Environments ...................................................................................................... 262
Philosophies on Teaching and Learning ............................................................. 264
Teachers are Designers of Learning.................................................................... 263
Work Students Undertake is Worthwhile ........................................................... 266
Assessment Practices Improve Student Learning and Guide Teaching .............. 270
Strong Relationships Exist .................................................................................. 271
Teachers Improve Their Practice in the Company of Their Peers ...................... 273
Lessons Learned .................................................................................................. 275
Images of the Student Experience in Canadian Middle Level Learning
Environments ...................................................................................................... 277
What Makes Your School a Great Place to Learn? ............................................ 277
What Makes a Great Teacher? ............................................................................ 279
Engagement in and Relevance of Learning ........................................................ 281
LEADING, TEACHING AND LEARNING IN THE MIDDLE
9
4.4.4.4.
4.4.4.5.
4.4.4.6.
4.4.4.7.
4.4.4.8.
4.4.4.9.
4.4.4.10.
4.4.4.11.
Student Agency in Their Learning ...................................................................... 282
Assessment and Feedback That Improves Performance ..................................... 283
Friendships and Resiliency ................................................................................. 285
Sources of Student Support ................................................................................. 286
Use of Technology to Support Student Learning................................................ 286
Feeling Safe and Secure at School ...................................................................... 288
Risk Taking in Learning ..................................................................................... 289
Would You Change Anything? ........................................................................... 290
5.
5.1.
5.2.
5.3.
5.4.
5.5.
5.5.1.
5.5.1.1.
5.5.1.2.
5.5.1.3.
5.5.1.4.
5.5.2.
5.5.2.1.
5.5.2.2.
5.6.
5.6.1.
5.6.1.1.
5.6.1.2.
5.6.1.3.
5.7.
5.7.1.
5.7.1.1.
5.7.1.2.
5.7.1.3.
5.7.1.4.
5.7.2.
5.7.2.1.
5.7.2.2.
5.7.2.3.
5.7.2.4.
5.7.3.
5.7.3.1.
5.7.3.2.
5.8.
5.8.1.
5.8.1.1.
Emerging Themes and a Framework .................................................................. 293
Organisation of the Chapter ................................................................................ 293
Conceptual Visual Framework............................................................................ 294
Proposed Framework .......................................................................................... 295
Rationale Behind Key Factors, Cluster Groupings and Descriptions ................. 296
Cornerstone Factors ............................................................................................ 298
Education as a Fundamental Cultural Value ....................................................... 298
Early Adolescent Learners as a Key Priority ...................................................... 299
Responsive Legislation and Policy ..................................................................... 300
Systemic Commitment ........................................................................................ 301
Resource and Support Effective People and Practices........................................ 302
Pre-service, In-service and On-going Teacher Development ............................. 305
Develop Teachers as Experts in Early Adolescence ........................................... 306
Professional Learning Reflects Current Research and Current Learners ........... 307
Synergistic Factors .............................................................................................. 309
Instructional Leadership ...................................................................................... 309
Clear Vision and Direction ................................................................................. 310
Visible and Responsive ....................................................................................... 311
Courageous and Unconventional ........................................................................ 312
Contextual Factors .............................................................................................. 314
Instructional Practices ......................................................................................... 314
Disciplinary Expertise ......................................................................................... 315
Expertise in Early Adolescent Development ...................................................... 316
Responsive Instructional Design and Assessment Practices............................... 316
Authentic Learning Tasks ................................................................................... 317
School Culture..................................................................................................... 318
Cohesive Instructional Program .......................................................................... 320
Flexible and Responsive School Processes ......................................................... 323
Access to Multidimensional Support Services.................................................... 323
Intentional Processes for Student Transitions ..................................................... 324
Engaging Families and the Community .............................................................. 326
Ongoing and Timely Communication with Students’ Families.......................... 327
Linking School and Community Fosters Trust ................................................... 329
Essential Factors ................................................................................................. 332
Students ............................................................................................................... 332
Real Opportunities for Student Voice, Choice and Agency ............................... 332
6.
6.1.
6.2.
6.3.
Conclusions ......................................................................................................... 335
Nothing but the Essentials................................................................................... 335
A Call to Action .................................................................................................. 341
Further Questions ................................................................................................ 342
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6.4.
10
Final Thoughts .................................................................................................... 345
References .............................................................................................................................. 347
Appendix A ............................................................................................................................ 368
Appendix B ............................................................................................................................ 369
Appendix C ............................................................................................................................ 371
Appendix D ............................................................................................................................ 372
Appendix E ............................................................................................................................ 373
Appendix F............................................................................................................................. 374
Appendix G ............................................................................................................................ 380
Appendix H ............................................................................................................................ 382
Appendix I ............................................................................................................................. 388
Appendix J ............................................................................................................................. 390
Appendix K ............................................................................................................................ 391
LEADING, TEACHING AND LEARNING IN THE MIDDLE
11
Acknowledgements
My entire academic journey, culminating in this dissertation would not have been
possible without key individuals in my life who have been tremendous sources of support and
inspiration. I am indebted to all of you and feel so very privileged to call you colleagues,
friends and family.
To Dr. Anne Sliwka, my supervisor, thank you for your unwavering support, your
wisdom and your dedication to education, to my research and to me. You have been an
amazing teacher and mentor, and under your guidance I know I have grown and developed as
an educator. Thank you for taking a chance on me, believing in me and giving so freely of
your time to ensure I was able to meet some very demanding timelines. I look forward to
continuing to learn from you and work with you for years to come.
To Dr. Charlie Webber, thank you for connecting me with Anne--a true gift. It was
your vision and wisdom when you first taught me many moons ago that helped me see the
numerous possibilities and opportunities that exist within the world of education. You have
taken good care of two generations of students from the Yee family and I look forward to my
two children having the opportunity to learn from you as well.
To Dr. Matti Rautiainen, I am so very thankful for your insight, your wisdom and
your honesty about the very complex world of education. My research is far richer because
of the time I was able to spend with you in Finland--the impact this time has had on my
growth as a teacher and instructional leader is immeasurable.
I have had the good fortune of having an exceptional doctoral committee. I extend
my gratitude to you for the time you devoted to providing honest feedback and guidance for
me. Your expertise, knowledge and thought-provoking questions have challenged me to
think deeply about the implications for my research and have made my dissertation stronger.
LEADING, TEACHING AND LEARNING IN THE MIDDLE
12
To Dr. Viviane Robinson, Dr. Sharon Friesen and Dr. Carol Dweck, whose research
has provided me inspiration and a new lens from which to view leading, teaching and
learning in middle level learning environments.
I am forever grateful to my family for their support, patience and unconditional love
as I undertook this journey to fulfil a long held dream of mine: my mom, Dianne, my
husband, Josh, and two children, Zachary and Graysi. Through you, I have come to
understand what matters most in life.
I am also indebted to my students and colleagues who have challenged me to grow as
an instructional leader and teacher; I have learned so much from you and only hope that you
have learned a thing or two from me as well.
Finally, I am so very thankful to the participants of this study for sharing their time,
wisdom and passion for life and learning with me. I believe our work together will pave the
way for meaningful change in middle level learning environments around the world.
I am a part of all that I have met.
-From Ulysses, by Lord Alfred Tennyson
LEADING, TEACHING AND LEARNING IN THE MIDDLE
13
Dedication
This work is dedicated to my mother, Dianne, who has sacrificed so much for me. You are
my inspiration, my rock, my biggest cheerleader and my best friend. I feel so very fortunate
and privileged to have had the opportunity to learn from you, laugh with you and explore the
world together. For me, you are without a doubt, the most exceptional instructional leader
the world of education has ever been blessed with. Your life’s work has demonstrated
wisdom, vision and compassion and continues to inspire me every day. I love you.
To Grampa and Junie, I know you have walked this journey with me. I have felt you beside
me when I needed you most. I miss you.
For my Zachary and my Graysi, whether you understand it yet or not, mommy’s research has
in so many ways been inspired by you and for you. I want your experience in school to be
exactly what you need it to be, so you can grow to be anything you want to be. If only you
could see yourselves through my eyes, then you would both know just how amazing you are.
I love you.
Josh, I am not sure if there could be two more different people in this world, but somehow we
make it work . . . and always will. I love you.
LEADING, TEACHING AND LEARNING IN THE MIDDLE
14
List of Tables
Table 1.
Paradigms, Methodology, Research Design/Methods & Data Collection Tools
Table 2.
List of Methodological Questions
Table 3.
Interview Participants from Research Sites (illustrating intensity and
maximum variation sampling)
Table 4.
Summary of Data Collected from International Research Sites
Table 5.
Number of Recurring Codes and Core Categories Emerging from Analysis of
Data
LEADING, TEACHING AND LEARNING IN THE MIDDLE
15
List of Figures
Figure 1.
A Conceptual Visual Framework Representing the Factors that Contribute to
Developmentally Responsive, Intellectually Engaging Middle level Learning
Environments.
LEADING, TEACHING AND LEARNING IN THE MIDDLE
List of Abbreviations
APA
American Psychological Association
ASCD
Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development
AMLE
Association for Middle Level Education
CEA
Canadian Education Association
CMEC
Council of Ministers of Education, Canada
FNBE
Finnish National Board of Education
GDR
German Democratic Republic
IPP
Individualised Program Plan
NSW DET
New South Wales Department of Education and Training
OECD
Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development
OISE
Ontario Institute for Studies in Education
PD
Professional Development
PISA
Programme for International Student Achievement
PLP
Personalised Learning Plan
PYD
Positive Youth Development
REM
Rapid Eye Movement
RTI
Response to Intervention
TALIS
Teaching and Learning International Survey
VET
Vocational Education and Training
WHO
World Health Organisation
16
LEADING, TEACHING AND LEARNING IN THE MIDDLE
17
Chapter One - Introduction: Why Middle Years, Why Now?
Children of the middle years do not do their learning unaffected by attendant feelings
of interest, boredom, success, failure, chagrin, joy, humiliation, pleasure, distress and
delight. They are whole children responding in a total way, and what they feel is a
constant factor that can be constructive or destructive in any learning situation.
(Dorothy Cohen, 1988, p. 89)
Background and Significance of the Study
Anyone who has recently stepped into a middle years classroom knows all too well
the truth of this portrait--the lived experience of these learners in our schools today. Early
adolescents are truly a unique group of learners, like none other a teacher might experience--a
group that at one moment will test a teacher’s mettle and the very next bring so much elation
and reward, that a teacher might even question how one could ever think of working with
another age group of students. This is the appeal and the true curiosity behind the early
adolescent learner and the heart of the research in this dissertation.
One does not enter into this field of education without being a bit of an idealist, a
dreamer of sorts, believing in the magic that happens daily in middle level classrooms around
the world. It is that relationship between teacher and student and the willingness to enter into
a space where they become co-creators of learning that empowers individuals and unites
communities--and in those amazing moments, lives are changed significantly forever. In a
world that is becoming increasingly complex, it would be unreasonable to believe that the
field of middle level education could remain unaffected by ever-changing societal
expectations, demands and pressures related to the role education and educators play in
preparing the world’s children for life, work and beyond. What remains unchanged,
however, is the need for early adolescent learners to have an education that prepares them for
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18
this unpredictable world that lies outside the four walls of our schools--an education that will
allow them to survive and thrive, but most importantly, an education that will unleash their
natural curiosities and empower them to contribute to our world in a manner in which only
they can. Understanding the unique developmental needs of early adolescent learners
remains a key to ensuring their success in learning, yet decisions about middle level learning
environments and programming for these learners are often based on budgets and capital
plans as opposed to what will best support these learners through what can be a very
tumultuous time. We cannot deny the very real stages of physical, emotional and social
development and transition occurring for these learners; however, we need not perpetuate
myths that associate early adolescence with distress, difficulty or suffering. If school systems
attend to how these changes impact teaching and learning, middle level learning
environments can achieve their potential in becoming remarkable places of learning,
responsive to the unique learning needs of early adolescents.
Examine the research that has come from any Canadian province or territory in the
past few years and you will see that on the top of the list of any priorities or initiatives is high
school completion. Provincial and territorial governments have invested large amounts of
time, money and human resources to this end. Much of the same research also points to the
middle years as being an important determiner of high school completion; yet, far fewer
resources have been devoted to understanding how to transform middle level learning
environments in order to lay the proper foundation for success in high school and beyond.
Research emerging from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) in 2008 related
to education reform in the Canadian province of Ontario revealed that a key predictor for
high school completion was an early adolescent’s experience in their grade 9 school year.
Consequently in Ontario, a considerable amount of resources went into better understanding
the developmental changes early adolescents undergo, what they experience as students in
LEADING, TEACHING AND LEARNING IN THE MIDDLE
19
middle level learning environments and how to ensure these students are academically,
socially and, most importantly, intellectually engaged in their learning. The province of
Ontario saw a tremendous jump in their high school completion rate, increasing from 68
percent in 2004 to 75 percent in 2007. This upward trend has continued (OISE, 2008).
Other Canadian studies have shown early adolescent students as becoming
increasingly disengaged and disconnected from their learning. According to one study,
Young People in Canada: Their Health and Well-Being, early adolescents’ behaviours and
self-perceptions are closely related to their quality of life in school (Klinger, Mills, &
Chapman, 2011). This study found that by grade 8 only 21 percent of girls and 16 percent of
boys reported, “liking school a lot” (p. 52). Furthermore, 52 percent of girls and 54 percent
of boys described their “teachers [as being] interested in them,” and only 72 percent of girls
and 70 percent of boys believed that, “most of their teachers were friendly” (p. 54).
Similarly, a study sponsored by the McCreary Centre Society (2009) in British Columbia
examined adolescents’ perceptions of school and feeling connected to school and their
learning throughout the adolescent developmental period. This multifaceted study generated
troubling findings that characterised early adolescent learners as lacking any meaningful
connection to school across all grades. Results showed a sharp drop in student connectedness
to their learning from 23 percent in grade 7 to 7 percent in grade 10, with a slight rise to 12
percent in grade 12. Lastly, the multi-year, cross Canada, What did you do in school today?
(2009) study (one of the few Canadian studies to solely examine the educational experiences
of adolescent learners and the only Canadian study to focus on the concept of intellectual
engagement) uncovered equally concerning results. The 2009-2010 What did you do in
school today? survey results using responses from over 11,000 early adolescent learners
showed 48 percent to be either apathetic or anxious towards their learning in language arts,
LEADING, TEACHING AND LEARNING IN THE MIDDLE
20
found little relevance in their learning or some combination of all three--and, the number
dropped to 42 percent in mathematics (Willms & Friesen, 2012).
Combined, this evidence underscores the importance of a closer examination (and
perhaps an examination through a different lens) of the experiences of early adolescents in
middle level learning environments and the factors that contribute to the establishment of
developmentally responsive, intellectually engaging learning environments for them.
Therefore, the significance of this research can be found in the unique examination of the
instructional leadership dimensions, teacher instructional practices, student agency in
learning, and the interaction among all three elements, within the context of middle level
learning environments in three international locations.
The methodology used to gain a better understanding of the lived experiences of
instructional leaders (in most cases, the school principal), lead teachers and students in
middle level learning environments is also significant. Acknowledging the highly diverse
and complex experiences and contexts involved in middle level learning environments, it was
important to select a methodology that would permit individuals in these three groups to
openly share their distinct beliefs and experiences in a fashion that did not “lead” respondents
and their responses into predetermined categories or themes. The semi-structured interview
format allowed individuals to respond to general questions while also having the flexibility to
elaborate with experiences specific to their context.
This study makes an important and unique contribution to the existing body of
knowledge related to leading, teaching and learning in middle level learning environments
and to the emerging understanding of the factors that contribute the establishment of
developmentally responsive, intellectually engaging middle level learning environments. It is
LEADING, TEACHING AND LEARNING IN THE MIDDLE
21
hoped that this study will not simply live in the “academic world,” but will also be significant
to the daily work of leading, teaching and learning in middle level learning environments.
The Framework for the Study
[Middle years learners] crave competence, self-definition, creativity, vividness in
learning, emotionally safe environments, control/power over their lives, physical
activity, positive social interactions with adults and peers, structure and clear limits,
and meaningful participation in school/community. Most of all, they want to belong.
Middle level teachers should be able to cite these attributes and many others without
hesitation, and their lessons should reflect this expertise. (Wormeli, 2012, para. 14)
The framework for this study arose as a result of my experiences as a teacher, system
specialist and instructional leader working in middle level learning environments for the past
13 years. In my work, my students have always served as that proverbial “North Star,” the
compass that guides me, ensuring the central purpose of all I do rests in providing them with
a learning environment in which they may develop and inquire, a safe place from which to
launch the many journeys that will combine to form their formal education. The students
who have held my curiosity and tugged at my heart strings have been those of the middle
years--learners ages 10-15, who are undergoing changes so rapid, it can only be matched by
changes experienced in infancy. Throughout my time working with early adolescents
questions began to emerge about the role of the learning environment, the people in that
environment, and how contextual philosophies in those environments may impact their
experience as learners. More recently, in my role as a school-based assistant principal (and
supported by professional learning led by the area education director of the large urban
school district that I work for in Alberta), I have had the opportunity to put into practice in
my school what I consider to be the best thinking available related to how leadership
LEADING, TEACHING AND LEARNING IN THE MIDDLE
22
dimensions, teacher instructional practices and honouring student agency in learning might
interact to create a truly developmentally responsive, intellectually engaging middle level
learning environment.
While many arguments can be found supporting either the early years (kindergarten
through grade 4) or the high school years (grades 10 through 12) as being important for
different reasons in a child’s growth and development, it is the middle years that have often
gone unnoticed. Much brain-based research has been devoted to understanding the
tremendous changes early adolescents experience; yet, connecting that research to schoolbased practices for these learners has remained elusive in many cases. Truly understanding
the unique developmental needs of early adolescent learners and how the multifaceted
developmental changes they undergo during this period impact their experience in school is
often overlooked as educators with good intentions engage in “strategy guesswork”
attempting to create effective and appropriate learning environments and learning
opportunities for these students.
In the 42 years since the Association for Middle Level Education (AMLE) established
This We Believe, (16 fundamental recommendations that support teaching and learning in the
middle years), their position on how key these recommendations are in establishing and
sustaining a learning environment best suited for early adolescent learners has remained
constant. As I walk into the middle level learning environments in my city, I see the AMLE
recommendations hanging in classrooms and hallways, most often in the form of the popular
This We Believe poster. Yet, in a very practical sense, there are few commonalities that exist
among the 50 middle schools in my jurisdiction with regards to instructional leadership and
teaching practices, as well as structures and programming for early adolescent learners. Even
more apparent is the lack of coherent systemic adoption of any of the best-practice
recommendations, regardless of the originating source--Engaging Middle Years Students in
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23
Learning from Manitoba Education, This We Believe, Turning Points 2000, Breaking Ranks
in the Middle or the numerous research studies originating from New Zealand, Australia and
other locations around the world. The subsequent review of current literature will affirm that
these observations are not isolated to my Alberta context and are, in fact, prevalent in middle
level learning environments around the world.
International perspective. Based on my professional experience, passions and a
significant gap I see in the research, the scope and intent of my study will focus on
understanding how leadership dimensions, teacher instructional practices and the impact of
student agency interact to support the establishment of developmentally responsive,
intellectually engaging middle level learning environments. Further, I have included an
international element in my research. Without an understanding and appreciation of other
cultures and the unique histories, beliefs and contexts intertwined into their national identity
which have consequently impacted their systems of education, we may miss valuable
opportunities to learn from each other. This international examination of instructional
leadership, teacher pedagogy and student agency will investigate trends and themes that
emerge across middle level learning environments, placed against the backdrop of the three
research perspectives underpinning my study, Viviane Robinson’s Student-Centered
Leadership (2011), Sharon Friesen’s Teaching Effectiveness Framework (2009) and Carol
Dweck’s Mindset (2008).
Finland is considered by many to have one of the world’s top performing education
systems (Hancock 2011; Sahlberg, 2011). Education reforms in Finland have been described
by some as emphasising teacher and student personal responsibility--where teachers are given
the freedom to design the curriculum and students have increased choice in what they study
(Hancock, 2011; Sahlberg, 2011). Principles 1 and 2 of the Teaching Effectiveness
Framework (“teachers are designers of learning” and “work students are asked to undertake
LEADING, TEACHING AND LEARNING IN THE MIDDLE
24
is worthy of their time and attention”) (see Appendix F) developed as a result of the What did
you do in school today? study and speak to the importance of autonomy (the type of
autonomy believed to be afforded to Finnish teachers and their students) in creating
meaningful and authentic learning experiences. The Finnish context will provide a thoughtprovoking narrative of how this much-admired system supports the unique and ever-changing
developmental needs of early adolescents in what is viewed as a highly student-centered
system of education.
Germany is currently undergoing significant reforms in their systems of education and
teacher preparation as they work to challenge long-held beliefs about hierarchies and levelled
systems of schooling. Once believed to be a symbol of national strength, the sifting and
sorting of children into one of three tiers of school at the age of 10, is now believed by many
to be a limiting factor in potential for student growth and opportunities (OECD, 2011). In
response to what some described as “PISA shock,” Germany has, since the year 2000, seen a
steady increase in Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) scores in literacy,
mathematics and science. Known for having a more decentralised system of education, the
16 German Länder (regions) have primary responsibility for what happens in schools and in
teacher education programs. Reforms in teacher preparation programs are now underway in
some German Länder, as educational leaders in the university system work to ensure teacher
training programs reflect the changes primarily being seen in Germany’s secondary schools.
The German context will provide a fascinating look into how the needs of early adolescent
learners are being attended to, regardless of where the school falls in the current tiered
system.
The education system in Canada varies considerably among the ten provinces and
three territories. When Canadian results are profiled in international measures such as PISA
or the Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS), the nation as a whole continues
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25
to score near the top. These results, when further examined by province, reveal there is a
large discrepancy in how individual provinces fare on the tests. A small number of provinces
(Alberta, British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec) score, in all PISA tests, at the Canadian
average and have in some cases surpassed the average Canadian results. The remaining six
provinces score below the Canadian average and, in some instances, well below other
Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries. It is
interesting to note, however, that for the purposes of this study, some of the most significant
work related to leading, teaching and learning in the middle years has come from another
Canadian province, Manitoba. The province of Ontario, driven by research emerging from
the OISE, has also recently been more intentional in the way they have supported and
resourced their middle level learning environments (2008). The Canadian context will
provide an intriguing examination into what impact the middle years movement has had on
selected Canadian school contexts, almost 50 years after it originated just south of the border
in the United States.
The Core Questions
Using a semi-structured interview format with instructional leaders and lead teachers
and a small focus group format with students, I have attempted to draw out common themes
related to the lived experiences and beliefs of these three groups in the context of middle
level learning environments. The focus of all initial questions and subsequent follow-up
questions centered on the discovery of factors and conditions that contribute to the creation of
developmentally responsive, intellectually engaging learning environments for early
adolescent learners. In developing questions for instructional leaders, lead teachers and
students, I have used the following overarching questions as guides:
LEADING, TEACHING AND LEARNING IN THE MIDDLE
26
Overarching theme of questions. What factors contribute to the establishment of
developmentally responsive, intellectually engaging middle level learning environments for
early adolescents?
Instructional leader overarching question. Using the research articulated by
Viviane Robinson (2011) in her book Student-Centred Leadership as a lens, “What
leadership dimensions contribute to the creation of a developmentally responsive,
intellectually engaging learning environment for early adolescents?”
Lead teacher overarching question. Using Sharon Friesen’s (2009) Teaching
Effectiveness Framework as a lens, “What instructional practices do teachers draw upon that
contribute to the creation of a developmentally responsive, intellectually engaging learning
environment for early adolescents?”
Student overarching question. Using Carol Dweck's (2008) Mindset as a lens,
“How do early adolescents articulate their needs in ways that contribute to the creation of a
developmentally responsive, intellectually engaging learning environment?”
Research Paradigm, Study Delimitations, Limitations and Assumptions
When faced with the task of determining which research paradigm would best suit the
questions I was seeking to answer, I struggled with what I felt were limitations, perhaps
having more to do with the methodologies associated with a given paradigm, rather than the
paradigm itself. I have always felt the nature of constructivist research (more specifically,
social constructivist research), aligned most closely with my ontological and epistemological
beliefs. In social constructivism, emphasis is placed on the important role culture and context
play in understanding various societal experiences, whereby knowledge is constructed not in
isolation but in a collective manner using the lived experiences of those involved (McMahon,
1997). There was another element that weighed heavily on my mind as I grappled with the
LEADING, TEACHING AND LEARNING IN THE MIDDLE
27
selection of research design and that was the ability to depict the rich stories I believed would
emerge from the research sites I visited; I wanted to ensure my chosen methodology “did
justice” to these stories. It was not until I read an article in the scholarly journal, The
Qualitative Report, written by another doctoral candidate as she tried to make sense of her
own research, that I truly felt I had found the right fit--methodologically speaking--for my
own research (Lauckner, Paterson, & Krupa, 2012).
Lauckner’s (2012) research focused on developing a framework for community
development using her background and experiences as an occupational therapist as well as
the perspectives of other occupational therapists. Lauckner presented a list of ten
methodological questions she felt were critical in the decision making process she entered
into related to her chosen research design and subsequent analysis of data (see Table 1). In
what Lauckner describes as an “iterative dialectic between research topic and potential
research methodologies” (p. 4) it was decided that the best method of ensuring she could
present in-depth, descriptive case studies while also formulating a framework that might
describe a process for community development, was a “collective case study design,
combined with grounded theory analysis methods” (Lauckner et al., 2012, p. 4). Although
Lauckner’s chosen area of research (occupational therapy) is not in the field of education as
my study is, it does fall within the realm of the social sciences; therefore, I believe the
evidence she presents that supports her chosen research design to be applicable in my own
research.
Narrative collective case study methodology. I will be employing a narrative,
collective case study research methodology, as I believe it is the stories of instructional
leaders, lead teachers and students in middle level learning environments that will be most
powerful in illuminating for others the possibilities for transformation in the middle years of
learning. Clandinin and Connelly (2000) refer to narrative inquiry as a means by which the
LEADING, TEACHING AND LEARNING IN THE MIDDLE
28
researcher systematically gathers, analyses and represents people’s stories, as told by them.
Bruner (1986), writes about “narrative knowing,” where knowledge is “created and
constructed through stories of lived experiences, and the meanings created, [help to] make
sense of the ambiguity and complexity of human lives” (p. 12). From this narrative knowing,
we gain a unique insight that allows us to bring together multiple layers of understanding of
often-complex phenomena.
From the perspective of Yin (2003), case study methodology is suitable for,
“examining a contemporary phenomenon within its real-life context, especially when the
boundaries between the phenomenon and context are not clearly evident” (p. 13). This is
certainly applicable to the nature of my investigation into the context-specific lived
experiences of instructional leaders, lead teachers and students in middle level learning
environments. The use of multiple case studies enables the researcher to depict the depth and
richness of a phenomenon across contexts (Anaf, Drummond & Sheppard, 2007; Stake, 2000,
2006). The ability to investigate and share context specific stories of transformational change
from middle level learning environments in Finland, Germany and Canada will be a
significant contribution to the body of research related to leading, teaching and learning in the
middle years.
The questions that will guide my semi-structured interviews with instructional leaders,
lead teachers and students will support the construction of a collective understanding and
knowledge of the factors that contribute to the establishment of developmentally responsive,
intellectually engaging middle level learning environments. This collaborative building of
phenomenological knowledge related to leading, teaching and learning in the middle years is
true to the social constructivist epistemology. I believe it will be the stories and lived
experiences shared in these discussions that will carry the most rich and valuable insight into
LEADING, TEACHING AND LEARNING IN THE MIDDLE
29
how early adolescents can be better supported in their learning through the transformation of
middle level learning environments.
Constructivist grounded theory. For the purpose of this study, I will also be
utilising a research design informed by constructivist grounded theory methodology for data
analysis. As conceptualised by Glaser and Strauss (1967) grounded theory methodology is
more a process of discovery, rather than confirmation. In contrast to more traditional models
of research that begin with a theory to be confirmed or negated through subsequent data
collection, researchers using grounded theory begin with data collection in various forms,
followed by a systematic series of data coding, leading to the formulation of a hypothesis or
theory (Glaser & Strauss, 1967). A split in methodology materialised, as Glaser and Strauss,
(fathers of classic grounded theory) could not agree on perceived differences in beliefs about
the application of grounded theory methodology. The Glaserian approach focused on the
“how” of theory development through data collection; whereas, the primary concern of the
Straussian approach was a systematic method for data analysis to ensure validation criteria
existed to support subsequent theory development (Glaser, 1992, 1998; Strauss & Corbin,
1990, 1998). This divergence in classic grounded theory opened the doors for other
grounded theorists to consider alternative lenses from which to view the methodology.
It is the emergence of another division of grounded theory, Charmaz’s constructivist
grounded theory (2003) that is most applicable to this research study and the methodology
through which data analysis will be approached. In what Charmaz (2003) views as taking
grounded theory into the realm of 21st century research, constructivist grounded theory
accepts the “relativism of multiple social realities, recognises the mutual creation of
knowledge by the viewer and the viewed, and aims towards an interpretive understanding of
subjects’ meanings” (p. 250). Giving voice to participants and incorporating multiple
perspectives in the collection of data is encouraged by Charmaz (2003) in order to move
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30
away from the disconnected or distant role of the researcher in the data analysis phase,
towards “[portraying] the subjects’ experience in its fullness” (p. 269), thereby allowing for
multiple participant realities to shape the emergence of multiple potential theories.
Study delimitations. This research is delimited to the factors defined by the scope
and boundaries of my study. Most easily identifiable, this study is delimited to the
examination of a select number of middle level learning environments in Finland, Germany
and Canada. Research sites selected were those perceived by university professors in the
field of educational studies to fulfil the criteria for middle level learning environments, as
outlined by the researcher in Chapter Three. Another delimitation is the process for selection
of interview participants. The principal, assistant principal or vice principal, as the schoolbased instructional leaders, were “pre-selected” in the sense that I asked to interview the
principal or assistant principal at each research site. Based on criteria I outlined for the
school-based instructional leader(s), as explained further in Chapter Three, the principal
and/or assistant principal then selected which lead teachers would be interviewed. Together,
the principal, and/or assistant principal (and/or vice principal) and the lead teachers
determined which students would be interviewed as part of the focus group, again based on a
pre-determined set of criteria.
Other delimitations associated with the scope of my study are the amount of time I
was able to spend in each school familiarising myself with the school context, as well as the
amount of time allotted to interviewing each study participant or group of participants. A
careful balance must be achieved between wanting to ensure there is sufficient time to be able
to accurately represent the school setting and the voices of the participants and also ensuring
that I not become too intrusive or burdensome. To lessen any negative impact my presence
in the school would have on the study, I ensured the amount time I spent in each school prior
to the actual interviews taking place, when I obtained information (documents, observations,
LEADING, TEACHING AND LEARNING IN THE MIDDLE
31
informal conversations, etc.) that I required to portray the school context appropriately, was
the same for each research site. Furthermore, the lengths of all interviews were consistent to
within five minutes of each other. Controlling for time in a very human context, where
participants were giving up their time and sharing personal experiences and beliefs, all for my
benefit, was challenging. Although I did not want a timer to dictate the start and end of what
was in many cases a very organic experience, I was cognizant of the time I had spent in each
school site and in each interview; and, I moved towards bringing conversations to a respectful
end when I knew the appropriate time had come.
The nature of my chosen research methodology, a narrative collective case study
design informed by constructivist grounded theory for analysis of data, may in itself be
considered a delimitation, because inherent in the methodology is the voice and experience of
the researcher along with that of the participants as data is analysed and case study
descriptions are constructed. Because of the 13 years I have spent working in middle level
learning environments, I bring to this research a certain amount of experience that cannot be
removed or ignored. I believe the methodology I have chosen is the “right fit” for the context
of this research as the role of the researcher is acknowledged and valued in what Charmaz
(2003) describes as “an interactive process whereby the researcher and participant construct a
shared reality” (p. 270). There is no intent in this research to discover “rights or wrongs,” or
label practice as “worthy or not worthy.” In keeping with the nature of constructivist
grounded theory methodology, there is no theory or hypothesis that has been put forward to
be proven or disproven through the data. It is the themes emerging from interviews with
instructional leaders, lead teachers and students that when presented as case study narratives
will create a representational picture of their lived experiences in middle level learning
environments and which may inform the work of others in similar contexts. Consistent with
this type of research methodology, the voices of the participants and the perceptions,
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32
understandings and interpretations of the researcher are expected to be used in the case study
narratives; there is no intent in this research for a simple presentation of facts and events.
Study limitations. This research is limited by the factors believed to be out of the
control of the researcher. The primary limitation is that of time. As this study is conducted
over a short period of time, any discoveries made must be considered to be associated with
one particular “snapshot in time,” as this study is not intended to be longitudinal in nature.
Generalisablility and applicability of findings to other contexts can only be suggested. There
is no intent to generalise findings to all middle level learning environments, only to present
the three case studies and a potential framework that may inform the work of other
instructional leaders and lead teachers in middle level learning environments.
The sample size of participants may be considered by some to be a limitation. In
Chapter Three, I discuss in detail the thought process behind the sampling techniques and
sample size I selected; based on the methodology I have chosen for this study, I do not
consider the sample size to be a limiting factor in the value of this research. Again, there is
no intent to generalise findings to all middle level learning environments; generalisability can
only be suggested. The intent of this research study is to depict, using a collective case study
narrative, the richness and depth of lived experiences of instructional leaders, lead teachers
and students in middle level learning environments in Finland, Germany and Canada.
Assumptions. It is important to note that several assumptions underpin this study.
1. The chosen research methodology, a collective case study narrative informed by a
constructivist grounded theory methodology for data analysis, is a valid means of
acquiring and depicting the richness and depth of lived experiences of
instructional leaders, lead teachers and students in middle level learning
environments in Finland, Germany and Canada.
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33
2. Research participants will answer questions and share their beliefs and lived
experiences in a truthful manner. Anonymity and confidentiality will be
preserved and participants have been made aware that they may withdraw from
the study at any time.
3. Chosen research sites approach leading, teaching and learning in the middle years
in different ways. These differences across contexts are celebrated as vital and
ensure both depth and breadth of lived experiences are used to accurately
represent how schools in Finland, Germany and Canada are working to establish
developmentally responsive, intellectually engaging learning environments for
early adolescent learners.
4. The experience of the researcher in middle level learning environments is an asset
to this study. The experience and knowledge the researcher brings to the study in
the areas of leading, teaching and learning in the middle years assists in
formulating appropriate and relevant questions, as well as establishing credibility
with study participants. This experience and knowledge will be of benefit during
the analysis and interpretation of data phase of the study.
5. The study of leading, teaching and learning in the middle years is of value in a
very practical sense to those working with early adolescents in middle level
learning environments around the world. This study will fill a perceived gap in
research related to early adolescent learners and middle level learning
environments and contribute to the advancement in collective understanding of
what factors contribute to establishment of developmentally responsive,
intellectually engaging middle level learning environments.
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Definition of Key Terms and Concepts
Middle years education, middle level education, middle schools, middle level
learning environments. These terms are used interchangeably in current research. In this
study, the researcher prefers to use the term “middle level learning environment” when
referring to the setting or context where early adolescent learners attend school. Perhaps it is
simply a question of semantics; however, it is the belief of the researcher that the term middle
level learning environment encompasses more than only the four walls of a physical
structure, also incorporating the inherent school culture and supporting school community.
Many schools can be found to carry the title “middle school” without actually adopting a
middle years philosophy, which sets middle schools in name only apart from middle level
learning environments where a middle years philosophy has been wholeheartedly embraced.
Middle years philosophy, middle years concept, middle years configuration. For
the purpose of this research, the terms “middle years philosophy” and “middle years concept”
are seen as interchangeable. The preference of the researcher, however, will be to use the
term “middle years philosophy” when referring to the key tenets and fundamental beliefs
related to the learning environment and pedagogical practices understood to best support the
unique developmental learning needs of early adolescents. “Middle years configuration” is a
term that refers to the particular grade levels found within a middle level learning
environment.
Early adolescents. The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines adolescence as,
“the period in human growth and development that occurs after childhood and before
adulthood, from ages 10 to 19” (WHO, 2014, para. 1). For the purpose of this study, the
terms “early adolescence” or “early adolescents” will then refer to the developmental period
and the learners, ages 10-15.
LEADING, TEACHING AND LEARNING IN THE MIDDLE
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Instructional leader. For the purpose of this study, the term “instructional leader”
refers to the school-based principal, assistant principal or vice principal. The term
instructional leader, as defined by Robinson (2011) encompasses, “leadership that is focused
on teaching and learning” (p. 11). Contrasting this with a more managerial or administrative
view of the school principal, assistant principal or vice principal.
Lead teacher. For the purpose of this study, the term “lead teacher” is used to
identify those teachers selected by the school principal, assistant principal or vice principal as
having either a formal or informal leadership role or who are believed to possess a strong
understanding of early adolescents and the instructional practices that will support their
development as learners and as individuals.
Developmentally responsive. For the purpose of this study, I will utilise the
description of “developmentally responsive” middle level learning environments outlined by
the department of education in the Canadian province of Manitoba, to illustrate the essence of
the concept. The beliefs of Manitoba’s department of education related to developmentally
responsive middle level learning environments are developed further in the position paper,
Engaging Middle Years Students in Learning: Transforming Middle Years Education in
Manitoba (2010).
Responsive Middle Years education is more about teaching and learning and less
about management, more about helping students to make healthy choices and less
about mandating behaviour, more about using time productively and less about
sticking slavishly to timetables that do not support learning, more about personal
relationships and less about upholding traditional roles, and more about including
student voices and less about Middle Years teachers covering curriculum. (Manitoba
Education, 2010, p. 18)
LEADING, TEACHING AND LEARNING IN THE MIDDLE
36
Intellectually engaging. The Canadian, multi-year What did you do in school today?
study assisted those involved in the field of education in understanding the complexity behind
the concept of engagement--a term often used, and yet, often misunderstood. Three aspects
of engagement (academic, social and intellectual) were identified and further explored as
responses from over 63,000 adolescents were analysed to better understand their lived
experiences in school. For the purpose of this study, I will utilise the definition of
“intellectual engagement” put forth by Willms et al. (2009), “A serious emotional and
cognitive investment in learning, using higher-order thinking skills (such as analysis and
evaluation) to increase understanding, solve complex problems, or construct new knowledge”
(p. 7).
Student agency. This term refers to student ownership of their learning and sees
students as active, informed and empowered participants in their learning experience.
“Student agency” involves a complex interplay of metacognitive and self-regulatory skills
and is developed as students are provided with authentic opportunities to exercise their voice
and make choices in areas that impact their learning in meaningful ways.
Organisation of the Dissertation
In Chapter Two, current as well as more historical literature is reviewed in order to
assist the reader in understanding the development of the middle years movement over the
course of the past 100 years. Foundational research studies, position papers and other key
documents included in this literature review (many from an American context) have formed
the basis for middle level learning reform around the world. This chapter concludes with an
examination of a position paper on middle level learning from the Canadian province of
Manitoba, the lens through which three additional pieces of supporting research chosen by
the researcher are viewed. This current research from Robinson (2011), Friesen (2009) and
LEADING, TEACHING AND LEARNING IN THE MIDDLE
37
Dweck (2008) assists in further exploring the role of the instructional leader, the teacher and
the student in the context of middle level learning environments. In Chapter Three, the
research paradigm, the methodology, the research design and the method of data analysis
selected for this study are discussed in detail. The role of the researcher is also explained in
addition to an examination of the criteria used to determine the quality of a study of this
nature. Chapter Four opens with an overview of the current contexts for early adolescent
learners and middle level learning environments in Finland, Germany and Canada. Data
derived from research sites in Finland, Germany and Canada are presented in the form of
three case study narratives. In Chapter Five, emerging categories from a cross-case analysis
of the three case studies are presented using a conceptual visual framework (see Figure 1). A
description follows of the rationale behind the inclusion of each of the significant data
categories that combine to form the proposed framework; this is designed to highlight the
factors that were observed to contribute to the establishment of developmentally responsive,
intellectually engaging middle level learning environments. The chapter closes with a brief
discussion of the implications for instructional leaders, teachers and students that have arisen
as a result of this study, as well as a consideration of questions for further research and next
steps.
LEADING, TEACHING AND LEARNING IN THE MIDDLE
38
Chapter Two – Leading, Teaching and Learning in the Middle: Literature Review
The middle school concept, then, is like a Persian rug. Different threads are woven
together into complicated patterns and colors until finally it is not discernible where a
particular thread goes or where a particular color begins. It is the overall rug we look
at and admire. It is the overall integrated effort that is the rug as well as the behind
the scenes process of weaving all the threads together…We must begin [Middle Years
transformation] by acknowledging the complexity of the original concept as a totally
integrated organisational/curricular/instructional/relational/developmental concept.
(Dickinson, 2001, p. 15)
Organisation of the Chapter
In organising this literature review, I thought it important to take the reader on a
journey of sorts, one that I have taken time and time again as I endeavour to better understand
the art and science behind working with early adolescents in middle level learning
environments. Sharing the findings and the beliefs of those who hold early adolescent
learning and the work of leaders and teachers in middle level learning environments with the
same regard as I do was an important aspect as I considered what to include in this review of
the literature. I begin with a brief history of the middle years movement and an introduction
to Alexander (1953) and Eichorn (1966), credited by most to have articulated the first visions
related to responsive learning environments for students of the middle years. Then, current
research perspectives that have shaped beliefs and pedagogical practices related to leading,
teaching and learning in the middle years are examined to better understand the impact of and
challenges faced by the middle years movement in the context of 21st century education. The
countries of New Zealand and Australia are discussed first as these nations have developed
large-scale, country-wide education reforms targeted at early adolescents and middle level
LEADING, TEACHING AND LEARNING IN THE MIDDLE
39
learning environments. The research, researchers and organisations that are presented next in
literature review all originate from the United States and continue to be influential in any
discussion related to transformation of middle level learning environments.
“Misunderstanding the middle” is a brief section that follows, which I felt important to
include to highlight the many misconceptions that exist related to early adolescent learners
and middle level learning environments.
A fundamental belief I hold related to leading, teaching and learning in middle level
learning environments, is the necessity of having an extensive understanding of adolescence
and adolescent development and using this knowledge as a foundation for the creation of
developmentally responsive, intellectually engaging learning environments for early
adolescents. I, therefore, include an overview of key aspects, and in some cases present new
developments, in the science and psychology behind the multifaceted adolescent
developmental period. This overview includes an examination of the following areas that
impact this crucial developmental period: adolescent physical development; adolescent brain
development; the importance of sleep in adolescence; the development of metacognition in
early adolescents; and, using a strength-based approach to view adolescent development.
The review of literature concludes as I present four current pieces of research that have
impacted my professional beliefs and in a practical sense, how I have set up the learning
environment at my own school. The work coming out of the Canadian province of Manitoba
related to engaging early adolescents in their learning serves as the overarching lens from
which I examine the research of Robinson (2011), Friesen (2009) and Dweck (2008) to
determine the impact their findings may have on the establishment of developmentally
responsive, intellectually engaging middle level learning environments.
LEADING, TEACHING AND LEARNING IN THE MIDDLE
40
History of Middle Years Movement
Prior to the 1920s, apart from the university system, there were essentially only two
recognised tiers of education in North America--elementary and secondary. Soon, teachers
working within these two tiers of schools began to develop beliefs that there needed to be
particular attention paid to the students who fell somewhere in the middle, those who did not
seem to fit in with either the youngest group in elementary school or the oldest group in high
school. In response to the rising concern over these students in the middle, the first junior
high schools were established in the United States (AMLE, 2011; NMSA, 1982, 1995, 2003,
2006). However good the intentions were, what transpired was that most junior high schools
patterned themselves after high schools, with a strong emphasis on subject matter
specialisation, departmentalisation of the curriculum and a broad range of extra-curricular
programs and activities. The failure of many junior high schools to adequately respond to the
unique developmental needs of middle years students resulted in early adolescents being illequipped for the transition from what is often believed to be the “safe haven” of the
elementary school to the supposed "rigour" of the high school world (George, 2009; George
& Alexander, 2003; Lounsbury, 1992). It was in this context that the term “caught in the
middle” emerged, and in far too many cases became an accurate description of the schooling
experience for early adolescent learners, ages 10 to 15.
One should not view what began with good intentions in the notion of a junior high
school as a complete loss. Many philosophical elements that form the foundation of solid
middle level learning environments had their roots in the first junior high schools. Features
such as a more broad range of exploratory courses, the belief in the importance of extra and
co-curricular activities, integration of the curriculum areas and the importance of connecting
students with adult advisors/mentors, all had their start in some of those first junior high
schools. What could be said to be the primary downfall of those early junior high schools
LEADING, TEACHING AND LEARNING IN THE MIDDLE
41
was the lack of emphasis or importance placed on understanding the unique developmental
needs of early adolescent learners (NMSA, 1982, 1995, 2003, 2006).
In 1963, Dr. William Alexander, the chairman of the Department of Education at
George Peabody College for Teachers in Nashville, spoke at a conference in Cornell
University designed to examine both the current state as well as the future direction for junior
high schools in the United States. It is interesting to note that in a profile of Alexander
written by Jessica Hodge for a 1978 Kappa Delta Pi publication, he confesses to being
initially apprehensive of giving his keynote address at the conference as he felt very little
enthusiasm for the present status of junior high schools in the United States. He recounts that
his flight to the conference was delayed, and it was in those precious hours he was able to
solidify in his mind the idea of, “a new focus and organisation for the school ‘between’ the
elementary and high school” (Meyer, 2011, p. 17). The title of the presentation given by
Alexander, The Junior High School: A Changing View, is believed by many to have signalled
the beginning of the middle years movement. Alexander described his vision for this new
middle school in the following manner:
Intellectual growth means much more than an increasing competence in the academic
content of the curriculum. We must endeavour to stimulate in the child a love for
learning, an attitude of inquiry, a passion for truth and beauty, a questioning mind.
The learning of right answers is not enough…beyond answers alone, we must help
children ask the right questions, and discover their answers through creative thinking,
reasoning, judging and understanding. (Alexander as cited in AMLE, 2010b, p. 12)
Donald Eichorn, another educator considered to be one of the founders of the middle
years movement, also identified the need for schools that attended to both the academic and
personal development of early adolescents. In 1966, Eichorn, then a school district
LEADING, TEACHING AND LEARNING IN THE MIDDLE
42
superintendent, described what he believed would be the most suitable learning environment
for early adolescent learners in his book simply entitled, The Middle School. These learning
environments would feature interdisciplinary teaming among teachers, small learning
communities, teacher advisory programs, frequent opportunities for hands-on learning and
interactive learning with peers, flexible scheduling and groupings of students, and learning
centres that would support students in need. Most importantly, for these learning
environments to be successful, Eichorn believed, teachers would require an expert
understanding of the developmental needs of middle years learners and would dedicate
themselves to providing a program that would challenge and support these learners (Eichorn,
1966).
The work of Alexander (1963) and Eichorn (1966), believed to be the originators of
much of today’s effective middle level pedagogical practices, helped bring awareness to the
unique learning needs of early adolescents and highlighted why any proposed middle level
reform initiatives must have these understandings as the underlying framework. The number
of middle schools in the United States grew rapidly during the late 1960s through to the early
1970s. Other countries around the world began to take note of this middle level reform
taking shape in many parts of North America. For example, in 1968 there were no middle
schools in the United Kingdom; by 1978 there were 1,690. Five hundred opened in 1973 in
the United Kingdom alone (Valentine, 2000). This newfound popularity of the middle years
movement led to the emergence of professional organisations, the creation of resources and
the acknowledgement at some post-secondary teacher training institutions of the “middle
school” and consideration of how this might impact pre-service teacher programs. In the
early 1970s, the Midwest Middle School Association was established by a small group of
advocates of Eichorn’s work. In 1973, the name was changed to the National Middle School
Association (NMSA), and more recently to the Association for Middle Level Education
LEADING, TEACHING AND LEARNING IN THE MIDDLE
43
(AMLE), an organisation that is today one of the most recognised resources worldwide for
middle level teaching and learning.
Support for the middle years movement began to wane in the early 1980s, as the
public and educators alike began to confuse calls for a particular structure or grade
configuration with the need for the learning environment to attend to the development needs
of the adolescent learner. The mid-80s in the United States saw much focus of education
reform initiatives on either early elementary school intervention or finding ways to reduce the
ever-increasing high school dropout rate. By the late 80s, a series of reports, beginning in the
state of California, with Florida, Louisiana, Maryland and several other states following suit,
identified the middle years as being central in helping students succeed and stay in school
(Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development, 1989; National Association of Secondary
School Principals, 2006; NMSA, 2003).
In 1989, the important Turning Points report, from the Carnegie Council on
Adolescent Development, was published, and so began once more the push towards funding
and advocating for reform and transformation in middle level learning environments.
Throughout the 1990s, the middle school movement across North America and other parts of
the globe saw, yet again, a dramatic rise in popularity, although clarity with respect to middle
years configuration versus middle years philosophy/concept still eluded many (Kasak, 2004).
The late 1990s saw the emergence of an alliance of educators and education organisations
that sought to unify middle school reform across the United States, the National Forum to
Accelerate Middle Grades Reform. Subsequent research such as the follow-up Turning
Points 2000 position paper, new iterations of This We Believe and the revised Breaking Ranks
for middle level learning only further supported the push for developmentally responsive
learning environments for early adolescent learners. In Canada, the early 1990s heralded a
“dawning” of sorts for middle level education, as middle years associations were created in
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44
most provinces and territories. Backed by several provincial ministries of education, position
papers outlining the vision for teaching and learning in the middle years emerged. One such
document, Engaging middle years students in learning: Transforming middle years education
in Manitoba (2010), has formed the foundational lens for this research study.
Current Research Perspectives Supporting Middle Level Learning Environments
In the current context of middle level learning, the following works have been
influential in setting the agenda, focusing the debate and providing direction for school-based
leaders, educators and policy makers. These publications have shaped and influenced what
are believed to be best pedagogical practices for middle level learning environments. While
this literature review may not be an all-inclusive examination of research spanning all corners
of the globe, the research presented here does exemplify key themes I hope to investigate
through my research study. Further, the research examined in this literature review are often
referred to and viewed as the foundational philosophies that have formed the basis for
subsequent examinations into leading, teaching and learning in the middle years.
New Zealand and Australia. For the past decade, both New Zealand and Australia
have worked hard to establish nation-wide systems of beliefs, practices and resources that
would support teaching and learning in the middle years. This desired consistency across all
middle level learning environments is believed to be important in supporting early adolescent
learners through what is understood to be a very dynamic time in their development (Bishop,
2008). Policy emerging from both countries clearly articulates the importance of holding at
the centre of their newly developing middle years philosophies the early adolescent learner,
their unique developmental needs and the ever-changing world they face (Barratt, 1998;
Chadbourne, 2002; Hill & Russell, 1999).
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45
New Zealand has invested considerable resources into reform initiatives for their
middle level learning environments. The question that has guided their research has been
focused on how schools and systems are responding to the unique developmental needs of
learners, ages 10 to 15. Longitudinal research studies from both New Zealand and Australia
indicate that a middle years approach simply “works.” Outcomes are better, student
engagement with their learning is greater, teacher satisfaction is higher and resources within
and across schools are better utilised (O’Sullivan, 2005). Haigh (2004) writes, “Studies have
overwhelmingly concluded that middle schools do an effective job... The notorious Year 7
dip tends not to happen” (p. 2).
Departments of Education across all Australian states and territories and in New
Zealand have identified the central need for change and support of reform in the middle years
of schooling and have committed to continued research, development and funding in support
of their early adolescent learners. In Australia, the national values and principles of this
commitment to reform have been described by three key terms (see Appendix A):
1. Re-structuring - related to school structures that support early adolescent learners
and their learning (class size, scheduling, resources, pre-service teacher
programs).
2. Re-culturing - related to supports needed for the healthy development of early
adolescents and a school culture that support this development (teaching teams,
developing student agency, student advocates, teacher professional learning).
3. Pedagogy – related to curriculum, assessment and task design (authentic
assessment, integrated learning opportunities, broad-based curriculum, responsive
pedagogies). (Rumble & Aspland, 2009, p. 6)
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46
The New South Wales Department of Education and Training (NSW DET) (2004)
found that while many students in their district progress satisfactorily during the middle
years, it is also a time when many students “switch off” from their schooling. “Real empathy
and an understanding of the variety of ways in which young adolescents learn and think is
required if we are to meet their needs” (NSW DET, 2004, p. 14). Australian research
examining teaching and learning in the middle years has shown that early adolescents are at
their peak social, emotional, intellectual and physical development during the middle years of
schooling; and, what students need most from their learning environments is often in stark
contrast to what their lived experience in school provides (NSW DET, 2006). The state
report on the status of middle level learning from Queensland (2010) found that it is in the
middle years of learning where students often lose their enthusiasm for learning and where
their progress as learners slows and the gaps in learning widen.
The curriculum, pedagogy and organisation of the Middle Years are inadequate…We
compound the problems of primary–secondary transfer by teaching young adolescents
poorly and expecting too little of them, with the result that they experience a dip in
performance which is only compounded in the following school year (Year 8) and a
loss of motivation that continues into Year 9 as well…The Middle Years of Schooling
should be so busy, so demanding, so active, so adventurous, so spectacular that young
adolescents should barely have time for brooding introspection or watching Australian
soap operas. (Barber, 1999, Melbourne Conference Remarks)
In the 2008, Shaping Middle Schooling in Australia report, Barratt writes, “Many
teachers have come to realise that neither a slightly more demanding version of the early
years of primary school, nor a watered down rendering of post-compulsory requirements is
appropriate for these students" (p. 2). A significant discovery emerging from research in both
Australia and New Zealand highlighted the benefits of providing subject specialist teachers
LEADING, TEACHING AND LEARNING IN THE MIDDLE
47
for middle years learners. Findings revealed that teachers having an expert understanding of
the disciplines they teach are better able to support students as they engage in and connect
with the curriculum. This same research provided additional evidence of the positive impact
of subject specialist teachers in middle level learning environments on the transition to
secondary and then post-secondary schools (Bishop, 2008). It was shown that middle years
learners matched with subject specialist teacher fared better on initial assessments in
secondary school, in addition to reporting having a better sense of what aptitudes they had (or
did not have) for given subject areas.
A captivating piece of research, first presented at the Australian Curriculum Studies
Association in 2009, entitled In Search of the Middle School Teacher, brought to the
forefront, the importance of considering the nature of the middle years teacher and the
essential attributes that make certain teachers a good match for early adolescent learners
(Rumble & Aspland, 2009). Given the nature of middle level reforms being proposed in
Australia and many other countries around the world, Rumble and Aspland’s research found
that to ensure success in the transformation of middle level learning environments, the nature
of the middle years teachers cannot be omitted from discussions related to curriculum, as well
as organisational and philosophical shifts.
Emerging from countless discussion with principals, teachers, students and parents
was a description that should perhaps find its way into any job posting for a teacher of early
adolescents:
The middle school teacher is a specialist in adolescence. In addition, the middle
school teacher is one who is creative and innovative and is skilled in designing a
wholesome curriculum which is differentiated and integrated around themes that are
relevant to young peoples’ lives and delivered by a teaching team. The middle school
LEADING, TEACHING AND LEARNING IN THE MIDDLE
48
teacher is committed to forging positive relationships with students, nurturing
independence and a sense of identity in the middle years learner…and is a passionate
advocate for the middle years learner and of the middle years reform. (Rumble &
Aspland, 2009, p. 3)
For many, this notion of a specialist teacher, trained specifically with skills,
knowledge and understanding of how to best meet the unique developmental needs of early
adolescent learners presents a very different image than what was once associated with
middle years teachers. A significant task for the government of Australia is to determine how
to best ensure this new image of the middle years teacher is reflect in their pre-service teacher
preparation programs. Further, statements issued by numerous professional organisations in
both Australia and New Zealand (Secondary Principals’ Associations, Middle Years of
Schooling Association…) support a renewed focus on continued teacher professional
development in middle level learning environments as another key element essential in
creating the conditions that support and sustain middle level reform (Hill & Russell, 1999;
Russell, 2003; Rumble & Aspland, 2009). Combined with developmentally appropriate
instructional design and assessment practices, a sustainable culture of increased student
engagement and achievement can become the norm rather than an exception for all middle
level learning environments across Australia and New Zealand (Haigh, 2004).
Association for Middle Level Education (AMLE). In 1973, the NMSA became a
nationally recognised organisation in the United States. The NMSA had its origins in the
Midwest Middle School Association, formed in the early 1970s, in response to the rise in
popularity of the middle school movement. In 1982, the NMSA put forth the inaugural This
We Believe: Keys to Educating Young Adolescents, encompassing 16 recommendations
supported by research and the experience of its executive council that they believed would
best support teaching and learning in middle level learning environments. The change of the
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organisation’s name in the spring of 2011 to the Association for Middle Level Education
(AMLE) did not change the mission, values and core beliefs, which have remained constant
since their inception over 40 years ago.
The Association for Middle Level Education is dedicated to improving the
educational experiences of young adolescents by providing vision, knowledge and
resources to all those who serve them in order to develop healthy, productive and
ethical citizens. (AMLE, 2010b, p. 5)
This shift in title from “Middle School” to Middle Level Education” is reflective of a
growing need to distinguish between “middle school” as a physical structure and “middle
level education” as an all-encompassing philosophy or conceptual framework. It is perhaps
fitting that the fourth release of This We Believe (2010b), sought to unite educators through a
common focus of doing what is best for early adolescent learners, while drawing upon
current research that focuses on the philosophical underpinnings of middle level education.
Continuing to develop a better understanding of early adolescents as both learners and
developing human beings is seen as paramount in supporting their success and achievement;
without this understanding, any strategies undertaken or reform initiatives adopted may be
misguided. Any decisions made related to programming, structures and pedagogy in middle
level learning environments must be “based on the developmental readiness, needs and
interests of young adolescents” (AMLE, 2010b, p. 13).
Current research accompanying the fourth release of This We Believe highlights the
importance of the middle years of education in the kindergarten through grade 12 continuum,
while also expressing concern for the continued disproportionate amount of resources which
are not being devoted to learning environments for early adolescents (AMLE, 2010a). An
additional concern arises in the area of implementation. Regardless of where the
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50
recommendations for middle level reform originate, it is the misconception that they can be
looked at as a “menu to pick and choose from,” rather than as an interdependent whole,
designed to work in conjunction with and strengthen the other. Selectively implementing
practices, principles, recommendations, (or any other label they may carry), reduces the
effectiveness of any endeavour at middle level reform.
The “work in progress” nature of early adolescent learners makes it tremendously
difficult to determine how a given group learners will respond to a given learning task and
when individual students will be ready to demonstrate mastery of a learning outcome.
Therefore, the 16 AMLE This We Believe recommendations are intended to support
instructional leaders and teachers as they design learning environments and learning
opportunities where all students can experience success, in their own way, in their own time,
and foster a desire for lifelong learning needed to thrive in today’s world. The AMLE
document has outlined four essential attributes of successful middle level learning
environments, believed to be achieved through attending to their 16 hallmark
recommendations. The four essential attributes are described as follows:
1.
Developmentally responsive: using the distinctive nature of young adolescents as
the foundation upon which all decisions about school organisation, policies,
curriculum, instruction and assessment are made.
2.
Challenging: ensuring that every student learns and every member of the learning
community is held to high expectations.
3.
Empowering: providing all students with the knowledge and skills they need to
take responsibility for their lives, and to address life’s challenges, to function
successfully at all levels of society and to be creators of knowledge.
LEADING, TEACHING AND LEARNING IN THE MIDDLE
4.
51
Equitable: advocating for and ensuring every student’s right to learn and
providing appropriately challenging and relevant learning opportunities for every
student. (AMLE, 2010b, p. 24)
To assist educators in understanding the interdependent nature of the AMLE
recommendations, they have been intentionally grouped into three categories aligning with
key areas of program consideration for early adolescent learners. The categories and
subsequent recommendations are outlined as follows:
1.
Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment Characteristics:
 Educators value young adolescents and are prepared to teach them.
 Students and teachers are engaged in active, purposeful learning.
 Curriculum is challenging, exploratory, integrative, and relevant.
 Educators use multiple learning and teaching approaches.
 Varied and ongoing assessments advance learning as well as measure it.
2.
Leadership and Organisation Characteristics:
 A shared vision developed by all stakeholders guides every decision.
 Leaders are committed to and knowledgeable about this age group,
educational research and best practices.
 Leaders demonstrate courage and collaboration.
 Ongoing professional development reflects best educational practices.
 Organisational structures foster purposeful learning and meaningful
relationships.
LEADING, TEACHING AND LEARNING IN THE MIDDLE
3.
52
Culture and Community Characteristics
 The school environment is inviting, safe, inclusive, and supportive of all.
 Every student’s academic and personal development is guided by an adult
advocate.
 Comprehensive guidance and support services meet the needs of young
adolescents.
 Health and wellness are supported in curricula, school-wide programs, and
related policies.
 The school actively involves families in the education of their children.
 The school includes community and business partners. (AMLE, 2010b, p. 27)
Perhaps more important than any other recommendation is the belief that those
teachers and principals working with early adolescent learners should make the choice to do
so. A vital and often overlooked aspect of successful middle level learning environments is
ensuring the proper training and subsequent ongoing professional development for teachers
and instructional leaders in how to best support the unique learning needs of early adolescent
learners. It perplexes many that there remains a significant disparity in the number of teacher
preparation programs that focus on teaching and learning in the middle years and early
adolescent learners; in contrast most pre-service teacher training concentrates on teaching and
learning at both ends of the kindergarten through grade 12 spectrum, with a focus on early
learning or curriculum specificity of high school (AMLE, 2010a, 2010b).
When teachers have appropriate training in understanding the unique developmental
characteristics of early adolescent learners, they are better able to design learning
opportunities that support students in connecting with and developing ownership in their
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53
learning. Teaching and learning in the middle years cannot only be about “covering”
curriculum; there are tremendous opportunities to challenge these learners to engage in the
real work of the disciplines they study. The myth that early adolescent learners are not able
to engage in higher order thinking is often due to a mismatch between the type of learning
task being offered to students, the students’ readiness and the teacher’s ability to navigate
support for a classroom of learners all in diverse developmental stages (Nesin, 2005).
Teachers who truly understand and appreciate early adolescent learners, can, with more ease,
determine how to design learning opportunities that challenge and extend the learning of
some students, and also provide scaffolding for those students who require additional
support, all while ensuring each student experiences success in their own way, in their own
time.
Early adolescent learners are so diverse in their development, that it would be
misguided to expect all students to master a concept during a narrow time frame, simply
because it may fit better with a teacher’s predetermined lesson or unit plan. This is precisely
why the assessment aspect of teaching and learning in the middle years is so important and
why the move from norm referenced to criterion referenced assessment, especially with this
age group is crucial. “Assessment should emphasise individual progress rather than
comparison with other students…and not rely on extrinsic motivation” (AMLE, 2010b, p.
45). Self-assessment and student self-reflection are other key aspects of the assessment
process, supporting increased student agency. When the motivation for learning can come
from within and the reward for learning is the learning itself, then teachers know they have
created independent, lifelong learners (Black, Harrison, Lee, Marshall, & Wiliam, 2004).
The significance of strong instructional leadership cannot be overlooked when
examining how to transform teaching and learning in middle level learning environments
(Valentine, Clark, Hackmann, & Petzko, 2004). Good leaders understand that transformation
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54
does not occur overnight and that anything proposed as “a packaged quick fix solution” is
likely nothing more than an expensive marketing tactic. Strong instructional leaders surround
themselves with other strong educators and key stakeholders, those who will challenge them,
provide opposing viewpoints and even cause a disruption in their thinking, all in the name of
ensuring programs, practices and processes that do not serve early adolescents well are
rethought, altered or removed altogether. The AMLE believes that the school itself, along
with the accompanying structures, policies, processes and interactions serve as a “teacher” of
sorts for students (AMLE, 2010b). It is therefore crucial that the organisational structures
supporting middle level learning environments exemplify what research and experience has
shown is best for early adolescent learners. The principal, as the most visible champion of
transformation and sustained improvement in middle level learning environments must
ensure that nothing distracts from the real work--the work of teaching and learning, and
nurturing, early adolescents.
Finally, while it may seem cliché to use the phrase, “it takes a village to raise a child,”
the necessity of a multi-faceted approach to supporting early adolescents navigate what can
be a very complicated phase in their lives cannot be discounted. The AMLE stresses in their
recommendations the positive impact involving students’ families in their schooling
experience has on their academic and personal growth (AMLE, 2010a; Mo & Singh, 2008).
Successful middle level learning environments have been shown to “wrap” their learners with
comprehensive in-school guidance services, provide teacher mentors and connections with
other community supports and services. While it may seem counterintuitive that students
require increased support as they transition through the middle years of learning, it is
precisely at this time of greatest developmental change that support for early adolescents
surround them rather than be withdrawn. Communication between school and family should
remain strong and consistent through out the middle years, so as to ensure students are aware
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of the partnership nature of their experience as learners (AMLE, 2010a; Muir, Anfara,
Andrews, Hough, Caskey, Mertens, 2006).
The fourth edition of This We Believe is characterised by an underlying tone of a “call
to action”; the necessity of understanding the middle years of learning can no longer be seen
as something to withstand or endure until the “real work in high school begins.” The vision
described in This We Believe, advocates for what research shows is right for young
adolescents, not what might be current practice, expedient or readily accomplished” (AMLE,
2010b, p. 71). William Waidelich, current AMLE Executive Director, writes,
During these transitional years, students change significantly--physically,
intellectually, morally, psychologically and social-emotionally. The academic growth
and personal development experienced during these important years significantly
impact their futures. In the middle grades, the stage will be set for success in high
school and beyond…[These students] deserve an education that will enhance their
healthy growth as lifelong learners, ethical and democratic citizens, and increasingly
competent, self-sufficient individuals who are optimistic about the future and
prepared to succeed in our ever-changing world. (AMLE, 2010b, p. 11-13)
Imperative to a successful, prosperous future in an ever changing global society is ensuring
the world’s early adolescents experience the best possible foundational preparation in middle
level learning environments; this vision was outlined over 40 years ago in the first iteration of
This We Believe. The AMLE is committed to ensuring instructional leaders, teachers and
school communities are provided with the resources they require to make this possible.
Breaking Ranks in the Middle.
For those of us who believe the middle grade years are uniquely important in a young
person's development, it is of great value to reflect on what contributes to the best
LEADING, TEACHING AND LEARNING IN THE MIDDLE
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possible school experiences during those years. Breaking Ranks in the Middle
provides a valuable framework for considering the many aspects of middle school
education. It should serve as a potent catalyst for reflection and growth of individuals
and groups that want the full spectrum of early adolescents to flourish in school.
(Tomlinson, 2006, p. 8)
Breaking Ranks in the Middle (2006) was released in response to the tremendous
success seen by the Breaking Ranks (1996) guide for high school leaders. It was not intended
to be just another report regarding how to improve middle schools. Writers and collaborators
on this project hoped it would be used as a working document and a guidebook, one that was
designed by practitioners for practitioners. Information was presented as a collection of
strategies that had been successful in middle level learning environments across the United
States--not a prescriptive process, but a sharing of collective wisdom. Parts of Breaking
Ranks in the Middle might be considered provocative; even the title of the document itself
lends itself to a notion of engaging in a militaristic exercise. The power in this document
stems from the fact that it reads in an almost conversational tone; what one might expect to
see during a session break at a leadership conference, instructional leaders having discussions
with and sharing with other instructional leaders. As a reader, this is disarming in nature, and
so when a question is posed such as, “How well does your school serve every student,” it is
comes from a place of non-judgment, a place where any instructional leader would feel
compelled to stop and reflect on what is happening in their school (National Association of
Secondary School Principals, 2006).
The underlying tone of the very persuasive evidence presented in Breaking Ranks in
the Middle is the necessity of creating excellence in both expectations and environments for
middle level education. Reference is made to the famous tag phrase from Jim Collin’s (2001)
Good to Great, indicating that complacency with “good” middle level learning environments
LEADING, TEACHING AND LEARNING IN THE MIDDLE
57
prevents the development of “great” middle level learning environments. Part of this “great”
must come from the intentional design of learning environments responsive to the needs of
early adolescents (National Association of Secondary School Principals, 2006). This
includes everything from learning resources, to teachers, to flexible scheduling, to enlisting
community support, all to ensure what happens to those students in the middle is not left to
chance, something the authors describe as being all too common in American schools.
Adequate teacher training is emphasised. The question of how a college professor
would fare in a kindergarten classroom is provocatively explored (National Association of
Secondary School Principals, 2006). Decades of research have shown that as humans our
needs (social, emotional, developmental, cognitive, etc.) continue to change throughout our
lifetimes. It is, therefore, both naïve and misguided to believe the methods used to address
the learning needs of students across the spectrum of ages (and abilities) found in our public
school systems would not change to reflect the unique needs of the students in the
classrooms. Returning to the analogy of the college professor in the kindergarten classroom;
while there are certainly some aspects of pedagogy that may be applicable regardless of the
age of the learner being taught, there are far more subtleties and nuances that if not attended
to can have a serious negative impact on a child’s experience in school (National Association
of Secondary School Principals, 2006).
The National Forum to Accelerate Middle Grades Reform (2014) aims to showcase
and assist in the design of middle level learning environments that are “academically
excellent, developmentally responsive and socially equitable” (para. 1). This cannot be done
with teachers who have not been trained to understand and create learning opportunities that
meet the unique learning needs of early adolescents. The authors describe learning as a
choice students must make on a continuous basis; without an appropriate combination of
teacher, learning task and learning environment, early adolescents may make the choice to
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disengage from their learning. It is precisely here, where terms like, “stuck in the middle”
and “lost in the middle” originate and the myth that early adolescence is a time of such
turmoil and transition that meaningful learning cannot take place is perpetuated (National
Association of Secondary School Principals, 2006).
The nine cornerstone strategies of the Breaking Ranks in the Middle document
provide a valuable framework for instructional leaders to consider as they work towards
creating a learning environment where middle years learners will flourish. These cornerstone
strategies are referred to as “entry points” by the writers, creating a parallel between the
process of transforming middle years learning environments and the process of
differentiation--the target is the same, how schools choose to use the nine strategies and in
what particular order, must be a very school context-based decision. Connected to the nine
cornerstone strategies are an additional 30 recommendations (see Appendix B), which offer
specific, actionable steps that instructional leaders, teachers and schools can implement to
begin to affect change in middle level learning environments. The interdependence of the
recommendations is again emphasised, and when attention is brought to the four key groups
that need to be considered when determining how to best implement change in the middle
years (the teachers, the students, the parents and the school community) one cannot help but
be reminded of the work of Richard Elmore (2010) and the “instructional core” which is
comprised of the teacher, the student and the content; when you change one, you have to
change them all. The nine Breaking Ranks in the Middle cornerstone strategies are:
1.
Establish the academically rigorous essential learnings that a student is required
to master in order to successfully make the transition to high school and align the
curriculum and teaching strategies to realise that goal.
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2.
59
Create dynamic teacher teams that are afforded common planning time to help
organise and improve the quality and quantity of interactions between teachers
and students.
3.
Provide structured planning time for teachers to align the curriculum across
grades and schools and to map efforts that address the academic, developmental,
social, and personal needs of students, especially at critical transition periods
(e.g., elementary to middle grades, middle grades to high school).
4.
Implement a comprehensive advisory or other program that ensures that each
student has frequent and meaningful opportunities to meet with an adult to plan
and assess the student’s academic, personal, and social development.
5.
Ensure that teachers assess the individual learning needs of students and tailor
instructional strategies and multiple assessments accordingly.
6.
Entrust teachers with the responsibility of implementing schedules that are
flexible enough to accommodate teaching strategies consistent with the ways
students learn most effectively and that allow for effective teacher teaming,
common planning time, and other lesson planning.
7.
Institute structural leadership systems that allow for substantive involvement in
decision-making by students, teachers, family members, and the community, and
that support effective communication among these groups.
8.
Align all programs and structures so that all social, economic, and racial/ethnic
groups have open and equal access to challenging activities and learning.
9.
Align the school-wide comprehensive, ongoing professional development
program and the Personalised Learning Plans (PLPs) of staff members with the
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60
requisite knowledge of content, instructional strategies, and student
developmental factors. (National Association of Secondary School Principals,
2006, p. 8)
It should be noted that the writers highlight cornerstone strategy number nine, teacher
professional learning, as foundational to ensuring the other eight strategies are properly
implemented.
Without proper planning and development, is it reasonable to think that a school could
establish and implement essential learnings; create dynamic teams and improve the
quality of interactions; align curriculum and facilitate smooth transitions for students;
institute an effective advisory program; use a variety of instructional strategies and
assessments; implement flexible schedules; increase the substantive involvement of
families, students and the community; and ensure equity? (National Association of
Secondary School Principals, 2006, p. 21)
The importance of providing, supporting and in some cases leading ongoing,
meaningful teacher professional learning, connected to key school priorities is also
highlighted in the work of Viviane Robinson (2011) in Student-Centered Leadership and the
five leadership dimensions she outlines. In both pieces of research, leading teacher
professional learning is viewed as essential to bringing about positive change in schools that
significantly impacts student learning and achievement.
Perhaps most intriguing in the Breaking Ranks in the Middle document are the reasons
presented as to why principals of middle level learning environments should choose to enter
into a significant reform process with their schools. In fact, some of these reasons are
presented in more of a, “how could you possibly not” manner, such as the one entitled, “the
professional educator’s moral imperative enticement” (p. XIX). How could anyone be
LEADING, TEACHING AND LEARNING IN THE MIDDLE
61
morally opposed to doing whatever was necessary to improve the learning environment for
early adolescents? Is it not in the nature of a teacher to dream of success for each child they
teach, and in so doing, feeling they too have experienced success? More than accountability
mandates and data driven policy, it is the very human nature of the teaching profession that
compels school leaders and teachers to want the best, and want to do the best, for each and
every student who passes through the doors of their schools. Fostering meaningful student
engagement, fulfilment and discovery of self through the creation of developmentally
responsive and intellectually engaging learning environments is at the heart of every strategy,
every recommendation and every anecdote presented in Breaking Ranks in the Middle
(National Association of Secondary School Principals, 2006). There is one particular phrase,
which captures the essence of what could easily be the vision for middle level reform around
the globe, “the promise…to promote a culture of continuous improvement to help each
student become part of a community in which all students have the opportunity to achieve at
a high level” (p. XIX).
Turning Points and Turning Points 2000. In 1989, the Carnegie Corporation in
conjunction with the Centre for Collaborative Education in Boston, released the first Turning
Points report, focusing on the need to restructure middle level learning environments in order
to improve teaching, learning and assessment for all early adolescent learners. Since then,
the same group has continued to release updated reports and guides, with the purpose of
highlighting the truly unique needs of this group of learners and supporting teachers in
engaging students in ways that meet their developmental needs. Turning Points and Turning
Points 2000 are recognised for giving credibility to (and in many instances, accelerating)
reform in the middle years movement across the United States and growing this movement
internationally. The premise for their work is that the middle years are the time of greatest
vulnerability for early adolescents as behaviour patterns in the cognitive, physical, social and
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62
emotional domains are established that can have lifelong significance (Carnegie Council on
Adolescent Development, 1989). Their research indicates that the impact of this wide range
of cognitive, physical, social and emotional needs can be mitigated by challenging students
with worthwhile work in a caring and supportive learning community of peers and teachers.
It follows, then, that learning tasks worthy of students’ time need to be grounded in an
understanding of the middle years child. To this end, seven principles were put forth to
support the creation of developmentally responsive teaching and learning environments for
middle years learners. The seven Turning Points Principles are as follows:

Teach a curriculum grounded in rigorous, public academic standards, relevant to
the concerns of adolescents and based on how students learn best.

Use instructional methods designed to prepare all students to achieve high
standards and become lifelong learners.

Staff middle grade schools with teachers who are experts at teaching young
adolescents, and engage teachers in ongoing professional development.

Organise relationships for learning to create a climate of intellectual development
and a caring community of shared educational purpose.

Govern democratically through direct or representative participation by all school
staff members, the adults who know students best.

Provide a safe and healthy school environment as part of improving academic
performance and developing caring and ethical citizens.

Involve parents and communities in supporting student learning and healthy
development. (Centre for Collaborative Education, 2001a, p. 24-25)
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63
Six Turning Points Practices were developed in conjunction with the Turning Points
Principles to support their implementation. The Turning Points Design Principles and
Practices Graphic (see Appendix C) shows the interconnectedness and reciprocal nature of
the relationship among of the principles and the practices, with the students always being
held at the center of any action undertaken. The practices outlined and developed further
highlight the following six areas:
1.
Improving learning, teaching and assessment for all students.
2.
Building leadership capacity and a professional collaborative culture.
3.
Data-based inquiry and decision making.
4.
Creating a school culture to support high achievement and personal development.
5.
Networking with like-minded schools.
6.
Developing district capacity to support school change. (Centre for Collaborative
Education, 2001a, p. vii)
The practice of improving learning, teaching and assessment for all students is central
to all other practices. All subsequent practices undertaken at the school level must align to
ensure improving teaching and learning for early adolescents is always the focus. As such, in
order to improve learning, teaching and assessment there needs to exist in the school a culture
of collaboration and a vision for strong and shared leadership. Unless schools enter into a
continuous cycle of improvement using all tools and relevant data available to inform next
steps in teaching and learning, the desire for each student to develop to the best of his or her
ability cannot be realised. A comprehensive data story must be constructed (and continually
updated) to support the informed decision making that will direct future teacher collaboration
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64
and create the focus for next steps as schools work to improve teaching and learning for early
adolescents (Centre for Collaborative Education, 2001b).
Having a deep understanding of early adolescent learners is at the heart of creating a
school culture that will support the development of a learning environment that promotes
high standards for student achievement and personal growth. Careful consideration into the
wise and effective use of resources (time, money and people) that are put in place to support
early adolescents in their learning is crucial. Structures such large blocks of learning time,
flexible groupings, student advisory programs and interdisciplinary working groups do not
come with a large price tag, but are also highly effective (Centre for Collaborative Education,
2001a, 2002; Felner, Jackson, Kasak, Mulhall, Brand, & Flowers, 1997).
The collective wisdom that can be shared and developed when schools are devoted to
creating exceptional middle level learning environments should not be overlooked.
Networking among schools is an underused strategy that has demonstrated positive benefits,
often falling in the “work smarter, not harder” realm (Centre for Collaborative Education,
2001b). The final practice of developing district capacity that supports improving middle
level learning environments is a much larger issue, one that leaves schools fighting battles
that can derail the great work happening on a daily basis in their classrooms. This practice is
about a greater vision and direction that supports transformation of teaching and learning in
the middle years, and it is this practice that is often the most difficult to affect change in.
Foundational to the views espoused in all Turning Points research is the desire to
ensure early adolescents develop in the middle years of education the abilities to, “think
critically, identify and solve complex and meaningful problems, know their passions,
strengths and challenges, communicate and work well with others, lead healthful lives and be
ethical and caring citizens of a diverse world” (Centre for Collaborative Education, 2001a, p.
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65
3). Two major issues were identified in the first iteration of the Turning Points (1989)
research, which prevent early adolescents from experiencing both personal and academic
success in the middle years of learning. The first issue is the mismatch between the unique
learning and developmental needs of early adolescents and the existing structures and
processes in place at a school. The second issue is the myth often falsely propagated by the
general public that early adolescents are not capable of engaging in higher order thinking and
meeting high academic and behavioural expectations (Carnegie Council on Adolescent
Development, 1989; Centre for Collaborative Education, 2003).
To support the development of early adolescents to their fullest potential requires that
teachers have an intimate knowledge of the unique learning needs and also the challenges
facing early adolescent learners. Research presented in Turning Points: The Young
Adolescent Learner (2003) acknowledges the crucial role teachers play in the very
challenging nature of middle level education. The research indicated that institutional
barriers, such as pre-service teacher preparation programs, in-service professional learning
opportunities or existing school structures often prevent teachers from understanding the
students they face in their classrooms every day in the manner necessary support their unique
learning needs.
The Turning Points Guide to Curriculum Development (2001a) focuses on how to
design learning and assessment opportunities that will target the unique learning needs and
capabilities of early adolescent learners. There exists in the middle years of learning, the
most diverse range of physical, cognitive and social development characteristics among
children. Strategies put forth in the Turning Points Guide to Curriculum Development focus
on the creation of worthwhile learning opportunities for early adolescents in the context of a
supportive learning environment that fosters the positive relationships needed for students to
experience success. It is not a prescriptive, “step by step” guide to lesson planning (readers
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66
are, in fact, cautioned about “packaged programs” endorsing “quick fix” lesson plans). But
rather it focuses on five principles of sound instructional design and assessment that align
with what is known about how to best support early adolescent learners. These five
principles are:
1.
Curriculum should be grounded in an understanding of the middle school child.
2.
Curriculum should be based on what we want students know and be able to do.
3.
Students and teachers should be engaged in authentic, intellectual work.
4.
Assessment should demonstrate that students can do important work.
5.
A coherent curriculum should be developed across the entire school. (Centre for
Collaborative Education, 2001a, p. 4)
When used to guide teacher instructional design and assessment practices, the myth that
middle level learners are not able to engage in higher order thinking skills and independently
engage in authentic learning opportunities can be dispelled.
The many Turning Points (1989, 2001a, 2001b, 2002, 2003) guides serve to support
instructional leaders and teachers in the continuous professional learning necessary to support
the creation of developmentally responsive and intellectually engaging learning environments
for early adolescents. A research study conducted by Roney, Brown and Anfara (2004)
examined middle schools in state of North Carolina attempting which were attempting to
implement the Turning Points recommendations. Research revealed that middle schools
profiled in their study expressed difficulties in both embracing the initiative and
implementing the recommendations of Turning Points with a high degree of consistency and
commitment. The implementation difficulties identified in the research findings stemmed
from the belief that reform success could be found quickly and easily, without having to
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67
engage in the sometimes challenging foundational work needed to create the conditions
necessary for long-lasting transformation to take root and continue to evolve (Centre for
Collaborative Education, 2001b, 2002). Implementing recommendations as a “quick fix”
versus wholeheartedly embracing and understanding the purposed behind reform initiatives is
something many researchers continue view as a huge stumbling block to successful middle
years transformation (Jackson, 1990; MacIver and Epstein, 1993).
The National Forum to Accelerate Middle-Grades Reform. The National Forum
to Accelerate Middle-Grades Reform is an alliance of more than 60 key stakeholders, all
committed to ensuring middle level learning environments provide the foundation necessary
to foster the healthy, multi-faceted development of adolescents both in and out of school.
The National Forum works towards this end by disseminating information and resources, and
by providing varied supports to all those (educators, health and mental health professionals,
community supports) with a vested interest in healthy adolescent development. The Schools
to Watch Initiative, founded by the National Forum in 1999, was intended to honour those
middle level learning environments that exemplified excellence in meeting the unique
developmental needs of early adolescents. Specific criteria, used to clarify the vision for
high-performing middle level learning environments, have been developed by the educators,
national organisations and researchers who form the National Forum’s network of
collaborators. While the National Forum is certainly concerned with the experience of early
adolescents throughout their years in middle level learning environments, equal emphasis is
place on the importance of preparing adolescents for post-secondary education, possible
career futures and their place as global citizens.
The efficacy of the “carrots and sticks” Schools to Watch awards program has been
questioned, to which the National Forum responds with conviction the necessity of
showcasing the commitment demonstrated by over 200 schools across the United States to
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68
ensuring a whole school approach to meeting the unique developmental and learning needs of
early adolescents. The National Forum believes the living examples of middle level learning
environments showcased in the Schools to Watch program will motivate other instructional
leaders and educators to begin the transformation process in their schools.
Rick Wormeli. Rick Wormeli has long been considered one of North America’s
leading experts in the area of middle years teaching and learning. While education critics
may say the system of education in the United States is still recovering from the era of No
Child Left Behind, Wormeli’s work in middle schools around the United States has provided
valuable insight into what is needed for successful transformation of middle level learning
environments. In a 2006 article written for the Association for Curriculum and
Development’s (ASCD) Educational Leadership, Rick Wormeli articulately describes the
challenging, yet absolutely rewarding, nature of working with early adolescent learners. (It
brought a smile to faces of those teachers who have dedicated their careers to working with
early adolescents and likely struck a chord in many of their hearts as well.) The passage is a
valuable reminder of why school systems need to appropriately nurture these learners with
responsive teaching and learning environments that attend their unique and often everchanging needs.
Of all the states of matter in the known universe, tweens most closely resemble liquid.
Students at this age have a defined volume, but not a defined shape. They are ever
ready to flow, and they are rarely compressible. Although they can spill, freeze, and
boil, they can also lift others, do impressive work, take the shape of their
environment, and carry multiple ideas within themselves. Some teachers argue that
dark matter is a better analogy--but those are teachers trying to keep order during the
last period on a Friday…Imagine directing the course of a river that flows through a
narrow, ever-changing channel toward a greater purpose yet to be discovered, and you
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69
have the basics of teaching tweens. To chart this river's course, we must be experts in
the craft of guiding young, fluid adolescents in their pressure-filled lives, and we must
adjust our methods according to the flow, volume, and substrate within each student.
It's a challenging river to navigate, but worth the journey. (Wormeli, 2006, p. 19)
In an article written for Educational Leadership, Wormeli (2011) refers to the middle
years as being key in “hooking” kids and ensuring they are on the path not only to high
school completion, but also to success in the work place. “The way we handle life in later
years can often be traced back to specific experiences in middle school; it's that
transformative” (p. 1). Robert Balfanz (2009), a principal research scientist at Johns Hopkins
University, also presents compelling evidence that, “the middle school experience has direct
correlation with graduation rates, particularly in high-poverty environments” (p. 1). Wormeli
explains that if direct correlations can be found between a child’s experience in the middle
years and high school completion, success in the workplace and the ability to handle stress, it
is unsettling that so much is often left to chance in the world’s middle level learning
environments. A middle years approach to teaching and learning strives to provide increased
flexibility in the classroom, enabling teachers to offer more targeted support and timely
intervention. This ensures that all students are intellectually engaged and challenged in their
learning. Echoing what Alexander (1963) and Eichorn (1966) put forth almost 50 years ago,
Wormeli (2011) and other proponents of the middle years movement in the United States
continue to deem the following as keys to success in middle level learning environments:

Interdisciplinary team organisation.

Flexible scheduling - instructional blocks and common planning time.

A rich selection of required core and elective subjects should be part of the
curriculum.
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70
A focus on the components of global education should be infused throughout the
curriculum.

Carefully planned student advisory programs.

Emphasis on cooperative learning, inquiry learning and other strategies for
involving young adolescents in their own learning.

Flexible student groupings based on interests and abilities, but not on a single
achievement test. (Adapted from AMLE, 2011)
For an article that appeared in an earlier edition of Educational Leadership, Wormeli
(2009) pulled out themes from foundational research related to teaching and learning in the
middle years and identified seven conditions or categories that continue to emerge as being
fundamental elements in successful middle level learning environments.
Reports from the Carnegie Corporation [Jackson and Davis] and the National Middle
School Association…as well as the expertise of veteran Middle Years teachers, point
to seven conditions that young adolescents crave: competence and achievement;
opportunities for self-definition; creative expression; physical activity; positive social
interactions with adults and peers; structure and clear limits; and meaningful
participation in family, school, and community. No matter how creatively we teach
and no matter how earnestly we engage in differentiated instruction, authentic
assessment, and character education, the effects will be significantly muted if we
don’t create an environment that responds to students’ developmental needs.
(Wormeli, 2009, p. 26)
Wormeli’s message is clear--central to any reform initiatives introduced into middle
level learning environments, must be an understanding of early adolescent learners. With
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good intentions, educators often view the processes of teaching and learning as “things” that
can be “done” to students, in the absence of the student voice in those very complex
processes. Given the tremendous developmental changes early adolescents go through
during the middle years of learning, it is perhaps more important than at any other time in
their formal schooling experience that they are looked to as partners, co-designers or cocreators in their learning experience. Wormeli continues to be a strong advocate for viewing
the middle years of learning as positive opportunities to support the healthy development of
early adolescents.
Misunderstanding the middle. It was an article written by Cheri Pierson-Yecke
(2006), for the ASCD’s Educational Leadership, entitled Mayhem in the Middle, that brought
attention to the significant misunderstandings and myths that continue to exist about teaching
and learning in the middle years. And, it was the subsequent rebuttal by Wormeli (2006) that
clarified why various misconceptions about middle level education have been a hindrance to
the positive reform initiatives currently underway for early adolescent learners. Despite the
increasing number of middle schools, persistent questions remain with regards to whether the
majority of these schools have authentically implemented the recommendations and
philosophies that have been so widely endorsed in current middle years literature.
First and foremost, Wormeli (2006) clarifies that much misunderstanding surrounding
middle level learning environments lies in the configuration versus concept/philosophy
distinction. Many schools are configured to contain grade levels, most often grades 5
through 8, which would fall into the middle school category. A middle school configuration,
however, does not necessarily indicate the school has adopted a middle school concept or
philosophy. Similarly, a middle school concept or philosophy can exist in non-traditional
middle school configurations (i.e. K-9, 4-9 or 4-6 configurations). Test scores alone cannot
determine the effectiveness of a middle level learning environment, nor can statistics
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72
specifying the number and configuration of new schools being built. Wormeli is resolute in
reaffirming the importance of academic rigor and high expectations for behaviour in middle
level learning environments:
The middle school concept boils down to this belief: 10 to 14-year-olds learn
differently than younger and older students do, and therefore, middle school educators
need to restructure curriculum and instruction and diversify our approaches to meet
early adolescents' unique needs. In doing so, we don't de-emphasise student learning-we increase it. (Wormeli, 2006, para. 10)
Together with school structures and processes that support the unique learning needs
of early adolescents, a strong emphasis on positive relationship development, a broad
offering of core and exploratory courses and opportunities for participation in extra and cocurricular activities, middle level learning environments that unreservedly embrace a middle
years philosophy are places where early adolescents can flourish.
Current Research on Adolescent Development
Adolescence itself, as it is understood and experienced in most advanced industrial
societies, is the transition from childhood to adulthood, beginning with puberty. It is
a period of development more rapid than any other phase of life except infancy.
Adolescent development is neither singular nor simple, and aspects of growth during
adolescence are seldom in step with each other, neither within individuals nor among
peers. (Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development, 1989, p. 3)
As the above passage describes, adolescence is widely recognised to be one of the
most dynamic times in whole-being, multi-faceted development, second only to the rapid
development experienced during infancy. While infants do not demonstrate the same
conscious awareness of their development, adolescents are all too aware of the multitude of
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changes happening to them. The sometimes dramatic self-awareness that accompanies early
adolescent development can have a significant, long-lasting impact on the adolescent as an
individual and as a learner. Research focusing on middle level reform places tremendous
importance on the role of the teacher in not only supporting early adolescents through this
period in their development, but in also understanding the impact this evolving development
has on student learning (AMLE, 2010b; Centre for Collaborative Education, 2003; National
Association of Secondary School Principals, 2006).
“Adolescence may be defined as the life span period in which most of a person’s
biological, cognitive, psychological and social characteristics are changing in an interrelated
manner from what is considered childlike to what is considered adult-like” (Lerner, 2005, p.
3). Apparent physical maturity may not be accompanied by the same cognitive or emotional
maturity. Adolescents who may demonstrate sophisticated thinking related to one particular
academic discipline may not be able to translate this same advanced thinking to sound
personal decision-making (Lerner, 2005; Lerner & Steinberg, 2004; Scales, 1996; Scales &
Taccagna, 2001). Consequently, any call for developmentally responsive middle level
learning environments must continue to place an extensive understanding of the early
adolescent learner at the centre of all reform recommendations.
Five key areas of adolescent development are commonly agreed upon in the research
and should be considered when determining how to best meet the needs of these learners
(Centre for Collaborative Education, 2003; Garden Valley School Division, 2010; Manitoba
Education, 2010; NMSA, 1995). It important to remember that although general categories
of development can be identified, adolescent development is neither linear nor does it occur
in a predictable manner. As identified by the Centre for Collaborative Education in Turning
Points: The Young Adolescent Learner (2003), and reinforced in countless of other
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documents (in some cases with slight adaptations to the labels used), the five broad areas of
adolescent development are:
1.
Intellectual – Young adolescent learners are curious, motivated to achieve when
challenged and capable of critical and complex thinking.
2.
Social – Young adolescent learners have an intense need to belong and be
accepted by their peers while finding their own place in the world. They are
engaged in forming and questioning their identities on many different levels.
3.
Physical – Young adolescent learners mature at varying rates and go through
rapid and irregular physical growth, with bodily changes that can cause awkward
and uncoordinated movements.
4.
Emotional and Psychological – Young adolescent learners are vulnerable and
self-conscious, and often experience unpredictable mood swings.
5.
Moral – With their new sense of the larger world around them, young adolescent
learners are idealistic and want to have an impact on making the world a better
place. (p. 8)
The science and psychology of adolescence.
Adolescent physical development. As with most developmental change during early
adolescence, physical development occurs at an uneven rate and is often of most concern to
the adolescents themselves (McNeely & Blanchard, 2009; Strahan, L’Esperance, & Van
Hoose, 2009). Extremities in the body, most noticeably the hands and feet and the ears and
nose, tend to grow sooner and at a faster rate than other parts of the body, accounting for
difficulties with equilibrium and sometimes coordination. It is not until later in adolescence
that fine and gross motor skills improve, permitting adolescents greater control over their
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developing bodies (McNeely & Blanchard, 2009; Strahan et al., 2009). Adolescence is the
period of most rapid bone growth, often resulting in physical discomfort. The once separate
bones of the coccyx or tailbone begin to fuse together, taking on the adult form, placing the
sciatic nerve closer to the skeletal structure. These changes make it extremely difficult for
early adolescents to sit--in particular, for extended periods of time (McNeely & Blanchard,
2009; Strahan et al., 2009).
The hallmark of physical growth during adolescence is often referred to as the
“growth spurt,” in that significant increases in height are often seen during one short period,
rather than gradually throughout adolescence. “Growing pains” is another term associated
with growth in adolescence, due to the physical stress placed the adolescent body during this
rapid period of growth (McNeely & Blanchard, 2009; Strahan et al., 2009). Females enter
into this stage of physical growth earlier than males, reaching adult height earlier than their
male counterparts; doctors maintain however, they see their young male and female patients
entering into this stage earlier and earlier all of the time. Body composition also changes
during adolescence; males tend to develop more lean muscle mass and lose the fat associated
with childhood, while females’ ratio of body fat to lean muscle mass tends to increase. The
many other physical changes associated with adolescent development and puberty (increased
hair growth, changes in voice pitch, body odour and the development other secondary sexual
characteristics) can leave adolescents feeling self-conscious and very unsure of themselves
and their abilities. Adolescents are especially vulnerable to disordered thinking related to
body image during this time period, with statistics of eating and other body dysmorphic
disorders on the rise for this age group (McNeely & Blanchard, 2009; Strahan et al., 2009).
The two-part pituitary gland is sometimes referred to as the master gland. This gland
is responsible for the secretion of hormones and also signals all other hormone-producing
glands in the body to produce specific hormones, which determine tissue growth and
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function. Changes in the pituitary gland during adolescence can sometimes lead to the
release of large amounts of adrenaline at unpredictable times. What can appear as
inappropriate and arbitrary outbursts of sound and movement are in fact completely
explicable physiological responses to a surge of adrenaline rushing through the body of an
adolescent (McNeely & Blanchard, 2009; Strahan et al., 2009).
Adolescent brain development. During the early adolescent years, the brain is still
very much under development. Current research suggests that the brain does not take on
what is referred to as its “adult” form until an individual reaches their early 20s (National
Institute of Mental Health, 2011). Steinberg (2014) in his new book, The Age of Opportunity,
discusses new developments in the study of the adolescent brain, which indicate that
adolescence is a, “remarkable period of brain reorganisation and plasticity. This discovery is
enormously important, with far-reaching implications for how we parent, educate and treat
young people” (p. 60). Brain plasticity refers to the ability of the brain to be moulded, which
Steinberg describes as “a process through which the outside world gets inside us and changes
us” (p. 65). This knowledge of the early adolescent brain and what conditions stimulate
healthy brain development are of utmost importance for teachers and parents as they work to
place adolescents in Vygotsky’s (1978) “Zone of Proximal Development” and provide the
necessary scaffolding to develop adolescents’ skills and abilities.
Different parts of the brain mature at different rates, adding complexity to the
multitude of changes occurring in the body of an early adolescent. Cortex regions
responsible for controlling basic functions (information processing from the senses, motor
coordination) develop earlier on; whereas, higher order functions, such as impulse control,
foreword thinking and the ability to reason are seen to emerge much later in adolescence
(Friedman, 2014; National Institute of Mental Health, 2011).
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Steinberg (2012) highlights four structural changes that occur in the adolescent brain
as being significant. First, the process of myelination (where brain fibres become enveloped
with myelin, enabling more efficient circuitry in the brain) is accelerated, and continues
throughout a healthy adolescent development. This process is essential for the development
of higher order cognitive functioning. Second, the grey matter in the brain responsible for
housing synaptic connections where thought and memory are processed is known to be at its
highest volume during early adolescence. The pruning of some connections as the adolescent
matures, enabling a more efficient brain, is a normal part of maturation. These anatomical
changes and efficiencies in the brain are responsible for improvement in basic cognitive
functioning and ability to reason logically. Third, the connection between the limbic system
and the prefrontal cortex (the anatomical regions of the brain responsible for emotional
regulation) begins to strengthen. As these connections intensify, circuitry that supports the
abilities of self-control and self-regulation are formed in the adolescent brain. Brain imaging
scans show that the adolescent brain responds to emotionally laden imagery with a
heightened response compared to older and younger subjects. Lastly, the number and
distribution of dopamine receptors in the brain increases significantly during adolescence,
most noticeably at the onset and throughout puberty. The neurotransmitter dopamine is
deeply involved in the brain’s response to pleasure and pain, perhaps shedding light on
adolescents’ tendency towards seeking stimulation from any number of sources (Steinberg,
2012).
It is also during this time the brain is left especially susceptible to the influences of
toxins, such as drugs, alcohol and other environmental hazards; the adolescent brain responds
very differently to the presence of drugs and alcohol in the body, and this poses a tremendous
concern because of the increased susceptibility to addiction (National Institute of Mental
Health, 2011; Friedman, 2014). Coupled with the intense hormonal changes occurring in the
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body, early adolescents’ ability to process and cope with both internal and external stressors
is greatly compromised. At perhaps no other time in an individual’s development, does sleep
(or the lack thereof) have such a profound influence on both physical and mental health.
The capacity of the brain for learning is never greater than during adolescence. The
adolescent brain is believed to be a formidable match for the adult brain in terms of learning.
Functional brain imagery shows that when presented with the same task, adolescents and
adults access different regions of the brain in the processing and execution phases of task
completion (Friedman, 2014; National Institute of Mental Health, 2011). In adolescents, the
parts of the brain responsible for emotions appear to fire, to some extent, during all tasks they
are presented with; whereas, in general, adults appear to be able to mitigate the emotional
response to most tasks. The impact this has on adolescents as learners cannot be
underestimated and should be understood and utilised when designing any middle level
learning environment. For teachers, this understanding of the adolescent brain is crucial in
order to create a classroom learning environment that draws upon the strengths of the
adolescent brain, while ensuring opportunities are presented for the brain to develop in a safe
and supported learning community.
In a publication by the American Psychological Association (APA) (2002) dedicated
to better understanding the impact of adolescent physical development on their psychological
development, a section entitled, “Yes, it’s normal for adolescents to…” described, with a
touch of humour, several behaviours typical of adolescent development, and while perplexing
and frustrating, are to be viewed as very normal as adolescents test both boundaries and the
patience of adults. Found on the list of characteristic adolescent behaviours are: “[arguing]
for the sake of arguing; [jumping] to conclusions; [being] self-centered; constantly finding
fault in the adult’s position; and, [being] overly dramatic” (p. 11). It is precisely this kind of
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understanding that is important for educators to have as they work to create a classroom
environment and teacher-student relationships founded on mutual respect and empathy.
Adolescence and sleep. Ask any parent of an early adolescent to list one of their
biggest concerns related to their child’s development and the amount of sleep would be near
the top. A recent blog post in the New York Times (Brody, 2014) highlighted the concern
many parents have about the amount of sleep their adolescent children are getting and the
impact this is having on their schooling and overall well-being. Based on what we know
about the tremendous diversity in the rate of adolescent growth and development, pinpointing
an exact number of hours adolescents should sleep every night is often difficult. Researchers
generally agree that eight and a half to nine and a half hours are the minimum amount
required for healthy adolescent growth and development. Less than this amount places
adolescents at an increased risk for Type 2 diabetes, obesity and a compromised immune
system, as well as psychological risk factors leading to depression, anxiety and increased
risk-taking behaviour. Dr. Judith Owens, lead author on an August 2014 statement released
by the American Academy of Paediatrics states that, “Sleep is not optional. It’s a health
imperative, like eating, breathing and physical activity” (Owens as cited in Brody, 2014,
para. 7). Lack of sleep has also been linked to an increased number of traffic deaths
involving adolescents. Owens, who is the paediatric sleep specialist at Children’s National
Health System in Washington, indicates that, “Lack of sleep can be fatal. The level of
impairment associated with sleep-deprived driving is equivalent to driving drunk” (Owens as
cited in Brody, 2014, para. 9), and encourages parents of adolescents to reconsider giving
their children permission to drive if they have not gotten enough sleep. Owens also links
sleep deprivation to an increased rate of suicide attempts among adolescents, citing the
impact of sleep on adolescent mood, ability to think rationally and employ good judgment.
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She presents further evidence indicating that for each hour of sleep lost, adolescents are at an
80 percent greater risk for becoming obese.
The impact of sleep on adolescent learning is equally important. During sleep, the
adolescent brain is able to consolidate and practice what has been learned during the day.
Two phases of sleep, both Rapid Eye Movement (REM) and slow-wave sleep are especially
important in an adolescent’s ability to retain knowledge and skills, and place new knowledge
and skills into memory (Stickgold & Walker, 2005; Stickgold & Wehrwein, 2009). Research
indicates that during the slow-wave stage of the sleep cycle levels of certain chemicals in the
brain fall, allowing for information to flow from the hippocampus region (responsible for
memory) to the cortex regions. In the cortex, connections among nerve cells are
strengthened, thereby consolidating the skills and knowledge learned during the day. These
new connections are solidified during REM sleep in connections in the memory banks
(Stickgold & Walker, 2005; Stickgold & Wehrwein, 2009). With as many as 80 percent of
adolescents reporting they do not receive the recommended amount of sleep on school nights,
the impact of sleep on the ability of the adolescent brain to process and retain what is learned
in school cannot be overlooked when considering if existing school structures contribute to
the problem.
Early school start times have been questioned by teachers, parents and physicians,
with all groups calling for the consideration of later start times (Dement, 2000). Teachers,
parents and any others who must interact with adolescents in the first waking hours of their
day understand all too well how difficult this time period is for them. Any teacher who has
taught early adolescents understands how challenging it can be to gain and hold students’
attention during the first period of the day. A longitudinal study of over 9,000 adolescents in
Minnesota found that delaying the start of the school day by thirty minutes led to adolescents
being able to sleep almost an hour longer and resulted in higher grade point averages
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(Wahlstrom, 2002). Students who are more alert are better able to engage in their learning,
find the learning experience more enjoyable and can be more productive in school. This can
reduce the amount of homework they have and make their home study time more efficient,
often resulting in more time available for sleep (Dement, 2000; Wahlstrom, 2002).
The number of electronic devices available to adolescents also has been shown to
negatively impact their sleep patterns. The light emitted from electronic devices has been
shown to suppress melatonin production, a hormone in the brain responsible for the onset of
sleep (Brody, 2014). Similarly, the overscheduled lives of many adolescents can cut into the
number of hours available for sleep. Shifting circadian rhythms during puberty often make it
difficult for early adolescents to fall asleep at the time their parents deem suitable; coupled
with early school start times, it becomes increasingly difficult for early adolescents to obtain
the recommended hours of sleep. Carskadon (1999) and Dement (2000), prominent sleep
researchers from Brown and Stanford universities, have been studying the sleep/wake
patterns of adolescents in their laboratories for years. Much of their research has confirmed
the struggles experience by parents and adolescents over the question of sleep, including the
shift in an adolescent’s biological clock, where it would be expected that the longer an
adolescent was awake, the more tired they would become. This proved to be true up to a
point, however beyond the so-called “sweet spot” adolescents were found to become less
sleepy (Carskadon, 1999; Dement, 2000). This results in adolescents being alert longer at
night, when practical wisdom would suggest the need for them to be asleep.
With all that is now known about early adolescent sleep patterns and the significant
role appropriate sleep plays in their healthy growth and development as individuals and as
learners, it is increasingly important that schools and teachers consider these factors as they
design developmentally responsive learning environments for early adolescent learners. [A
poster that I have strategically placed on the wall of my adolescent son’s bathroom includes
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the following quotation, “A loss of one hour of sleep is equivalent to the loss of two years of
cognitive maturation and development” (Sadeh, as cited in Bronson, 2007).]
Adolescence and metacognition. Metacognition is one of the currently overused
educational terms associated with “21st century learning.” It is often simplistically suggested
that schools and educators need to instil metacognitive ability in students in order to prepare
them to thrive in an ever-changing society. Metacognition is a highly complex skill of
higher-order thinking, which like other basic skills of learning, such as reading and writing,
must be explicitly taught and fostered through careful design of learning tasks. The
prefrontal cortex, although one of the last regions of the early adolescent brain to develop
fully, is throughout early adolescence being readied for the higher order thinking skills
associated with metacognition. The plasticity of the early adolescent brain is such that it is
highly susceptible to stimulation; therefore, the right type of learning experiences and
opportunities for reflection will support the development and strengthening of metacognitive
abilities in early adolescents (Steinberg, 2014). Teachers, parents and other key adults in the
lives of early adolescents are in a prime position to be able to assist them in developing the
strategies of metacognitive thinking in a safe and caring learning environment.
Self-regulation is one such metacognitive strategy that Steinberg (2014) describes as
“the central task of adolescence, and the goal that we should be pursuing as parents,
educators and health care professionals” (p. 45). Steinberg further explains the significance
and impact of self-regulation:
The capacity for self-regulation is probably the single most important contributor to
achievement, mental health, and social success. The ability to exercise control over
what we think, what we feel, and what we do protects against a wide range of
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psychological disorders, contributes to more satisfying and fulfilling relationships and
facilitates accomplishment in the worlds of school and work. (p. 45)
Studies of early adolescents in the United States, from a range of socio-economic and cultural
backgrounds, show that those who scored high on measures of self-regulation, also
performed better in school, had better relationships with classmates and teachers, were less
likely to get in trouble and demonstrated fewer emotional problems (Steinberg, 2014).
Although conditions in the early adolescent brain are prime for development of higher
order thinking skills, early adolescents require significant guidance as they begin to utilise
these abilities in increasingly complex ways. Modeling the decision making process of
weighing consequences and considering alternatives, assisting early adolescents in
understanding the role emotions play in their abilities for self-reflection and providing
opportunities for students (through carefully designed learning tasks) to ask questions about
what they know, how they know it and the importance of this knowledge, all foster the
development of metacognitive abilities in early adolescent learners. Metacognitive ability
assists students in developing an awareness of their learning processes, as well as their
strengths and areas for growth and an ability to adapt and transfer their learning into novel
contexts. Students who understand the thinking, learning and problem solving strategies
available to them are better able to adapt these strategies as they approach new learning tasks.
Bransford, Brown and Cocking (2000) suggest that metacognitive abilities allow students
“actively monitor their learning strategies and resources and assess their readiness for
particular tasks and performances” (p. 67), thereby creating the conditions for students to
expand their knowledge beyond surface understanding of the subject matter towards deep
disciplinary ways of thinking and knowing. Research indicates it cannot be taken for granted
that early adolescents either possess the abilities of metacognition or they do not--nor should
it be viewed that the skills of metacognition cannot be developed. Educators can foster the
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development of metacognitive abilities in their early adolescent learners; supporting students
as they come to understand how they learn best and which strategies they can use to support
their success in school (Steinberg, 2014).
Lerner’s Positive Youth Development. Many descriptions of the developmental
changes experienced during early adolescence carry with them a negative connotation.
Beginning with Hall’s (1904) first study in the field of adolescent development and for the
next almost 85 years, adolescence was most often characterised, from scientific research and
societal perceptions alike, as a time of turmoil and anxiety. Prior to the 1990s, other
descriptions portraying adolescents as being “broken,” “in danger” or “dangerous,” or
requiring extensive management to “tame uncivilised behaviour” served only to propagated
the commonly held belief that adolescence was not a time to be celebrated (Anthony, 1969;
Benson, Scales, Hamilton & Sesma, 2006; Roth, Brooks-Gunn, Murray & Foster, 1998).
Any positive depiction of adolescence was often characterised as the absence of negative
traits (Benson et al., 2006). More recent investigation into early adolescent development,
such as Turning Points: The Young Adolescent Learner (2003), has helped frame this human
growth and developmental period in a more positive light. Richard Lerner (2005) has also
approached adolescence and adolescent development from a strength-based rather than a
deficit-based model, through the evolution of a Positive Youth Development (PYD)
perspective.
Lerner’s (2005) work is founded on the beliefs that the best ways to circumvent
challenges inherent in the developmental changes facing early adolescents is to focus on their
strengths and view these changes as a positive phase in the maturation process. In Lerner’s
PYD perspective, youth who are shown to thrive in today’s world are said to embody the
characteristics of the “6 Cs”--Competence, Confidence, Connection, Character, Caring and
Contribution. Community-based programs, along with the school, family and community are
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viewed as “developmental assets,” or resources believed to provide the “social and ecological
nutrients [needed] for the growth of healthy youth” (p. 27). Research has shown involvement
in youth development programs such as 4-H, Boys and Girls Cubs, Scouting, YMCA, Big
Brothers/Big Sisters and organised sport, who link their program outcomes to these “6C”
characteristics has a positive impact on youth self-perception and self-worth (Lerner, 2005).
Lerner (2005) hypothesised the existence of three key features in any developmental asset
believed to support PYD--adult-youth relationships; skill-building activities; and,
opportunities to utilise these skills in ways that showcase youth in a positive light in the
community. Lerner (2005) summarised the PYD perspective in this way:
Replacing the deficit view of adolescence, the PYD see all adolescents as having
strengths (by virtue at least of their potential for change). The perspective suggests
that increases in well-being and thriving are possible for all youth through aligning the
strengths of young people with the developmental assets present in their social and
physical ecology. (p. 32)
Themes Emerging from Current Research Highlighted in the Literature Review
Four key themes have emerged through the literature review that was presented for
this study. To some extent, these themes have been present in the literature related to
leading, teaching and learning in the middle years since Alexander (1963) and Eichorn
(1966) first published research on their middle school concept:
1.
Developmentally responsive learning environments based on a comprehensive
understanding of early adolescents and adolescent development.
2.
Student-centered instructional leadership that promotes a culture of collaboration.
3.
Teachers as designers of learning and assessment that serve the developmental
needs of early adolescent learners.
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Student agency and ownership of their learning.
In the Canadian educational context from which my experience originates, research
from the province of Manitoba has laid the groundwork for the emergence of a strong middle
years philosophy, which has also been adopted by other schools and school districts around
the country. The philosophy outlined in the Manitoba middle years document further
supports and links current middle years research perspectives to the four areas of foci I have
identified in my research study. I have taken this work from the province of Manitoba as not
only a foundation lens for this research study, but also as the basis for the very real work of
teaching and learning in my own school.
Foundational Research Lens for the Study
Transforming middle years education in Manitoba. Beginning in 2007, the
department of education in the Canadian province of Manitoba held a series of open forums
and interviews with school division administrators, school leaders and other stakeholders in
an attempt to gain a better understanding of the current state of middle years teaching and
learning in the province. Information gathered suggested the typical curriculum and
assessment documents, often the hallmark of system support departments, did not adequately
address the needs of those working in the province’s middle level learning environments.
Educators in Manitoba acknowledged the unique learning needs of their early adolescent
learners and pressed the department of education for further guidance, support and resources
to ensure they could more effectively meet the learning needs of their students. In response,
Manitoba Education identified five key action areas they committed to support and resource
in order to transform middle level learning environments in their province. These five action
areas are as follows:
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Understanding of and commitment to young adolescents - Effective middle years
education is provided by educators who have a deep understanding of young
adolescents and who are committed to meeting the needs of their middle years
learners.

Responsive teaching and learning experiences - Effective middle years schools
provide young adolescents with responsive teaching and learning experiences.

Learning relationships - Effective middle years education provides strong
learning relationships for young adolescents.

Student voice and choice - Effective middle years education offers students
opportunities for voice, choice, and responsibility.

Community involvement - Effective middle years schools have strong community
involvement. (Manitoba Education, 2010, p. 3-6)
Manitoba’s developmentally responsive learning environments. Identified by
educators in Manitoba as the most desired outcome for middle years transformation in the
province was the improvement of student engagement, as engagement was understood to be
the main predictor of student attendance, student achievement, high school completion and
student success and fulfillment in school and beyond. Fostering student commitment to and
investment in their learning is acknowledged by the department of education to be essential
in ensuring the process of disengagement from school does not befall the province’s early
adolescent learners. Subsequent policy documents and resources developed to support the
province’s middle years teachers have focused on strengthening student engagement by
ensuring all those working with early adolescent learners have a sound understanding of their
unique developmental and learning needs along with a strong appreciation for this age of
learner (Manitoba Education, 2008, 2010).
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Another area of focus for Manitoba’s department of education was further developing
common understanding, common language and common instructional practices that would
underscore the province’s philosophy for developmentally responsive learning environments
that support early adolescent learners.
Responsive Middle Years education is more about teaching and learning and less
about management, more about helping students to make healthy choices and less
about mandating behaviour, more about using time productively and less about
sticking slavishly to timetables that do not support learning, more about personal
relationships and less about upholding traditional roles, and more about including
student voices and less about Middle Years teachers covering curriculum. (Manitoba
Education, 2010, p. 18)
In this description of developmentally responsive middle level learning environments,
it is very apparent that the student is at the centre of all decisions, all practices and essentially
all things related to their experience as learners. Students are viewed as essential partners in
the creation of a developmentally responsive learning environment. Students work closely
with their teachers as co-creators of their learning experience; students set goals, they
establish criteria for successful demonstration of mastery, they articulate their progress
towards given learning outcomes and monitor and adjust their learning strategies based o
feedback. “Making students…prime partners [in their education] means putting them and
their learning at the core of all other partnerships--and involving them directly in their
process” (Hargreaves and Fullan, as sited in Manitoba Education, 2010, p. 25).
Instructional design and assessment are not viewed as separate entities, but work in
conjunction with each other to inform teachers as they work alongside students to create
developmentally appropriate learning opportunities. Throughout the assessment and grading
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process, teachers have an opportunity to impact student motivation and engagement and the
way students view themselves as learners--capable or not capable. “Assessment is not
something that teachers do to students; it is a process of collaborative communication in
which information about learning flows between teacher and student” (Manitoba Education,
2010, p. 10).
Further, in developmentally responsive learning environments, the establishment of a
learning community, where teachers support and mentor students and where students serve as
positive support systems for each other, is essential to ensuring early adolescents feel valued
as contributing members of the classroom and larger school community (Manitoba
Education, 2010). This increased student ownership of and agency in in their learning is not
thrust upon them all at once, but gradually, within a supportive learning environment with
trusted peers and teachers. Middle years teachers who truly understand the nature and needs
of early adolescent learners focus on building appropriate learning relationships, which differ
from those relationships that exist outside of the school context. These learning relationships
provide an appropriate balance between high expectations for behaviour and achievement and
the nurturing supports necessary to meet these expectations.
In a developmentally responsive learning environment, learning relationships are also
seen as extending beyond the classroom and school, into the community. Opportunities for
early adolescents to contribute to their communities in positive ways are important
components in their healthy social and moral development. Increased opportunities for
positive contact among early adolescents and the various individuals, groups and
organisations that form their community promote understanding and the building of mutual
respect among these groups. Developmentally speaking, early adolescents are highly
susceptible to influences, both positive and negative; Manitoba’s department of education
believes the establishment of a community that supports the healthy development of its early
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adolescents is of utmost importance in ensuring the success of these learners both inside and
outside the four walls of the school. “It takes a village to raise a child. The modeling of
conduct we desire students to emulate is an ongoing responsibility for all adults in a child’s
life; at school, at home and at play” (Manitoba Education, 2010, p. 27).
Research Perspectives that Underpin the Study
As I examine the research coming from many parts of the world related to educational
reform in middle level learning environments, I return to Alexander and Eichorn’s work in
the early 1960s. For over 50 years proponents of the middle years movement have been
articulating the same beliefs related to developmentally responsive and intellectually
engaging learning environments for early adolescent learners. Whether they come in the
form of cornerstone strategies, foundational principles or effective teaching practices, both
current research and practical classroom-based wisdom continue to articulate a clear vision
for how to transform leading, teaching and learning in the middle years
Using the Manitoba Education middle years document as a foundational lens from
which to view the related research of Viviane Robinson, Sharon Friesen and the Canadian
Education Association (CEA) and Carol Dweck, the four central themes emerging from the
literature review, (developmentally responsive learning environments based on a
comprehensive understanding of early adolescents, strong instructional leadership, effective
teacher practices, and student agency), will be further developed. While other research in the
area of leading, teaching and learning in the middle years may have touched on one or more
of these themes, it is the particular perspective these three researchers have taken in their
field of expertise, when positioned against the middle years lens, that I believe will contribute
new insights into the study of learning environments that best support the unique learning
needs of early adolescents.
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Viviane Robinson: Student-Centered Leadership. Viviane Robinson is a professor
in the Faculty of Education at the University of Auckland and the director of the Centre for
Educational Leadership there. Robinson’s 2011 book entitled Student-Centered Leadership
offers guidance and practical wisdom based on what she describes as a “rigorous analysis of
all the published evidence about the impact of particular types of leadership practice on a
variety of student outcomes” (Robinson, 2011, p. 8). Robinson is careful to distinguish
between leadership styles and leadership practices and insists Student-Centered Leadership is
not another “call to the moral high ground” (p. 1) or an attempt to classify educators as a
particular type of leader, some types being perceived as more worthy than others. Both the
concept of “student-centered leadership” and Robinson’s book of the same title, “seek to
increase leadership influence” (p. 8) in ways that will have the biggest impact on the learning
and well-being of students.
In Robinson’s (2011) analysis of over one thousand studies, she discovered that very
few studies actually examined the link between educational leadership and student outcomes.
Robinson highlights a disconnect between perceptions of the function of educational
leadership and the essence of teaching and learning in a school. The findings she presents in
her book derive from a meta-analysis of the few studies (approximately 30) that either
directly or indirectly reported on the impact of leadership on student outcomes (Robinson,
Lloyd & Rowe, 2008). Resulting from this research are the five broad categories of
leadership dimensions that are believed to have the most significant impact on student
outcomes:
1.
Establishing goals and expectations;
2.
Resourcing strategically;
3.
Ensuring quality teaching;
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4.
Leading teacher learning and development;
5.
Ensuring an orderly and safe environment. (Robinson, 2011, p. 9)
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Robinson terms these five dimensions the “what” of student-centered leadership. The
“how” of student-centered leadership (the knowledge and skills necessary to engage in the
day-to-day practices underpinning the leadership dimensions) comes in the form of three
leadership capabilities:
1.
Applying relevant knowledge;
2.
Solving complex problems;
3.
Building relational trust. (Robinson, 2011, p. 16)
As shown in Appendix D, the five student-centered leadership dimensions are
presented, along with their effect size, not in ascending numerical value, but in a manner
Robinson described in a recent keynote address as significant nonetheless (Robinson, Calgary
Ideas Conference, 2014). For Robinson, the order the leadership dimensions appear in is
significant in the way they connect to and build upon one another. Similar to other research
presented in the literature review related specifically to recommendations for middle level
learning environments, Robinson’s leadership dimensions are to be taken as an interrelated
whole, not “a menu from which to pick and choose.” Appendix E shows the interconnected
nature of the five leadership dimensions and associated three leadership capabilities. What
should begin to emerge through close examination of this graphic is the understanding of
how an instructional leader’s capacity to confidently engage in the three leadership
capabilities provides them with the opportunity to interact with the leadership dimensions in a
manner that will positively impact student learning (Robinson, Calgary Ideas Conference,
2014).
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Student-centered leadership is instructional leadership that makes a difference to the
equity and excellence of student outcomes (Robinson, 2011). The leadership dimensions
outline clear direction for leaders, identifying what they need to do in order to have a bigger
impact on student learning. In her keynote address at the Calgary Ideas Conference,
Robinson articulated her “big message” as being the following, “the more leaders focus their
relationships, their [daily] work and their [professional] learning on the core business of
teaching and learning the greater their influence on student outcomes” (Robinson, Calgary
Ideas Conference, 2014). She went on to indicate that leadership in schools is based all too
often on management of resources, people, time and money, on the building of relationships
with adults and other partners and, more recently, on what is perceived as “innovation.” This
has overshadowed what should be the central purpose of all we do in education, and that is
improving student outcomes. While the work of a school principal is sometimes one step
removed from working directly with students in classrooms, Robinson articulates that it is in
the creating of the conditions for teachers to do their work where principals have the most
impact on students:
There are compelling ethical arguments for student-centered leadership. Because the
point and purpose of compulsory schooling is to ensure that students learn what
society has deemed important, a central duty of school leadership is to create the
conditions that make that possible. (Robinson, 2011, p. 4)
Attending to the five leadership dimensions while effectively employing the
leadership capabilities creates the conditions in which school environments can become
places where all early adolescents can experience success. When goal setting is done
carefully, in an informed manner, and with the proper intentions, it can have a powerful
effect on a school and the sense of purpose those operating within the school have in moving
learning forward. The leadership dimension of establishing goals and expectations, is listed
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as first among Robinson’s leadership dimensions, and the reason is clear--creating a vision
for the school, the students and the teachers, tied to what is valued most serves to “focus the
collective effort of staff on agreed priorities” (Robinson, 2011, p. 12). According to
Robinson, the conditions required to effectively set goals are: specific and unambiguous
goals; staff commitment to the goals (consensus is not necessary, but commitment is); and,
staff capacity to achieve the goals. Staff capacity to achieve goals is an issue Robinson
articulates as something instructional leaders often overlook in the establishment of goals and
expectations. This needs to be addressed in an open and honest manner as, “holding people
accountable to goals they don't have the capacity to achieve is a pretty punishing form of
leadership” (Robinson, Calgary Ideas Conference, 2014).
Once goals and expectations have been established and the values behind them
understood, the work of the instructional leader takes the form of motivating consistent goalrelevant behaviour. Robinson indicates that two or three goals are the limit of what
instructional leaders and their teachers can skillfully manage and still feel they are working
successfully towards intended expectations and outcomes. Not everything can be important,
therefore what needs to be reflected in the established goals and expectations must relate to
desired student learning outcomes (Robinson, Calgary Ideas Conference, 2014).
Robinson (2011) writes that strategic resourcing must be accompanied by strategic
thinking, and is something easier said than done. “Strategic thinking involves asking
questions and challenging assumptions about the links between resources and the needs they
are intended to meet” (Robinson, Calgary Ideas Conference, 2014). Here, the intent with
which Robinson presented her leadership dimensions begins to emerge. Resources must be
allocated to key priority areas identified in the process of establishing school goals and
expectations. Furthermore, instructional leaders must have clarity about what is and what is
not being resourced and why. Robinson (2011) indicates that goals or strategies labeled as
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“innovation” can be very tempting for instructional leaders, taking away valuable time,
energy and sometimes money, often without a significant return (2011). During times when
resources are scarce, particularly financial resources, and instructional leaders are asked “to
do more with less,” strategic resourcing becomes increasingly important.
Ensuring quality teaching is the third dimension of Robinson’s student-centered
leadership. In order for leadership practices to be informed by evidence, Robinson (2011)
articulates that leaders need “an explicit and defensible theory [of quality teaching]” (p. 13)
which can then be used to measure the effectiveness of teacher practice. This is about leaders
understanding which teacher practices have the greatest impact on student learning outcomes.
Effective teaching maximises the time learners are engaged with and successful in the
learning of important outcomes (Robinson, Calgary Ideas Conference, 2014). Again, the role
of instructional leaders is creating the conditions that support and promote their identified
theory of quality teaching and learning. It is in this dimension where the work of the
principal as instructional leader is perhaps most important. Robinson’s research reveals that
in schools where instructional leaders are heavily involved in developing and safeguarding a
coherent instructional program, providing teachers with beneficial feedback about their
teaching and also using available data to ensure the instructional program is supporting
identified goals, the students “simply do better.”
Dimension three then flows into dimension four, which is leading teacher learning and
development--the leadership dimension shown to have the largest effect size. Instructional
leaders need to be present in the classrooms of their schools in order to understand the
relationship between what is being taught and what students are learning, and then make
informed decisions about what teacher professional learning is needed to move learning
forward (Robinson, Calgary Ideas Conference, 2014). The experience and expertise of the
instructional leader is essential in understanding which types of professional learning will
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have the most significant impact on desired teacher professional growth, and consequently,
on student learning. Instructional leadership that has the most significant positive impact on
teacher professional growth not only promotes but also directly participates with teachers in
formal and informal professional learning (Robinson, Calgary Ideas Conference, 2014). This
builds leadership credibility and allows instructional leaders to be closely involved in the
professional learning and the professional conversations that move teachers beyond the “land
of nice” that Elmore (2010) often refers to, into a place where the real work of transforming
teaching and learning can begin.
Robinson views the fifth dimension, ensuring an orderly and safe environment, as
foundational to the other four dimensions and asks readers to view this dimension with an
educational rather than a managerial lens. “The purpose of Dimension Five leadership is to
create a school environment that promotes the willing engagement of students in their own
learning” (Robinson, 2011, p. 127). Numerous research studies support the notion that
learning is negatively impacted if students do not feel safe at school or if they perceive the
locus of control for success in their learning lies outside themselves (Bryk, Sebring,
Allensworth, Luppescu & Easton, 2010; Deci & Ryan, 2000; Wang & Holcombe, 2010).
Similarly, if the learning environment of the school is not in order, the work of the teacher
becomes increasingly difficult, and working collectively towards any identified goals and
expectations becomes secondary to managing behaviour. Student-centered instructional
leaders consider parents and other community partners as key in supporting student
engagement and in developing the foundation for a safe and caring school community.
Using the lens of the Manitoba Education middle years document, it is clear that
Robinson’s student-centered leadership philosophy aligns with the type of instructional
leadership vital in developmentally responsive and intellectually engaging middle level
learning environments. Instructional leaders who are deeply involved in the teaching and
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learning taking place in the classrooms of their schools, develop a better understanding of the
unique learning needs of their early adolescent learners as well as the instructional practices
that will support these learning needs. Establishing and articulating goals and expectations
that support a theory of quality teaching and learning in the context of early adolescent
learners will ensure the collaborative focus is clear. The importance of ongoing professional
learning that promotes a better understanding of early adolescent learners, along with
instructional design and assessment practices that increase student agency and ownership in
their learning, has, in the context of Robinson’s work, the biggest impact on student learning
outcomes. Finally, the importance of the school environment for early adolescent learners is
clear. With the vast number of developmental changes early adolescents experience during
this time period, ensuring they feel safe and supported (as individuals and as learners) is key
to their academic success and healthy development.
What did you do in school today? and Effective teacher practices. Particularly
relevant to the daily work of the teacher of early adolescent learners is a teaching framework
that is perceived as accessible, applicable and in alignment with current evidence related to
effective teaching practice. Recent research from the CEA, What did you do in school today?
(2009) and one of the principal researcher’s subsequent Teaching Effectiveness Framework
(2009), are two pieces of research I believe will serve to inform the examination of the
effective teacher practices that have the most significant impact on teaching and learning in
middle level learning environments.
In 2006, the CEA, in response to growing concern about the lived educational
experiences of adolescents in Canada, identified the adolescent learner as a core priority. The
CEA’s multi-year, What did you do in school today? research and development initiative
began shortly thereafter in 2007. Douglas Willms, Sharon Friesen, Penny Melton and other
researchers involved in the What did you do in school today? (2009) research study,
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hypothesised that transformation of the educational experiences and increased achievement
for all adolescents in Canada was possible. Carole Olsen, then president of the CEA,
explained that:
From CEA’s standpoint, the process of transforming schools to improve learning will
require a significant shift in our current designs for learning, the beliefs we hold about
the purpose of schooling, and the knowledge we draw on to understand adolescent
learning and development. (Willms, Friesen & Milton, 2009, p. 1)
The intent behind What did you do in school today? was twofold: one, explore how student
engagement and effective teaching practices impacted adolescent achievement; and two,
begin a dialogue with Canadian educators about new ideas that would enhance the learning
experiences of adolescents in classrooms and schools. While significant findings and
important insight have come from the study, in the context of teaching and learning in the
middle years, two key elements of the CEA work, the concept of intellectual engagement and
the Teaching Effectiveness Framework are most relevant.
Engagement is one of those terms that can easily fall into the educational jargon
category. While, many beliefs and definitions can be found related to student engagement,
there seems to be no disagreement with the fact that adolescents’ engagement or
disengagement in school has a profound impact on their quality of lives both inside and
outside of school (Willms et al., 2009). Researchers involved in the What did you do in
school today? study carefully investigated the concept of student engagement. This research
further developed existing concepts of social and academic engagement and also contributed
another dimension of engagement--intellectual engagement. For the purpose of the What did
you do in school today? study, three elements of student engagement were used to more
closely examine adolescents’ lived experiences in school:
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1.
Social Engagement - A sense of belonging and participation in school life;
2.
Academic Engagement - Participation in the formal requirements of schooling;
3.
Intellectual Engagement - A serious emotional and cognitive investment in
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learning, using higher-order thinking skills (such as analysis and evaluation) to
increase understanding, solve complex problems, or construct new knowledge.
(Willms et al., 2009, p. 7)
Over the course of the multi-year study, more than 63,000 adolescents from
across Canada provided data in the form of survey responses. Four fundamental questions
related to student achievement were examined further in specific student survey questions:

Are Canadian youth engaged at school?

How much does family background matter?

Do schools make a difference?

Does instructional challenge make a difference? (Willms et al., 2009, p. 17)
Initial study findings revealed that many students demonstrate engagement on some
level, albeit, to a much lower degree than educators would expect. Highest levels of
engagement were seen in the areas of social engagement; 67 percent of students felt a sense
of belonging, tied primarily to peer friendships and having little to do with the learning itself.
Sixty-nine percent of students reported being academically engaged, with attendance patterns
serving as the main indicator. Alarmingly, based on the instrument used, only 37 percent of
students reported being intellectually engaged in their schooling (Willms, et al., 2009). This
translates into students feeling disconnected from their learning, feeling as though they have
no voice in their learning, and feeling their learning has little relevance to the world outside.
Study trends revealed that across all three categories of engagement, identified predictors of
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engagement fell steadily from grade 6 to grade 12, with one exception (engagement based on
a sense of belonging, which remained relatively consistent throughout the adolescent years.)
Both female and male participants demonstrated, based on the instrument used, similar levels
of social and academic engagement; however, in the area of intellectual engagement, females
consistently scored five to nine percentage points higher (Willms et al., 2009).
Comparisons among the 67 schools who participated in the first year of the study,
show huge variability in measures of student engagement, with the greatest contributing
factors to this variability resting in the area they term the “learning climate." Learning
climate encompasses elements such as: effective learning time; teacher/student relations;
classroom disciplinary climate; expectations for success; and, instructional challenge (Willms
et al., 2009). Variability within a school in the categories of instructional climate was found
to be greater than the variance between schools (Willms et al., 2009). The relationship
between instructional challenge and student engagement was found to be more significant
than what was perhaps initially expected. Research results revealed that one-quarter to onethird of adolescents reported lacking confidence in their abilities in core language arts and
mathematics classes. However, this feeling was mitigated when students reported feeling as
though the work their teachers gave them was challenging and relevant, and they could
experience success.
The research team found that contrary to what they initially believed, students’ family
backgrounds and accompanying socio-economic status had little impact on student levels of
intellectual engagement (Willms et al., 2009). More puzzling is the fact that taken as a
whole, Canadian students continue to score well on international tests of achievement, even
though less than half of adolescent learners report being deeply engaged in their schooling;
engaged in ways that lead to the development of the knowledge, skills and understanding that
will allow them to thrive and contribute as citizens (Willms et al., 2009). After this multi-
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year, cross-Canada research study, two challenges emerged as significant issues facing
Canadian schools and teachers. The questions of, “how do teachers design instruction for
students who struggle and lack confidence in their abilities and how do teachers appropriately
challenge and extend the learning of students who are confident learners” (Willms et al.,
2009, p. 31) led to the development of the Teaching Effectiveness Framework (Friesen,
2009).
The Teaching Effectiveness Framework arose as researchers began to pull together
evidence of classroom practices that make a difference in student levels of intellectual
engagement and, consequently, student achievement. In my professional context, this
framework has formed the foundation for the work in one network group of 44 schools, as
instructional leaders and teachers delve into the leadership dimensions and classroom
practices that will have the greatest impact on student achievement. Jardine, Clifford and
Friesen (2008) described the need to rethink the way teachers and students interact with the
curricula in order to move towards “learning as understanding” for all students--“What began
with such enthusiasm and hope around a century ago in the organisation and imagining of
schooling has simply worn out” (p. 14). Similarly, Eisner (1998), remarked, “New
paradigms of teaching and learning are pushing us toward more generous and realistic
educational policy affecting how teachers are to function” (p. 111). One adolescent student
involved in the What did you do in school today? study commented, “The only difference
between me, the 95% student, and that guy sitting in the back of the room is that I have
learned how to remember, recall and regurgitate, and he hasn’t, can’t or won’t” (Willms et
al., 2009, p. 33).
The work teachers and students engage in together in the classroom must be thought
of as a reciprocal process, leaving the notion of a one-way exchange of information from
teacher to student in the industrial era in which it originated (Willms, et al., 2009). Learning
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with understanding, as opposed to the acquisition of facts and memorisation as the above
quotation from a student alludes to, requires teaching practices that build strong relationships,
provide students with work authentic to the disciplines they study and view the classroom as
a knowledge-building environment, constructed by the ideas of both teachers and students.
Key elements of classroom practices that have the greatest impact on intellectual engagement
are put forward in five principles, each developed on a continuum in the Teaching
Effectiveness Framework (see Appendix F). The five core principles of effective teaching
practice are:
1.
Effective teaching practice begins with the thoughtful and intentional design of
learning that engages students intellectually and academically.
2.
The work that students are asked to undertake is worthy of their time and
attention is personally relevant, and deeply connected to the world in which they
live.
3.
Assessment practices are clearly focused on improving student learning and
guiding teaching decisions and actions.
4.
Teachers foster a variety of interdependent relationships in classrooms that
promote learning and create a strong culture around learning.
5.
Teachers improve their practice in the company of peers. (Friesen, 2009, p. 4)
Embedded in each of the five principles of effective teaching practice are the current
technologies that support, enhance and extend both teaching and learning.
In the context of middle level learning environments, the five principles of Friesen’s
(2009) Teaching Effectiveness Framework are particularly relevant to ensuring early
adolescent learners, who are shown to be vulnerable and at risk for disengagement in their
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learning, remain connected to and supported in their learning. Although many cognitive
changes are taking place in early adolescence, there is no better time to engage these students
in the ways of thinking and doing true to the disciplines they are studying (Friesen, 2009).
Work early adolescents engage in should be worthy of their time, allowing them to
collaborate and connect with peers, their teacher and experts in the discipline. Assessment
cannot be seen as separate from the instructional design process, and similarly, cannot be
seen as something meant only for the teacher. Assessment is most meaningful to students
and supports them in their growth when they work together with their teachers and peers to
create clear criteria for success. Ongoing feedback becomes an integral element in student
self-assessment and the subsequent adjustments they make to their learning strategies.
Research presented in the middle years literature review highlighted the importance of
healthy relationships in the development of early adolescents, both as individuals and as
learners. Friesen’s (2009) Teaching Effectiveness Framework identifies the need for three
types of strong relationships to exist in order to support ongoing student engagement and
success: students’ relationship to the work they engage in and an understanding of why this
work is important to them and in the real world; teachers’ relationships with the students,
making their thinking and problem solving processes visible to students in order to support
the development of these abilities in their students; and, students’ relationships with each
other, collaborating to build collective capacity and understanding (Friesen, 2009).
The final principle of the Teaching Effectiveness Framework focuses on the
understanding that teaching is not a solitary pursuit and that professional collaboration makes
everyone better. The image of the teacher as a model of lifelong learning is important not
only as a model for their students, but also to ensure the teaching profession is in a
continuous cycle of improvement. Ongoing professional learning and professional dialogue
about how to best support early adolescent learners guarantee the most current professional
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knowledge and collective wisdom is being used to create developmentally responsive and
intellectually engaging middle level learning environments.
Carol Dweck and the growth mindset. It may come as a surprise to many that
French psychologist, Alfred Binet, who is credited with developing the first intelligence test,
one that is commonly used to label, sift and sort children and adults alike, actually
acknowledged the limitations of a single test to define the multifaceted concept of
intelligence (Siegler, 1992). Binet himself, believed that intelligence should be seen as more
fluid, having the capacity to change over time, given the appropriate conditions. Dr. Carol
Dweck, psychologist from Stanford, has provided ample current research to support Binet’s
belief in the ability of individuals to essentially “grow” their intelligence (Dweck, 1999).
Dweck found that the type of feedback students are given and the manner in which that
feedback is delivered could profoundly impact students’ perceptions of their abilities as
learners--capable or not capable, failures or successes. Her early interest in “attribution
theory” laid the foundation for her subsequent work on the growth mindset, as it was
Dweck’s curiosity with how individuals attributed their successes and failures that prompted
her to delve further into the practical application of attribution theory (Krokovsky, 2007).
The next step towards the development of Dweck’s growth mindset theory came as
she and colleague, Elaine Elliot (1988), studied students who appeared to demonstrate
learning-oriented goals versus students who set performance-based goals. Dweck explained,
“learning goals inspire a different chain of thoughts and behaviors than performance goals”
(Krakovsky, 2007, para. 12). Students who want only to demonstrate how talented they are,
how smart they are or how well they can do something tend to focus on self-image and selfpreservation. Any setback these students encounter is viewed as a threat to their self-esteem,
and consequently they tend to avoid challenges or activities outside of their comfort zones.
Alternatively, students who demonstrate learning goals view setbacks, mistakes and
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challenges as opportunities for growth. The notion of “fixed” and “growth” mindsets began
to emerge as Dweck suggested that students who set performance-based goals demonstrated a
fixed mindset, while those students who had learning as their primary purpose showed the
traits of a growth mindset--the belief that over time, with effort, persistence and hard work
intelligence and other abilities can developed. Contrasting this is the fixed mindset where
basic traits are viewed as being innate and therefore cannot be altered (Dweck, 1999, 2007,
2008; Grant & Dweck, 2003; Mueller & Dweck, 1998). And so, began a new branch of
educational psychology credited to Dweck’s name, “achievement goal theory.”
Much of Dweck’s recent research has continued to focus on schools and students.
She has been captivated with questions surrounding failure and motivation and why some
students give up when they face setbacks and others become motivated to try even harder.
Some of the most compelling evidence supporting Dweck’s beliefs around the growth
mindset has come from a study involving grade seven students struggling in the discipline of
mathematics (Blackwell, Trzesniewski & Dweck, 2007). Two groups of students were
exposed to the same information sessions related to study skills. One group of students
received additional instruction on the basics of memory. The second group received
information about intelligence and neuroscience and how it was possible to train your brain
like a muscle. Research indicated that the group of students who began to see their
intelligence as something they could impact directly through “training,” hard work and
practice dramatically outperformed the first group on subsequent math tests.
The notion of “growing your intelligence” becomes increasingly important as schools
prepare today’s early adolescent learners for life in a society that is continually evolving
(Dweck, 2008). The growth mindset is fundamentally about valuing hard work and
perseverance. It is about students understanding that this power to work hard and persevere
and become smarter does in fact lie within each of them. Awareness of and putting into
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practice key principles of the growth mindset supports students in understanding how they
can positively impact not only their cognitive abilities, but also tap into those deeper skills of
metacognition, coming to know themselves as learners. Dweck’s (2007, 2008) research has
reinforced with educators that it is often people not programs who have the most significant
impact on student achievement and the “people" who can make the most difference are the
students themselves.
The importance of student agency and ownership in their learning is critical for early
adolescents as they work to build their sense of identity, not only as a learner, but also as a
contributing member of society. For Dweck, the type of learning tasks students are given
plays a significant role in building student agency and developing a growth mindset. In a
2010 article in ASCD’s Educational Leadership, Dweck writes,
I believe meaningful work can also teach students to love challenges, to enjoy effort,
to be resilient, and to value their own improvement. In other words, we can design
and present learning tasks in a way that helps students develop a growth mindset,
which leads to not just short-term achievement but also long-term success. (Dweck,
2010, p. 16)
Therefore, creating a classroom culture that fosters a growth mindset, through the creation of
developmentally appropriate learning tasks and through careful attention to the type of
feedback and the way in which that feedback is given, teachers can significantly impact the
way early adolescents view themselves as learners.
Perhaps one of the most powerful lessons for middle years teachers emerging from
Dweck’s vast body of work comes in the simple form of the word “yet.” The assessment
process, which inevitably at several points during the year translates into a formal report card
grade or mark, can be a stressful and anxiety filled time for many early adolescent learners.
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Dweck gives an example from a school she has worked with, where instead of issuing a
student a failing or incomplete grade on a report card, the words “not yet” appear (Dweck,
2010). When students see “not yet” versus a “0” or an “F” or “40%,” the first message is that
while students have not yet mastered the learning outcome, it is still expected that they work
towards mastery. “Not yet” is also a signal to teachers that even though the concept may
have been taught, students have not yet demonstrated they understand it, and this should
inform next steps in teaching:
Whenever students say they can't do something or are not good at something, the
teacher should add, "yet." Whenever students say they don't like a certain subject, the
teacher should say, "yet." This simple habit conveys the idea that ability and
motivation are fluid. (Dweck, 2010, p. 20)
Leading, Teaching and Learning in the Middle: Literature Review Summary
At this point, it is perhaps important to reiterate that since its first inception in the
early 1960s by Alexander and Eichorn, there has been little change in the foundational tenets
of the middle years philosophy. It is hoped throughout this review of literature, the
fundamental underpinnings of the middle years philosophy were very apparent in each of the
pieces of research that have been presented. The early adolescence period of human
development is understood to be complex, and the experience of early adolescents in middle
level learning environments is supported by research to be instrumental to success in high
school, post-secondary school and career futures. Despite how central this period of
development is agreed to be, there exists a significant gap in countries around the world in
how consistently the practices and beliefs known to be essential for the establishment of
developmentally responsive, intellectually engaging middle level learning environments are
implemented. It is believed that this study, with a focus on leadership dimensions, teacher
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instructional practices and student agency in the context of middle level learning will provide
a new lens through which to better understand what factors contribute to the establishment of
developmentally responsive, intellectually middle level learning environments.
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Chapter Three – A Collective Case Study Examination: The Methodology
This chapter begins with an overview of the research paradigm chosen for this study,
followed by a description of the methodological decisions that influenced the design of the
research study and the methods that will be applied to the collection, analysis and reporting
of data. For many neophyte researchers, research courses and accompanying texts can be
quite confusing to navigate. It is important to begin with a clear understanding of the nature
of research, the terms that are regularly used (and often used incorrectly) and the “why”
behind the decisions that were made when determining the best way to approach answering
the identified research question(s). Completed research studies are often presented and
packaged as a whole, moving quickly to the results of the study, with very little mention of
the thought process that went into the early work of designing the research study. It is for
this reason, I will pause for a moment to outline my understanding of the research process
and the issues I considered when selecting the design for my research study. What follows
has been an essential step in the research process for me, as it was only through this “coming
to terms” of sorts that I was able to make what I believe to be the correct decisions
surrounding my own research design.
Coming to Terms with the Research Process
Researchers frequently label themselves as either quantitative or qualitative, with the
later often associated with disciplines in the field of social sciences (psychology, sociology,
education…) (Guba & Lincoln, 1994). I believe this to be a misnomer, as it gives the
impression of quantitative and qualitative as being overarching theoretical frameworks or
paradigms in the research process. Quantitative, qualitative or even mixed-methods, are
terms best thought of as approaches or methods a researcher may apply to data collection,
data analysis and the reporting of findings. Mac Naughton, Rolfe and Siraj-Blatchford
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(2001) provide a definition of paradigm, which includes three elements: a belief about the
nature of knowledge, a methodology and criteria for validity (p. 32). I understand a research
paradigm to be the larger theoretical framework or the worldview, which is the essence of
how a researcher sees the world, and at one point in time, hopes to understand the identified
research question.
The paradigm or theoretical framework influences the way a particular phenomenon
is studied and interpreted. It is the choice of paradigm that sets down the intent,
motivation and expectations for the research. Without nominating a paradigm as the
first step, there is no basis for subsequent choices regarding methodology, methods,
literature or research design. (Mackenzie & Knipe, 2006, p. 193)
The research design is the plan and procedures outlined by the researcher in order to
investigate the identified research question. This includes both general assumptions and also
more detailed methods of how data will be collected, analysed and reported (Mackenzie &
Knipe, 2006). Therefore, before the research design can be determined, the researcher must
have a clear understanding of their own ontological, epistemological and methodological
preferences along with a well-defined formulation of the research question(s) to be answered.
These two elements, first the paradigm and then the research question(s), should ultimately
influence the choice of methodology, which then determines the design of the study and
subsequently the methods for how data will be collected, analysed and reported
(qualitative/quantitative or mixed methods).
Table 1 (adapted from Mackenzie & Knipe, 2006) presents a very general overview
of four major paradigms researchers may choose to adopt when examining a particular
research question, along with examples of commonly used methodologies and associated
research designs and methods of collecting data. Note that both quantitative and qualitative
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research design methods are included in this table. Positivist and postpositivist paradigms are
most commonly aligned with quantitative methods of data collection and analysis.
Constructivist approaches to research have the intention of understanding "the world of
human experience" (Cohen & Manion, 1994, p. 36), suggesting that "reality is socially
constructed" (Mertens, 2005, p. 12). Transformative researchers "believe that inquiry needs
to be intertwined with politics and a political agenda" (Creswell, 2003, p. 9) and contain an
action agenda for reform "that may change the lives of the participants, the institutions in
which individuals work or live, and the researcher's life" (Creswell, 2003, p. 9-10).
According to Creswell (2003) the pragmatists are concerned with practical applications and
solutions to problems. The research question comes most often in the form of a problem to
be solved, with any and all methods considered appropriate for resolving the problem.
To further complicate things for a novice researcher, within a qualitative research
design or orientation towards collecting, analysing and reporting of data, Guba and Lincoln,
(1994, 1995) further outlined four paradigms that may guide the actions of the researcher.
Guba and Lincoln (2005) have recently included a fifth paradigm that would employ
qualitative research methods to reflect the, “substantial changes that have occurred in the
landscape of social scientific inquiry” (p. 191). These five paradigms employing qualitative
research designs are identified as follows: positivist, post-positivist, critical theory,
constructivism, and the newly included participatory paradigm (Guba & Lincoln, 2005).
Next, comes the question of methodology. The methodology selected by the
researcher for a research study is influenced by their particular worldview or paradigmatic
stance. The most common definitions view methodology as, “the overall approach to
research linked to the paradigm or theoretical framework” (Mackenzie & Knipe, 2006, p.
198). Within each paradigm, there exists multiple methodologies; consideration must be
given to inherent strengths and weaknesses of potential methodologies as well as theoretical
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foundations underpinning the methodologies when selecting the appropriate methodological
perspective from which to approach the research question. Thought must be given to how the
researcher would like to present the findings, as this will also impact the chosen methodology
and subsequent research design (Lauckner et al., 2012).
Table 1 (adapted from Mackenzie & Knipe, 2006, p. 197)
Paradigms, Methodology, Research Design/Methods & Data Collection Tools
Paradigm
Methodology (examples)
Research Design/Methods & Data Collection
Tools (examples)
Positivist/
Experimental
Quasi-experimental
Correlational
Reductionism
Theory verification
Determination
Predominantly quantitative methods, although
qualitative can be use within the
positivist/postpositivist paradigm (Mertens,
2005).
Naturalistic
Phenomenological
Hermeneutic
Ethnographic
Case Study
Grounded Theory
Qualitative methods predominate although
quantitative methods may also be utilised.
Critical theory
Neo-marxist
Feminist
Critical Race Theory
Freirean
Advocacy
Qualitative methods, quantitative and mixed
methods. Contextual and historical factors
described, especially as they relate to
oppression (Mertens, 2005, p. 9)
Consequences of actions
Problem-centred
Pluralistic
Real-world practice oriented
Mixed models
Qualitative and/or quantitative methods may be
employed. Methods are matched to the specific
questions and purpose of the research.
Postpositivist
Constructivist
Transformative
Pragmatic
Experiments, quasi-experiments, tests, scales
Interviews, observations, document reviews,
visual data analysis
Diverse range of tools - particular need to avoid
discrimination. E.g. sexism, racism, etc.
May include tools from both positivist and
interpretivist paradigms. E.g. interviews,
observations and testing, experiments, etc.
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The final piece to consider in the processes of research and research design is the
method or methods that will be used to collect and analyse the data. Mackenzie and Knipe
(2006) explain research method(s) as encompassing, “systematic modes, procedures or tools
used for collection and analysis of data” (p. 198). The selection of research method must
focus on which method (and in some cases, methods) is most appropriate and will provide the
most depth and richness for a particular research question. It is perhaps here that the terms
qualitative and quantitative are most relevant, as it is the collection, analysis and reporting of
data that are quantitative (experiments, surveys, tests) or qualitative (interviews,
observations) in nature.
Table 2 (adapted from Lauckner et al., 2012, p. 2)
List of Methodological Questions
1. What aspect(s) of leading, teaching and learning in middle level learning
environments do I want to better understand?
2. How do I best frame my research question to ensure I am gathering data that will
inform this area of focus?
3. How can I integrate my chosen research approaches (case study design and
constructivist grounded theory approaches) to ensure methodological congruence?
4. How does the chosen paradigm influence the research process and how can I ensure
commitment to the chosen paradigm?
5. Considering all the information I could gather about these cases, how can I
theoretically structure data collection to best answer the research question(s)?
6. What sites will provide the best opportunity to learn about the posed research
question?
7. How do I ensure I gather relevant and useful data that corresponds to my chosen
methodology and research paradigm?
8. How do I best store and organise my data in preparation for data analysis?
9. How do I balance the intricacies and detailed richness of the individual cases with the
aim of generating an abstract theoretical framework?
10. To what extent can I and others trust the conclusions I have come to through this
research process?
Table 2 is adapted from a table presented by Lauckner et al. (2012) as a means of
outlining the many questions a researcher must consider throughout the research process (p.
2). While specific to the lead author’s research study, this line of questioning was helpful as I
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attempted to resolve how to best approach answering my own research questions. I
developed further understanding that the research process is rarely one that is linear or found
to follow a prescribed set of rules. Through this overview of the research process, I grappled
with the many considerations involved in and influencing the undertaking of research. It has
become clear to me that the theoretical orientation of the researcher impacts every decision
made in the research process, from the choice of methodology, to the selection of method(s)
and the subsequent treatment of data.
Social Constructivist Research
Careful consideration must be given to the researcher’s own ontological and
epistemological beliefs to ensure a sound research design is created, as it is this very “bigpicture” way of viewing the world that will influence all subsequent decisions in the research
process. While not the first time I have been presented with the task of reflecting on my
beliefs about the nature of reality and knowledge, through the undertaking of my own
research study, it was the first time I was really faced with understanding the implications
these beliefs would have on how the design of my research study would unfold.
My worldview is constructivist in nature and because of the very social nature of the
world of education, the ways in which early adolescents learn best and the collaborative work
of instructional leaders and teachers, I would emphasise the social constructivist outlook I
hold. The constructivist research paradigm posits there is no objective approach to knowing
the world, and it is this absolutism and refutation of one correct truth that characterises
constructivism. This is viewed as a relativist ontological position, in that all “truths” about
the world are understood as relative to the individual’s or group’s frame of reference or
perspective at a particular point in time (Bernstein, 1983; Guba & Lincoln, 1989). This can
be influenced by any number of factors including culture, socio-economic status, age, gender
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etc. “The world consists of multiple individual realities influenced by context” (Mills,
Bonner, & Francis, 2006, p. 23). Guba and Lincoln (1989), well known in the field of
qualitative methods and self-professed constructivists, explain that, “realities are social
constructions of the mind, and that there exists as many such constructions as there are
individuals (although clearly many constructions will be shared)” (p. 43). Within the social
constructivist theoretical framework, this construction of reality and knowledge is seen as a
social process, whereby the nature of society and individuals as social beings leads to the
collaborative construction of shared meanings, knowledge and often shared artefacts of
knowledge (Young & Collin, 2004). Social constructivism and social constructionism are
often seen as one in the same. While similar in the way these two paradigmatic stances view
the role of social interaction in the construction of a shared reality, social constructivism
focuses on learning or knowledge that is constructed by means of social interaction or social
processes, while social constructionism focuses on artefacts that are created through an
interactive collective process (Young & Collin, 2004). The origins of social constructivism
can be attributed to the work of Lev Vygotsky (1978) and his belief in the important role
culture and context play in how individuals view the world.
At a very macro-level, this study is situated within a constructivist paradigm, with an
emphasis on social constructivism. Drawing from the work of Guba and Lincoln (1994), this
study will follow the assumptions of a constructivist paradigm, which reflects, “a relativist
ontology, a transactional/subjectivist epistemological stance, and hermeneutical/dialectical
methodologies” (p. 109). This relativist reality is socially constructed and contextually
specific, therefore subject to change over time (Schwandt, 1994). From an epistemological
stance, constructivists understand that knowledge is created through an interactive process;
thereby, the researcher is seen as intimately involved in the study as a primary tool of the
research, as opposed to a detached observer (Merriam & Associates, 2002).
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Social constructivists are most interested in the stories of lived experiences from
multiple individuals rather than one singular expert knowledge in constructing a “picture” of
a phenomenon. A social constructivist approach, “locates meaning in an understanding of
how ideas and attitudes are developed over time within a social, community context”
(Dickerson & Zimmerman, 1996, p. 80). This very social construction of meaning and
knowledge is often used to refute arguments about the validity of sharing what some believe
to be an individual construction. “Constructions are created not only by the individual, but
by society as well. Thus, constructions are subjectively created and intersubjectively
validated which reinforces the need for the inquirer to be intimately involved in the inquiry”
(Plack, 2005, p. 229).
Stemming from how the social constructivist approach is used in some therapeutic
interventions where patient perspectives are deconstructed in an attempt construct new, more
healthy narratives, there is piece of this approach applicable to what I am seeking in my own
research (Doan, 1997). Multiple individual lived experiences will be brought together, along
with that of the researcher, to construct a new reality, or picture of middle level learning--not
viewing it as better or worse, wrong or right, but perhaps more rich because of what each
individual brought to this “construction.” Schwandt (1994) views the term “construction” as
the ways in which individuals and/or groups attempt to interpret, make sense or give meaning
to an experience or to the phenomenon being studied. Acknowledging the very dynamic
nature of middle level learning environments and aligning with the constructivist paradigm
on the nature of “truth,” the findings that will be put forth in this study, will be presented as
the best informed construction of leading, teaching and learning in middle level learning
environments at this particular point in time.
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Combining Methodologies and Ensuring Methodological Congruence
At the outset of my research, I knew there was a twofold purpose of what I sought to
contribute to the body of knowledge related to middle level learning environments. Much
research pertaining to leading, teaching and learning in the middle years offers as a byproduct recommendations of some sort--often, lists of elements that should be attended to.
While helpful, perhaps more so in the beginning stages of transformation in middle level
learning environments, or for those practitioners new to working with early adolescents, I felt
the stories that are sure to exist behind those lists of recommendations would be the most
powerful in conveying the lived experiences of instructional leaders, teachers and students as
they work towards establishing developmentally responsive, intellectually engaging middle
level learning environments. The second way I felt my research could contribute to the
advancement in understanding of leading, teaching and learning in middle level learning
environments was through the creation of a framework derived from the lived experiences
and collective wisdom of those whose stories I sought to share. Based on the desire to share
the lived experiences and collective wisdom of instructional leaders, teachers and students,
while also using themes emerging from these stories to create a framework that could inform
the establishment of developmentally responsive, intellectually engaging middle level
learning environments, I selected a case study research design, informed by constructivist
grounded theory for treatment of data. This research design would allow for the sharing of
lived experiences through the richness and depth provided through the use of a collective
case study format; using constructivist grounded theory to inform the analysis of data
resulting from semi-structured interviews would allow for the generation of a potential
framework. By combining these two methodologies, I believe my study will fill a gap I
perceive to exist in the research related to middle level learning environments.
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Referring back to question three in Table 2, "How can I integrate my chosen research
approaches (case study design and constructivist grounded theory approaches) to ensure
methodological congruence?”--I was forced to reconcile if the act of combining two
methodologies would ensure methodological congruence. Through an examination of the
inherent strengths and weaknesses of each methodological approach, I was able to resolve
that this was in fact a sound methodological decision. Strengths of the case study approach
are found in the ability examine a, “contemporary phenomenon within its real-life context,
especially when the boundaries between the phenomenon and the context are not clearly
evident” (Yin, 2003, p. 13). This is certainly the case when examining leadership
dimensions, instructional practices and student agency within the context of middle level
learning environments. The use of a collective case study design allows for multiple
perspectives to be included from a range of sources, with the addition of contextual
observations (Anaf, Drummond & Sheppard, 2007; Stake 2006; Yin, 2000). The weakness
of case study design is often found in the area of treatment of data. This is where the strength
of constructivist grounded theory emerges as a compliment to case study design, in that it
provides well-established methods for analysis of data, leading to the generation of practical
theory (Charmaz, 2000, 2006; Strauss & Corbin, 1998). Further, Strauss’s (1987) work on
analysis techniques used in the social sciences supports the integration of case study and
grounded theory methodologies if the aim of the researcher is to present possible
generalisations and also work towards practical theory generation related to a particular
phenomenon.
In terms of paradigmatic congruence between case study and constructivist grounded
theory, both can be found to lie within either the post-positivist or constructivist paradigms.
Yin (2003), a strong proponent of case study methodology, views there to be a “real” reality
that can be attained (naïve realism) or probabilistically attained (critical realism) through the
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use of case study methodology. Stake (1995, 2000, 2005, 2006), another strong advocate of
case study methodology, approaches the methodology from a social constructivist paradigm,
seeking out multiple perspectives in an attempt to better understand a phenomenon. With the
emergence of the work from sociologist, Kathy Charmaz (2000, 2006), grounded theory has
evolved from earlier perspectives, placing those considered to be post-positivist grounded
theory purists (Glaser & Strauss, 1967) at odds with Charmaz, who has championed a
constructivist view of grounded theory. Based on my own paradigmatic stance, and to ensure
methodological congruence, I have chosen to approach both methodologies from a
constructivist perspective, drawing on the work of Stake (1995, 2006) and Charmaz (2000,
2006), whose research acknowledges the role of the researcher and the use of multiple
perspectives as important components in both case study and constructivist grounded theory
methodologies.
Collective Case Study Format for Reporting Results
Drawing from the work of Stake (1995, 1998, 2006), I will employ a collective case
study methodology for the purpose of this research study. Stake’s social constructivist
approach to case study methodology understands the role of the researcher as one that
interacts in a personal manner with the case, where the case emerges because of the
relationship that is established between the researcher(s) and the participants. What results is
a unique portrayal of a phenomenon unlike any other that has come before, as how the
researcher interacts with the participants and the context cannot be replicated (Stake, 1995).
Creswell (2003) describes this approach to research in the following manner, “[exploration
of] a real-life, contemporary bounded system (a case) or multiple bounded systems (cases)
over time, through detailed, in-depth data collection involving multiple sources of
information…and reports a case description and case themes” (p. 97). Methods of data
collection are selected by the researcher, often using naturally occurring sources of data,
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which according to Stake (1995) can come in the form of people, observations, interactions
and pre-existing artefacts of knowledge. Context and emergent data are believed to further
shape methods of data collection and analysis as the research progresses (Stake, 1995).
There exist many different forms of case studies, often categorised by case attributes,
functionality or study outcome (Stake, 1995). Stake (1995, 2000), has identified two types of
case studies, based on the purpose of the research. The purpose of an intrinsic case study is
isolated to one particular case; there is no interest in understanding other similar cases or a
phenomenon in general. The case study methodology I have selected for this research study
falls within the category Stake has described as instrumental case study, where examination
of a select number of cases is expected to yield insight into the phenomenon on a more broad
scale. Within the instrumental case study classification, Stake further identifies the collective
case study design as one that draws upon multiple sources to contribute data in the hopes of
highlighting the depth, complexity and richness of a chosen phenomenon. Critics of the
collective case study caution that the use of multiple cases may not adequately highlight the
intricacies and unique features inherent in each, thereby representing complex phenomenon
using a small number of variables (Stoecker, 1991). To overcome this potential risk to the
efficacy of the study, Creswell (1998) suggests examining no more than four cases. In the
instance of this research study, sites in three international locations only, Finland, Germany
and Canada will be examined.
A final descriptor to add to the case study methodology of this inquiry will be that of
an analytic case study. The nature of an analytic case study is important to this research as it
allows for the development of a framework highlighting specific aspects of the phenomenon
being studied--in this instance middle level learning environments. According to Merriam
(1998), rather than a simple retelling of events, the nature of an analytic case study is such
that descriptive data can be, “used to develop conceptual categories or to illustrate, support or
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challenge theoretical assumptions held prior to data gathering” (p. 38). Use of case study
methodology for research in education is strongly supported by Merriam (1998) as the
methodology allows for depth of inquiry into complex and often unique issues. I believe the
area of focus for this research (leading, teaching and learning in middle level learning
environments) aligns with Merriam’s description of phenomenon that are both unique and
complex.
Constructivist Grounded Theory Approach to Guide Data Analysis
In seeking a methodology that would align with my ontological and epistemological
beliefs, while also allowing for the generation of a practical framework, I was immediately
drawn to the work of Kathy Charmaz (2000). A sociologist, and student of Glaser and
Strauss, originators of classic grounded theory, Charmaz’s (2000, 2006) beliefs about a
constructivist interpretation of grounded theory highlight the interaction between the
researcher and participants in the research process, bringing to the forefront the notion of
researcher as author (Mills, et al., 2006). Classic grounded theory was first envisioned by
Glaser and Strauss (1967) as a methodology that sought to develop theory related to one core
aspect of important phenomena through data collection and analysis processes, without first
having a hypothesis to either prove or disprove. Through interacting with participants and
contexts using various methods, it was believed that issues of importance to both participants
and the researcher would emerge. Charmaz’s (2003) constructivist grounded theory, “takes a
middle ground between postmodernism and positivism, and offers accessible methods for
taking qualitative research into the 21st century” (p. 250). Where Charmaz’s view of
grounded theory first deviates from that of Glaser and Strauss is in the question of the
existence an external objective reality that can be captured through the analysis of data
(Charmaz, 2000). Inherent in a constructivist view of the world is the belief that individuals
construct reality as they attempt to understand the world around them; meaning does not lie
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hidden within phenomena, waiting to be discovered (Guba & Lincoln, 1989, 1994).
Therefore, according to Charmaz (2003), constructivist grounded theory, “assumes the
relativism of multiple social realities, recognises the mutual creation of knowledge by the
viewer and viewed, and aims toward an interpretive understanding of subjects’ meanings” (p.
250). This view aligns well with the intended design and aim of this research study.
Constructivist grounded theory encourages the researcher to give voice to study
participants, in addition to seeking out and incorporating multiple perspectives into the study
of a phenomenon (Charmaz, 2006). This emphasis on the relationship between researcher
and participants also applies to a reciprocal approach in the treatment of data. Charmaz
(2003, 2006) advocates for the co-construction of data and its analysis through the interactive
process between researcher and participants. The ways in which a researcher interprets the
phenomenon is in itself a co-construction, shaped by their interactions with the context and
participants (Charmaz, 2006). The acknowledged influence of the interactive process
between researcher and participants on the co-construction of meaning, interpretations and
data arising from the research calls for the researcher to be transparent and reflective about
the manner in which she carries out the research (Mills, Bonner & Francis, 2006). Reflection
on the part of the researcher entails, “thinking about the conditions for what one is doing
[and] investigating the way in which the theoretical, cultural and political context of
individual and intellectual involvement affects interaction with whatever is being researched”
(Alvesson & Sköldberg, 2000, p. 245). Throughout the research process I have kept a
reflective journal containing a series of anecdotal observations as well as analytic memos
while working with the data to ensure I maintained this transparency. Returning to these
reflections and anecdotes proved to be both insightful and helpful during the data analysis
process.
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The belief in the existence of multiple social realities allows for the theoretical
framework or product of a constructivist grounded theory approach to the treatment of data to
provide practical insight into a phenomenon coupled with breadth and depth of
understanding. In research using constructivist grounded theory, Charmaz (1995, 2000)
advocates that researchers work with the data in ways that honour the unique narratives of the
participants in the final product. A style of writing that is more narrative than scientific and
is reflective of the voices and experiences of the participants themselves is encouraged by
Charmaz (2000). This type of writing is more suited to what I consider to be a strength in my
own writing, as well as to what I hope to contribute to the body of knowledge related to early
adolescent learners and middle level learning environments. Again, a constructivist grounded
theory approach to working with the data I have collected is most relevant to the intended
outcome of my research, which is a better understanding of the factors that contribute to the
establishment of developmentally responsive, intellectually engaging middle level learning
environments, through the examination of the lived experiences of instructional leaders,
teachers and students.
Role of the Researcher
It is important that my role as the researcher in this study be made clear and examined
in order to understand how this may have influenced interactions with participants and
subsequent analysis of data. My professional experience working with early adolescents in
middle level learning environments in the capacities of instructional leader, teacher and
system specialist, as well as my role as a parent of an early adolescent learner has provided
me with both a professional and a personal lens from which to approach this research. Based
on my own professional and personal experiences, along with my own curiosities and
passions, I have identified the following specific lenses I have brought to this research study:
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A thorough understanding of the current state of early adolescent learning and
middle level learning environments in Canada and in select countries around the
world.
2.
An appreciation for the multifaceted nature of early adolescent learning and
development and the complexity involved in the work of those who teach early
adolescent learners.
3.
A critical perspective about the role of appropriate pre-service and in-service
teacher professional learning related to early adolescent learners.
4.
The desire, for both professional and personal reasons, to further highlight the
need for an intentional examination of the factors that contribute to the
establishment of developmentally responsive, intellectually engaging middle
level learning environments, along with the need to better understand essential
implementation processes behind middle level transformation.
A key tenet of constructivism and constructivist grounded theory is the researcher
being viewed as bringing credibility to the study; this is achieved through the researcher
establishing familiarity with the context in which the research is taking place, as well as
being able to demonstrate an exceptional understanding of the phenomenon being studied
(Charmaz, 2000, 2006; Lincoln & Guba, 1985). Familiarity with the context where the
research is being conducted was termed by Lincoln and Guba (1985) as prolonged
engagement, whereby the researcher invests the necessary time in a setting to establish the
familiarity needed to be viewed as credible and trustworthy by participants, and also develops
a strong sense of the inherent culture of the context to be able to accurately portray the
subtleties and intricacies in the findings. This time of engagement in a research context must
be considered carefully by the researcher, as Lincoln and Guba (1985) also warn of
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something they describe as “going native,” where researchers spend too much time in a
research context, thereby bringing into question their interpretation and analysis of the data.
The nature of constructivist research, however, acknowledges the interaction of the
researcher with the context and participants in such that it promotes the co-construction of
meaning, understanding and data.
The importance of researcher credibility cannot be underestimated, as the researcher,
in many forms of qualitative inquiry, is viewed as the primary instrument for data collection
and analysis. Stainback and Stainback (1988) discuss the importance of developing a strong
rapport with research participants, thereby facilitating the potential for richness in participant
responses and consequently greater depth of understanding of the phenomenon by the
researcher. In my role as researcher, I visited each of the research sites on two separate
occasions. The first occasion served as an opportunity to meet the school principal, discuss
the nature of my research and clarify what I was asking of the school and potential study
participants. I presented myself as a colleague who was interested in early adolescent
learners and middle level learning environments. I was clear that I was not approaching this
research from a place of judgement; I was eager to learn from them and perhaps had some
insight from my own professional experience that may benefit their school context. During
this first visit, I was able to collect documents and artefacts from the school principals that
would become part of the data story for this study. I also had the opportunity to make
reflective observations about the school context after I had left that later informed the case
descriptions. The second visit to the school was an opportunity for me to meet with the
participants and conduct the semi-structured interviews. I transcribed all interviews arising
from this second meeting on my own, allowing for additional opportunities to reflect on the
interactions I had with participants. This transcription process served as the first opportunity
to interact with the data and begin the initial stages of open coding.
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During the early stages of data analysis I sought out peers experienced in working
with qualitative data along with my program supervisor to provide an important “fresh set of
eyes” and serve as “critical friends” in reviewing interview transcripts and initial steps in the
open coding process to ensure I was asking the right questions of the data and using the
appropriate analytic lenses from which to view the data. As they asked for clarification of
what I had provided them and posed additional questions for consideration, I was able to
further refine and deepen my data analysis processes and consider alternative explanations
for patterns in the data. Triangulation of my perceptions and interpretations of the data was
an essential step in my ability to clearly articulate key aspects of my research design along
with the manner in which I was working with the data.
Criteria for Quality of the Study
It is the role of the researcher to prove the value of the study and the rigour with
which the research was undertaken and carried out. Within the social constructivist
paradigm, the researcher attempts to reconstruct, through processes of co-construction,
participants’ experiences of a chosen phenomenon. Therefore, the nature of qualitative social
constructivist research, necessitate alternate criteria be used to establish the value, rigour,
quality and trustworthiness of the study (Guba & Lincoln, 1994; Lincoln, 1995). More
traditional measures of external and internal validity, often used with quantitative research,
do not apply in the same way to forms of research that fall within the constructivist paradigm.
The suitability of criteria and specific terminology to be used when determining the
trustworthiness of constructivist research is often a topic of debate (Denzin & Lincoln, 2000;
Merriam & Associates, 2002). Schwandt (1994), for example believes the most important
criteria for judging the quality of constructivist research is the quality of “functional fit,”
while other constructivists put forth criteria such as thoroughness, comprehensiveness,
aesthetic knowledge, referential adequacy, etc. (Guba & Lincoln, 1994; Murphy, Dingwall,
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Greatbatch, Parker, & Watson, 1998; Schwandt, 1994). For the purpose of this study, the
quality and trustworthiness of the research will be judged using the criteria proposed by Guba
and Lincoln (1994) and Robson (1993) of credibility, transferability, dependability,
confirmability and authenticity.
Credibility. “Credibility deals with the truth-value” (Plack, 2005, p. 231) with which
the research was conducted. I employed a variety of strategies to ensure credibility of the
study. A variety of data collection methods were used at each site including interviews,
direct and participant observation and document review. Additionally, multiple perspectives
were considered within the study, including the voices of instructional leaders, lead teachers
and students. The use of multiple perspectives contributes not only to the credibility of the
study, but also promotes dependability and confirmability (Lauckner et al., 2012).
Maintaining a high level of transparency during the research process is an important factor in
the perceived credibility of the study. As described in the section related to my role as the
researcher, I maintained a reflective journal throughout the research process. As outlined in
Charmaz’s (2000, 2006) constructivist grounded theory, using techniques such as analytic
memos and anecdotes related to emerging interpretations of the data contributed to the
transparency of the data analysis process and therefore the credibility of the study. Finally, I
undertook the necessary steps in each country to obtain the proper consent needed to
interview instructional leaders, lead teachers and students. The procedures of informed
consent differed slightly in each country and sometimes within a given country.
Transferability. Transferability refers to the extent to which study findings can be
transferred from one context to another (Murphy et al., 1998). The use of thick descriptions
as put forward by Creswell (1994) is one of the primary tools to ensure transferability and
serves the purpose of providing the audience with rich descriptions and detailed information,
allowing them to feel as though they have had the experience themselves. With the inclusion
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of thick descriptions the reader can then determine for themselves the level of transferability
of the data presented. I believe the cases I have presented contain the type of thick
descriptions as envisioned by Creswell (1994). Additionally, the diverse site locations and
contexts utilised, the wide variations in the participants included and the incorporation of
multiple perspectives in my research have served to contribute to and elevate the level of
transferability of this study.
Dependability. With the criteria of dependability the emphasis rests on the processes
involved in the research; what measures were put in place to ensure the data obtained is
dependable? Here, the use of Creswell’s (1994) thick descriptions ensure that the reader can
easily follow the processes engaged in by the researcher to collect, manage and analyse data.
Through the use of thick descriptions the reader should be able to, “follow the [researcher’s]
process to determine if it was clear, systematic, well documented, and provided safeguards
against bias” (Plack, 2005, p. 232). To ensure dependability, I used techniques such as
triangulation, where experienced peers reviewed initial stages in my analysis of the data,
posed questions of me regarding data collection and initial coding work, and asked me to
reflect on potential alternate explanations for patterns emerging from the data. The use of
multiple perspectives from multiple contexts increased the dependability of findings
presented in the individual cases, the cross-case analysis and finally the proposed framework.
Confirmability. In constructivist research, the criteria of confirmability stems from
the question of whether conclusions put forth are logical reflections of the data. “The
information obtained must be confirmable” (Plack, 2005, p. 232). Member checking is a
strategy whereby interview transcripts were provided to participants, allowing them to make
additional comments or edits, ensuring the data used accurately reflects their experiences and
points of view. Using case study protocol as outlined by Stake (1995), detailing all aspects of
the research process (reflective journaling, memo writing, etc.) and creating a method for
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managing and storing data contributed to the creation of an audit trail and thus support the
confirmability of the research. An overview of the protocol I created for the purpose of this
research is included as an appendix (see Appendix I). All documents used for the purpose of
this research study have been saved and stored and are available to anyone who should ask to
see them.
Authenticity. Various descriptors have been put forward to determine the
authenticity of a research study. Guba and Lincoln (1994) and Schwandt (1994) describe the
following forms of authenticity: fairness, were multiple and varying participant voices sought
out and represented; ontological authenticity, has the researcher’s understanding of the
phenomenon been advanced because of the inquiry; educative authenticity, have others’
understandings of the phenomenon been enhanced or augmented because of the study;
catalytic authenticity, have the study’s findings have prompted action or at least consideration
by others in the field; and, tactical authenticity, has participation in the study empowered
participants, giving them momentum to act on new constructions of knowledge (Guba &
Lincoln, 1994; Schwandt, 1994).
Reflecting on each descriptor identified by Guba and Lincoln (1994) and Schwandt
(1994), I believe the study upheld the characteristics of an authentic study. Participants in
this study came from a range of cultural backgrounds, experiences, demographics and ages.
Voices of all participants are represented in the study; the beliefs and lived experiences of all
participants were included in varying degrees in the case descriptions. In terms of
ontological and educational authenticity, follow up correspondence from study participants
showed them to be grateful for the opportunity to participate in the study and reflect on and
share their beliefs and experiences. Those in the education profession are by nature, I
believe, idealists, wanting to change the world--one lesson, and one student at a time. The
sharing of research findings, I believe had an impact on all participants, for many it was a
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much needed affirmation of current beliefs and practices, and for others, it provided them a
sense of direction for logical next steps. This falls into the category of tactical authenticity.
The last two descriptors, ontological authenticity and catalytic authenticity are perhaps more
difficult to quantify. I know my involvement in this study has had a profound effect on the
way I view early adolescent learners and middle level learning environments. Some beliefs I
held previously have undergone a significant and needed reshaping, while others were
strengthened through what I discovered in the process of my research. Perhaps more tangible
will be the impact this research has on my instructional leadership and how I will work in my
own professional practice to establish developmentally responsive, intellectually engaging
middle level learning environments. Does this study demonstrate catalytic authenticity? I
certainly hope so. I do truly believe what I have put forward has the potential to cause
enough of a disruption in traditional ways of thinking and doing in middle level learning
environments to significantly impact early adolescents’ experience with schooling.
Interpretive and methodological rigour. Another strategy to evaluate the quality of
this research comes from the work of Fossey, Harvey, McDermott and Davidson (2002), and
uses the criteria of methodological rigour and interpretive rigour. I believe this is to be
worthy of mention because when combining case study and constructivist grounded theory
methodologies, as I did in this study, there is perhaps an additional lens from which to
determine the contribution of the study. Methodological rigour considers whether the
research was conducted with good methodological practice (Fossey et al., 2002). Interpretive
rigour encompasses the data analysis process and questions if the interpretations the
researcher made were sound and reflective of the data. The following questions adapted from
the work of Stake (1995), Fossey et al. (2002) and Charmaz (2006) provide a solid
foundation from which to determine the methodological and interpretive rigour of this
research study.
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Relating to methodological rigor:

Has the case been adequately defined?

Have contextual factors been adequately described and considered?

Have quotations and descriptions been adequately used to provide various
experiences for the reader?

Was an adequate number of and variety of data sources used?

Was the role of the researcher and his/her perspective clearly outlined?
(adapted from Stake, 1995, p. 131 )

Are the chosen design, and data collection and analysis methods congruent with
the philosophical or paradigmatic stance of the research?

Was the research design flexible in adapting to real-life situations within the
social settings it was conducted?

Was the researcher detailed and transparent in describing the data collection and
analysis process? (adapted from Fossey et al., 2002, p. 724)
Relating to interpretive rigour:

Are sufficient data presented to support the researcher’s claims?

Do presented categories cover a wide range of empirical observations?

Do the researcher’s proposed categories offer new insights and a new conceptual
rendering of the data?

Has the researcher addressed taken-for-granted meanings?
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132
Have links been made between the larger institution of context and individual
lives?

Does the proposed theoretical framework make sense to participants or those in a
similar situation, offering deeper insights about the phenomenon?

Is the researcher’s interpretation relevant to people’s everyday lives?
(adapted from Charmaz, 2006, p. 19)
Study Participants
The intended outcome of a research study is an important factor when considering the
many strategies available for participant sampling. When I describe the considerations for
participant sampling in this section, it applies to both site selection as well as participant
selection. The work of Patton (1990, 2002) is frequently referred to when participant
sampling in qualitative research is discussed. Patton has put forth 16 strategies to support
purposeful sampling in qualitative research, each serving a different purpose and reflecting
the intended outcome of a study.
The logic and power of purposeful sampling lie in selecting information-rich cases for
study in depth. Information-rich cases are those from which one can learn a great
deal about issues of central importance to the purpose of the inquiry, thus the term
purposeful sampling. Studying information-rich cases yields insights and in-depth
understanding rather than empirical generalizations. (Patton, 2002, p. 230, emphasis
in original)
I believe there are ultimately multiple intended outcomes when one engages in
research, outside of the larger impact on the particular field of study. The personal journey of
the researcher towards greater understanding of a phenomenon that likely impacts them on a
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professional level too, is one such outcome. A significant outcome also not to be
undervalued is the impact on the participants themselves as they engage in the very personal
nature of sharing their beliefs and lived experiences (Clandinin & Connelly, 2000). It is with
this awareness that I chose the strategy of intensity sampling with close consideration of
maximum variation sampling for both site and participant selection (Patton, 1990, 2002).
Site and participant sampling. Using Patton’s (1990) strategies of intensity
sampling--“selecting information-rich cases that manifest the phenomenon intensely, but not
extremely” (p. 182) and maximum variation sampling--“selecting cases that are considerably
different on the dimensions of interest” (p. 182), my supervisor in Germany and her
colleagues in Finland assisted me in choosing site locations that would align with the criteria
of these two sampling strategies. As the researcher, I was more interested in a select number
of sites and participants that would contribute richness and uniqueness to the study and create
opportunities for me to learn, than on a large sample size. Patton (1990) acknowledged this
in his work when he wrote, “The validity, meaningfulness, and insights generated from
qualitative inquiry have more to do with the information-richness of the cases selected and
the observation/analytic capabilities of the researcher than with the sample size” (p. 185).
In discussions related to criteria for school site selection with my supervisor, I wanted
to be open to a wide variety of school contexts. Consistent with constructivist grounded
theory, I did not have a pre-conceived hypothesis I was looking for evidence to support or
refute; I did have key areas of focus related to the experiences of instructional leaders, lead
teachers and early adolescents within middle level learning environments that I was
interested in exploring further. Essentially, any school site that had early adolescent learners
and whose principal was supportive of opening his/her school to me fit my criteria. This
same openness applied to the selection of individual study participants as well. In
discussions with the school principal, I asked for a wide range of teachers and students. The
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only criteria was that they be willing to openly and honestly share their beliefs, opinions and
lived experiences with me; they did not have to be the “award winning” teacher or the “top of
the class student,” while these factors would not have excluded anyone either. [I believed
then and still do now, that sometimes the best lessons learned come from some of the most
unsuspecting places and people.]
Process of Site Selection and Site Entry
German school sites. The tiered system of secondary schools in Germany presented
a thought-provoking offering of schools, viewed by most as being philosophically distinct,
accommodating certain types of students only in order to prepare them for very different
career and life paths. In Germany, I conducted my research in four very different schools,
from the Land of Baden-Württemberg, chosen with the criteria of both intensity and
maximum variation sampling in mind. These schools were neither extreme cases nor could
they be viewed as ordinary. Two schools carried the title of traditional German Gymnasium,
geared towards the upper tier of students on the path to post-secondary education and on to
professional careers. The third school was a newer form of German school, a Gesamtschule,
introduced in 1969, accommodating students of the Hauptschule, the Realschule and the
Gymnasium in one building, albeit in homogenous classes with students of similar ability.
The Gesamtschule was designed to be more flexible, supporting students as they transition
into a program most appropriate for their abilities. The fourth school was a
Gemeinschaftsschule, introduced as a pilot concept in 2008-2009 and conceived to be a
community school--keeping all students together in mixed ability classrooms. Based on the
professional experience of my supervising professor, it was determined these four schools
would not only provided the breadth of experience found in the German education system,
but would also contribute to the in-depth and rich lived experiences sought for this study.
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Finnish school sites. Recently much has been publicised about the benefits of the
Finnish school system. For both personal and professional reasons, I was very interested
having the opportunity to interact with, learn from and even share my own professional
experiences with instructional leaders and teachers in Finland. My supervising university in
Heidelberg has a partnership with the University of Jyväskylä in Finland, and because of this,
I had the good fortune of being able to conduct my research at four schools in Finland. Two
professors from the University of Jyväskylä’s Faculty of Education assisted me in selecting
school sites they felt reflected the characteristics of intensity and maximum variation
sampling. Three schools sites used for the purpose of this research were from the region of
Central Finland. While the grade configuration of each school varied slightly, early
adolescent students attended all three schools and consequently there were teachers who had
experience working with early adolescent learners. One school was considered to be an
international school, as instruction of the core curriculum was offered in either Finnish or
English and also bilingually. There were course offerings of many other languages, such as
Spanish, Russian, German and Italian, as many students aspire to attend the International
Baccalaureate program in upper secondary school. This type of school attracts students and
their families who have come from abroad to live and work either temporarily or permanently
in Finland as well as native Finnish families where English is spoken at home. The fourth
Finnish school was considered an international lower secondary school from the region of
Uusimaa. In the case of this international school, students had to go through an application
process in order to attend the school. As with the international school in Central Finland,
many students had at one time, lived and studied abroad or were foreign students living with
their families in the Uusimaa region. Students had the choice to study in Finnish, English or
bilingually in a more culturally diverse setting.
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Canadian school sites. Four Canadian middle schools were used as research sites.
Two middle schools were located in the province of Manitoba. In 2010, the department of
education in Manitoba issued a very important position paper related to early adolescent
learners and middle level learning environments that is used as an overarching lens and filter
for the purpose of this research study. I was curious to see in a very practical sense how
middle level learning environments in this province were impacted by the direction and
supports provided by the department of education. The third and fourth research sites were
middle schools by way of configuration in the province of Alberta. In Alberta, there is no
consistency among the 61 district school boards with regards to the how early adolescent
learners and middle level learning environments are supported. While high school
completion and the early learning years have been a priority for many years at the provincial
level, there has not been the same intentionality directed towards early adolescent learners. I
felt it important to better understand the lived experiences, outside of my own, of
instructional leaders, lead teachers and students in middle level learning environments in my
home province of Alberta.
Site entry. With minor unforeseen and unavoidable circumstances, I attempted to
employ the same site entry procedures with each school. In Germany and Finland, my
supervising professor and her university professor counterparts in Finland, made the initial
contact with the school principal of each identified site. Once this contact had been made, I
contacted the school principal via email to introduce myself and provide them with a
summary of my research (see Appendix G). With some principals, a professional email
conversation ensued; for the most part, it involved clarifying questions and attempting to
determine a date for my initial visit that would best suit the school. With the German and
Finnish school sites, I made my first visit to the school accompanied by my supervising
professor or her colleagues. During this first face-to-face meeting I was able to make a very
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important personal connection with the principal, establish collegial credibility and further
clarify any questions that may have arisen since the time I had first contacted them via email.
Patton (2002) advocates for establishing a reciprocity model of gaining access to a research
site, whereby both parties understand the potential for mutual benefit through the research
process. Through this initial conversation with school principals, I shared my professional
background and spoke of the resources I use and have also created that shape the way the
instructional environment at my own school has been set up. I indicated I was happy to share
any resources that might be of interest to them; and, I was also willing to share findings
arising from my research, without of course, identifying the voices of participants from their
specific school. All principals expressed interest in seeing the final results of my research
once completed. At this time, we determined an appropriate date for a return visit to the
school site to conduct participant interviews, as well as discussed the type of participants
appropriate for the study. Again, it was made clear that the criteria for participant selection
were very open; beyond that, I trusted the principal with selection of participants and was
pleased in every instance with the decisions they had made. It was also during this first
meeting I was able to tour the school and was provided by many principals with additional
documents and resources pertaining to the school, which then became part of the data for the
study.
Process of Data Generation
The overarching question to guide this research was generated through an iterative
process arising from my own curiosities, professional experiences and what Elmore (2010)
terms “problems of practice.” Referring back to the methodological questions outlined in
Table 2, the simple question of “What do I want to better understand?” (Lauckner et al.,
2012, p. 2) served me well in narrowing my research focus and in understanding how to best
frame the overarching research question and subsequent interview questions to ensure the
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data I gathered would inform this central focus. My 13 years of experience working with
early adolescents and in middle level learning environments highlighted the need to better
understand the factors that contribute to the establishment of developmentally responsive,
intellectually engaging middle level learning environments. I have articulated the
overarching question for my research in the following manner, “What factors contribute to
the establishment of developmentally responsive, intellectually engaging middle level
learning environments for early adolescents?”
Both Yin (2003) and Stake (1995, 2006) identify the need to establish a theoretical
framework to support and focus data collection in case study research. Referring back to the
methodological questions listed in Table 2, question five, served to further guide and bring
the necessary focus to data collection--“Considering all the information I could gather about
these cases, how can I theoretically structure data collection to best answer the research
question(s)?” (Laucker et al., 2012). Stake (1995) advocates for delineating main “issues” in
each case that reflect the context and complexity of the phenomenon being studied. What
Stake (1995) terms issues, Charmaz (2006) views as “points of departure” that serve to frame
interview questions and form preliminary categories in the coding process. In considering
these main issues or points of departure, I again drew on my professional experiences that
have given me insight into the significant roles instructional leadership, teacher instructional
practices and student agency play in how the unique learning needs of early adolescents are
attended to in middle level learning environments. With this in mind, I created three subquestions that would frame the interview process with the three participant groups I have
chosen for the purpose of this study--instructional leaders, lead teachers and students.
1.
What leadership dimensions contribute to the creation of a developmentally
responsive, intellectually engaging learning environment for early adolescents?
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What instructional practices do teachers draw upon that contribute to the creation
of a developmentally responsive, intellectually engaging learning environment for
early adolescents?
3.
How do early adolescents articulate their needs in ways that contribute to the
creation of a developmentally responsive, intellectually engaging learning
environment?
An overview of the aim of the research was developed and presented to the principal
in each research site prior to entering the school (see Appendix G). Interview guides, or what
Yin (2003) terms “data collection protocols” were created prior to entering the research sites,
based on the overarching research question and sub-questions identified to focus the
gathering of data (see Appendix H). These guides or protocols were used in a flexible
manner, permitting me to use follow up questions to pursue topics of interest stemming from
participant responses. Some participants asked to see these interview guides prior to meeting
with me for the second time. This was the case in two international sites, where participants
were non-native English speakers and wanted to be able to reflect on the questions ahead of
time to ensure that language did not become a barrier. It is important to note the interviews
were designed to be semi-structured. Although I had outlined some guiding questions for
each participant group specific to their context, the list of questions was not exhaustive,
allowing for the unique variations in participants’ experiences and perspectives to emerge
through conversation. In addition to semi-structured interviews, and consistent with case
study design, additional data collection methods used for the purpose of this study were both
direct and participant observation and document review (Stake 1995; Yin, 2003). Data
collection took place onsite in school locations in Germany, Finland and Canada between
July 2014 and December 2014. Table 4 provides a summary of the nature of the data I
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collected in Finland, Germany and Canada, along with the amount of time I spent in each
location.
Interviews. For the purpose of this study, I used semi-structured interviews as the
primary form of data collection. Consistent with case study design described by Yin (2003)
and Stake (1995), interviews are an effective way of capturing and portraying participant
perspectives of unique and complex phenomenon in natural settings. For the instructional
leader and lead teacher categories, I used an individual semi-structured interview format.
When working with students in small focus group of two to eight students, I again used a
semi-structured interview format. As previously mentioned, I created interview guides for
each participant group, specific to the context of the group and to issues or points of
departure I had identified (Charmaz, 2006; Stake, 1995). This format and structure ensured I
remained focused on lines of inquiry essential to my central research question, while also
allowing for participants’ unique perspectives and experiences to be reflected in the data (see
Appendix H).
Interviews were recorded using an iPad application designed for such purposes. I
transcribed all of the interviews personally by listening to the audio recording and wordprocessing my questions verbatim and subsequent participant responses verbatim. Electronic
files of the transcripts were archived to maintain the audit trail necessary for confirmability of
the study. Completed transcripts were returned to participants to allow them to clarify, edit,
add, delete or further comment on anything detailed in the original transcript. All
participants acknowledged receiving and reviewing the transcripts. Some participants made
corrections or adjustments to the original transcript on a scale from very detailed to more
general feedback.
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Small focus group interviews were used with students, as it had been my professional
experience that early adolescents often feel more comfortable disclosing information in what
they perceive to be a less formal, group setting. As I wanted to ensure each student in the
focus group had an opportunity to express their opinions, I asked for principals and teachers
to select a representative sample of students; a group no larger than eight, ages 10-15, boys
and girls, high achieving students and those who face challenges as students, from various
socioeconomic groups. An interview guide was also used to focus my line of questioning,
while allowing for the many digressions in conversation that are bound to occur when
discussing almost anything with early adolescents. These interviews were also recorded
using an iPad and transcribed in the same way interviews with instructional leaders and lead
teachers had been. As no information is presented in the study that would identify school
research sites or research participants, school principals and parents of students I interviewed
trusted that I would not identify student names in my study and also entrusted me with
accurately representing what the students had shared with me during study interviews.
It should be noted that prior to my first “official” interview for the purpose of this
research, I had the opportunity to field test my interview questions with students and
colleagues in the school system I work for. This gave the opportunity to refine my line of
questioning and understand the importance of being more precise with the language I used in
follow-up questions.
Interviews conducted with individual participants, or small focus groups of students
lasted from 45 minutes to 60 minutes. At the end of my data collection process, I had
conducted over 30 hours of interviews and transcribed in excess of 400 pages of
conversation. Table 3 presents a summary of the nature and background of participants I
interviewed for the purpose of this study, based on a strategy of intensity and maximum
variation sampling.
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Table 3
Interview Participants from Research Sites (illustrating intensity and maximum variation
sampling)
German Research Site Participants
Individual Semi-structured Interviews

Principal – Male. Long-time teacher and 5th year principal of a
Gemeinschaftsschule in Baden-Württemberg.

Vice Principal – Male. Has worked at this school, a Gesamtschule in BadenWürttemberg, in various capacities for 30 years.

Vice Principal – Male. Over 25 years experience at the same Gesamtschule in
Baden-Württemberg. Teaches chemistry to class 9 students. Retiring this year.

Lead Classroom Teacher – Male. Currently teaching grade 8 history, German
and social studies in a Gymnasium in Baden-Württemberg. Connecting teacher
between student representatives and the teaching staff.

Lead Classroom Teacher – Female. Employs Montessori methods with class 5
and 6 students. Current class teacher for grade 7 students. Has been with the
same students for three years.

Classroom Teacher – Female. Fourth year teacher in a Gemeinschaftsschule in
Baden-Württemberg. Class teacher for grade 6 students.

Classroom Teacher – Female. Class teacher for form 7 students. Has been with
the same students for three years. Teaches German and English.

School Social Worker – Female. Works with all students in the school as a class
at the request of the teacher or by individual student request in a Gymnasium in
Baden-Württemberg.
Student Focus Group Interviews (participants selected by principal and teachers)

Student focus group – Baden-Württemberg Gemeinschaftsschule. Two male
students with strong English language skills. Both in grade 6.

Student focus group – Baden-Württemberg Gesamtschule. Six students (three
male, three female) in grade 7.

Student focus group – Baden-Württemberg Gymnasium. Thirteen students (eight
male, five female) in grade 7.

Student focus group – Baden-Württemberg Gymnasium. Four students (three
male, one female)--two students in grade 6, two students in grade 7.
(table continues)
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Finnish Research Site Participants
Individual Semi-structured Interviews

Principal – Female. Central Finland lower secondary school. Has been the
principal for five years. Also lectures at the university.

Principal – Male. Central Finland secondary school. Former guidance counsellor
at the school. Has been the principal for two years. Also lectures at the
university.

Principal – Male. Central Finland lower secondary school (international). Has
been at this school for 25 years. Also teaches history.

Vice Principal – Female. Central Finland secondary school. Background in
physiotherapy. Works with all teachers in the school in a co-teaching capacity.

Vice Principal – Female. Central Finland lower secondary school (international).
Has been at the school for 18 years. In charge of student well-being.

Vice Principal – Male. Uusimaa secondary school (international). Has been at
the school for 22 years. Currently teaches math along with his other duties.

Teacher/Guidance Counsellor – Female. Central Finland secondary school.
Health, Physical Education and “Learning to Learn” teacher as well as lower
secondary student guidance counsellor.

Teacher – Male. Central Finland lower secondary school. Second year at this
school. Class 6 teacher.

Teacher – Male. Central Finland lower secondary school (international). English
and German teacher. Exploring the use of technology in his classroom to engage
students.

Teacher – Female. Uusimaa secondary school (international). Has been at the
school for 16 years. Currently teaches math to grade 8 students. Also in charge
of the international program.
Student Focus Group Interviews (participants selected by principal and teachers)

Student focus group – Central Finland secondary school. Eight students (four
female, four male) in grade 7.

Student focus group – Central Finland lower secondary school. Six students
(three female, three male) in grade 6.

Student focus group – Central Finland lower secondary school (international).
Eight students (five female, three male)--four in grade 7 and four in grade 8.

Student focus group – Uusimaa secondary school (international). Eight students
(three female, five male) in grade 8.
(table continues)
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Canadian Research Site Participants
Individual Semi-structured Interviews

Department Specialist – Female. Current department of education specialist. 20
years experience as a teacher and principal in Manitoba middle schools.

Principal – Male. 27 years of experience as a teacher, assistant principal and
principal in urban Manitoba middle schools.

Principal – Male. 25 years of experience as a teacher and principal, in both
Canadian and international contexts.

Assistant Principal – Female. 15 years of experience as a teacher and assistant
principal in four middle schools.

Assistant Principal – Male. 12 years of experience as a teacher and assistant
principal in two middle schools.

Teacher – Male. Seven years of experience working with early adolescents. Has
worked in three middle schools. Currently teaches math and science to grade 8
students.

Teacher – Male. 10 years of experience working with early adolescents. Has
worked in two middle schools. Currently teaches humanities to grade 6 students.

Teacher – Female. 20 years of experience as a middle school humanities teacher
working in a rural Alberta setting.

Teacher – Female. Second year teacher in a middle school. Strong background
in science. Explores ways to effectively use technology with students.
Student Focus Group Interview (participants selected by principal and teachers)

Student focus group – Urban Alberta middle school. Six students (three female,
three male) in grade 6.

Student focus group – Rural Alberta middle school. Six students (four female,
two males) in grade 7. Three students are part of the French Immersion Program
at the school.

Student focus group – Urban Manitoba middle school. Six students (three
female, three male) in grade 6.

Student focus group – Urban Manitoba middle school. Six students (three
female, three male) in grade 7. All part of the French Immersion Program at the
school.
Observations. I used both direct and participant observation as a method for data
collection in this study. Direct observations took place during my initial site visit as I
attempted to familiarise myself with the site and develop a sense of the school context and
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culture. Participant observations occurred during the process of on-site interviewing. In
some cases, I was able to make notes during the interview process, but often had to reflect on
what I had observed about the participants after the interview, to ensure I did not disrupt the
flow of conversation. I developed a general and flexible observation guide to maintain
consistency among site locations and also ensure key areas were attended to (see Appendix
J). This was not in checklist form, but rather categories in which to make anecdotal
comments and reflections. Along with the semi-structured interviews and document review,
these observations formed a primary source of data, which informed the development of the
framework.
Document review. For the purpose of this study, I analysed both print and electronic
documents relevant to each school site. Some of this document review occurred prior to
arriving onsite, to familiarise myself with the school context and school philosophy in order
to inform my subsequent line of questioning. Much of this review came in the form of
reviewing school and district websites. I made anecdotal notes during this review of
electronic sources of my initial impressions and of things I was curious about and wanted to
explore further during the interviews. In all cases, school principals provided me with
documents they felt were relevant to the context of their school and my research, and also
represented their school well. These additional documents were reviewed after the onsite
interviews and observations. Again, I made notes and reflections about these documents and
in some cases, followed up with the principal to seek clarification related to questions I had.
These site-specific documents were often referred back to during data analysis as I sought to
obtain specific information and wording as well as clarify my interpretation of specific
contextual issues.
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Table 4
Summary of Data Collected from International Research Sites
Germany
Finland
Canada
Days on site
8 days
8 days
8 days
Number of participants
33
40
33
Number of interviews
13
12
12
Total time on site
16 hours
16 hours
20 hours
Documents reviewed
18
20
18
The Research Context
Entering into the research context. As outlined in the “Role of the Researcher”
section, I did not enter into this research or the research context from a place of neutrality. I
have many years of professional and personal experience with early adolescent learners and
middle level learning environments. Very early in my career I developed a true curiosity, and
as I will further explain, a necessity for better understanding what makes early adolescents
“tick.” My pre-service teacher training focused primarily on the world of Canadian high
school education and high school students, or late adolescents. Perhaps foretelling of my
future pursuits, my first teaching job was in a middle school grade 8 classroom. These
students behaved and engaged with their learning in none of the ways I had been trained to
expect, and in many cases, support. Within those first few weeks, I knew that if I wanted to
survive my first year as a teacher [and if I were being honest, also wanted my early
adolescent students to survive their first year with me] I needed to set out on my own to
understand all I could about these students I faced every day. I read voraciously, sought out
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professional learning opportunities, anything I could find about early adolescents as
developing beings and as learners. I learned about their brain development and their physical
development and why some of the behaviours that used to make me crazy, were in fact very
typical, to be expected, and even necessary in healthy adolescent development. I came to
understand that in terms of psychological and cognitive development, my one classroom of
32 students was so very diverse that the only way to meet their needs was to know every
single one of them as individuals and learners and also help each student come to know
themselves in the same way; together we could use this knowledge to support their healthy
growth and development. My students and I became partners in our classroom. There was
no “one-size fits all” model in my classroom, perhaps nowhere more true than in a grade 8
classroom; and, once we had figured this out, there was nothing holding these students back.
I look back on those early years in a middle level classroom and am very proud of the growth
as learners and as individuals my students were able to achieve. When people used to offer
their condolences as I would talk about my experiences as a middle years teacher, I
understood just how damaging were all those myths related to the inability of early
adolescents to engage in anything meaningful, especially learning, outside of causing
disruptions in the neighbourhood. It was here my desire to undertake research related to
early adolescent learners and middle level learning environments began.
In my role as a system specialist for middle years teaching and learning, I had the
opportunity to work in some capacity with all middle level learning environments in my large
school district--50 different schools. I became very aware of the lack of consistency in
practice and clear articulation about what “we” as a system believed about early adolescent
learning and middle level learning environments. This concerned me greatly, perhaps more
so as I had a son entering middle school. In my next role as an assistant principal in a middle
school, I had the opportunity to create what I envisioned to be a developmentally responsive,
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intellectually engaging learning environment for early adolescents. I do not intend to portray
my school as a utopia for early adolescent learners; the school, as most things are, was a work
in progress. It was during my work as an instructional leader in this school I knew that I
needed to further understand early adolescent learners and middle level learning
environments on a scale much larger than my own experiences. I believe my understanding
of leading, teaching and learning in middle level learning environments, coupled with all that
I was sure to learn through my research, would contribute to the larger body of knowledge in
this field and would positively impact the practical day to day work in middle level learning
environments around the world. [I accept the title of dreamer and idealist, gladly.]
I was honest with all principals I met about my background and intentions; essentially
what I have just explained, I shared with them. I believe this type of honesty can sometimes
be disarming and served to establish me as not only credible, but also trustworthy. They saw
me as a colleague, understanding in many ways the complexity of their work and wanting the
same things they did--an understanding of how to create the best possible learning
environment for their early adolescent learners. While I was careful not to use what I would
consider Canadian educational jargon, I found that in many instances, those working with
early adolescents in middle level learning environments speak the same universal language.
Although I had created a case study research protocol (see Appendix I) and various other data
collection guides (see Appendix J), mostly for the purpose of making clear for myself the
research process and ensuring I was cognizant at all times of what I was looking for, I
understood the importance of using these in a flexible manner, so as to not miss out on
opportunities that may arise to add richness to the study. Being too rigid, when working with
principals who have opened up their schools, staff and students to you and put themselves in
a position of vulnerability, can be off-putting. There were also cultural subtleties in each
country that I was aware of and ensured I was respectful of.
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Maintaining the research focus. All interviews took place at the respective school
sites; this ensured that participants were in a familiar and comfortable setting. In all cases,
principals had arranged for food to be brought in to share with participants during the
interviews; my experience with early adolescents and middle years teachers has shown that
food is good strategy for showing your appreciation and also getting a conversation started.
Principal interviews were conducted first in all schools. I believe this served to set their
minds at ease with regards to the interview process, the interview questions and what their
teachers and students would experience during their time with me. Principals then entrusted
me to meet with their teachers and students alone, although in some German and Finnish
sites, my supervising professor stayed with me to act as a translator if participants requested
it. This lessened the anxiety some participants had in feeling unsure about their English
language proficiency, although I found all participants to possess very good English language
skills. My professor provided verbatim translations of what participants said; most often
clarifying specific words or terms that participants could not quickly find an English
equivalent for.
I began each interview with principals, teachers and students in the same way, asking
participants to tell me a little bit about themselves, their experiences and/or roles within the
school and why they felt their school was a great place to teach in/learn in. When
interviewing teachers and students, whom I had not yet had the opportunity to meet, I told
them about myself, my experiences and why I was interested in better understanding the topic
of leading, teaching and learning in middle level learning environments before I began to ask
them any questions. I did not begin interviews with principals in this way as it was my
second meeting with them and already had this type of candid conversation with them during
our first meeting. Beginning interviews with a more informal tone was a strategy I used to
get the flow of the conversation going without participants feeling their answers were being
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judged in any way. I felt in all instances that participants and I were quickly able to establish
the conversational tone needed during this type of interview--a delicate balance between
formal and informal, while still ensuring I was able to ascertain the information needed for
the purpose of my research. In many school locations, teachers and students brought in
artefacts of their work to show me and further highlight some of the information they shared
with me. There were many stories and much laughter shared, exactly what I would expect
from colleagues and students in middle level learning environments.
Departing from the research context. The question of when to stop collecting data
is a difficult one for researchers, especially as they become more drawn into the work
through the engaging interactions with study participants, often sharing much in common
with other professionals in the field. Stainback and Stainback (1988) have said that it is the
researcher who determines if enough data has been collected to answer the original research
question(s); researchers may also begin to see repeating patterns in the data, a potential sign
of saturation. Knowing when to depart from the research context was more of a challenge
that I had anticipated for two reasons. One, I wanted to ensure I had enough data to properly
represent the participants’ beliefs and lived experiences in the case study narratives; and, two,
I felt I had developed very positive professional relationships with those who agreed to open
their schools, their very personal pedagogical beliefs and practices, and their experiences as
learners to me. How could I ever thank them for supporting me in my research and in many
ways realising my own dreams?
In each school site, I left a gift with the principal, with the idea that it be shared with
the school. The gift I chose was that of books, as I can think of nothing better to represent
gratitude extending from one teacher to another. The books I chose were a selection from
Order of Canada recipient and personal friend, David Bouchard. To me, David represents
Canada and the beauty of the Canadian spirit; I hoped these books would help teachers and
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students understand a bit more about a country I am proud to call home. As I left the school
sites, I truly believed that the work I had engaged in with these new colleagues and students
would positively impact the future of early adolescent learning and create a better
understanding of the factors that contribute to the establishment of developmentally
responsive, intellectually engaging middle level learning environments.
The Process of Data Analysis
Each qualitative inquiry into a phenomenon of interest is unique and therefore
methods employed to analyse the data will share this unique quality. Alvesson and
Sköldberg (2000) consider data analysis to be an iterative process requiring the researcher to
engage in reflection and interpretation on multiple levels; they term this process “reflexive
interpretation” (p. 248). There are no clear rules or processes to guide this reflexive
interpretation, therefore, the judgement, intuition and ability of the researcher to highlight key
issues all play a significant role in the process of data analysis (Alvesson & Sköldberg, 2000).
As addressed earlier in Chapter Three, I made the decision to employ constructivist grounded
theory processes during data analysis; this decision was based the strengths of this
methodology in the approach to data analysis and practical theory generation. Charmaz
(2012) proposes use of the tools of constructivist grounded theory to answer the “what” and
“why” questions typical of qualitative research from an interpretive viewpoint. “By
questioning our data--and emerging ideas--with analytic questions throughout the research,
we can raise the level of conceptualisation of these data and increase the theoretical reach of
our analyses” (Charmaz, 2012, p. 4). The building of in-depth cases and ultimately practical
theory from textual interview data required that I “open up” the text of the interviews and
look beyond surface citations to uncover deeper meaning and insight. Drawing on the work
of Charmaz (2000, 2001, 2012) allowed me to interact with and make sense of the data in a
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manner that was manageable, but also required me to be constantly vigilant, reflecting on and
rethinking patterns I saw emerging through the data at all times.
Even before onsite data collection concluded in December 2014, I began the
methodical process of transcribing interviews as well as reviewing and reflecting on
observations I had made and site documents I had collected. I chose to transcribe the
interviews myself, listening to interview recordings through headphones and transcribing
them verbatim into a document on my computer. This provided me with an additional
opportunity to review and reflect on the interviews before any formal analysis began by
allowing me to process the data in its original form. Also at this time, I began to organise my
observations and memos into first iterations of categories; this assisted me in organising and
managing the growing volume of data. Very basic outlines of case summaries were created
which permitted further reflection on the aims I had for this research and reflection on
whether I was gathering the data that would support these aims. This beginning step in the
analysis of data allowed for emerging issues to be identified that would guide further data
collection, and in some cases slightly impacted the phrasing of interview questions and
subtleties in the interview process.
After data collection had been completed and all interviews had been transcribed and
verified, I began the process of qualitative coding. Going through the interview transcripts
and breaking the text into pieces to search for patterns, similarities and dissimilarities in the
data is a hallmark process of grounded theory. I considered using various software programs
available to assist in the analysis and coding of data, but after much deliberation, I chose not
to use software for coding, making the decision to interact with the data on my own. My
research study was the first opportunity I have had to engage in this type of formal and indepth research on my own. I wanted to be focused on the data and the data alone, wrestling
with the questions of “what is this” and “what does it represent” and emerging patterns and
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relationships, not on technical issues related to a particular software program. I wanted to
make the connections myself, based on my own observations and so-called “light bulb”
moments, not some recursive pattern identified by software.
The next issue I had to resolve was how to ensure the data analysis processes I
engaged in produced the two aims I had set out for this research; one, the development of
rich, in-depth case studies; and two, the development of a practical framework to guide the
establishment of developmentally responsive, intellectually engaging middle level learning
environments for early adolescents. In order to address these two needs, I employed a twopart process for data analysis. The first step involved the in-depth analysis of each of the
three cases, determined by the country in which interviews took place. Part two involved a
cross-case analysis of the three cases, assisting in the formulation of the practical framework
(Lauckner et al., 2012).
Part 1: In-depth individual case analysis. Data from each individual case was
analysed using the strategies of coding, memo writing, visual mapping and the development
of core categories as outlined in Charmaz’s (2006) constructivist grounded theory methods
for data analysis. Charmaz (2012) writes that the main analytic strategies of grounded
theory, “consist of coding data from the start of data collection, using comparative methods,
writing memos…to fill out your emergent theoretical categories and make them robust" (p.
4). Grounded theorists begin with theoretical categories, informed by specific aspects of the
phenomenon the researcher is interested in examining. Data derived from coding and other
processes fill these initial theoretical categories, which assist the researcher in identifying
variations and relationships (Charmaz, 2012). For me, these theoretical categories were
informed by the three sub questions I created to examine additional aspects of the
phenomenon being studied--the beliefs and experiences of instructional leaders, lead teachers
and students in middle level learning environments. The use of comparative methods during
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all levels of analysis is another key feature of grounded theory, “[comparing] data with data,
data with codes, codes with codes, codes with categories” (Charmaz, 2012, p. 4).
“Grounded theory coding is inductive, comparative, interactive, and iterative--and
later--deductive” (Charmaz, 2012, p. 4). In describing the coding and memo-writing
strategies used by grounded theorists, Charmaz (2012) is clear to distinguish the way in
which grounded theorists write their codes and memos from other researchers adopting
similar strategies in other qualitative approaches to data analysis. Many researchers citing
the use of qualitative coding methods, do so for the purpose of sifting and sorting, identifying
topics and themes, whereas, according to Charmaz (2012) grounded theorists are looking for
“processes, actions, and meanings” (p. 5). This approach to coding keeps the researcher
deeply involved in all aspects of [her] data and it is this type of researcher interaction with
data that is a foundation of constructivist grounded theory. Another aspect that distinguishes
constructivist grounded theory coding from other qualitative coding methods is the analytic
perspective from which the researcher begins to immediately approach the data and continues
to do so throughout the analysis process (Charmaz, 2012). With this knowledge and wisdom
in mind, I began the process of open coding. In the next paragraphs, I will outline specific
steps I undertook in the data analysis process, and while I present them in one order, I do not
intend to imply the analysis of data was a linear process. My experience with data analysis
was very much cyclical and recursive, moving from one step to another, then back again,
sometimes forward two steps, only to return to the previous step because something had
caught my eye.
Open coding. Charmaz (2012) advocates for the line-by-line coding of interview
data, and when possible, she urges the researcher to code in gerunds, the noun form of a verb,
usually ending in “ing.” This, Charmaz (2012) believes lends itself to building action into the
codes, focusing on processes, action and meaning rather than simply sorting interview data
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into themes and topics. I began coding each interview in this way, line-by-line, using
gerunds whenever possible. In some cases the most appropriate codes to assign to interview
text were in the form of “in vivo codes,” using the participants wording; other times, I used
constructed codes, stemming from commonly used terminology in education, or short forms
of phrases that made sense to me. An extensive list of recurring code labels and
corresponding first iterations of theoretical categories emerged, which through the second
phase of coding I modified into tentative categories, becoming more and more refined and
reflective of the data story at each level of analysis. According to Charmaz (2012), codes
become labelled constructs of the researcher, created as they interact with and attempt to find
meaning in their data.
Coding in this manner is a very labour intensive process, taking up considerable time,
and there ultimately comes a point when you ask yourself just how long you have to continue
with the process. Charmaz’s (2012) simple answer is to continue on with line-by-line coding
until the researcher sees recurring codes they would like to further explore or when codes
begin to repeat to the extent that no new codes emerge. This does not intend to imply that
analysis stops when line-by-line coding ends, quite the opposite. This triggers analysis on
other levels, allowing the researcher to explore further interpretations as they compare codes
with codes, data with codes, codes with categories, and so on (Charmaz, 2012). This is
precisely what I experienced. I was careful not to end the line-by-line open coding process
too early, as I wanted to ensure I did not miss anything. [I think, for me, there is always a
sense of not wanting to miss something extraordinary.] Approximately two-thirds of each
interview was open-coded, line-by-line, after which I began to study the codes, looking for
the deeper story behind the codes.
Focused coding. The remainder of each interview was not disregarded, I continued
to compare this data to existing codes, most often codes that appeared frequently or those I
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found to be significant. I also compared the remaining interview text to the theoretical
categories I had initially created. This furthered the iterative and interpretive nature of
constructivist grounded theory coding and assisted in refining initial theoretical categories. I
conceptualise the difference between open and focused coding in the following manner;
open, line-by-line coding served primarily to identify variables, whereas, during focused
coding relationships were examined--relationships among codes and between codes and
categories. From each case, there were approximately 35-55 codes that emerged as recursive
and significant and tended to fall within one or more theoretical categories (see Table 5).
Through examining codes against theoretical categories, I was able to further refine
theoretical categories into more tentative categories, moving me closer towards the goal of
generating a practical framework for responsive middle level learning environments
(Charmaz, 2012).
Memo writing. In constructivist grounded theory, memo writing serves to assist the
researcher in further describing something they find as significant in their data. Memos often
form the beginning ideas for a researcher’s interpretation of something that has struck them
as significant in the data. I used memo writing during data collection as a means of keeping
track of things I found to be significant during the interview, summarising key points or
serving as a reminder of something to pay attention to as I began to analyse the data. During
data analysis, Charmaz (2012) sees memo writing as analytic tool to assist the researcher in
examining their data on a level beyond assigning and comparing codes. I viewed memo
writing as “little notes to self,” helping me articulate what I believed I saw emerging in the
data, my interpretation of something a participant had said or highlighting an idea I wanted to
explore further. Memo writing gave me an opportunity to clarify what I perceived to be the
emerging story in the data.
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After coding and memo writing was completed for each interview, I studied the codes
and memos separately, often returning to the data to re-examine it using a different lens.
Charmaz (2012) believes memos to be, “places to evaluate which codes to raise to tentative
categories…further [strengthening] your emerging analysis” (p. 9).
Visual mapping. With the processes of coding and memo writing complete, there
existed a significant amount of data that when studied on sheet after sheet of paper tended to
blur into “one big mass” of data for me. Based on the experience and advice of Lauckner
(2012) given to other doctoral students, I felt that an opportunity to examine the codes,
tentative categories and memos in a more visual manner might yield insights that I had not
yet considered. For the process of visual mapping, I took the significant codes and the
memos I had written along with the tentative categories that continued to be refined and
transferred them onto sticky notes. I grouped the sticky notes with codes and memos in ways
that were natural and immediately evident. It would have been easy to simply sift and sort
the codes and memos into the tentative categories, however, I wanted to determine if there
were any relationships or groupings that I had perhaps not yet considered. The visual
mapping process helped me to see other patterns in the data, which prompted two actions on
my part--one, I went back to the raw data and re-examined it in light of these new patterns;
and two, I further refined the tentative categories to reflect the new patterns and relationships
that emerged through the visual mapping process.
Development of core categories. This additional opportunity to reflect upon, review
and ask questions of my data and my analysis of it, coupled with the other strategies I used to
interact with and analyse my data, led me to a point where I felt ready to put forth core
categories that properly represented the data for each case. These core categories were the
next step needed for the purpose of the cross-case analysis, eventually leading to the
development of a practical framework. Glasser (1978) and Strauss and Corbin (1990) term
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this phase selective coding, as it is here the researcher identifies the core variable or category
to be used in theory generation. Central to constructivist grounded theory is the
acknowledgement of the existence of multiple possible core variables or categories from
which a practical theory will be constructed (Charmaz, 2000, 2002, 2012). Although each
case was analysed separately, I found that despite expected variations among cases with
respect to contextual and practical factors (more attributed to cultural perspectives on
education than anything else) these core categories reflected and spanned the lived
experiences and beliefs of instructional leaders, lead teachers and students in all 12 school
sites. Each individual case produced seven to ten core categories. These core categories
served as the basis for the cross-case analysis (see Table 5).
Understanding the nature of the relationships among core categories is an important
step in being able to accurately portray the complexity and unique features of each case. The
initial process of open coding assists the researcher in deconstructing concepts into codes;
then through focused coding, the researcher discovers how those codes connect to each other
within larger categories. In order to construct the story of each case, I needed to understand
how my identified core categories related to each other. I did not feel I needed to recreate
Strauss and Corbin’s (1998) reflective coding matrix, I did however, find their investigative
questions to be a helpful tool when examining the relationships and interactions among
recurring codes and core categories.

What is [insert category name]? (Using participant’s words helps to avoid bias.)

When does [insert category name] occur? (Using “during…” helps form the
answer.)

Where does [insert category name] occur? (Using “in…” helps form the answer.)
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159
Why does [insert category name] occur? (Using “because…” helps form the
answer.)

How does [insert category name] occur? (Using “by…” helps form the answer.)

With what consequence does [insert category name] occur, or is [insert category
name] understood? (adapted from Strauss and Corbin, 1998, as cited in Scott,
2004, p. 115)
Using these questions and a version of a conditional relationship guide I created for
my own purposes (see Appendix K), I was able to conceptualise on a different level the
connections among recurring codes and core categories and how this impacted the larger
phenomenon being studied (Scott, 2004; Strauss & Corbin, 1998).
Table 5
Number of Recurring Codes and Core Categories Emerging from Analysis of Data
Case
Recurring Codes
Core Categories
Germany
43
9
Finland
55
10
Canada
38
7
Part 2: Cross-case analysis. For the process of cross-case analysis, I compared the
core categories identified in each individual case to determine what similarities or
dissimilarities existed among the three cases. Once these were identified, I considered the
underlying causes. Could the dissimilarities be attributed to cultural, contextual,
philosophical, positional, personal or other influences? What might account for the
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similarities? Through this process seven categories, reflecting factors that contribute to the
establishment of developmentally responsive, intellectually engaging middle level learning
environments, emerged as being significant and shared across all three cases (see Figure 1). I
returned to raw interview data to re-examine what participants had articulated for subtleties in
contextual and positional beliefs and lived experiences that may account for cross-case
similarities or variances. Previous codes and memos were revisited, comparing them now on
a cross-case level, as opposed to within an individual case, to uncover shared strategies and
processes. Using the seven shared categories, all raw data and analysis data linking back to
these categories was again reviewed to search for any insights that would support the creation
of a practical framework contributing the establishment of developmentally responsive,
intellectually middle level learning environments. Through this process of cross-case
analysis, I am confident that the practical framework I propose is the best reflection of my
data analysis and represents the beliefs and lived experiences of study participants in a
manner that will benefit others working with early adolescents in middle level learning
environments.
The Writing Process
The generation and analysis of data yielded a significant amount of information and at
times I struggled to find a way to manage and interact with the data as well as my own
interpretations and constructions of it. When there are so many rich constructions of
experiences to draw from, I was faced with an overwhelming feeling of how could I possibly
determine what was most important to share. The words of Strauss and Corbin (1990),
“What essential message about the research area do you want to pass on to others?” (p. 123)
served as a guide during the writing process to help me determine what information would
have the greatest impact on those working with early adolescent learners in middle level
learning environments. Constructivist grounded theory informed and in many instances
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guided the analysis of data generated from each case, resulting in significant recurring codes
and emerging core categories; however, in the writing of the cases, these pieces needed to be
reconstructed and woven together in order to help the reader see the uniqueness of each case
through my eyes, informed by the lived experiences of the participants. In keeping with the
original intent of my research, I wanted to portray each of the three cases in a rich, in-depth
manner, with a narrative quality that would draw the reader in to the lived experiences and
beliefs of the participants. It is here, in that deep sense of personal connection to the
experiences of colleagues and peers in similar contexts, where I felt there was an opportunity
for significant change to occur--or at least enough of a disruption in thought would be created
to challenge educators to reflect on their current beliefs and practices.
Consistent with the methodological underpinnings of my research study, participant’s
own language in the form of direct quotations was used whenever possible throughout the
case descriptions in order to maintain the uniqueness and integrity of their experiences and
points of view; however, participant names were not used, nor was the name of the school,
only a description of the school context. Charmaz’s (2000, 2003, 2006) constructivist
grounded theory advocates to using and integrating multiple participant perspectives into the
constructions of social phenomenon. This lends itself to a more narrative than scientific
approach towards how study findings are communicated (Charmaz, 2001). Another method I
used to facilitate this narrative quality in the writing was the use of pictures I took while in
each school site. While I did not include the actual pictures in the dissertation, referring back
to them assisted me in creating rich descriptions of the school contexts, an important factor,
as I ultimately want my readers to see themselves and their work in the work and lived
experiences of the participants and schools represented in the study, thus facilitating the
transformation process.
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Another advantage of the choice I made to combine case study and constructivist
grounded theory methodologies is the potential of moving rich description of a phenomenon
to the practical realm. This was done through the cross-case analysis of core categories,
resulting in the generation of a practical framework, that, when considered alongside the
three rich case narratives, I believe will have a significant positive impact on early adolescent
learners and middle level learning environments.
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Chapter Four - Images of Leading, Teaching and Learning in the Middle: Discoveries
Organisation of the Chapter
Before sitting down to write my dissertation, I believed--perhaps falsely--Chapter
Four, the sharing of the stories of my study participants and the presentation of my findings,
would be easiest. I emerged from the data analysis phase with a mass of information, broken
into chunks consisting of codes; and, with codes swirling in my head, I was faced with the
task of trying to reassemble the pieces into the vibrant and engaging stories that would
represent the lived experiences of my study participants. It required a shift in mindset, from
the breaking apart of the data during the analysis phase detailed in Chapter Three, to the
reconstruction of the pieces into the compelling cases that are the essence of Chapter Four.
This shift proved to be more difficult than I had anticipated. I struggled with how to frame
each of the three cases and with how to maintain a structure that would provide for
cohesiveness among the three cases, while still allowing for the complexities and intricacies
unique in each country to emerge. I believe what I finally settled on to be not only the most
logical presentation of my findings, but also the most impactful, as I hope to have provided
readers with the kind of narrative where they will identify with and be drawn into the lived
experiences of my study participants.
I will begin each of the three case study narratives with a general overview of the
education system in that country, highlighting key factors that have contributed to the ways in
which the country views and approaches early adolescent education. The next section will be
organised by returning to the foundational research perspectives underpinning my
investigation into early adolescent learning and middle level learning environments:
instructional leadership as envisioned by Robinson (2011); instructional practices as outlined
by Friesen (2009); and student agency as a necessary component of Dweck’s (2008) growth
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mindset. Whenever possible, I have used the words of study participants to draw the reader
into the unique and challenging world of leading, teaching and learning in middle level
learning environments. As many participants were very brave and conducted their interview
with me in English, not their home language, I have at times adjusted the wording of their
statements to ensure the intended meaning was conveyed to the reader. The use of square
brackets indicates where these changes have been made. I have presented the lived
experiences, beliefs, hopes and challenges facing instructional leaders, lead teachers and
students by participant group, under the headings of:

Images of instructional leadership in [country name] middle level learning
environments;

Images of instructional practices in [country name] middle level learning
environments;

and, Images of the student experience in [country name] middle level learning
environments.
I have then used sub headings under each participant to group to tie participants’ experiences
back to key tenets in the research of Robinson (2011), Friesen (2009) and Dweck (2008).
The headings for each participant group are similar across the three countries; there are,
however, some differences which reflect the unique context of each country.
The Finnish Research Sites
The Finnish Context for Middle Level Education
Since the release of the 2000 PISA results, there has been much written in praise of
the Finnish education system. The success of the Finnish education system can in part be
attributed to the success of the Finnish society as a whole and the core values of equity and
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equality (Kupiainen, Hautamäki & Karjalainen, 2009). In stark contrast to Canada, there are
clearly outlined national standards and regulations governing all levels of education in
Finland, from pre-primary to the tertiary level. Under the direction of the Finnish Ministry of
Education and Culture, the Finnish National Board of Education (FNBE) is tasked through
legislation with the development of all levels of education in Finland (Finnish Ministry of
Education and Culture, 2014). Since the significant economic recession in Finland in 1990
and the subsequent re-commitment and re-visioning of the nation’s education system, the
strength and stability of education in Finland can be attributed in part to the Development
Plan for Education and Research legislation, outlining the vision and direction for the
Finnish education system (Kupiainen et al., 2009). This plan is developed by the Ministry of
Education and Culture and approved by the government for the following five calendar years.
Regardless of what changes may occur in the 200-seat Finnish parliament, the Development
Plan for Education and Research ensures consistency in policy governing the nation’s
education system (including funding) until such a time that the new plan is prepared and
approved (Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture, 2014a). In keeping with deeply rooted
cultural values of equity and equality, the Finnish education system is centred around the
belief that education is a fundamental right of all citizens. The Basic Education Act
guarantees everyone residing in Finland (regardless of citizenship) equity of access and
equality of opportunities afforded through free basic education (Finnish Ministry of
Education and Culture, 2010). In keeping with the public commitment to and value placed
on education, Finnish compulsory basic education and upper secondary education is entirely
publicly funded:
One of the basic principles of Finnish education is that all people must have equal
access to high-quality education and training. The same opportunities to education
should be available to all citizens irrespective of their ethnic origin, age, wealth or
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where they live. Education policy is built on the lifelong learning principle. (Finland
Ministry of Education and Culture, 2014a, para. 1)
The Basic Education Act, the Basic Education Decree and the Government Decree on
the Objectives and Distribution of Lesson Hours in Basic Education are comprehensive
pieces of legislation governing both primary and secondary education in Finland, addressing
educational objectives, content, evaluation, structure and the rights and responsibilities of
teachers and students (Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture, 2014a). Basic, compulsory
education in Finland begins the year of a child’s seventh birthday and is delineated in a nineyear scope, with the possibility of an additional year should students not meet necessary
standards for the advancement to upper secondary or vocational school. This basic education
is delivered primarily through Finland’s 2,576 comprehensive schools and consists of
primary and lower secondary levels of education (Statistics Finland, 2014). The length of the
school day and the number of lessons are outlined in national legislation; the minimum
number of lessons varies by grade and increases in upper grade levels (Finnish Ministry of
Education and Culture, 2014a). There are no regulations written into legislation concerning
class size with the exception of special needs education. All students attending basic,
compulsory education are provided meals at the school each day (Finnish Ministry of
Education and Culture, 2014a). The aim of the nine-year basic education sequence is to
provide students with the foundational knowledge and skills needed as they grow and
develop into ethical, contributing members of Finnish society (Finnish Ministry of Education
and Culture, 2010). There are no national standardised exams during a student’s time in
basic compulsory education. At the end of year nine, students’ final assessments, for which
there are national assessment and grading guidelines, in large part determine the upper
secondary school students will attend. This is done through an online application process
where students select their top five choices for upper secondary schools, including vocational
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upper secondary schools; and, students are placed in schools based this final assessment
which addresses objectives outlined in the national core curriculum (Finnish Ministry of
Education and Culture, 2014a).
Approximately 50 percent of students attend general upper secondary schools and
another 41 percent attend vocation upper secondary schools (Statistics Finland, 2014). Upper
secondary education builds on the foundations established during basic education in a threeyear scope. The Government Decree on the General National Objectives of General Upper
Secondary Education and the Distribution of Lesson Hours was enacted in 2002. What
follows are excerpts from a translation of this legislation describing the objectives of upper
secondary school:
The aim is that the students learn to appreciate natural and cultural diversity and
respect for life and human rights…Education must support students' growth to mature
responsibly on their own taking into account other people's welfare, the environment
and the state of civil society. Students are introduced to business and
entrepreneurship. The student's cultural identity and cultural awareness deepens.
Education and all school activities support equity and equality…Education needs to
encourage students to study the community and society, locally, nationally and
internationally. The goal is for students to learn together with others to promote
human rights, democracy, gender equality and sustainable development…The aim is
that students acquire good habits and be able to express their cultural identity, and that
students are aware of their own personal special nature…Education must train the
students for a wide range of self-expression and interaction skills and to express
themselves verbally and in writing, in both official languages, as well as at least one
foreign language. Education shall provide aesthetic experiences as well as
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experiences in various art forms. (English translation as cited in FINLEX, 2014, para.
3-5)
Upper secondary school ends with a matriculation exam created and overseen at the national
level, which allows students to continue their education in the Finnish tertiary education
system comprised of universities, polytechnics or vocational institutions.
The FNBE is responsible for developing the national core curriculum for all levels of
education, from pre-primary to upper secondary. This curriculum, currently undergoing
revision to be implemented in 2016, outlines learning objectives, core content as well as
cross-curricular themes for each subject area, and principles for student assessment
(Kupiainen et al., 2009; OECD, 2013b). Developing a student’s ability for self-reflection and
self-assessment is a central aspect of the core curriculum, assisting students to become
cognizant of their own learning processes and progress towards identified national learning
objectives. The present national core curriculum contains 18 subject areas that all students in
compulsory education will study. Also addressed in this core curriculum are matters such as
student well-being, special education, learning context and environment, and principles of
learning (FNBE, 2004). The core curriculum identifies the learning environment as crucial to
ensuring the learning outcomes are met. Although teaching methods and approaches are
proposed as part of the national core curriculum, responsibility is placed on the teacher to
determine how all students meet the objectives of the national core curriculum. The role of
the student as an active participant in his/her education is also underscored in the national
core curriculum (FNBE, 2004).
Within Finland’s model of education, there is a high degree of responsibility and
autonomy given to local authorities for organising and delivering all that is involved in the
basic, compulsory education of its youngest citizens; the primary task being to ensure all
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students, regardless of learning ability, are given the opportunity to learn (Finnish Ministry of
Education and Culture, 2014a; OECD, 2013b). Other areas of local authority include the
structure of the school day, safeguarding the of all students, determining how instruction will
be organised, allocation of school funding and ensuring the local context and environment are
respected and present in the delivery of the national core curriculum (Finnish Ministry of
Education and Culture, 2014a; OECD, 2013b). Local authorities along with the larger
municipalities are responsible for both general upper secondary and vocational upper
secondary schools. A class teacher generally teaches grades 1 through 6, while students in
grades 7 through 9 are taught by subject-specialist teachers, with one of these subjectspecialist teachers assigned to have advisory responsibility over a particular class of students
for two to three years. Most schools adhere to a 60-minute lesson length, of which at least 45
minutes must be devoted to instruction. Some schools have begun to move to 90-minute
blocks with a larger break in-between. The duration of the school year in Finland is 190 days
(Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture, 2014a). Local authorities may determine the
start date of the school year in addition to any school holidays throughout year. The end of
the school year, which is always the last working day of the 22nd week of the year, is
determined at the national level (Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture, 2014a).
Teaching is a highly valued and respected profession in Finland, on par with doctors,
lawyers and engineers. Statistics from 2012 indicate only 14 percent of those who took the
national exam for entrance into one of Finland’s eight universities with teacher training
programs were accepted (Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture, 2014b). It is often
widely publicised that all teachers in Finland hold Master’s degrees; and, while the
percentage is high, statistics from 2010 indicate 90 percent of primary school class teachers,
95 percent of upper secondary school subject teachers and 78 percent of vocational secondary
school teachers have a Master’s degree (Statistics Finland, 2014). Teacher training for those
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wanting to be class teachers focuses first on pedagogical studies with a secondary focus on
subject specific areas. Subject teacher training is centred first on the subject area prospective
teachers identify they want to teach, with general pedagogical theory making up a smaller
portion of teacher training (Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture, 2014b).
The Teachers’ Education Act, the Teachers’ Education Decree, the Teaching
Qualification Decree and the Quality Criteria for Basic Education are national pieces of
legislation that clearly outline Finnish quality standards and regulations for teacher inductees,
teachers and teacher training programs (Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture, 2014b).
In 2010, the Osaava Programme was established by the Ministry of Education and Culture to
support ongoing teacher professional development in all Finnish schools (OECD, 2013b).
Although it is often said teachers in Finland have a high degree of autonomy with regards to
what goes on within their classrooms, there is a significant amount of national legislation that
sets clear guidelines and criteria for all aspects of teacher practice. Much has also been
written about Finland’s preventative approach to ensure all children succeed in school in
accordance with their abilities. Again, much of this comes in the form of policy at the
national level related to early identification of students who struggle and provisions of
holistic supports required at the school level such as guidance counselling, school nurses,
school psychologists and social workers to ensure the needs of students are being met
(OECD, 2013b). A clear benefit to Finland’s highly legislated education system is the
consistency and quality purported to result from this legislation, along with public trust
garnered in the quality of education all students receive.
Finland continues to come out on top in PISA measures for reading and also shows
one of the smallest gaps between its highest and lowest performing students, a PISA indicator
for equitable access to learning outcomes (OECD, 2013). Scores on PISA measures of
mathematics remain high, despite Finnish students receiving comparatively less instruction
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time in math than other OECD countries (OECD, 2014b). While the immigrant population in
Finland is low at 2.6 percent, compared with the OECD average of 10.3 percent, immigrant
students, as well as boys perform much lower on OECD tests of reading than girls do
(OECD, 2014b). Increasing the performance of these two groups of students has become a
priority in Finland. National legislation has been created to target support for these students
in the form of the Ministry of Education Strategy 2015 and the National Core Curriculum for
Instruction Preparing Immigrants for Basic Education (OECD, 2014b). According to the
recent TALIS measures, Finnish teachers teach on average 100 hours less per year than other
OECD countries and experience one of the lowest student-teacher ratios (OECD, 2013c). A
reported 95 percent of Finnish teachers feel satisfied with their jobs (OECD, 2013c).
There are three factors inherent in the Finnish education system, which I believe play
a significant role in supporting the unique developmental and learning needs of early
adolescent learners.
1.
National legislation very clearly articulates the vision for education in Finland.
Further, the focus on lifelong learning and comprehensive knowledge in a wide
variety of subject areas and also in understanding what it means to be a citizen of
Finland, ensures there is a place for all early adolescents to experience success
and feel they belong in school regardless of ability or unique areas of interest.
Students will study 18 subject areas in their nine-year compulsory education
scope with the addition of optional courses in lower secondary school. This type
of broad exposure to many subject areas during early adolescence, including the
arts and multiple languages, supports multifaceted growth and development for
these learners.
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172
While perhaps not specifically written into national legislation, there are
provisions within Finnish educational policy that are well suited to the unique
learning needs of early adolescents. In Finland, the learning environment is a
matter specifically addressed in the national core curriculum. Giving students,
especially early adolescents, choices with regards to where they can complete
their learning tasks, a strong emphasis in the national curriculum on the
environment and outdoors, and the opportunity for students to either accelerate
their studies, or take an additional year to complete their compulsory education
all serve to support the success of early adolescents in school. The Decree on
Basic Education goes so far as to articulate the need for students to have
sufficient time for rest, hobbies and recreation outside of school time.
3.
National legislation ensures that teachers in Finland are trained with a high
degree of consistency; the public expectation is that regardless of where an early
adolescent may attend school, he/she will have consistent and quality instruction.
Those teachers working with the nation’s early adolescents are for the most part
subject teachers who have had extensive knowledge about and training in the
subject area they teach, along with general pedagogical methods appropriate to
early adolescent learners. Teachers are better able to engage their students in
learning when they have the subject area expertise that enables them to draw
students into the content in meaningful ways and assist students in connecting
content knowledge to the world they live in.
Images of Instructional Leadership in Finnish Middle Level Learning Environments
With all I had read about education in Finland, I was very excited to have the
opportunity to spend time in Finnish schools, conducting my interviews and observing
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students and teachers working together in classrooms. Based on extensive legislation in
Finland governing all areas of education, I wondered about the diversity that would exist in
the images of instructional leadership I would find through my discussion with school based
principals and vice principals. I was curious to see how high degrees of regulation translated
into actual leadership and instructional practices in school. What I found was that although
teacher preparation programs in the eight Finnish universities are very consistent and follow a
predictable track, no such standardisation exists for the development of school principals and
vice principals. All principals and vice principals interviewed had worked as teachers in the
same school prior to becoming the principal, and all indicated they had taken additional
training at the university level related to what they described as “administrative studies”-involving legal studies, human resources, personal leadership and finance. All held Master’s
degrees in education, as is required of most teachers in Finland; yet, each principal had
followed a very different path to arrive at the current leadership position.
Philosophies about early adolescent learning. The first question I asked of all
principals and vice principals was the personal philosophy they held related to teaching and
learning at their school. One principal smiled and replied that he has it posted on the outside
of his office door; he wanted it to be very clear for his teachers, his students and the school
community what he believed in and why:
I have a personal statement and it is written on the outside of my door and it is
attached to positivity, attitude and success. I see that the three of them go hand in
hand together. I want us to create useful, worthwhile and appreciated individuals. No
student fails, every student will succeed in their own way. There in a place for every
student and we will ensure the student discovers this place. This is the work of
teaching and learning. (Principal interview, November 2014)
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Another principal indicated that his philosophy can be summed up in one short phrase,
“Learning together” (Principal interview, November 2014). The principal explained that this
applies to both teachers and students:
[Learning together] is something we focus on. Although it is what I believe and
hoped the staff would too, last spring it came about that together everyone decided
this would be our philosophy going forward. We work together as much as possible.
No one is left alone. Teaching is a heavy job and if [teachers] have colleagues who
support them, I think it makes everyone better. I think learning together also means
students learn together, teachers with pupils and teachers with other teachers. It also
means I learn with them too. (Principal interview, November 2014)
A veteran principal and teacher of over thirty years articulated it has taken time for him to
shape the philosophy for his school and admitted that he has adjusted it to ensure it was
relevant for the current group of students and teachers he has:
[I believe] our work is to meet the needs of [each pupil] and meet them as they are.
They have the right to be as they are and as professionals we need to find the best way
to support them as learners. It can’t be about us changing them to fit something we
see. This is no longer relevant in today’s world. (Principal interview, November
2014)
Most important role(s) as an instructional leader. Principals and vice principals
had differing views about their most important roles as instructional leaders. Some felt it was
to develop the school and the teachers and also to help parents understand what is going on in
the education system as a whole. Others felt it was to ensure the students felt supported as
young learners. One principal felt his most important roles changed daily, sometimes he was
the “chief problem solver,” on other days he felt more like an “ambassador of the school”
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with outside agencies and district administration, and then there were the days where he knew
the best thing he could do for his teachers was to be a “sounding board.”
During one line of questioning related to roles and responsibilities, the principal
paused for moment, leaned in and said with a twinkle in her eyes:
I would like to blow up what we have. I would like to do this. Time. Space.
Classroom. Interaction. Curriculum. This is what I would like to do differently in
my school. It is time to leave some of the old ways behind. Next week, we will try to
do things differently, but just a small step. I want to show my teachers it is okay to
try things and not worry if we make mistakes, because we learn and grow from
mistakes. (Principal interview, November 2014)
The Finnish approach to teacher supervision can be summed up quite succinctly through one
vice principal’s words, “We are not ‘snoopervisors’ to coin a phrase” (Vice principal
interview, November 2014). He went on to explain:
A lot of autonomy is given to teachers. We have to by law, during the first four
months of the probationary period, have visited each of the teachers and given them
some feedback on areas that maybe need improving or just compliment them on what
they are doing. A form is used, but not really so formal, we just do it for the benefit
of the teacher to get some written feedback. But apart from that, unless we are made
aware of a concern in the classroom by a group of students or a group of parents, we
tend not to go into the classroom and that is quite the norm in Finnish schools because
the training is so good in this country. (Vice principal interview, November 2014)
Although their answers many have varied, each principal clearly understood (and felt) the
magnitude of their role and wanted to do right by their students, teachers and school
community.
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Establishing goals and expectations. All principals responded similarly when asked
about how they ensured staff felt committed to the direction and vision for the school. One
principal summarised it best in saying:
Of course there are challenges. You must treat the teachers as individuals and if they
understand the philosophy, they can be themselves within that philosophy. We talk
about treating students as individuals; we need to work with our teachers in the same
way. Sometimes you need to start slow and have teachers come up with some things
on their own within the overall school philosophy. When they see they can still be
themselves and it doesn’t threaten their autonomy then moving ahead goes faster.
(Principal interview, November 2014)
All principals in Finland have a teaching role and no principal I spoke to saw this as a
burden--but, rather an opportunity to better understand what was going on in their school.
“So it is important that to sit in the chair of a principal, you need to have been in the trenches
and seen life in front of the class and for a significant amount of time, not just one or two
years” (Vice principal interview, November 2014). In addition to teaching, one vice
principal spoke fondly about how much he enjoyed his supervision duties during the student
break:
I am a very strong believer in prevention. Let’s stop something happening before it
happens, so by being mobile and being visible to the students, it stops a lot of
negative behaviour before it even begins as an idea in a student’s head. The kind of
information students will tell you during lunch is invaluable and can also be really
funny. Sometimes I hear about things that are going to happen or problems that are
going on and I can intervene before it becomes something really big, and other times I
hear things I wish I hadn’t. In the end it is about developing a relationship with my
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students; I try to never miss a lunch break. (Vice principal interview, November
2014)
Ensuring quality teaching. Perhaps not surprisingly, each principal and vice
principal had a slightly different philosophy about what they looked for when hiring teachers.
All felt that experience was key, but they disagreed on whether it was length of experience or
diversity of experience that was most valuable to a school. One principal articulate his
approach to hiring teachers in this way:
I try to find teachers that are open-minded and are good at working with the group.
Capable of teamwork and sharing experiences and also taking up responsibilities that
the whole school has to care for. It is not so important they specialise only in their
subject. [It is] more important they work together well with other teacher and pupils.
(Principal interview, November 2014)
Leading teacher learning and development. In terms of professional learning
opportunities for staff, principals all shared similar views. “I am not satisfied with this. We
lack money for this. It is something that we need to think about differently” (Principal
interview, November 2014). Principals felt that because their work also involved a teaching
element, they had additional insight into challenges facing both their students and teachers;
they often used their own experiences as a starting point for professional discussions and
professional learning during the few days they were given.
While my own experience as an instructional leader in Alberta has dictated that data-a vast amount of data, in many forms--is somewhat the norm, principals in Finland had very
different views:
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I don’t think we are so interested in data. There are many things we take care of and
pay attention to. I think we can find out how we are doing in many other ways. Not
just numbers and tests. (Principal interview, November 2014)
I asked about Finland’s PISA results. Although the rest of the world seems to be quite
preoccupied with Finland’s PISA success [at least in Alberta we have been] Finnish
principals and vice principals did not seem to pay that much attention to it. One principal
explained it in this way:
The PISA results are good for our parents and the school community because they see
the good results and they trust that we are doing the right thing for their children. So,
in some ways it takes some pressure off the school because the parents are more
supportive. Of course I think that we are doing the right things at my school, but it is
nice that we don’t always have to battle with the parents. (Principal interview,
November 2014)
Resourcing strategically. A challenge that seems to know no borders is that related
to resourcing a school appropriately. In Finland, principals resource their schools based on a
standard number of teaching hours given per pupil; according to current funding structures,
approximately thirteen students in lower secondary school equate to one teacher. The local
government distributes additional funds to schools for things like furniture, supplies and
technology in an equitable manner, with all schools receiving an equal share of the funds.
The exception is any new schools that are built--they typically see larger amounts of start up
funds:
Of course we would always like more money, but I think that what we have now is
something that I can work with. I think the quality of teaching and learning is not
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impacted by the funding we have. We make smart decisions based on what we know
we have. (Principal interview, November 2014)
Each local jurisdiction has money set aside for what principals termed “equilisation funds”
that principals can apply for if they feel their school is in particular need of something that
regular funding has not left with them the money for. While, I could see this as something
most principals in my district would apply for year after year, Finnish principals seemed to
approach this a bit differently:
I applied for the funding this year to have a wireless network installed in the building.
We have only had it for a short time. Other schools will need it next year and so
everyone is very careful about applying for the money only when it is absolutely
necessary. (Principal interview, November 2014)
Instructional leadership and early adolescent learners. Because of my focus on
instructional leadership as it relates to early adolescent learning I was very curious to hear
about principals’ reflections on the early adolescent learners in their buildings. Again, their
viewpoints varied:
Some [early adolescents] do well, because it is more in their nature. They come to
school because there is a rhythm in their lives. They need their friends. It is safe.
[School] is not the only place where they think they can learn. We adults, we need to
give them space. If young people don’t find meaning in their learning, in their lives,
it is quite dangerous. When I was younger we knew that schooling was important to
survive in the future. The meaning of school is different for students now. The world
around us is so different, they know so much about the world and it comes from many
places, not only the school. (Vice principal interview, November 2014)
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This vice principal also felt it was important for schools to provide early adolescents with
positive role models and images for appropriate behaviour in a civil society:
It seems as maybe something that doesn’t need to be said, but I think it does.
Respect. It is so important. To treat students with respect and show them how to treat
others with respect. We also have to help them have courage to do mistakes and to
try. I think that it sums up the learning together. I think we are social beings who
need to be with others to be the best that we are, and we need to model this for
students. (Vice principal interview, November 2014).
One principal was very thankful Finnish schools have multi-disciplinary teams available to
them to support the needs of their early adolescent learners. This team of professionals
typically includes a social worker, psychologist, school nurse and, if needed, special
education staff:
I think we have to do our best, but we realise that their needs won’t be met in every
case. We try to, of course, by working cooperatively and bringing in outside support
when we need it. [Early adolescents] face many challenges and so the work is very
complex. (Principal interview, November 2014)
The role of technology and social media in the lives of early adolescents were factors one
principal saw from both positive and negative perspectives:
[Technology] gives us opportunities, gives them opportunities. We should understand
that we won’t be able to follow up the latest trends. Just because of the money we
don’t have. I think we can learn from pupils. They learn a lot of skills in technology
in some places other than school. We should also understand and accept this is not
the only place they learn. We can support the use of technology and can give students
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other perspective on the world. It is not something we should be afraid of. (Principal
interview, November 2014)
One principal focused on his belief that early adolescents need to be given increasing levels
of independence and self-determination in their learning and explained what his school is
doing to foster this:
We aim--we actually have in our curriculum--where the pupils should be able to have
their say in what kind of method the teacher goes through in different courses. I think
that the most important thing is that pupils have this self-determination; pupils can
determine if [they] want to focus on these tasks or these tasks by their own choice, but
they have to have the same end goal and the same kind of level of difficulty. This is
good for the pupils. They should have a chance to get to decide to do it another way
by thinking of their own strengths of abilities. We should focus more on this in the
future. We have a culture of trying to give them opportunities where they can decide.
It is tough for conservative thinkers to let go of the thought that the pupil is not here
to do what the teachers want them to do; but, translate that into the teacher is here for
the pupils to help them go through this time of their life and guide them for the future.
(Principal interview, November 2014)
Student transitions. The issue of students’ transition from primary to lower
secondary school was an area where one principal felt schools had a great opportunity to
support and develop their early adolescent learners as capable and confident learners:
We provide as much support as we can to students during those first few weeks of
lower secondary school. The focus is on community building and building a good
class group. For example, everyone goes to one of the islands to do team building
exercises. We connect older students to each one of the younger classes to act as big
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brothers and big sisters. We provide intentional instruction on how to study and how
to be a student in lower secondary school. Some things may seem insignificant, but
we really believe they set the individual students and the school as a whole up for
success. (Principal interview, November 2014)
Communication that supports student learning. All principals spoke about the
importance of communication with the families of early adolescents to ensure students were
aware there was a group of people supporting their needs at school. “Wilma” is a tool all
schools in Finland use to facilitate communication between home and school, and as one
principal put it:
To ensure there are never any surprises. The last thing we want is for a student to be
struggling with their learning or behaviour and for it to be a surprise to the parents.
When everyone is aware of what is going on then we can work to support the student
before things get out of hand. (Principal interview, November 2014)
Wilma serves many purposes--it is a nation-wide expectation that principals, teachers,
students and parents will use and monitor the Wilma system. One principal described Wilma
in this way:
We have a great internal external system for communicating, Wilma. I’m lost without
it. I am able to see the behaviour of students immediately when teachers write
something into the program. It helps to facilitate parent communication. I do a lot of
my communication with parents, particularly in difficult situations through Wilma. I
have found it very successful, because the message I send to the parents, I send to the
students as well. They see exactly the same things. If students have a concern they
can contact me though Wilma. It’s open on my [computer] screen all day long. It
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sends a message to the parents’ mobile phone so they are always aware of what is
going on. (Principal interview, November 2014)
Wilma is also used to support increased student agency in their learning:
Students who are away can see what they miss. It has a lesson diary function, various
test planners. If I want to set a test for my ninth grade math class, I can go in and see
if other teachers have set tests that day, too. It is an expectation that all teachers and
students use Wilma. Teachers must communicate if there are any issues during the
lessons. Putting comments in is not an optional thing; it is something teachers use all
the time. Upper secondary students use it to sign up for courses. It is a tool we use to
increase the responsibility they take for their learning. Teachers might send a
message to their students, so it is expected that they are checking Wilma. It is also an
electronic version of their report card. Students and parents can see exactly the
progress they have made in certain subjects, so there are no surprises with Wilma.
We struggled before Wilma with how to communicate in an ongoing way with
students and their families. (Principal interview, November 2014)
Lessons learned--Finnish values. I ended my formal line of questioning with
principals in Finland by asking what they felt were the most important values of the Finnish
education system that the world could learn from. [It was here, I felt our conversations could
have gone on for hours; and, I knew that when I left, I was leaving a better instructional
leader.] One principal explained the values of the Finnish education system in is this way:
Equality. Humanity. Building pupil self-concept. We want to see who the pupil is
and what their strengths and weaknesses are and how we can work together. There
are different learners and different teachers. We create enough space and enough
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time to find what kind of needs the children have and we build out their education
from there. (Principal interview, November 2014)
Trust in teachers as professionals was another value echoed throughout the conversations I
had with principals and vice principals:
Teachers are given the responsibility to follow the curriculum but there is also
autonomy where they can add, not take away, extra elements to the curriculum. And
we trust in what they are doing; and, for me this has always been a key element in the
success of the Finnish school system, that teachers are trusted and very highly
regarded as professionals in this country. (Vice principal interview, November 2014)
Consistent quality teaching, based on the small number of universities that offer teacher
training programs and the high standards for acceptance into teacher training programs is
another factor in the Finnish system valued by principals:
[Teacher training] is very demanding, therefore, as principals have to believe in what
the universities are doing, and in fact we do. Hence, when we get new teachers in the
building, they are already at a certainly quality level. Of course that isn’t always the
case. But in my experience, 90 percent plus of the teachers we get that have gone
through the Finnish system of training are of a very high quality. Very high.
(Principal interview, November 2014)
This final statement from a principal is something I have not been able to get out of my mind
since the day I left his school. [As a mother, I cannot help but wonder if the way I have
approached parenting my two children is more restrictive and protective than what is healthy
for their independent development.] As an educator in Alberta, I envision how things might
be different in schools if dominant societal values in the province were different. This
principal is insightful in his explanation of the success of the Finnish education system,
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reflecting something much larger than what happens in schools, but is in fact a reflection of a
successful Finnish society:
I don’t necessarily think it is only the Finnish education system that is successful, I
think it is society that is successful and the school in a way is a symptom of the
culture it sits within. When the children are very young in this country, they are often
referred to as “key chain children,” they travel on the underground, and they go to
school on their own and they have a key around their neck. Nowadays it is a mobile
phone, so they are immediately given the skills or pushed towards learning how to
survive, how to cope with the environment. At a very early age they are learning and
observing what it means to be part of Finnish society. By the time they come here,
we see very responsible learners. We see responsible behaviour, and I think that a
student who behaves responsibly and learns responsibly, they maybe see themselves
as a useful member of society, because they have observed how society works for
many years, as they have been coming and going. Hence, it gives them a sense of
purpose, a sense of an identity of their own. So in a way, here is your key, get from
here to the school and that grows. Then, three or four years later, students have this
sense of purpose--I know what I want to do, I know what I want to be. And I think it
is our job now, to put those borders around the students, let them be free, but keep
them within the realms of a useful member of society. We have responsibility at the
school to ensure Finnish society remains successful. (Principal interview, November
2014)
Images of Instructional Practices in Finnish Middle Level Learning Environments
I believe there was tremendous diversity with respect to the beliefs, practices and
lived experiences of the instructional leaders I interviewed in Finland. While still rich and
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insightful, I believe, interviews with teachers related to instructional practices revealed far
more similarities, as might be expected in a country that celebrates consistency and
“sameness of experience” found in the eight universities training Finland’s teachers.
Questions for teachers were focused on the five core categories of Friesen’s (2009) Teaching
Effectiveness Framework. I ended the interviews with Finland’s teachers in the same way I
conclude interviews with their instructional leader counterparts, but slightly different than
with teachers in other countries. I wanted to hear how they would describe the values of the
Finnish education system--a system so many countries are envious of.
Preparation for teaching. I began my interviews with all teachers asking about their
background in education. All described very consistent experiences in their respective
teacher training programs. Some teachers I interviewed took the route of a class teacher,
which focuses more on pedagogy and less subject speciality, although they had the
opportunity to select one or two subjects to have a “minor” speciality in. Other teachers
described the path for a subject teacher, with intensive subject-specific training and a
secondary focus on general pedagogy. All teachers held Master’s degrees. With the
exception of one teacher who had recently accepted a position at his current school because it
provided a better situation for his family, all other teachers had begun their careers at the
present school they work in and had no desire to look elsewhere for a teaching position.
Philosophies on teaching and learning. The question I asked of teachers related to
their philosophy about teaching and learning was where the greatest diversity existed among
them; something I was not expecting. I wondered if the very consistent and structured
teacher training programs in Finland would leave room for personal philosophies about
teaching and learning or if a more national philosophy on teaching and learning would be
articulated; the latter was certainly not the case. One teacher described the importance of
teachers facilitating student collaboration and knowledge building:
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I believe strongly in co-learning between pupils where they, by themselves, generate
their thoughts and ideas and then communicate this with each other. As a group they
communicate with each other. And from that point together they communicate some
greater knowledge. (Teacher interview, November 2014)
Another teacher who had been working with early adolescents for 15 years explained the
value of teacher guidance while building strong and supportive professional relationships
with students:
Teaching teenagers is about being an adult all the time. You can’t just give them
orders; you have to be the adult, an adult who is present all of the time. If I put [the
student and I] into a situation where I say it is “this” or “that,” then I have lost. If
“this” doesn’t happen, then I have to make “that” happen and then my relationship
with this student is on thin ice. This is the issue I have to avoid as long as I can.
Also have to be awake when the students do something good. That is very important.
That is the main issue. Tell them they are doing well, that you are proud of them.
You need to be interested in them. Notice them. Not pretending, but genuine. And at
the beginning I thought, “Can I be interested in them all?” I noticed if I am truly
interested in them and want to meet them as persons, it didn’t take energy away from
me, it gave me energy. (Teacher interview, November 2014)
One lower secondary school teacher who had the roles of both guidance counsellor and
teacher described a changing philosophy of teaching and learning based on new realities
facing the early adolescents in her school:
Maybe there is no one philosophy. Theory tells us we should use more collaborative
learning. Social media is full of that. When [students] have a problem they go and
ask. I don’t think we have realised how big it is in their life. We should take that as a
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tool in school. They do a lot of entertainment together, collaboratively. How can we
use that skill? Motivation is always the hardest part. We must adapt teaching styles
to the era the children are growing up in. Technology is not the only answer, but we
need to explore that more. Adolescents need their friends. I think they need them
even more nowadays, so we need to think differently about how this impacts teaching
and learning. (Teacher interview, November 2014)
Teachers are designers of learning. The first and second principles of the Teaching
Effectiveness Framework (Friesen, 2009) focus on teachers as designers of authentic learning
experiences, which are true to the disciplines students are studying and worthy of students’
time. Student opportunities for voice and choice in their learning are inherent in these two
principles and also support increased student agency in the middle years of learning. The
Finnish teachers responded in similar ways to the roles student voice and choice play when
they design learning for their students. All acknowledged this was something that needed
further consideration, but something most felt students needed much more guidance in:
I think we need to learn in that respect. I think we still work in a more old fashioned
way, in teacher-oriented ways. The teacher tells students what they are doing in this
lesson. Not enough choices given student in our school system. I would like to do
that more, apply that more in my lessons. Sometimes there is not always good
discipline, so teachers have to pull it back. (Teacher interview, November 2014)
Another teacher echoed these sentiments:
I normally take control. I am trying to give up more [control]. Not always easy. I
have pupils right now that don’t direct their own work very well. So, I tend to be
more in control. I am more in front of the class than I would like to be. (Teacher
interview, November 2014)
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Work students undertake is worthwhile. It is in the development of the new
Finnish core curriculum that one teachers sees hope in moving towards more student voice
and choice:
This is an issue in Finland. Far too much, the teacher is the one who guides the
student. If you peek into our classes, far too often you see that the teacher is guiding
the lesson; the teacher is owner of knowledge. We are in the process of modifying
curriculum in Finland, and the stuff that is coming, I am really behind it. The thing I
am really worried about is not having support for it across the country because it is
different than the past. To take the next steps that are big enough to really make a
difference will require more backing. (Teacher interview, November 2014)
In a follow-up question related to student voice and choice in their learning one teacher
described what he is working towards in his classroom:
Almost all the time we do the same things. The work is almost the same for
everybody. Sometimes I can add some voluntary questions. You can choose this or
that. Sometimes, I hate to be that police that always says pick up your pen, sit up. Do
this now. I really, really don’t like it. I’ve had a fantasy about having a small subject,
perhaps inside biology or geography and I could just say, we are studying Africa,
what do you want to do? You have two weeks. I could just be a mirror they could
talk with and have ideas. That would be awesome. That is perhaps so far away with
this group. (Teacher interview, November 2014)
Teachers in Finland, as with teachers I spoke with in Germany and Canada, struggle
in trying to meet the diverse learning needs of the early adolescents in their classrooms.
[Although no one said they had come up with a definitive answer, they all promised to share
it with me when they did!]:
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I feel a little guilty for not being able to give enough challenge for the most talented
kids. I would like to find material that by itself creates a situation where you can do
your work in your own level. That would be an ideal thing right now. At the
moment, my group, there are a lot of challenges, so I guess the most important thing
here during this last year is to make these kids be in the same class and be able to be
good classmates with each other. (Teacher interview, November 2014)
The autonomy given to teachers in Finland has been the topic of many articles such as
an article written by Hancock (2011) for Smithsonian Magazine detailing why schools in
Finland are successful, and most recognisably in Sahlberg’s (2011) Finnish Lessons. There is
autonomy for Finland’s teachers in the sense that once they become certified teachers, they
do not undergo any extensive formal teacher evaluation process. I also think the words
“trust” and “autonomy” are sometimes seen as one in the same when it comes to teaching in
Finland. It was very clear through my conversations with both principals and teachers in
Finland that Finnish teachers are trusted--I would not question that at all. However, my
perception of the Finnish system is that there exists so much legislation that governs teaching
and learning, trust comes from the fact that teachers are expected to carry out their duties as
outlined by government standards and regulations. Finnish teachers experience the same
restrictions (or freedom, depending on how one views it) as other teachers related to
curriculum, and Finnish teachers use their professional judgment just as teachers in Germany
or Canada do to determine how to best meet the needs of their students:
There are fairly strict advices from the state. But of course how do you do it all, there
is too much content in those directions, so it is really a joke. You have to pick your
things and it opens the door for what you can do. So there are the formal directions,
but you can choose. The intent in the way that it is written is that you cover all the
outcomes. But no one can do it all. (Teacher interview, November 2014)
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Assessment practices improve student learning and guide teaching. Suggested
practices, methods and tools for assessment in Finland are written into the national core
curriculum. It is also something all teachers indicated is a strong focus of their teacher
training programs: how do you determine if a student is struggling; what evidence do you
need; how do I use assessment evidence to help me understand what I as the teacher need to
do next? One veteran teacher explained her beliefs about daily assessment practices in this
way:
There is no standardised testing in Finland. Testing is part of the teachers’ work, not
part of the national mandate. National curriculum says that teachers should assess.
No one controls it. Teachers assess and are trusted that they do it properly. Teachers
within the school often come together to create common assessments. Of course
people assess, it doesn’t have to be in such a controlled way. I would like us to keep
this part of the Finnish system, just trust the teachers. (Teacher interview, November
2014)
Another teacher explained his views about assessment in his classroom as a continuous
process:
When we assess the learning process it is continuous. During the lesson the teacher is
observing how the students are learning. [We do] not only use the tests to evaluate.
The observations during the lessons are more important. Student self-evaluations
with the teacher are also very important. I help my students to always ask questions
like, “How did I work during the lesson? How much have I learned about that topic?
How did I learn it and how much should I have learned?” Students give a number and
I give a number and if there is too much of a difference, then there is a discussion.
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Why does the teacher see it differently than the students? I feel this is working well
in my classroom and I appreciate that. (Teacher interview, November 2014)
The topic of PISA results came up in every conversation I had with teachers I in Finland, but
just as with the principals in their schools, teachers did not place much weight on those
international measures of achievement:
Of course we are all aware that Finland has been successful on PISA tests. It doesn’t
change what I do in the classroom. It’s not like we congratulate each other and think
now we can relax a bit because we are doing so great. PISA is one thing, just one
thing. What matters most is what happens in my classroom every day. That is what I
focus on. (Teacher interview, November 2014)
Strong relationships exist. All teachers felt the relationships that exist within their
classrooms played a significantly role in the learning of the individual students and in the
creation of a community of early adolescent learners who support each other. Teachers also
described (in some cases, with frustration) the challenges they faced as teachers of early
adolescents in helping students navigate not only the content, but also the relationships with
other students and what one teacher termed, “a relationship with themselves as a newly
developing individual” (Teacher interview, November 2014):
Sometimes they don’t know how to be with each other, or to be just alone with
themselves. So, there is a lot specific teaching that I do related to how to be a good
group and how to work together so everyone gets better. These pieces often need to
be addressed and figured out before you can focus on the curriculum. (Teacher
interview, November 2014)
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Another teacher felt that the best way to develop the relationships in his class among students
and between himself and his students was to lessen the anxiety they have around their
learning:
It seems very simple but I seem to use quite a lot of nicknames. It creates a bit of an
easy environment. When I talk to them I use phrases that let them know I think
highly of them. I make them feel they are important. The humour part is also
important. Creates a feeling like you are allowed to loosen up a bit and you don’t
have to be afraid to make mistakes. (Teacher interview, November 2014)
[I discovered that in Finland, it is typical for students to address their teachers by their first
names, or sometimes a nickname the teacher has deemed appropriate--often a shortened form
of their first or last name].
A veteran teacher of over 20 years explained the changes she has observed related to
how the early adolescents in her school interact with each other and their teachers:
The stereotype is that [Finns] are withdrawn, not so social, that we have a quiet
personality. I can tell the younger generation is changing, through the social media.
They come closer to each other, they hug a lot. They come very close to the adults
too. There is a change happening there, the relationship with teachers may need to be
different. Sometimes I am so proud of my teenagers with how they express
themselves. When I was growing up, I would never do that. (Teacher interview,
November 2014)
Teachers improve their practice in the company of their peers. I discovered that
professional learning and professional development is viewed somewhat differently in
Finland than it is in my home province of Alberta where it is often a hotly debated issue
during contract negotiations. Finnish teachers are given three hours during their workweek
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that are devoted to preparation, planning and collaborating with colleague--these hours are
paid hours. Depending on when the school year begins, there are two or three days available
for the staff to come together for professional learning. Teachers indicated there were
professional development opportunities available to them; however, the challenges associated
with attending workshops and conferences during the school week (primarily related to the
lack of substitute teachers available) often out-weighed the benefits. For the most part
teachers felt their professional learning needs were met at the school level by engaging in
professional conversations and collaboration with their colleagues.
One school has implemented a system of co-teaching that teachers describe as being
very supportive and collaborative:
Co-teaching in our building supports teacher professional development and
professional learning. It makes teaching less personal, it isn’t something just one
teacher in the classroom owns. We view it as something we do together now and it
feels very supportive and not judgmental. I’ve learned a lot about how to teach better
through co-teaching, not just understanding different content, but also on the
subtleties of pedagogy. It is an on-going process; we develop each other. We debrief
after the co-teaching lessons and this is a good way for us to improve so we can be
better for our students. In this way we can be reactive to what we see emerging in the
classrooms. (Teacher interview, November 2014)
Unique supports for early adolescent learners. I was curious if teachers felt there
were specific and unique things they attend to in the school to ensure their early adolescent
learners were supported in their development. The answer was an emphatic “yes!” with
similar explanations that early adolescent learners in particular require intentional support in
two specific areas--learning how to learn and navigating relationships:
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Strategies for building a good group start right from the beginning of the year, right
when students come to the school. It is part of my job, but also part of the job of
everyone. How to build a good group is very important. (Teacher interview,
November 2014)
Another teacher felt that if they could support students in feeling safe and cared for at school
and that they had positive relationships with their peers, then teaching the curriculum was a
far easier task:
I am hopeful for the next curriculum to make room, especially during these [early
adolescent] years, for things like how to behave with people, how to meet different
people, how to treat them well. The other big issue is for students to get to know how
they learn best and practice these learning skills. If we only have content after
content, we can only give them hints, not give them the skills they need. They need
to practice the skills needed to learn and practice the skills of building relationships.
The more I am in the classroom, I see students not knowing how to learn. If they
learn how to learn, they can always find the knowledge. (Teacher interview,
November 2014)
As described previously, one lower secondary school is using a new method of coteaching which they feel will better support the diverse learning needs of their early
adolescent learners. Both the teachers at this school and the principal described co-teaching
as being key to supporting both teachers as well as students through the sometimes
challenging early adolescent years of learning:
When students are struggling we have two adults there to support the children and
also for adults to support each other in their practice. Sometimes we divide into
groups and take certain groups out for extra support and extension. It is always
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flexible, we create different groups for different needs/purposes. Eighth graders think
everything would go well if [teachers] would leave me alone. We, in a way, have
been able to get past that because there are two adults. It doesn’t get personal. If [one
student] isn’t working well with me, they can work with another teacher. And then
maybe the student responds better to some teachers. (Teacher interview, November
2014)
Important Finnish values. My final question was a personal one, asking what
teachers valued in the Finnish system of education. Teachers, like the principals, described
values of equity and equality as they relate to school access, teacher training, quality teaching
and the student experience, “The main idea has been that education belongs to everybody.
Historically it has been an idea that the teaching is almost the same wherever you go to
school” (Teacher interview, November 2014). Teachers were also very proud of Finland’s
commitment to ensuring students of all abilities are taken care of:
The Finnish school system emphasises students who struggle. And we are criticised
that we don’t take the upper kids as seriously and I agree with that, but I also am
motivated to work with those who struggle. I don’t always have the answers, the
system doesn’t always have the answers, but at least it is a value that is so much part
of the system that we should never let go of that value. We take a good look at the
students at this end of the spectrum and put our resources here. Guidance counsellors
are trained to work with families of students who struggle. So their social, physical
and emotional health is covered and taken care of. (Teacher interview, November
2014)
A closing sentiment shared by all teachers was how much education was valued as a
fundamental part of Finnish culture:
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I think we all still value education in this country. We take it seriously. I think we
also value nature and space. We have [students] go out to have fresh air. We make
them walk, we make them bicycle. We don’t just carry them in a car. I think it is a
value. We help them know they are Finnish and what it means to be [a citizen] of
Finland. (Teacher interview, November 2014)
Images of the Student Experience in Finnish Middle Level Learning Environments
My experience interviewing early adolescents in Finland was exactly as diverse as I
would expect a classroom of grade 6 or 7 students to be. One focus group interview proved
to be the most difficult of my entire research process. Fifteen minutes into the interview I
was still having a conversation with only my interpreter, as eight grade 7 students stared back
at me looking terribly uncomfortable and bored. It took an announcement over the intercom
about an upcoming “disco” themed dance and my best John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever
impression before the “ice” finally broke and the conversation began to flow. With another
mixed group of grade 7 and 8 students, time went by so fast, their vice-principal was forced
to track us down and take the students back to class. The last group of students I interviewed
was so intrigued by the recent shooting on Parliament Hill in Ottawa and the recent
acquisition of a Finnish hockey star by the hockey team in my city that I was compelled to
ask their teachers for more time with them--their teachers kindly agreed. So much has been
written about the Finnish education, yet I cannot recall anything I have read that has come
from the perspective of the student--I was very eager to hear first hand about the lived
experiences of Finland’s early adolescent learners.
What makes your school a great place to learn? In response to my opening
question about what they liked best about their school, all four groups of students had very
similar responses. The opportunity to see their friends was the first answer every time,
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“…because learning with friends is more fun” (Student interview, November 2014).
Students also responded that they liked the “break” time and free time they were given. As a
teacher and parent, the response to the question “what did you like most about school today?”
no one wants to hear is “recess” or “lunchtime,” therefore, I felt compelled to “dig a bit
deeper” into what was behind the response that the best part of their school day was in fact
the time when students were not in class learning. What I ended up finding out made me feel
much better. School timetables for students in lower secondary school in Finland are
relatively consistent; one 45-minute class followed by a 15-minute break, followed by
another class, often the same one, resulting in a double block. Students liked this predictable
flow of their school days. They felt a 45-minute class was just the right length and liked the
fact they had double blocks in many of their classes, giving them more time to learn about
topics they were interested in. One student explained it in this way:
When you have a double block, the class goes at a better pace. Teachers don’t feel so
rushed, like the only thing they can do is stand up at the front of the class and read to
you and then tell you to answer questions at your desk. In a double block the teacher
breaks things up more. Sometimes we get to work in groups or there will be different
groups working on different things or sometimes we might get to work in different
areas of the class or even the school. When you have a single 45-minute class, things
go very fast and the only thing to do really is sit in your desk and listen to what the
teacher is saying. (Student interview, November 2014)
The 15-minute break, which students really liked, gave them enough time to see their
friends, check their mobile phones and have a snack, often provided by the school, yet is was
not so long that they forgot about being at school to learn. “The breaks give us enough time
to take a breath and see our friends before going back to the class to be serious about
learning” (Student interview, November 2014). The issue of the lunch break was twofold;
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first, meals are provided by the school to all students in Finland, and for the most part,
students indicated they really liked the food; and two, most students took advantage of this
longer lunch break to go outside, in fact all students said they loved to go outside when they
could. Having been in four of their schools, I could understand why. Beautiful wooded areas
surrounded the schools, with as much untouched green space as the eye could see. I do not
know if all schools in Finland are like the ones I spent time in, but I could understand how
students would get excited about any opportunity they had to be outdoors during their school
day.
What makes a great teacher? Student also identified a variety subjects they were
studying, along with their teachers, as other reasons they liked their school. As with all
students I was fortunate enough to interview, Finnish students had no shortage of things to
say about what qualities great teachers possess:
Great teachers are kind and funny, and they are friendly to you even when you aren’t
in class. They explain things well and explain why [it is] important. They help their
students understand things even if it takes a really long time. (Student interview,
November 2014)
Students were very clear they did not need their teachers to be their friends, but they wanted
to feel accepted and trusted by their teachers:
I am going to make mistakes; we all are making a lot of mistakes in learning and
sometimes bad choices with life. I need for my teachers to look at me and say, “that
is okay, you will be okay.” I think teachers need to put themselves in our shoes and
maybe not judge us so many times. After I make mistakes I think some teachers look
at me like I will just be a bad kid forever. Some teachers don’t do this at all, but it
really depends on the teacher. (Student interview, November 2014)
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One boy in grade 8 was very adamant about clear boundaries between teachers and students,
as he explained he had experienced teachers who tried too hard to be friends with their
students, “…it was weird. You don’t want teachers to be adult friends for students, but you
don’t want them to be like parents either. It has [to be] a good working relationship”
(Student interview, November 2014).
Students felt that for the most part their teachers were approachable and if they
needed to talk to them, whether it was questions about what they were learning in class or
problems they were having with friends, their teachers would make time for them. Guidance
counsellors were also available to students at the school if they chose to see them; however,
students indicated they were often more comfortable talking with their teachers about
personal issues because of the “history we have with them” (Student interview, November
2014). I heard in the words of student after student how important good relationships with
their teachers were in supporting their learning.
Engagement in and relevance of learning. Early adolescent students in Finland
study many subjects, far more than Canadian students their age. Students indicated they
liked the wide variety of subjects that were part of the national core curriculum, highlighting
subjects such as art, sports (physical education), handicrafts (mandatory for all Finnish
students, with a focus on cultural traditions), chemistry and music. When I asked why these
subjects were most enjoyable to them, students provided many different personal reasons.
One student explained that he looked forward to going to his sports class because he
competed in swimming outside of school, so he felt this class help him with his physical
fitness. Several students spoke about the handicrafts class, which they felt helped them
understand Finnish culture in a different way. One girl went on to say that because of her
handicrafts class, she has had more in common with her grandmother and that has been good
for their relationship. Courses like chemistry and physics were included in the list of
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favourites because of the hands-on experimentation component. The overall consensus was
that these subjects were important for students because it allowed them to be exposed to
diverse learning experiences.
The national core curriculum in Finland is currently under revision, with
implementation of the new curriculum planned for the start of the 2016-2017 school year. A
similar revision of curriculum is currently underway in my home province of Alberta, as well
as the German Land of Baden-Württemberg. In Alberta, key stakeholders are consulted and
asked for input during the curriculum revision process; this includes members of industry,
teachers, government officials and, in some cases, university faculties. I am always very
curious about why students never seem to be included in this group of key stakeholders. I
wonder what students would say if they were asked about what they would like to see in new
iterations of the curriculum they will be studying. Therefore, it should come as no surprise
that students had mixed feelings when asked about the relevance they found in what they
were learning.
Students in Finland learn multiple languages, with Finnish, Swedish and English
being compulsory in primary school; students have the option of including additional
languages as they move into lower secondary school. “I like that we can take many, many
languages. This is good for when we travel and some of us want to go into the [International
Baccalaureate] program and maybe go to international universities.” (Student Interview,
November 2014). One student described a C++ (computer coding) course they take in
school. Although some of his peers in the focus group did not agree with him, he felt
strongly this was important, “Coding is like a language and this is very important for many
jobs nowadays. Some say this is the most important new language” (Student interview,
November 2014). Students also articulated the importance of understanding math (but not all
topics in math) as well as the necessity of being able to communicate well, “It is important
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that we can read and write and speak well. Sometimes in [Finnish] class we all read the same
book and write about the same topic. I would like for everything to not be the same”
(Student interview, November 2014).
The concept of opportunities for voice and choice in their learning was something
students did not immediately understand when I first asked the question; we, therefore, spent
some time discussing what it might look like to have voice and choice in their learning-ultimately the notion of student agency. Students explained that typically teachers give one
assignment and the entire class must do what the teacher asks. In some classes teachers may
say to them, “Would you like to do a project or a test?” (Student interview, November 2014)
and the whole group decides together what they will do. One student described with great
enthusiasm a choice they were given during a recent a science class, “It was about the content
of space. We could make presentations and posters about what we learned” (Student
interview, November 2014). Another group of students spoke fondly about a history teacher
at the school who they felt was very open-minded:
We were learning about the French Revolution and it was quite fun. We can kind of
do our own thing. Choose how to work and how to show what we know. [At the
end] we have to do a project, a video or slide show or whatever we want. We decided
to make a movie, like a talk show person. (Student interview, November 2014)
At one school, students were very excited about a national initiative they were part of called
“This Works Project.” The intent of the program is to foster collaborative problem solving,
as one teacher explained it to me. Students are given a scenario and limited resources and
they have to come up with a viable solution. Those students who were involved in the
project articulated wanting more opportunities to work in this kind of collaborative way with
their peers to solve problems that for them were meaningful and important.
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Assessment and feedback that improves performance. Student responses to the
topic of feedback surprised me, in a positive way. All students gave examples of the kind of
regular feedback their teachers gave them. Teacher feedback often related to their learning
but sometimes teachers talked to them about their behaviour. Students felt this was a positive
thing and their teachers, “…just want us to do better and be better” (Student interview,
November 2014):
Teachers give feedback on how you can improve and feedback about right and wrong.
Sometimes it is just little [information], they just tell us if we did the [question] right
or wrong. Sometimes it is about bigger things. Then the teacher says I need to talk to
you and asks if you want to improve. (Student interview, November 2014)
The Wilma system is something lower secondary students were very familiar with and knew
it was their responsibility to use the system to support their learning. “Wilma is really very
good. We can communicate with our teachers. We know what the homework is and when
there are tests coming up. No surprises. [We] always know how we are doing” (Student
interview, November 2014). When I asked about a formal report card, something students in
my school could describe in great detail [and likely with a hint is disdain], I found that the
Finnish students had to pause and think for a moment--a discussion often ensued in the
group. The report card, which they thought came home at the end of the year, did not appear
to be very significant for them. Rather, they described Wilma and through the use of Wilma,
students and parents always knew how they were doing in school, so for them a report card
was just a piece of paper.
Risk taking in learning. I asked about pressure to do well in school and goals they
had for themselves as learners. Students all said they wanted to do well in school and that the
only pressure they felt came from them, wanting to make their families proud. They
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explained the process all students go through at the end of grade 9 where they would, based
primarily on their grades, be placed in one of five upper secondary schools they had selected.
This, they felt, would add more pressure to their grade 9 year. All students I interviewed in
the two international schools identified a goal of going on to an International Baccalaureate
program and having many choices about where they would go to university.
Would you change anything? My final observations or thoughts after my interviews
with students in Finland come more in the form of questions than any sort of critical analysis.
When I asked about anything they thought their schools could do better or things they would
like to change, apart from one boy, who said with a twinkle in his eye, “The food in the
cafeteria, we need to do something about the food,” (Student interview, November 2014) no
student had anything to say other than they believed their schools were great. [If I asked my
early adolescent son about what he would change in his school, he would likely still be listing
things.] I wonder what role Finnish culture and the Finnish belief that through education
everyone will have a place in Finnish society plays in what appears like overwhelming
student satisfaction with their schooling experience. [It is also a distinct possibility the
students were just being polite to a stranger from Canada.] The schools I visited in Finland
offered no clubs or sport teams (during or after school) for students. It was very clear from
my conversations with students that school was for school, and that after school was part of
family responsibilities; students participated in many different activities, from dance lessons
to hockey practice. My experience with extra and co-curricular opportunities for students in
Canada has been that students see them as an important part of their school life, often adding
to the culture and sense of community in the school. Students in Finland articulate being far
more happy within a school system they feel is preparing them well, certainly more satisfied
than their Canadian counterparts. I continue to struggle with being able to pinpoint why
exactly this is the case.
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The German Research Sites
The German Context for Middle Level Education
If there existed a spectrum depicting federal control over systems of education,
Finland would sit at one end representing high levels of federal control; Canada would sit at
the opposite end representing little to no federal regulation; and Germany would likely sit
somewhere in the middle, characterised by a more joint responsibility between the federal
government and the Länder (states) for education in Germany. The constitution of Germany,
known simply as Basic Law, outlines fundamental beliefs, values and structures of the
Federal Republic of Germany. The school system is identified as a basic right in Article 7 of
German Basic Law. Here, the Länder are recognised as the supervising body of the school
system. Within Basic Law, there also exist provisions for what are termed “joint-tasks” of the
German Federation and the 16 Länder. One such task is the agreed upon cooperation
between the federal government and the Länder to assess the performance of the education
systems in each Land against various international measures--and based on this, jointly create
reports and recommendations. Another significant area of joint responsibilities is the prized
German “dual system” or vocational education and training (VET).
To understand current German views and approaches towards early adolescent
teaching and learning, one must understand the origins of the education system in Germany.
Germany is recognised internationally as one of the first nations that aimed to provide free
basic education to all citizens (OECD, 2011). The first modern research university was also
developed in Germany, along with a concept for secondary schooling that would prepare
young citizens for multiple education, career and life paths. Wilhelm von Humboldt,
believed to be the architect of the German Gymnasium, and Georg Kerschensteiner, credited
with originating the German dual system concept, where, “the education system would fuse
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schooling and apprenticeship in the workplace” (OECD, 2011, p. 203) held very different
views about the role of the education system and those who should be served by schooling.
Humbolt believed in an elitist view of education, reserved for nobility, whereas,
Kerschensteiner was concerned with education for the working people.
At the beginning of the 20th century, four years of compulsory basic education was
provided for all students. Following these four years of compulsory, primary education,
students were streamed into one of three schools which closely aligned with social divisions
of the German feudal system: the Volksschule and later the Hauptschule was designed for the
what was believed to be the majority of students--and those with the lowest academic
abilities; the Realschule was for students of higher ability who were likely to acquire further
training and qualifications in fields such as clerical and technical work; and, the Gymnasium
was reserved for students with the highest academic abilities who would go on to take the
Abitur (matriculation examination), allowing these students access to university education
and professional career paths (OECD, 2011). At this same period in history, many European
countries adopted similar systems of tiered education; however, most countries later moved
away from this notion of separating students into different streams of education at the age of
ten, whilst Germany did not (OECD, 2011). The aftermath of the Second World War and
governance structures that required near consensus majorities for significant alterations to
Basic Law created resistance to significant changes in the education system.
The strong German economy of the 1960s and 1970s, and subsequent demand for
highly skilled workers, began to pull students from the Gymnasium into the dual system
before consideration of moving on to university (OECD, 2011). This created a shift in the
way the public viewed the Hauptschule, Realschule and the Gymnasium; and, it was this
public shift in perception that quietly began to transform the three-tier system, which had for
so long symbolised German education. Employers could now offer apprenticeships to
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students from the Realschule and from the Gymnasium (who had passed the Abitur), and
there was pressure from families to ensure children worked hard enough to at the very least
attend the Realschule. The Hauptschule, once a place where graduates would go on to
apprenticeships and good careers, was now seen as an unattractive option for students
(OECD, 2011). This was partly because teachers teaching at the Hauptschule did not
undergo the same number of years of training as the Gymnasium teachers.
Another opportunity to overhaul the three-tier secondary school system in Germany
presented itself when the Berlin Wall came down:
There was much wrong with the German Democratic Republic (GDR), but their
education system was not one of them. When the GDR was created and became a
satellite of the USSR, the GDR leaders abolished the distinctions among secondary
schools and all secondary schools in the GDR became comprehensive secondary
schools. (OECD, 2011, p. 207)
The perception remained that West Germany had a top-performing education system,
although, Herman Schmidt, member of the Reunification Commission for Education,
articulates there were no established internal measures to assess the West German education
system in relation to the rest of the world (OECD, 2011). Basic Law at the time gave the
federal government no authority over which to measure the performance of the Länder
controlled systems of education, so education in Germany was not evaluated or compared to
any other system of education (OECD, 2011).
In 1997, the Standing Conference of the Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs
of the Länder recommended that Germany participate in international measures of student
achievement. Germany participated in the 2000 PISA assessments and the results from
Germany’s 15-year-olds shocked the country (OECD, 2011). What was known as the “PISA
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shock” presented yet another opportunity for Germany to examine long-held beliefs attached
to the tiered system of secondary schooling and to determine what was next for a country that
had never exposed itself as vulnerable on an international scale. The 2000 PISA results
showed German students to lag behind in every measured area of the curriculum, with the
performance of the most at-risk students aligned with some of the worst countries in the
world (OECD, 2011). Socio-economic background, along with German language ability was
strongly tied to student performance on the PISA assessments, indicating children of
immigrant families and children from families with low socio-economic status were
particularly at risk. Edelgard Bulmahn, the German Education Minister at the time of the
2000 PISA assessments indicated that the tiered system was no longer responsive to a
“modern knowledge-based economy [that] would most need a work force with a very high
level of education across the board” (Bulmahn as cited in OECD, 2011, p. 208). Whereas, it
was previously more difficult to make a case for change in the German system of education
when the economy was strong and the demand for German-made products was high, the 2000
PISA results were perhaps the most significant factor behind the changes now underway in
the education systems of the German Länder (OECD, 2011). Political parties operating on
both the left and right sides of the political spectrum worked together through the Council of
Ministers of the Länder to make changes possible that would not have likely occurred prior to
the 2000 PISA results. A common agenda for education reform was put forth to target areas
of concern identified in the 2000 PISA results (OECD, 2011). Some Länder changed the age
when students are streamed into secondary school from 10 to 12; the Hauptschule and
Realschule have been combined into one school in some Länder; comprehensive schools
have been reintroduced in select Länder; while in other Länder, parents have been given more
freedom to choose which school their child attends (OECD, 2011).
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While the Länder attempt to align education policy and make consistent the systems
of education whenever possible, there are some differences that exist among the Länder in
matters related to education. The Hamburg Accord, first signed in 1964, has undergone
several amendments which outline items the Länder agree upon, including: when children
will begin compulsory education; school holidays; the length of the school year; types of
schools offered; and, recognition of school examinations, grades and certificates (European
Commission, 2014). Further amendments and supplementary resolutions to the Accord have
increased the number of common features in Germany’s systems of education and allowed
for more consistency among the 16 German Länder with respect to education. This also
provides ease of mobility for German families when they move within the country (European
Commission, 2014).
Following the 2000 PISA results and the call for increased transparency and
accountability, the Council of Ministers from the 16 Länder developed and agreed to national
performance standards and competencies in core subject areas (OECD, 2011). Further, the
Council, in 2006 developed common assessments used to compare the education systems in
the 16 Länder to each other, as well as to international standards (OECD, 2011). The
Institute for Educational Progress, based in Berlin, was established in 2004 to monitor
progress towards identified educational outcomes. It has developed a framework of national
education standards to which the Länder curricula are now being aligned.
It would be “safe to say” that since the 2000 PISA results were published, the systems
of education in Germany have been in a constant state of reform and restructuring. How this
transformation looks has varied among the Länder. The number of hours German students
spent in school was one area highlighted on the 2000 PISA results, revealing that students in
Germany spent much less time in class compared to other OECD countries. Many Länder
have increased the number of instructional hours for students, moving from the traditional
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half-day format to full day school (OECD, 2012, 2014d). A new type of school, in German
the Gemeinschaftsschule or community school, has been created in some Länder. The focus
is on mixed ability learning groups, with individualised support provided for all students to
experience success. For the 2014-2015 school year, 214 of these new community schools
existed in the Land of Baden-Württemberg (Baden-Württemberg Ministry of Education,
Youth and Sports, 2014). Other Länder have different forms of secondary schools, donning
various names, such as the Mittelschule in Bayern, the Oberschule in Berlin and the
Stadtteilschule in Hamburg. Each Land has its own regulations with respect to when children
transition from primary to secondary school as well as the methods used to assess a child’s
readiness for a particular type of secondary school. In October of 2012, the Länder amended
legislation regarding common principles and courses offered in lower secondary education,
further aligning practices in the Länder (European Commission, 2014). New legislation has
been enacted to ensure each child, beginning at the age of three, has a place in the German
kindergarten system until they begin primary school at the age of six. This is intended to
address PISA data indicating a child’s understanding of the German language had a
significant impact on performance (OECD, 2011).
The ministries responsible for education in each of the Länder are also in charge of
curriculum development and redesign. Currently, the curriculum in many Länder is
undergoing revision with the results from international comparative data playing a role the
direction of curriculum revision (European Commission, 2014). The Council of Ministers
from the Länder have agreed, through various pieces of legislation on the necessity of certain
elements in the lower secondary curriculum. For example, an awareness of how the various
subject areas connect to the world of work outside of school is part of the content of each
subject curricula or in some cases taught as a separate course (European Commission, 2014).
In 2007, the federal government and the Länder passed joint legislation ensuring education
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for sustainable development at school. The study of foreign languages is seen as critically
important in lower secondary school, with the requirements for the number of languages
varying according to the type of lower secondary school attended. In 2012, recommendations
for both increased cultural awareness and education, along with advancing health education
in schools were adopted into the curriculum of the Länder. There is presently a focus on
strengthening natural science and technology content in the curriculum as well as instruction
in these areas. Media competency through the subject areas is also coming to the forefront in
the development of new curriculum (European Commission, 2014).
Teacher quality and training have also been targeted through reform initiatives.
Teachers’ unions were concerned that poor performance in the 2000 PISA assessments would
be blamed on the teachers (OECD, 2011). In stark contrast to what may have been expected,
proposed reforms to the system of education were supported by teachers and the unions
representing them, allowing important initiatives to be passed and the process of
implementation to begin. “[Teachers] knew how important it was for them to get out in front
of the reform process if they were not to be steamrollered by it” (OECD, 2011, p. 213).
Professional pride of Germany’s teachers further supported education reforms designed to
produce better results.
Further, teacher preparation programs in many universities are currently being
restructured or are in the process of a re-visioning. The current German university system
requires that all teachers in training have passed the Abitur. German teachers already
undergo more extensive training than their counterparts in many other countries regardless of
the type of school they intend to teach at. Pre-service Gymnasium teachers receive specific,
intensive training in the subject area they desire to teach first; general pedagogy is a
secondary focus (OECD, 2011). Teacher training for those teachers wanting to teach in the
Realschule, the Hauptschule, the Gesamtschule (comprehensive school) or the new
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Gemeinschaftsschule (community school) differs according to university institution. In
general, teacher preparation for these teachers has a primary focus on pedagogy, with new
reforms equipping teachers with the skills to diagnose and plan instruction for students in a
more inclusive environment, with subject knowledge as a secondary focus. The Länder
govern teaching regulations in the schools; recommendations for methods, treatment of
various subject areas and resources for instruction are outlined through the prescribed
curriculum in each Land (European Commission, 2014).
Since the now infamous 2000 PISA results, Germany is one of three countries that
have improved in mathematics results and indicators of equity (OECD, 2012, 2014c, 2014d):
Most suggest that it was the PISA shock itself that jolted German educators into
action--that once teachers knew how poorly their students were performing, their
sense of professionalism was enough to motivate them to improve the situation.
Others think that the new standards give teachers a clear picture, for the first time, of
what their students are supposed to accomplish. (OECD, 2011, p. 214)
Students’ sense of belonging and connection to school and learning, as measured through
various PISA indicators has declined in most countries, but this has not been the case in
Germany. Between 2003 and 2012, German students reported a 20 percent increase, from 70
percent to 90 percent, in belonging (OECD, 2012, 2014c, 2014d). Reform initiatives taken
since the release of the 2000 PISA results have served to decrease the impact of socioeconomic status and immigrant background on student achievement (OECD, 2012, 2014c,
2014d). PISA results in both reading and science have increased since 2000 to above OECD
averages, although the portion of students achieving at the highest proficiency levels has not
seen a significant increase. Despite reform initiatives to increase options available to families
related to choice and type of schools children attend, over half of the variation in student
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performance on PISA assessments in Germany can be attributed to which school in the tiered
system students attend (OECD, 2012).
The changing picture of education in Germany may be viewed in a positive light--a
country using current data to respond to the changing needs of its youngest citizens in an
increasingly complex world is to be commended. What is currently taking place in the
German systems of education is both responsive and necessary. There are three elements of
Germany’s education systems I believe are especially important in supporting early
adolescent development and learning.
1.
Since the release of the 2000 PISA results, and in some cases prior to this, there
has been an acknowledgement that old systems, while previously successful on
many fronts, may not meet the needs of children growing up in today’s society.
To an outside observer, current German reform initiatives appear carefully
calculated and intentional, seeking an appropriate balance between tradition and
progress, between universal education and practical, job-specific training.
Systems that can be honest about what needs improvement and then make
deliberate necessary adjustments, (without swinging 180 degrees in the opposite
direction), provide support for continuous learning and growth in both teachers
and students.
2.
The successful dual system in Germany provides opportunities for students of all
abilities and predispositions to experience success and believe, through their
unique skill set, they can contribute in a meaningful way to German society.
3.
Functional multilingualism is a term used to describe the commitment of German
lower secondary schools to ensuring students are well-equipped to function
within a modern European Union (European Commission, 2014). The
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opportunities afforded to students by requiring them to learn multiple languages
create working knowledge of the languages themselves, as well as the
understanding and acceptance of cultural nuances tied to language that are so
very important in today’s world.
Images of Instructional Leadership in German Middle Level Learning Environments
Philosophies about early adolescent learning. What comes to mind when I think of
images of instructional leadership in Germany is my first meeting with a principal of a
Gemeinschaftsschule. As I pulled up to the school, I saw a group of students in a wooded
area, all either wearing or working with blue plastic garbage bags. In the middle of this
group of students was a man, wearing what can only be described as a quintessential First
Nation’s embroidered buckskin jacket, keeping a watchful eye over the students, occasionally
taking one of the many blue garbage bags hanging from his jacket pocket to show a student
how it could be tied or cut to make the perfect rain poncho or fastened to a growing
collection of branches the students had collected. Some may have been surprised to find out
this man was actually the principal of the school. I was not--because, when I think of
instructional leadership that meets the needs of early adolescent learners, I envision someone
just like this man--someone who is genuine and resourceful, exhibits flexibility when needed
yet is firm and steadfast. I introduced myself to the principal, to which he replied, “We’ve
been expecting you!” He called over one of his students and asked him to explain why he
was wearing a blue garbage bag; a very different question than a simple, “what are you
doing?” It was not a “show and tell” type of performance, but rather an opportunity to
support the student as he engaged in higher order metacognitive thinking. The student
explained the class was learning outdoor survival skills; the garbage bags were given to the
students so they could work together to determine how they might use basic supplies to create
a shelter and keep warm. He said that it was difficult at first because everyone was talking at
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the same time and shouting out their ideas, but then they started to organise themselves into
groups and divide up the tasks. The student spoke very eloquently about what he had learned
and why he felt it was important, even what he would do differently next time. I later learned
this student had been painfully shy when he had come to the school the year before. The
principal explained through the unique programming at the school, apart from the traditional
core courses, students have the opportunity to choose from many exploratory courses that
interest them. These courses have proved to be a place where many students have found their
voice and “come alive” at school. Such was the case for this one boy. This principal knew
the story of this boy; in fact, he knew the stories of all his students. As we walked down the
hallway, he greeted each student with handshakes and “high fives,” and it was so very clear
this principal had created a learning community, not just a place of learning. The litmus test
most teachers have about the quality of a school is found in the question, “Would I want my
own children to attend this school?” For me the answer to this question was an “unqualified
yes” and much of it has to do with the instructional leadership provided by the principal:
“Failure is not an option” is the most important sentence we use here at the school.
The most important thing is that we don’t lose any kids. This is what makes the
school run and we do what we need to, [we] invent new things to make sure we reach
this goal. (Principal interview, December 2014)
This principal took great pride in also having the privilege of teaching the students in
his school. It was not a choice he was forced to make because of budget cuts or external
pressure. He taught because he believed that at the heart of every instructional leader should
be the desire to learn from and with his students and teachers. Every principal was first a
teacher and should always consider [himself] both teacher and learner; “I knew it was
important to understand what teachers were facing in their classrooms every day, so I could
understand how to support the teachers and the students. Teaching was an easy choice”
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(Principal interview, December 2014). [I was so impressed and inspired by the dedication
this principal showed to his instructional leadership; I, too, have become sceptical of
principals who feel that once they have reached a certain point in their career returning to the
classroom is “almost beneath” them.]
Most important role(s) as an instructional leader. So, it is perhaps not surprising
that when asked about his most important role as the instructional leader of the school, he
responded with, “I have to live and have to show the philosophy. I have to look after and
protect the learning environment so that that we don’t lose any kids” (Principal interview,
December 2014).
Establishing goals and expectations. The way this school approaches teaching and
learning was very different from what one might consider typical of a German lower
secondary school, and the principal understood very well the obstacles he faced in leading his
teachers through this change. Moreover, he sought assistance from others, both inside and
outside his school, who would challenge his thinking and the existing traditional ways of
working, to ensure the school would best serve the needs of their early adolescent learners:
I didn’t make the mistake of saying to them, ‘this is how we are going to do it.” I had
a framework in my mind of what I wanted for this school, even before I went and
sought outside resources and support, but I had to rethink everything that we had done
in the past. I knew this had to be something teachers felt we built together. I sent the
teachers away with homework to consider what might be possible. Some, not all,
came back with their own ideas. We started small, with a group of six teachers. I
supported them. I didn’t micromanage them, though. These six teachers started
developing new materials and new methods of working with the students. The others
watched from the outside and started to think it was maybe not so bad. This is how
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we grew the idea of the new school. This is why we have been successful. This is
why we have reached our goal of failure is not an option. (Principal interview,
December 2014)
When hiring teachers for his school and this new way of teaching and learning, this
principal looks for intangibles that are not so easily represented by grades and accolades in
university:
The most important thing is the motivation in the heart. I try to find out together with
other colleagues in the interview if the chemistry between us and them and the school
and this person will work. It is the most important. Is the person ready to go a long
ways? Can they work with our philosophy? How they teach, how their marks were, I
don’t feel that is so terribly important. If somebody wants to come to our school by
their own will, then we need to find out if the chemistry and if the spirit is there.
Because then it functions. Our belief is that we can show anybody how to teach if
they are willing and open and if the chemistry is there. One thing that is really
important is what other unique things they bring. What are their hobbies, what are
their other competencies that will add to the experiences for our students? (Principal
interview, December 2014)
Ensuring quality teaching. At another lower secondary school, the current principal
had worked in the school in various capacities for over 25 years. This type of long-lasting
commitment to a school is not typically seen in Canada (and something I have grown to
admire):
I have seen this school evolve in many positive ways during my time here. Having a
sense of this history of a school is important; knowing what works well and what
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needs to be improved because you have lived it yourself is really critical. (Principal
interview, December 2014)
This principal is also a teaching principal and therefore has not been removed form the daily
work of teaching and learning at his school. He credits this with helping him understand the
world his students are growing up in and how this impacts the work of teachers and the role
of the school, “Pupils have changed because they live in a digital age and we need to be
aware of this and respond to it accordingly” (Principal interview, December 2014). While
admitting he may not have all the answers related to questions about the use of technology
and student-owned devices at school, he understands this issue needs to be negotiated
carefully and addressed appropriately to ensure pedagogical practices at the school are
responsive to the needs of their early adolescent learners.
In responding to a question about what constitutes a high quality, developmentally
responsive learning environment for early adolescents, he was very clear about the important
role brain based research should play in understanding the learning needs of students of all
ages and consequently programming for them appropriately, “We believe you teach children,
not subjects. This is the number one difference in our school” (Principal interview,
December 2014). He described his beliefs related to the need for better pre-service teacher
training and in-service professional development in understanding the areas of physical,
cognitive, emotional and social adolescent development:
Do teachers know how our students’ brains work and how they work now is
completely different than they did in year five or year six? Do we take this into
consideration as a primary thing that is very relevant and is something that defines the
relationship between the teacher and [their class]? Then perhaps not so much would
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be left to chance in the classroom, hoping a lesson is right for the learners in front of
me. (Principal interview, December 2014)
One particular line of questioning with this principal is most prominent in my mind,
as I wanted to understand the ways his school addresses the unique developmental needs of
their early adolescent learners. There were two elements from his response that are
significant for me. One is the importance of relationships. At perhaps no other time in the
development of children are relationships more important--relationships with peers and also
relationships with teachers:
As a teacher, I need to understand how I can influence the relationship with my
students. A relationship will take place anyway, because you cannot not
communicate. Do I want the relationship to develop accidently through the lesson, or
do I want to influence the development of the relationship intentionally and
professionally through the learning. (Principal interview, December 2014)
He referred to the work of Hattie (2011) and that he often imagines a camera mounted on the
ceiling of his classroom. “You see yourself and your pupils through the lens of that camera
and ask yourself, is what I’m doing productive” (Principal interview, December 2014).
Leading teacher learning and development. The second part of this principal’s
response to the question of how his school responds to the unique developmental needs of
their early adolescent learners makes it clear how he views the students at this school, and
how he has asked his teachers to view their students, “I see all of the students as being
capable and ask that both teachers as well as the students themselves hold each other as
capable” (Principal interview, December 2014). He believes that in this type of learning
environment, even the student who struggles most with school will have a chance of
believing that he or she can be a capable learner:
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[We are] talk[ing] about pupils that have grown up in a system where they were never
part of the decision making process. If you start early at age six or seven and tell
them [school] is really about them and not us. And they see there are options and
their voice is important. In terms of metacognition, why they do things is important,
not just that they do things. So [this notion of students ownership, voice and choice]
has to grow, because in a system where they have never learned to deal with things,
the results will be as they are. (Principal interview, December 2014)
A vice principal at another school highlighted the importance of using data, in many
forms, when making decisions about teaching and learning at his school:
It is undeniable what data tells us about how are students are doing and what
adjustments need to be made. It is important to make sound decisions based on what
we know to be true. Not what was true at one time or what we hope can be true.
What does science tell us about useful conditions for learning? This is what is often
missed. (Vice principal interview, December 2014)
Instructional leadership and early adolescent learners. Trust is a factor often
overlooked when working to create a safe and caring environment where early adolescent
development and learning can flourish. The principal of the Gemeinschaftsschule did things
that perhaps would be considered unconventional; but, he served to show both his students
and teachers that trust was going to be a prevailing value of the school. When new
technology was brought into the school, after assisting his students with understanding how
to read instructions and use some very basic tools, he entrusted them with installing new
“beamers” (projectors) into the classrooms. The issue of shrinking school budgets seems to
be a universal one, so when new furniture was needed, he put the task to his students and
teachers to come up with a solution. And so they developed the idea of the school company.
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Student designs were transformed into actual functional furniture, which students built under
the supervision of the principal--and a very brave construction teacher. This furniture suited
the students and their needs for space and movement. The designs were not something
scrawled onto a crumpled sheet of loose-leaf paper, but proper design blueprints which
students learned to create in one of the many afternoon exploratory courses. The furniture
they create in some ways also reflects pedagogical beliefs of the school. “Coaching stations”
have been built, housing a working space and two chairs. Students work independently on a
learning task and when they are ready to present their learning to their teachers or are seeking
assistance, teachers and students sit together in these “coaching stations” to discuss student
work.
Now when students identify a need in their school (the most recent example was a
space for them to relax), they come to the principal with their well though-out and detailed
designs. He has students source out supplies and create a working budget, and, after a
strategic call to the bank, where the principal ensures the students will be given a “loan” after
their ideas are presented, the principal works together with the appropriate teachers to see that
students’ plans come to life. The school also has a catering company run by students, an
orchestra, a rock band, soccer school, outdoor education courses--all involving authentic
learning experiences for students. Students choose to be part of these afternoon exploratory
courses. It is not only about students learning to cook, build furniture or play in a band, but
about all of the other learning that go along with acquiring these specific skills, such as
cooperation, communication skills, entrepreneurship, resourcefulness, resiliency..., “I told
[teachers and students] if there wasn’t real learning going on in the afternoon courses, then
we wouldn’t do it” (Principal interview, December 2014).
Lessons learned. In my final question to instructional leaders, I asked them to share
some lessons they had learned through their work they felt might benefit others. To sum up
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their sentiments in one succinct phrase: Don’t let ideological pressures, personal agendas and
holding on tightly to “exaggerated accounts of days gone by” interfere with the real work of
an instructional leader, which is to ensure the current learning environment is best suited to
the needs of the learners and the world they face outside the walls of the school.
Images of Instructional Practices in German Middle Level Learning Environments
Philosophies on teaching and learning. Any preconceived notions I may have had
related to very traditional methods of instructional practices in Germany were dispelled
during my very first conversation with a teacher. I began the interview with one of those
very big picture questions related to a personal philosophy about how early adolescents learn
best. She articulated a very student-centred perspective:
For me there is a power in every student, but sometimes you need to look more
intensively to find out where [this power lies] or have more time to find out about
them. It’s my intention to find all of this power in the child. This is the way I teach
in the class, to find out where the power is in each of my students. I think there is no
one way that [early adolescents] learn best. It is completely individual. Every student
learns best in a special way; there are many ways to learn best. And I think the
students learn best when they have no fear about it and they have responsibility for
their learning in their own hands. So they don’t do it for me, but they do it for
themselves. (Teacher interview, December 2014).
Teachers are designers of learning. Designing learning opportunities and creating a
suitable learning environment for her students, all with varying abilities, is something she and
her colleagues have to work hard at to figure out. Traditional teacher training programs in
Germany prepare teachers to work with a more homogenous group of learners, whereas in
this school students are kept in mixed ability classrooms in lower secondary school. In
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addition to being responsive to the needs of students, this new way of working with a
heterogeneous group of students in the Gemeinschaftsschule has created a situation where
teachers work together to plan lessons and create common resource material, also something
not typical by German standards:
To meet the needs of students and to create material and lessons where all students
could experience success entails a lot of work. We work together as a group of
teachers and divide up the work. Maybe one teacher is stronger in math, they create
the lessons and resources for math. Someone else might create the lesson packages
for German. Each of us really becomes an expert in one area, so when my students
are learning something in math and they just are not understanding it in the way I am
explaining it, my colleague comes in to help the students and it also helps me. We
work together as a team. (Teacher interview, December 2014).
To be responsive to the unique learning needs of all students as well as to develop more selfdirected learners, teachers incorporate ways for students to have increasing levels of voice
and choice in their learning:
We have periods of self-directed learning and [during] this time the students get to
decide on what topic they want to work. They also decide how they would like to
complete an exercise, for example, they decide the form they want to do it with a
partner or with themselves, with a computer, in a group. So they have responsibility
in what they will learn every day and I think for students this is a lot of motivation.
The students work at different levels and that means that students may work at a
higher level in math, but maybe a lower level in English. So, we think there is no
competent or incompetent learner, it’s just to find out where the individual strengths
and weaknesses are. We do this with the learning packages and rubrics. And because
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not all students do the same thing at the same time, [students] can use the time to do
the practice exercises they need to do in order to improve and get the help they need.
(Teacher interview, December 2014)
Work students undertake is worthwhile. Periods of transition from primary to
secondary school are known to be challenging times for many students. A Gymnasium
teacher has seen how these times of transition can impact early adolescents’ self-concept and
self-efficacy as learners and has developed her own methods for supporting her students. She
uses an open education model, based on the Montessori philosophy for students in grade 5
and 6:
Each student has a folder. Each week they get a sheet of paper listing the tasks for the
week. There is one task they have to do and it is personalised to that particular
student. Then there are other tasks they can choose from. Students work for three
weeks on a certain task. All tasks are personalised so to fit into the student’s Zone of
Proximal Development. Once they have done the personalised tasks, then they get to
choose from the range of Montessori methods. (Teacher interview, December 2014)
Using this model, she has found that all students can experience success early on in lower
secondary school and can develop an image of themselves as competent learners.
At another lower secondary school, a grade seven teacher also sees the challenges
facing students as they transition from primary to lower secondary school. A “learning to
learn” course has been added to the schedule for all lower secondary students, albeit with
different content at each grade level, to support early adolescents in their understanding of
how to be effective learners and how to advocate for themselves in their learning, “We teach
students basic skills of how to learn, how to approach a learning task, how to study, how to
ask questions and organisation skills that will help them in their learning” (Teacher interview,
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December 2014). Just as they teach students foundational skills of how to read and write,
teachers have not taken for granted that students know how to think critically, reflect on their
learning and adjust their learning strategies--all equally important fundamental skills of
learning.
Assessment practices improve student learning and guide teaching. Methods of
feedback and assessment used by the teachers demonstrate responsiveness to the developing
needs of early adolescent learners ensuring the locus of control for their learning moves
towards a more internal one:
We use rubrics and tables of competencies. Students correct their exercises
themselves, so they get immediate feedback, right or wrong, do I need to practice
more? They can ask for individual feedback from me whenever they need it. We
have coaching times; they can put their names under my name and say I want to talk
to you because I am having problems. They can take competency checks [or minitests] if they feel they want to know how they are doing. (Teacher interview,
December 2014)
When it comes to final assessments of learning to demonstrate if students have mastered a
concept, students decide when they will take the test. There are also multiple opportunities
for students to show their teachers what they have understood about a topic, should they not
perform at the level the teacher expects them to. To further support student agency in their
learning, teachers have set up “coaching” times where students can sign up for a time to meet
with the teacher to get extra support. All students have a learning log, which is used weekly
to communicate with home, but also for students to set goals and reflect on the progress they
have made towards their learning goals:
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[Students] are really connected and invested in their own learning. They take a lot of
ownership for their learning. They take all responsibility in their own hands. They do
the work. They say this is my aim and this is what I want to work towards this week
and this is what I have to do to reach it, this is how you can help me. (Teacher
interview, December 2014)
A teacher at another lower secondary school expressed conflicting feelings towards his own
assessments practices. He articulated that traditional forms of feedback and assessment are
still very prevalent in German schools; and, he tries to combine both worlds by providing
required grades and also using other methods he feels are responsive to the needs of his early
adolescent learners. He provides them with a lot of immediate oral feedback about their
performance as well written feedback in which he highlights previous performance alongside
with current performance so students are able to see their progress, “I give students
opportunities to discuss their grades and if they feel they have been treated unfairly we
negotiate what can be done to improve” (Teacher interview, December 2014). Students in
his class are given regular opportunities to provide feedback to him about what they are
learning, the effectiveness of his teaching methods, as well as how students feel the class is
working together as a group. An opportunity for students to provide feedback and express
their opinions is something this teacher feels is a learning experience not only for his
students, but himself as well.
Strong relationships exist. The role relationships play (teacher/student relationships,
peer relationships and student connection to their learning) in all aspects of early adolescent
learning is a factor another teacher ensures she attends to in a very intentional way:
Children learn best when they are in a secure and safe and protected environment
without stress and anxiety. Learning is inherent, needs to unfold in a nurturing
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environment. Teachers don’t have to push as much as we think. We need to create
opportunities for the unfolding of learning. (Teacher interview, December 2014)
The role of the group and group dynamics impacts the way this teacher designs learning for
her students. Not only must she consider the individual learners within her classroom, but
she must also balance this along with the needs of the group, “What can the individual
students handle? What does [the group] need and what is [the group] ready for right now?
With more diverse groups, it is more difficult to choose what they need now, at this moment”
(Teacher interview, December 2014). She has been with this same group of students for
three years and believes this amount of time is necessary for teachers to really get to know
their students as individuals and as learners. The way she is able to support her students in
their learning is much stronger now, after three years:
[The students] change tremendously over the course of the three years. Their
character develops more as they grow older and their personality is becoming more
complex, developing more of a contour. This is important for a teacher to know and
to see develop. (Teacher interview, December 2014)
This extended period of time together also develops the class as a group of peers who support
the learning of each other.
Teachers improve their practice in the company of their peers. While there are
many fewer days devoted to district-wide professional development in this German Land, one
Gemeinschaftsschule teacher has a very positive and realistic view about professional
learning opportunities, “Every day is an opportunity for professional learning and
development” (Teacher interview, December 2014). She explained that often teachers look
to outside workshops and conferences as the only way they can gain skills to improve their
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practice. She believes there are many talented teachers, along with her principal and viceprincipal within her building, who are all excellent resources:
We discuss our work every day. This helps us learn from what we just did in the
classroom, because we need to do to the best work for our students. We do have
regular formal meetings. We open the classroom doors so teachers can come in. We
team-teach when we can and visit as often as time allows, but not as often as we
would like. This is very good professional learning. (Teacher interview, December
2014)
Lessons learned. The final question I asked all participants is if they had learned any
important lessons through their work with early adolescents they felt others might benefit
from. One Gymnasium teacher described the sense of responsibility he felt towards the
community, the parents and the students, to prepare his students not just for the learning
within his classroom, but also for the world outside. His biggest challenge, especially with a
classroom of grade eights students, is to create interest and meaning in what they are
learning, which is certainly easier in some subject areas than others:
When I am planning something, I always ask and try to work with a process-oriented
model. I switch topics if my plan is not working. As much as possible I try to follow
the needs of the class at that time. I am always asking, is this what you want to
discuss or do you want to explore something else. (Teacher interview, December
2014)
I can still see the passion in the eyes of a Gemeinschaftsschule teacher and hear the emotion
in her voice as she explained:
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This is my school. It is just what I want to do. It is the way I want to teach. For me I
think it is the best way to bring out the power in my students. But I think we have to
go further, we can always go further. (Teacher interview, December 2014)
[Would you be surprised to know that this type of wisdom came from a fourth year teacher?]
What stands out most for me from my interviews with German teachers is that my
notion of traditional instructional practices in Germany was perhaps rather naïve. What I saw
in my classroom observations and what I experienced through my conversations with
teachers is the overwhelming commitment each teacher demonstrated to meet the needs of
their students. In sometimes unconventional ways, each teacher worked within their system
of education and the means available to them to create a learning environment in which their
early adolescent learners could experience success.
Images of the Student Experience in German Middle Level Learning Environments
After having the privilege of working with early adolescents for over 13 years, I
should no longer be surprised that when asked, students can be so very articulate and
insightful about their learning and their experiences as learners. Perhaps what I am actually
more surprised by is the fact that far too often we leave their voices out of the very complex
teaching and learning equation. If those educating today’s early adolescents are to effectively
create a partnership in learning with their students, the simple tool of asking for student
feedback in something that ought to be used far more frequently.
Tell me about your school. I will also admit that I have a bit of a soft spot for those
children of the middle years, so when I listened to one boy talk about the “dilemma” (his
words) he faced in going to school every day, it is no surprised that I had to work hard to not
let the tears welling up in my eyes roll down my cheeks. He said he felt tremendous pressure
to do well in school and some teachers told him on a regular basis that he should transfer to
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another school before his report card was issued. Yet despite this he came to school every
day, desperate to please the very teachers [and it was my hope, to prove those teachers
wrong] who showed no support of this 13-year-old boy as a learner. There were two things I
took away from the conversation with this boy: one, how tremendously resilient children can
be, and two, the important roles teachers play as mentors, trusted adult and sometimes “head
cheerleader”--teachers should never forget these two things. “Sometimes teachers do not
understand that the world is different for us now than it was for them; it seems sometimes
they do not understand how difficult it is to be a student” (Student interview, December
2014).
Friendships and resiliency. Equally important is the role that positive peer
relationships play in healthy early adolescent growth and development. Students at all four
school sites in Germany discussed that in many cases friends were the most important things
in their lives at the moment and that school provided them with the opportunity to see their
friends. “It’s not just about being social with friends, friends can help you understand things
in class when your teachers don’t explain things in a way you understand” (Student
interview, December 2014). Students in Germany are typically kept with the same class for
several years. Students I interviewed felt this was a positive thing and served to create a
strong class, who for the most part supported each other. “Sometimes we may not get along,
but it is more like when you fight with your brother or sister, when it is over most everyone
knows each other well and tries to be good classmates” (Student interview, December 2014):
Next year, in grade 8, our class will probably be split up [after three years of being
together] and this makes me a bit nervous. They tell us we can write the name of one
friend down on a piece of paper and they will try to put us in the same class. But
what about the rest of my classmates? (Student interview, December 2014)
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[I wonder if the process of putting early adolescent learners together into class groupings
should not be done in a more intentional way and looked at as a longer-term commitment
than it sometimes is. In a developmental period when so much is changing for early
adolescent learners, it seems as though it would be one less worry for them to know they will
have a familiar group of peers through which to navigate not only their learning, but also
their common developmental concerns.]
Positive peer relationships can certainly play a supportive role in early adolescent
learning, however the opposite holds true as well:
Kids in the class understand things differently and at different paces. So if you ask a
question in front of the class you might be laughed at. Better to ask after class so no
one else hears. Some kids are really here to learn and some kids want to make a party
out of everything. There is tension between the two groups and it can make things
difficult in the class. (Student interview, December 2014)
Perhaps a surprise to many teachers, students at all four sites indicated they felt their
classrooms were for the most part far too noisy for them to concentrate as much as they
would like on their studies:
When your neighbor sitting next to you is noisy and you can’t concentrate it is
difficult. You like your neighbor but they are keeping you from your learning. You
don’t know what to do, because you don’t want to get anyone in trouble. There is a
time for discussion and talking, but kids don’t seem to be able to know when it is
good to talk and when it isn’t. We need our teachers to help control this. (Student
interview, December 2014)
It is surprising what insight we can gain as teachers if we simply ask.
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What makes a great teacher? When asked the question, “What makes a great
teacher?” students had no shortage of things to say. Again, some things may surprise
teachers of early adolescents. Students clearly articulated they wanted teachers who cared
about how they acted in class and held high expectations about their behaviour and their
learning:
It is good to have teachers who can joke with [the class] but not too much, because
then it is hard to take them seriously and things can get out of hand very fast. Good
teachers are not too strict, but can be strict when they need to be to bring the class
back in order. (Student interview, December 2014)
Another student offered the following:
Great teachers can take the most boring topics and make them interesting. It is like
they are telling a great story and you just want them to keep going. These teachers
can explain the most difficult things in a way that students understand and if you tell
them you don’t understand, they don’t get mad, they just take a deep breath and work
with you more until you understand. (Student interview, December 2014)
And yet, another student explained great teachers in this way:
I need teachers to give me encouragement because I am not so good at all subjects.
So my best teachers are patient with me, but also push me to make sure I do my best
and get my work done. They make me feel like I am a good student, even on my bad
days. They are honest with me, and say well today you were screaming in class and
that wasn’t so good, but tomorrow you will do better. (Student interview, December
2014)
Most importantly, great teachers, “make the class a safe place to learn and don’t make us feel
anxious about making mistakes” (Student interview, December 2014).
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Students also identified a significant difference in expectations, mannerisms and
teaching style between teachers they worked with at school; this was difficult because
students felt it impacted their learning and their comfort level in class. One final student
reflection on the topic of great teachers, which should perhaps fall under the category of
things teachers should not do, “I really don’t think it is great when teachers punish the whole
class because one or two students were being foolish. This is not a great teacher” (Student
interview, December 2014).
Engagement in and relevance of learning. I was very curious to hear German
students’ views about what they were learning in school and the types of learning
opportunities that made them feel like capable learners. Overwhelmingly students responded
that they enjoyed subjects like physical education, art and music. When I asked what it was
about these subjects they liked most, students responded that they enjoyed the opportunity to
move outside of the traditional classroom setting to explore things and engage in activities
that were not so heavily focused on reading and writing. One student explained:
I like it when I am able to do hands-on activities, like experiments in science or any
other subject when I get to make something. I just feel like I can be more creative and
maybe there aren’t so many right and wrong answers, but many possibilities of how to
do things. (Student interview, December 2014)
Students attending the Gemeinschaftsschule had the opportunity to select from many
different exploratory courses as part of the school’s afternoon program. The wide variety of
courses available to students (rock band, construction and design, outdoor survival skills, be
fit for life, soccer academy, cooking, etc.) gave them opportunities to engage in authentic
learning experiences, often in non-traditional classroom settings:
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I like the balance we have at our school. In the morning we focus more on traditional
classes like German and math. In the afternoon we can rotate through many different
choices and learn about many things in different ways. It wouldn’t be good if it was
all like the morning or all like the afternoon, but combining both is good. I think my
focus is better this way. (Student interview, December 2014)
In Germany, there is a strong focus on foreign language acquisition. Students valued the
opportunity to learn multiple languages and understood the kinds of advantages that having
functional skills in many languages gave them, “Learning many languages is really
important, because it is like real life. It will allow us to travel to many places and maybe
even make getting jobs easier” (Student interview, December 2014). Students could also
identify the relevance of core classes like German and math:
It is important that you speak well and you write well for people to take you seriously.
Depending on the job you want, it may be important to know the rules of the
language. You also need to understand math because it relates to money, basic things
like do I have enough money to pay for this” (Student interview, December 2014).
As students moved into the higher grades they had more choices in the courses they
took. Often these choices were influenced by family preferences; however, students
expressed disappointment that the school schedule sometimes prevented them from selecting
the courses they wanted:
In grade 7, I wanted to take both Spanish and music, but we weren’t allowed to, there
wasn’t enough room in the schedule. I ended up picking Spanish, but would have
really liked if they could have found a way for me to take both. (Student interview,
December 2014)
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Another student had heard from a friend in another school about the wood shop students
could take courses in, “I would really like to have the chance to do those kinds of courses and
work with my hands” (Student interview, December 2014). A student from the same school
expressed frustration that a physics course focusing on hands-on experiments was taken out
of their schedule because the room had to be used for another purpose.
Student agency in their learning. Students in one Gesamtschule are required to
select one topic of interest each year they want to investigate as an independent study. The
group of students I spoke to were all very excited about being able to choose something they
wanted to know more about that was not necessarily connected to other topics they were
studying in school. The choices this group of 13-year-olds made for their independent study
projects were all excellent and showed they were very attuned to themselves as learners and
the larger world. Based on the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, one student decided she wanted to
know more about the politics behind the Olympic movement and what was involved in
making a bid to hold the Olympic Games and the final selection of what city would host the
games. Another student really enjoyed math and his independent study was related to the
different codes and patterns found in mathematics like the Fibonacci sequence. Time was set
aside in the students’ schedules to work on these independent study projects where they could
ask for assistance from appropriate teachers. When the students were ready, they presented
their work to a group of teachers.
Along the same lines of the independent study project, students at one Gymnasium
have the opportunity to further investigate topics of interest that may not be part of the
curriculum. Some use this as a means to improve their grades, while others simply use the
opportunity to learn more about topics they are curious about. One boy spoke with great
conviction about wanting to know more about a particular author, not because he needed to
improve his grade, but rather he “just wanted to know.”
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German students all agreed they would like to have more choice, not only in the
topics they learned about (although they did understand the curriculum was in large part
determined by the government) but also in their learning environment and how they
presented their work to their teachers, “Sometimes our teachers let us use the outdoor
courtyard to read or work in groups. I really like this. I wouldn’t like it all of the time, but I
like that the choice is there” (Student interview, December 2014). Another student said that
often teachers dictate how students will show they have learned a concept, usually a test or a
written paper, and the whole class has to do the same thing, “We have this one teacher who
says we can choose as long as all of the important points are covered and as long as we clear
it with him first. This is really a good choice to have” (Student interview, December 2014).
Early adolescents in Germany typically study between 10 and 12 subjects during the
school year, with 45 minutes being the most common duration of a class. When asked if they
felt this was too much, too little or just right, one student responded:
I like that we study many different subjects. My family in [country of student origin]
thinks this means you are a very educated person. Forty-five minutes is a good length
for a class. After each class we have a break, even though sometimes we go back to
the same teacher for a double block. (Student interview, December 2014)
Responses from all students I interviewed echoed the sentiments of this student. While
twelve subjects would be large by Canadian standards, German student felt it gave them
knowledge in a broad range of topics without becoming too taxing.
Use of technology to support student learning. Student responses to the topic of
learning technologies were unexpected for me. Students all identified that they had access to
smartphone, tablets, computers and other devices at home (some students with more
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restrictions that others). At school, however, I found that the use of technology to support
learning was approached with far more caution than what I have experienced in Alberta:
There is a computer room for us to use, but teachers think it takes away too much
time from other learning. It may be nice to use computers a bit more often, but I don’t
really think it is necessary. Tablets are very expensive and maybe not all parents
could afford them, so it wouldn’t be fair for students to use their own in school.
(Student interview, December 2014)
Students gave no indication they felt they were missing out or at a disadvantage because
technology was not used on a regular basis in their learning.
Sources of student support. The school environment and school community are two
things that often come secondary to the teaching and learning that takes place in the
classroom, yet it was very clear during my discussions with students in Germany the very
important role these two elements play in their learning experience. To begin with, all four
of my school research sites in Germany employ school social workers, to ensure the socialemotional needs of the students are being met. Students could all identify who the school
social workers were and the important role they played in creating a safe and caring school
community:
[Social worker name] is a very nice woman, she is that kind of teacher you are just
very familiar with, you can always talk to her and she can get angry too and that was
good because you know she just wants the best for you. I feel like she is part of our
family. Sometimes when you have problems, even if it isn’t about your teacher or
your learning, you need to talk about it and get it resolved or it is really hard to focus
on learning. So you talk to [her] and your head is more clear and ready for learning.
(Student interview, December 2014)
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At another lower secondary school, the social worker works with the classroom teachers to
identify areas of concern, be it classroom dynamics or issues related to bullying. She then
creates a process to help the class become aware of the issues that may be impacting the
learning of the group, and then together they determine how students can function better as a
classroom community.
Feeling safe and secure at school. Schools clubs were identified by students are
being a key determinant in the creation of a positive and supportive school environment. In
many German Gymnasiums, clubs are offered after the end of a school day, typically at 1
p.m. This common practice of school clubs is also seen as supportive of the needs of
working families. Several students commented that the reason their families chose to have
them attend the school was the wide offering of quality school clubs. In other schools, clubs
are offered as a means of breaking up the school day, and it is required that students select a
minimum of two clubs and commit to attending them every week. In the eyes of the students
however, being part of the school clubs is far from an onerous task:
Our teachers run the clubs and they act different from when they are teaching in the
class, maybe a bit more relaxed. The clubs are very fun, but we also learn a lot, it
isn’t about silly games. Sometimes the clubs can be serious too, like in the big band
orchestra we went to the castle [for a workshop] and played for music stars, and they
gave us advice. (Student interview, December 2014)
Another student commented that clubs were great ways to bring students of the school
together who share common interests in groupings apart from class groups:
During clubs I get to see other students who are not in my class, even students in
different grades. I think we are a stronger school because of this. I think it maybe
prevents a lot of bullying from happening too, because we all get to know each other.
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You also get to be very proud of your school, because sometimes there are choir or
band or sport competitions with other schools and you always want your school to be
the best. (Student interview, December 2014)
Hearing the words of the students as they described their experience with school clubs, it is
very easy to see how these clubs hold great meaning for students and serve to help them feel
like they are more than only students in a class, but part of a larger school community.
Would you change anything? The final question I asked all student groups was if
there was anything they would change about their school. Answers ranged from, “More
lockers would be nice so I don’t have to carry so many books home every night,” to “More
green space for students to play and hang out. A new parking lot for our teachers took away
a lot of the outside space we had” and even, “Actually, I think my school is perfect, there
may be little things, but those little things aren’t really important” (Student interviews,
December 2014). Probably the most significant issue I heard from a large majority of the
students related to the time their school day started. The school day for most students began
at or near 8 a.m. For students attending full day programs, their school day ended between
3:30 p.m. and 4 p.m.:
Right now it is dark when we come to school, and it is dark when we go home. Many
of us have to travel on the trains for a long time to get to school and back home, so
our day begins very early from the time we wake up to the time we get back home. I
would rather have shorter breaks during the school day, so I wouldn’t have to wake
up so early in the morning. (Student interview, December 2014)
In terms of closing impressions of early adolescent learners in Germany, I would
characterise them all as serious about their learning. Students came from a wide variety of
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backgrounds and abilities, yet all articulated how much they valued their education and that
any goals they had would only be made possible through hard work at school.
The Canadian Research Sites
The Canadian Context for Middle Level Education
Describing the system of education in Canada is akin to trying to describe the nation
itself--complex; while perhaps difficult to pinpoint defining features, viewed by many on the
world stage as strong and stable, yet on home soil, many Canadians struggle to articulate
where the essence of country lies. I am one of those Canadians. That being said, I feel very
fortunate to live, work and raise my children in Canada. I look out my window and see the
Rocky Mountains; I breathe clean air and have clean water to drink anytime I turn my faucets
on; my children walk to school in what I feel is as safe a neighbourhood as you will find in a
large Canadian city; and, I am fortunate to have a good paying job doing something I love
that also provides for my family. But--and perhaps the one “thing” I struggle with most--I
would be hard pressed to explain what “the Canadian experience” is, because I do not
actually believe being Canadian is a singular experience shared by all. We are such a diverse
country, welcoming with opens arms people from all nations as though they were our own.
Canadians come in all shapes and sizes, colours and voices, and for the most part, we tend to
make “it” work. In many ways I feel the same about describing the Canadian education
system--education in Canada is not a singular entity. It is complex and diverse, dynamic--yet
in some cases so very slow to change to reflect the world our students are growing up in.
There are ten provinces and three territories in Canada, and each is responsible for all
levels of education and education policy in the individual province or territory, as afforded by
the Canadian Constitution. Ministers of Education from the 13 provinces and territories,
(some with no background in education policy making other than their own schooling
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experience) form The Council of Ministers of Education, Canada (CMEC). This group meets
to discuss policy and other issues facing the education system in each province and what
impact these issues may have at a federal level. There is no indication this group aims to
align the provincial and territorial education systems across Canada. There have been times,
however, when the Ministers have identified common issues of concern and agreed to make
these a priority for education in each province and territory, thereby elevating the specific
issue to a nation-wide issue. The most recent example is mathematics. Western Canadian
provinces and the northern territories agreed to collaborate on common curriculum
development and went as far as to develop a common resource to support mathematics
teaching and learning (CMEC, 2013). Unfortunately, other than the development and
dissemination of one mathematics resource, along with limited use by teachers, little else
came of the Western and Northern Canadian Protocol for K-9 Mathematics (2006) and the
call for additional collaboration among this group.
In my home province of Alberta, there have been four different Premiers, or heads of
government, in four years; and, with each new leader came a shift in direction of education in
the province. Funding for education in Canada is determined by each individual province,
although indirectly overseen at a federal level, and in today’s uncertain economic times, oil
prices and particular inclinations of government leaders tend to impact whether new schools
get built or the state of labour peace with teachers. Education funding issues are rarely about
teacher salaries alone, but extend to concerns over class size, adequate provisions for
resources, workload issues and professional learning opportunities. This unpredictability in
education funding is one of the biggest concerns facing educators today, and it led to a five
week teacher strike in the province of British Columbia, ending the previous school year two
weeks early and delaying the start of the 2014-2015 school year by three weeks, a total of 27
instructional days lost (British Columbia Teachers’ Federation, 2014).
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Each province has a Ministry or Department of Education, which is responsible for
curriculum development, teacher certification and education policy. There are no standards
or timelines for the revision of provincial curriculum; truth be told, some students are being
taught the same curriculum as their parents had 25 years prior. Similarly, reviews of and
often much needed updates to provincial education policy tend to carry the same timelines as
election campaigns do. The structure of curriculum differs in each province and territory. In
Alberta, curriculum documents are mandated at the provincial level to be enacted by teachers.
In theory, there is little room for teachers to shape the mandated curriculum to the interests of
their students or their own particular teaching strengths; although in practice, there is great
variability in the way the curriculum is delivered in the classroom of each teacher. The
number of hours of instruction also varies by province. In Alberta, the number of hours of
instruction per year is 950 for students in grades 1 through 9 and 1000 hours in grades 10
through 12. There are guidelines for the minimum number of instructional minutes in core
subject areas in grades 1 through 9; again, how this is carried out in individual schools varies
greatly. In Alberta high schools, course credits equate to instructional hours; one credit
equals 25 hours of instruction, and most core courses consist of three or five credits. By
contrast, in the province of Ontario, guidelines come in the form of the minimum number of
instructional minutes per week, which is 1500 for grades 1 through 8. And in the Northwest
Territories, compulsory instructional time is 997 hours per year for students in grades 1
through 6 and no less than 1,045 hours per year for students in grades 7 through 12.
Alberta’s newest Ministerial Order on the provisions for basic education in the
province was signed in 2013. The previous Ministerial Order carried the date of 1998, there
was another dated 1997, and before that 1994. As with revisions to provincial curriculum,
there are no guidelines or timelines for revisions to provincial education legislation. The
provinces and territories determine grade structure, and the age and grade in which school
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begins and ends; whereas, grade configuration of schools is determined by local school
boards. In many instances these configurations have little to do with any particular
pedagogical philosophy and more to do with external factors like budgets and facility usage.
The notion of a school board and school trustees varies as much within a province as it does
amongst the provinces and territories. In the school board where I am employed, seven
elected members of the public serve as school trustees. Their role is to represent the interests
of the public in the education system; these seven individuals are given a considerable
amount of power and authority with which to act. As with the provincial Ministers of
Education, many trustees only experience in education policy development has come in the
form of their own schooling experience or their role as parents of children attending school.
Teacher training is another element that varies as much within a province as it does
between provinces. In Alberta, there are four major post-secondary institutions that offer
teacher training programs. As a school based instructional leader, I can easily distinguish
which institution my teachers have been trained in by the particular pedagogical stance they
hold. My perspective is that philosophically the teacher training programs in the province are
very different, resulting in tremendous diversity in the skills and background new teachers
bring to their classrooms.
While it is often easiest to identify challenges and uncertainties in things we hold near
and dear to our hearts, there are many strengths of education in Canada that are worth noting.
On a very basic level, public education in Canada is free. The number of both private and
charter schools is on the rise, attracting parents with lower class sizes, uniforms and
classroom environments often similar to what they experienced as children--choice of school
setting is enticing for many Canadian parents. Education in Canada is compulsory until the
age of 16 in 10 of the 13 provinces/territories, and until the age of 18 in the other three.
According to the most recent 2014 OECD Country Profiles, there is much to celebrate about
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education in Canada: the school enrolment rate for children age 5-14 is 99 percent; 92 percent
of Canadians age 25-34 attained upper secondary education; 57 percent of Canadians age 2534 attained a tertiary education degree; expenditure per pupil on tertiary education is one of
the highest among OECD countries; beginning teachers’ salaries in Canada are similar to the
OECD average (however Canadian teachers reach the top of the salary grid in 11 years,
versus the OECD average of 24 years); and, compulsory instructional time for students in
both primary and secondary education is above the OECD average (although some might
question if this statistic should be seen as positive factor) (OECD, 2014a).
Results from the 2012 PISA tests, in which 21,000 Canadian 15-year-olds
participated, indicated Canadian students ranked tenth in performance on measures of overall
mathematical literacy (CMEC, 2013). The gap between Canada’s highest achieving and
lowest achieving students in PISA mathematical results is high, pointing towards inequity in
educational outcomes. In measures of reading literacy and scientific literacy, as defined by
the OECD, Canadian students performed well above the OECD average, being outperformed
by only five countries in reading literacy and seven countries in scientific literacy (CMEC,
2013). The gap between the highest and lowest decile scores is on par with the OECD
average, indicating greater equity of learning outcomes in reading and science. While
Canadian students continue perform well on the PISA tests, there has been a downward trend
since 2000, which has created discomfort among provincial education leaders (CMEC, 2013;
OECD, 2014a).
Standardised testing at the provincial and territorial level is a highly debated topic and
very much dependent on the government in power. I grew up in the province of
Saskatchewan, where my high school teachers were trusted to develop and mark our final
exams. These exams were valued in the same way towards university entrance requirements
as provinces with standardised tests, marked by anonymous educators paid to do so. As
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described above, when Canada is depicted in international measures of achievement such as
PISA or TALIS, the country as a whole tends to do quite well. However, when these scores
are broken down by province and territory, large variations often emerge in how these 15year-olds, sampled from various schools across the provinces and territories have performed
on the test. So, the question Canadians ask ourselves is if this one test, administered every
three years, is a true indicator of the quality of provincial education systems--or is it simply
another standardised test for educators, the public and politicians to either value or criticise.
Further, while on the surface, Canadian results in international tests of achievement
would lead one to believe that both students and education systems are faring well, two
notable cross-Canada measures portray somewhat different images. The Canadian Education
Association’s (CEA) What did you do in school today? study has, since 2007, surveyed over
63,000 Canadian adolescents and found that although 69 percent of students report being
engaged in school, as measured through indicators such as attendance, homework behaviours,
positive relationships with friends and participation in extra-curricular activities, only 37
percent of students reported being engaged in learning. The concept of being engaged in
learning is measured by reported levels of effort, interest and motivation and perceived
quality of instruction (Dunleavy, Willms, Milton & Friesen, 2012). What does this tell us? I
believe there are many ways we can interpret this data, but as with any data, I always feel the
most important questions come in the form of “so what and now what?” (How can we look
at this data as one piece of an entire data story? In which context should this data be viewed?
How can we use this data to determine next steps?) This data appears to indicate that many
Canadian adolescents do well in school, despite not being intellectually engaged in their
learning. Perhaps even more perplexing is that of the three indicators reported to have the
most significant impact on academic outcomes, only one--effort--relates back to intellectual
engagement. Attendance and homework behaviours are the other two indicators found to
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have a positive effect on academic outcomes in the three core areas of mathematics, language
arts and science. Dunleavy et al. (2012) explained, “Our purpose in this study was to
illuminate the relationship between intellectual engagement and academic outcomes. Yet, in
our study, students do well on school-based assessments without being intellectually
engaged” (p. 6). This research finding has led to more questions than answers, calling into
question current assessment practices and if the learning tasks students are being given
require them to be intellectually engaged:
The results of our national sample of What did you do in school today? schools may
indicate that traditional assessment practices are still prevalent, in that the three
measures correlated with higher marks--attendance, effort and homework completion-are the very things that current research and policy say should matter least in
determinations of academic success. Although these behaviours and dispositions
contribute to creating the conditions for learning, they do not tell us what students
know and can do as a result of learning. (Dunleavy et al., 2012, p. 7)
The “now what” for this important contribution to Canadian educational research,
comes in the form of a question, “Where does this lead us?” (Dunleavy et al., 2012, p. 8).
Dunleavy and his colleagues (2012) point towards current beliefs about assessment and
assessment practices as the first places educators need to turn their attention to:
The concept of intellectual engagement resonates strongly with many educators
because it represents the kinds of learning that they aspire to for all students. Yet
often the most basic of structures in schools--in this case marking practices and
definitions of academic success--can work against the emergence of practices that
would support higher levels of achievement and engagement among larger numbers
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of students. Existing models of assessment rarely measure these higher types of
learning or the competencies they foster. (p. 8)
What did you do in school today? brought attention to the schooling experiences of
Canadian adolescents and highlighted the importance of intellectual engagement. This was a
key development in the aim to improve education outcomes for all Canadian adolescents. It
is anticipated that the next phase of this cross-Canada study will further shed light on how to
best integrate what research has revealed about adolescent development as well as what is
known about effective instructional practices to create a coherent education strategy that will
meet the needs of Canadian students in an ever-changing world.
In Canada, the National Alliance for Children and Youth is currently working to
establish recommendations and policy to support Canadian early adolescents. Although the
Alliance acknowledges the importance and many positive influences of the provincial
education systems, it warns Canadians that the nation’s early adolescents are at risk for
experiencing a variety of healthy and physical problems (Hanvey, 2006). Louise Hanvey,
author of the Alliance’s latest report on Canadian children of the middle years, indicates that
the middle years of child development are as critical determinants of well-being in adulthood
as the first years of life are, “These children are laying down the building blocks for future
well-being and participation in society” (Hanvey, 2006, p. 2). Through internally created
measures, it was found that statistics are on this rise for Canadian adolescents exhibiting
indicators of diabetes, obesity, aggressive behaviour and other physical and mental health
issues (Hanvey, 2006). Using the index of vulnerability as put forth in the National
Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth, 29 percent of Canadian early adolescents are
believed to be vulnerable to all factors that challenge their well-being. Both school and
family are believed to be mitigating influences in this vulnerability; and, it is for this reason
the Alliance calls on Canadian schools to support the growth and development of early
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adolescents as learners and individuals with a commitment like none other before (Hanvey,
2006).
Is there anything that can be found in the systems of education in Canada that have
contributed to or detracted from how the nation views or approaches early adolescent
learning and middle level learning environments? This too is a complicated question to
answer in a simplistic way; some provinces have been much more intentional than others in
attending to the unique developmental and learning needs of early adolescents through
provincial educational policy, resources and support. There are three key factors on a
national scale, which I believe have impacted the advancement of early adolescent learning
and middle level learning environments in Canada as a whole:
1.
The absence of a national curriculum has placed the responsibility for curriculum
development and the timeline for curriculum renewal on the individual provinces
and territories. Some provinces develop curriculum at a departmental or
ministerial level; others do this in consultation with provincial universities; while
others approach it in an almost business-like model, awarding tenders to those
with the best proposal bids. As mentioned previously, in some provinces parts of
the curriculum have not changed in 25 years, calling into question the
effectiveness of a policy of individual provincial and territorial curriculums in
preparing Canada’s youth for the world they will face outside the nation’s
schools.
2.
The absence of national standards and regulations for teacher training has left
individual post-secondary institutions to create teacher-training programs as they
envision them. This has hampered the development of consistent, quality
teaching in the nation’s schools and has certainly impacted public trust in the
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quality of education Canadian children receive. Further, only a very select
number of Canadian post-secondary institutions offer teacher training programs
addressing the specific needs of early adolescent learners and middle level
learning environments.
3.
The absence of a commitment on a national scale to using what current Canadian
research has revealed about early adolescent growth and development as
individuals and learners to establish middle level learning environments that will
best support their needs. Without clearly articulated provincial/territorial and
national philosophy and policy related to leading, teaching and learning in the
middle years, education for early adolescent learners will remain inconsistent
across Canadian schools.
Images of Instructional Leadership in Canadian Middle Level Learning Environments
As I began the interviews with my colleagues in Canada, I was curious to see what
parallels I would see between their experiences as instructional leaders and my own. I soon
found out that the Alberta context has certainly contributed to some of the ways instructional
leaders in the province, myself included, approach their work. Moreover, I realised the
context of my own work, within a large urban Alberta school district, has created a unique set
of leadership demands and challenges not experienced by other instructional leaders I spoke
to in both Alberta and Manitoba.
Philosophies about early adolescent learning. The Canadian principals, assistant
principals and department specialist I interviewed for the purpose of my study were currently
working in (or supporting) middle level learning environments of varying configurations.
Prior to obtaining a leadership designation, all had experience teaching early adolescents in
various grades and subject areas. I heard some very interesting descriptions about how each
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principal, assistant principal and department specialist ended up working with this age group
of students; for some, it was by chance, and for others, it was a choice. Just as I soon
discovered in my own career that there was no other age group of students I wanted to work
with, these individuals shared similar revelations. It was very clear from my conversations
with the principals, assistant principals and department specialist that they cared very much
about their early adolescent learners and wanted to create learning environments where these
learners would experience success. It came as no surprise then, that these instructional
leaders had very clearly defined philosophies related to leading, teaching and learning in
middle level learning environments:
Young adolescence is a very special time of life that provides prime opportunity for
learning and citizenship and character development. Teachers who desire and are
prepared to teach middle years students, make a great and lasting impact on the
academic, social/emotional, spiritual, and physical development of their students.
These middle years are the time that students understand more clearly who they are,
what they can do, and what they can or may become. (Principal interview, December
2014)
One principal discussed the impact the AMLE’s This We Believe philosophy had on him as a
new teacher and feels this philosophy remains very relevant today. He works with the
teachers in his school to create a learning environment that reflects the recommendations
outlined in This We Believe:
My philosophy reflects the philosophy expressed in the AMLE resource This We
Believe. It is one of those simple, yet hard things. When you look at the
recommendations you say, “oh of course.” But, when you try and coordinate whole
school philosophy and practice to reflect what is in that document, it is more complex
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than one might think. It is something we work towards every day though. (Principal
interview, December 2014)
Most important role(s) as an instructional leader. The moment I asked this group
of instructional leaders the question related to what they believed their most important roles
as instructional leaders were, I could tell it weighed heavily on them--two principals asked if
we could return to the question at the end of the interview. All individuals struggled with
trying to compartmentalise their work into separate components and identify some
components as more important than others. Ultimately, this group saw their work in a very
holistic way; although certain parts of their work could be considered less “glamorous” than
others, all contributed to the creation of a learning environment they were proud of:
I don’t know if I could say the role of computer technician I often play is very
glamorous, but I know that if I didn’t work to solve the many problems related to
technology that arise at my school it would prevent my teachers from doing some of
the things they want with their students, which then impacts the learning opportunities
available to students and so on. Things that seem small and insignificant often have a
far-reaching impact. (Principal interview, December 2014)
So, when I reframed the question and asked about some of the most important things they do
to support early adolescents in their leaning, we “got somewhere”--perhaps something a bit
more tangible was needed:
I see my most important roles in supporting early adolescent learning in my building
as the following: to see potential in every student, to help students see their own
potential and that each and everyone of them matter, to see the best in their teachers,
to support teachers and students in taking risks and knowing it is okay to make
mistakes, to support students’ families in understanding their children as learners
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during this developmental period and to celebrate the successes, big and small, of
everyone. (Assistant Principal interview, December 2014)
Another principal highlighted the importance of ensuring current research on early
adolescence and middle level learning guided the practice at her school:
I believe that as the instructional leader of the school it is imperative that I focus on
assisting my teachers improve their skills as teachers of [early adolescents]. To do
that I must keep abreast of current [middle years] research for best practice, keep
abreast of the strengths and needs of the individuals in the school, have a collegial
relationship with staff that is respectful, professional and supportive. (Principal
interview, December 2014)
In light of current research, much discussion has taken place in Alberta about the
changing role of the school principal, focussing on instructional leadership instead of
administration or management--and different from terms used previously to describe best
practice in educational leadership, such as servant leadership and change agent leadership.
Principals I interviewed believed the philosophy upon which instructional leadership is
developed to be sound. They understood that being able to work in the in the capacity of
“principal as instructional leader” versus “principal as manager” would have a significant
positive impact on student learning and teacher development. However, the many competing
demands of their job, left principals feeling as though the realities of their work prevented
them from being the kind of instructional leader that system or district direction has said they
should be:
I go to meetings where I am told about how important it is that I am in the classrooms
with my teachers so I can understand what the teachers are facing and also so I can
see things from the perspective of my students. I understand this. Yet in the same
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breath, five new things are downloaded onto my plate, like reports I have to do and
additional meetings that take me out of my school. I just don’t know how everything
can be fit in. (Principal interview, December 2014)
Another principal discussed how much perceptions about the role of the principal have
changed over the years:
Education has trends just like everything else. Best practice for school leaders seems
to come in waves too. You need to try and create a balance by holding true to what
you believe about educational leadership and what you can do well as a leader and
then also what the district is telling you the right thing is now. I am always trying to
be better for those I serve in my school. I guess maybe it just goes to show that even
after being in this profession for 20 years, I am still a work in progress. (Principal
interview, December 2014)
[The question I posed regarding roles was never meant to leave these instructional leaders
feeling inadequate, yet I cannot help but feel that inherent in the role of the principal is the
sense that your work is never done and you can always do more.]
Establishing goals and expectations. Each principal, assistant principal and
department specialist explained how they determined the goals, direction and vision for their
schools in slightly different ways, using processes that were very much personal. After
comparing their personal philosophies about teaching and learning with the vision and goals
they had outlined for their school, the alignment that existed between the two was very clear.
I was also curious to see how (or, perhaps if) the larger system goals that the principals’
respective school districts had established were woven into their school-based philosophies. I
examined district websites to better understand the system direction, which typically came in
the form of some three-year of five-year plan:
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I use school-based data, areas of concern my teachers and I have identified from the
previous year, provincial curriculum and other things I may see coming down on us
from the district to set the academic focus and direction for the school. All teachers
help create this direction and understand why we have the certain priorities. Based on
the needs of my teachers and my students I want the focus to be on teaching the
curriculum in [early adolescent] “friendly” ways: integrated curricula, chances to
explore, linked to life outside the classroom, appropriate level of challenge,
differentiated instruction, relevant to the learners in their community or relevant to
their vision for themselves. (Principal interview, December 2014)
Another principal explained that he likes to keep it simple when determining the direction for
his school:
Sometimes I see plans that my colleagues have put together and I have a hard time
understanding them. There are pages upon pages of goals and charts and well I just
don’t think that is necessary. Maybe it just isn’t my style. I keep it to two or three
clearly stated goals that really reflect the current realities of the school. Part of it is
also ensuring the teachers and students feel they can be successful in those goals. It
needs to stretch them, but also be attainable. (Principal interview, December 2014)
Although principals certainly understood and were aware of the district and larger provincial
goals that existed, the direction they set for their school was very much based on the
individual school context and their personal beliefs about what early adolescents need most to
support their learning.
Ensuring quality teaching. Principals felt several factors contributed to the quality
of teaching in their schools. “Hiring practice is important. Teachers who like [early
adolescent] students and who understand or are prepared to learn about middle years have the
greatest chance for success in the classroom” (Principal interview, December 2014). Giving
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teachers time to collaborate, developing consistent school-wide pedagogical practices
connected to current research on early adolescent learning, and the use of data to guide the
work of teachers were other factors principals believe supported the development of a
coherent, quality teaching program:
Teachers need time to work together. Collectively we can be so much better than if
we try to go it alone. Whenever possible I try to give teachers time to collaborate.
Sometimes I can work it into the timetable and when I can’t I will bring substitute
teachers into the school so my teachers have time together. (Principal interview,
December 2014)
One assistant principal from Alberta discussed her mixed views on the topic of data, which
she feels when used properly can be an effective strategy to inform and improve teaching
practice:
I feel that sometimes we are on data overload in the province and I have to ask
myself, “What purpose is this serving?” Data is one of those things that some people
view as “the more the better.” I think we always have to ask ourselves what really
needs measuring and what is the best way to measure it?” Data comes in all different
forms so we can’t just be looking for percentages and pie charts. I believe the
effective use of data to inform instructional practices comes when we view it through
the lens, “so what and now what”? What is the data telling us? What are our next
steps? If the only reason we collect data is to fulfill some district requirement, and do
not act on it, then it really is a pointless exercise that takes up a lot of my time and my
teachers’ time. (Assistant principal interview, December 2014)
Leading teacher learning and development. Robinson (2011) identified leading
teacher professional learning and development as the leadership dimension shown to have the
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biggest impact on student learning outcomes. Principals I interviewed recognised the
important role they play in the professional learning and development of their teachers, yet
this was also an area they acknowledged not being able to always lead in the way they feel
they should. One principal honestly described the many competing demands of his work
impacting his involvement in teacher professional learning:
In my first years as a principal I used to plan out at the beginning of the year what I
wanted to cover during each staff meeting and each professional development day. I
laugh about that now and I wonder if I was really meeting the needs of my teachers.
Even now, I think I have a pretty good sense of what areas my teachers need more
development in, and what areas that we need to address as a whole staff. But then the
demands of my job set in and to be completely honest planning a professional
development day is sometimes the last thing I want to worry about. Sometimes it gets
delegated to my assistant principal or lead teachers. In the end professional
development is probably better if it is determined collectively, but it should be more
intentional in the way it is collectively organised. (Principal interview, December
2014)
When asked if there was one particular area instructional leaders felt their teachers needed
more development in, answers varied from increased subject specific knowledge to more
broad concepts such as inquiry based learning and Response to Intervention (RTI):
I find it really depends on what type of teacher training program my teachers have
gone through. Teachers who have gone through training to become secondary school
teachers have specific content knowledge usually in one or two areas. Teachers who
have taken an elementary generalist route, have general knowledge of the core subject
areas (although I find most elementary trained teachers are literacy people). In
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general though, teachers right out of university do not have the subject specific
expertise they need to help their students find passion and meaning in things like
Canadian history or multiplication tables. (Assistant principal interview, December
2014)
One area all instructional leaders identified as a need was for their teachers to have a better
understanding of early adolescent development and how this impacts teaching and learning in
the classroom. The province of Manitoba has, for several years, had a focus on
transformation in the middle years, which has helped to advance teacher professional learning
in the area of early adolescent learning. District level consultants are available to support
schools during professional development days, assist principals in identifying areas of need in
their schools, and provide teachers with appropriate resources:
We are lucky here in Manitoba, a lot of resources that have been developed to support
middle school principals, teachers, students and even parents. At the government
level there has been a commitment to creating better middle years learning
environments. This is starting to be reflected in the universities training the teachers.
They are giving them specific training on adolescents and their brain development
and how teachers can use this understanding to their advantage in the classroom.
Some teachers have this understanding of adolescents, some don’t, and you can really
see it in how the teachers work with their students and how the teachers plan lessons
for them. This has been done in a very intentional ways based on a deep
understanding of the kids sitting in front of them. (Specialist interview, December
2014)
Instructional leaders also felt new teachers had very little background training in pedagogy
essential to the daily work of a teacher in a classroom with learners of diverse abilities--for
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example, differentiation, scaffolding and curriculum modification. Other important aspects
of a teacher’s work, such as providing students with ongoing feedback to support their
learning, writing report card comments and developing appropriate goals in a student’s
Individualised Program Plan (IPP) are not addressed adequately through most current
university programs:
I know I have a lot of responsibility as the principal to support teacher growth and
development, however it would be nice if new teachers came out with a better sense
of everything they were going to face and all that was going to be thrown at them
during their first years as a teacher. I don’t envy new teachers, although we have all
been there at one time. I think teaching is maybe more complex now than it was 20
years ago. (Principal interview, December 2014)
One Alberta assistant principal addressed the provincial mandate for inclusive education and
the stress that is being put on teachers in the classroom:
Don’t get me wrong--I believe that the fundamental principles of inclusion are
important in the context of public education. The reality is that teachers, for the most
part, are not trained to deal with such a diverse range of students with exceptional
learning needs in their classrooms, nor do our current funding constraints allow us to
devote more resources to supporting students and teachers in an inclusive setting. It
isn’t just about teaching assistants, because there are inherent challenges with that as
well, but materials and assistive technology that might also support students with
exceptional learning needs. (Assistant principal interview, December 2014)
All instructional leaders felt a tremendous responsibility to ensure their teachers had the
pedagogical skills necessary to not just “cope” with the students in their classrooms, but to
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create the type of learning environment all teachers want for their students. There was also a
deep sense of never being able to do enough for their teacher and students.
Resourcing strategically. Principals had no shortage of things to say when the
discussion turned to resourcing their schools. The recent drop in world oil prices will no
doubt impact provincial revenues and principals speculated how this would impact provincial
education budgets. The reality of doing more (and meeting the needs of more students) with
less is one that principals in Alberta, and to some extent, the principals in Manitoba know all
too well. Principals described very creative ways they have had to look at staffing their
school, deploying teachers and securing resources in the wake of dwindling school budgets.
Many principals have been “forced to return to the classroom.” [I have to admit this
perspective makes me sad, because I have always felt working with students in classrooms is
a privilege, not a burdensome chore.] I do, however, have a first-hand understanding of the
increasing demands being placed on principals in Alberta. The numerous tasks related to
accountability and district-based reporting are very real and draw principals more away from
the role of instructional leader all the time.
The unpredictability of education funding in the Canadian provinces is something that
weighs heavily on the minds of principals:
Can I tell you the time of the year that I dread? It is in the spring, right after the
provincial budget has been passed. Then it seems everything starts to unravel. I get
my working budget for the school and then I have to determine how many teachers I
can afford, how many support staff, etc. And what I usually see is that the number of
students in my school goes up, but the number of teachers I can afford goes down.
Leadership books always tell you that change takes time, at least five years. At a
school it is really hard to build a strong staff and see the plans you have for the school
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start to take shape, because you never really know for sure who will be in your
building to move the work forward. (Principal interview, December 2014)
[After discussing the topic of strategic resourcing with principals, I am quite certain the titles
of entrepreneur, creative director and chief negotiator should also be added to list of
leadership qualifications.]
Ensuring a safe and orderly environment. The final leadership dimension arising
from Robinson’s (2011) research I asked principals about concerned their work in ensuring a
safe and orderly environment in their schools. Some principals felt this dimension related
more to discipline and emergency safety plans, while others viewed it more as creating the
appropriate context and conditions for teaching and learning to occur. Robinson (2011)
views this leadership dimension as a combination of all those things a principal does (that are
often not glamorous and take place behind closed doors) to ensure the most important work
of teaching and learning can unfold in ways that bring out the best in everyone:
The basic and fundamental needs of health and safety need to be met first and
foremost. In our setting we have found that when the students have food in their
bellies and feel both physically and emotionally safe at school, they can then proceed
with learning. Many of the inappropriate behaviours are avoided when the student
can have something to eat such as an apple or cheese. When these students are fed
with nutritious food, focus on what is happening in class is intensified. Along with
this basic need comes the idea of a safe environment. We do some very intentional
teaching around social emotional learning and regulation that has made a world of
difference in making the school feel like a settled place. (Principal Interview,
December 2014)
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Lessons learned. The final topic of discussion with principals was one of “famous
last words”--was there anything unique they felt they did to support their early adolescent
learners or were there any lessons they have learned through their work that would benefit
others leading the work in middle level learning environments? [After my conversations with
this group, where timeless wisdom was shared with me, I feel as though I have been initiated
into an exclusive group of instructional leaders.] It is important to let the words of these
instructional leaders speak for themselves:
Learning facts are not important for this new generation of adolescents. Learning to
become the best you can is important. Recognising that ultimately our goal as an
educator is to help adolescents become contributing members of society. It is not our
place to say what that should look like, however it is our place to encourage those
under our care [teachers and students] to continually strive to improve. One of the
most important aspects of this encouragement is to model it ourselves. (Assistant
principal interview, December 2014)
Several instructional leaders explained that although the work of a principal is challenging
and complex, there are always exceptional people who want the same thing as you do, to
create the best possible learning environment for early adolescent learners. “Never be afraid
to ask for help. You never know what treasures you will find” (Principal interview,
December 2014). One Manitoba principal described the vast number of resources provided
by the province to support teaching and learning in middle level environments, and was
surprised by the small number of schools that take advantage of what is accessible in terms of
expertise and funding:
Manitoba Education encourages middle schools to provide experiential learning and
provides grants that can be used to develop resources that support experiential
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learning, things like robotics kits and math manipulatives. They also have consultants
who will come to schools to provide professional development that supports the
fundamentals of middle years education, such as helping students be independent and
competent learners; problem solvers, critical thinkers, responsible citizens of their
classroom, school and community, and knowledgeable about themselves and the
world around them. I don’t know if people understand the huge impact this kind of
support makes. (Principal interview, December 2014)
There were distinct differences in the ways the principals and assistant principals in
Manitoba and Alberta, as instructional leaders, approached leading, teaching and learning in
their schools. Manitoba’s principals, with the support of provincial direction and resources to
improve the learning experience for early adolescent learners, have a much more clear and
cohesive sense of the factors that contribute to learning environments in which early
adolescents will thrive. Based on conversations with instructional leaders of middle level
learning environments in Alberta, there is a general lack of provincial and district direction
related to early adolescent learning which has created a situation where each school is
operating on its own, attempting to employ a variety of strategies and philosophies based on
any number of factors. Far more consistency existed in the school philosophies, instructional
programming, and practices used to support early adolescent learners in the Manitoba
research sites than in the Alberta research sites. I attribute this to the intentional work that
has taken place in Manitoba aimed at positively transforming the learning experience for all
early adolescent learners.
Images of Instructional Practices in Canadian Middle Level Learning Environments
As an instructional leader in Alberta, who has also made the choice to remain a
teacher and stay closely connected with the classrooms in my school, I feel as though I have a
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good sense of the unique challenges facing both early adolescents and teachers of early
adolescents in today’s classrooms. Through my conversations with teachers in the provinces
of Alberta and Manitoba, I began to understand that although they share many of the same
experiences because of the nature of the early adolescent learners in their classrooms, there
are many factors unique to the context of their schools and even more that are influenced by
provincial direction (or the absence of direction) which impact their work. The questions I
asked teachers centered on the five effective teaching practices identified in Friesen’s (2009)
research, viewed through the lens of their work with early adolescents in middle level
learning environments. I had the pleasure of interviewing teachers with a broad range of
experiences, from teachers within the first two years of their career to veteran teachers of 20
years; and, I know because of the insight they shared with me I will be both a better teacher
and instructional leader in my school.
Philosophies on teaching and learning. The question about a personal philosophy
related to teaching and learning is one I dread answering, for no other reason than I find it
difficult to express in a concise manner my beliefs about and passion towards something I do
not consider just a “job,” but rather a “calling.” So, in hindsight, I apologise for any
unnecessary stress I created for my interview participants. I do think you can tell a lot about
a teacher’s motivation through the beliefs they express about teaching and learning--and
whether or not, they are a teacher “by choice” or a teacher “by default.” I have no doubt
those teachers I interviewed were teachers because they could not imagine themselves doing
anything else. The following are two excerpts from interviews with teachers as they
“humoured me” and described their philosophy related to teaching and learning in middle
level learning environments:
[A student’s] personality is their personality. Don't try to change that. Instead focus
on helping them negotiate their personality in the company of an ever-expanding peer
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group. If students don’t feel comfortable in their own skin, then learning becomes so
much more difficult. I also try to bring out each student’s unique personality and
their individual strengths through the learning we do together in the classroom. Then
I think together as a class we can work to celebrate each individual for who they are.
(Teacher interview, December 2014)
One teacher recalled a difficult encounter with one student, which has forever impacted the
way she approaches working with early adolescent students in her classroom:
I have learned to pick my battles with my [early adolescent] students. In one
particular argument with a 13-year-old boy, he yelled, “You just don’t get what it’s
like to be 13!” He was right, I don’t. Things that seem trivial to me often matter most
to them. So I find myself saying things like, “Please help me understand why you did
this” or “Why is this so important to you?” I choose to see the best in each and every
one of my students and I ask that they do the same with each other. There is often so
much going on in their lives, some real and some manifested in their own heads, that I
just try to be the calm in the middle of their storm. I find that even during times that
can appear very chaotic in my class, the more calm I am, it’s like students just feel
like they can take a deep breath and settle in to their learning. (Teacher interview,
December 2014)
Teachers are designers of learning. Teachers described different processes they
engaged in when designing learning for their early adolescent students. I have often heard
people attempt to relate a teacher’s age or amount of experience to their personal style of
teaching--newer, younger teachers are often viewed as more progressive, whereas more
experienced, older teachers are often viewed as traditional “stand and deliver” teachers. I do
not find this to be the case in my own school, nor did I find this to be true with the
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participants I interviewed. There is frequently a close alignment between teachers’
philosophies about teaching and learning and the methods they use to design and facilitate
learning for their students. Such was the case with this group of teachers. Those teachers
who tended to hold a more teacher-centered philosophy about teaching and learning
expressed the need to keep the locus of control over learning in their classroom close to
themselves. One grade 7 teacher articulated the following:
The students in my classroom need a lot of foundational knowledge. I do a lot of
teaching of basic skills and knowledge, because if they don’t have solid basic skills
then the rest doesn’t really matter. I also find that sometimes their behaviour doesn’t
really lend itself to more independent learning. If they can get a handle on this, there
may be times when they can make choices about how they will present their learning
to me, like a poster or PowerPoint. (Teacher interview, December 2014)
Teachers who described a more student-centered philosophy about teaching and learning also
described practices for instructional design that incorporate more opportunities for student
voice and choice:
I think that in order to create learning opportunities that are meaningful to students,
not just worksheets and textbook work, you really have to know the learners in your
classroom well, what makes them “tick.” Then you look at the curriculum, you look
at what is relevant to the students and what you can do a good job of facilitating as a
teacher, and from there you try and create lessons that will work for your group of
learners. Despite good intentions there are times when my formula fails miserably,
but then when it does I try and use it as a teachable moment for students. See, I made
a mistake, and this is how I am going to problem solve my way through it. (Teacher
interview, December 2014)
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One veteran teacher explained her beliefs about instructional design in the following manner:
I have been a teacher for a long time and one of the very liberating things that come
along with this is that I no longer feel I have to control everything that takes place in
my classroom. I choose to see my students as capable learners and I think that when
we work together to design learning, it creates a better experience for everyone. I also
consider myself to be an expert in the subject areas that I teach, so I think I can find
ways for all students to get excited about or at least curious about social studies. I
think some of the younger teachers don’t have this comfort level yet. (Teacher
interview, December 2014)
One teacher from Alberta has been working with the principles of the Teaching Effectiveness
Framework (Friesen, 2009) in her school for the past two years and discussed the impact of
having a school-wide philosophy to support instructional design:
How to design learning for students, especially pre-teens, was not a class I had in
university, so as a new teacher it is really helpful to have something like the
[Teaching Effectiveness Framework] to guide your work. In some cases though, it is
a lot of strive for and I feel that I am not living up the standards in the framework. I
want to be able to do things that the framework says are best for students like,
connecting them with experts and getting them to engage in disciplinary ways of
knowing and doing, but sometimes I don’t feel like there are the resources available at
the school to do this or that I don’t yet have the expertise to facilitate. (Teacher
interview, December 2014)
Work students undertake is worthwhile. Teachers from both provinces expressed
they struggled with the task of developing students’ metacognitive abilities through the
learning tasks they designed for their early adolescent learners. Further, teachers’
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perceptions of their abilities to engage students in authentic learning tasks, true to the
disciplines they are studying was very much dependent on the teaching assignments teachers
had--grade configuration of a school often determines if a teacher takes on a more generalist
role, teaching all core subject areas, or a subject-specialist teacher, usually assigned to either
a math/science or language arts/social studies role. Teachers of early adolescents within a
kindergarten through grade 6 configuration commonly held generalist positions, whereas
teachers who worked with early adolescents within a grade 5 to grade 9 configuration took on
more subject-specialist teaching assignments. The very different experiences of teachers,
determined by school grade configuration, are reflected in the following statements. A
generalist teacher explained the challenges she faced:
As a generalist teacher, I feel like I am expected to be an expert in all subject areas,
and I’m not. I am stronger in math and science, so I feel the learning tasks I create for
my students in those areas are stronger and are more true to the disciplines of
mathematics and the various sciences. The work my students do in language arts and
social studies is very textbook and whole class oriented. It’s not ideal and it is
something I am working on, but it is the reality of my job. (Teacher interview,
December 2014)
A subject-specialist teacher in a grade 5 to grade 9 school configuration described his work in
this way:
I work with another teacher as a team. I am the humanities [language arts/social
studies] part of the team and she is the math/science part of the team. We work pretty
well together and try to integrate themes from the subject areas when we can. I feel
kind of lucky I guess because I only have to focus on two subject areas and although I
am still learning a lot about those subject areas, I feel it is manageable because I focus
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on those two. At the same time I think when my teaching partner and I collaborate
and plan, we learn about the subjects the other one is responsible for, so that works
well. (Teacher interview, December 2014)
Regardless of their teaching assignment or grade configuration of their school, teachers felt
early adolescents required a significant amount of scaffolding to be successful in their
learning. “In my class, there would be a handful of students who were completely
independent learners. They would do well without me! Ninety percent of my class requires
some degree of differentiation to be successful” (Teacher interview, December 2014).
In terms of engaging students in higher order thinking skills, teachers felt that in a
typical grade 6 or grade 7 class, where the range of abilities and developmental readiness in
students is significant, it was misguided to believe students will engage in metacognition
because of the task design only. Metacognition was something teachers felt they needed to
guide their early adolescent students through in a very intentional way, until it became a more
inherent part of a student’s learning process:
I find that until students get into late grade 7, or early grade 8, you really have to
guide them in their reflection about their learning. What did you learn? Why is it
important? What connections can you make? What would you do differently next
time? It isn’t natural for most of them. (Teacher interview, December 2014)
The two teachers from Alberta spoke with great hope and anticipation about the new
direction for education in the province as outlined in the Ministerial Order on Student
Learning signed into legislation in 2013. The Ministerial Order, which focuses on the
development of students in Alberta as “engaged thinkers, ethical citizens with an
entrepreneurial spirit” (Alberta Education, 2013, p. 1), signals a large departure from
previous Ministerial Orders. Teachers did express frustration, however, as the current
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Programs of Study and supporting curriculum documents do not reflect the vision outlined in
the Ministerial Order:
I think teachers are very supportive of the new Ministerial Order, but we are living inbetween two worlds right now. The only curriculum we have right now doesn’t align
with the new Ministerial Order. What do we follow? The old curriculum has
hundreds of specific outcomes; you can never get through them all. We have been
told the new curriculum will have a maximum of ten outcomes per subject. So we
feel that we are trying to make things up as we go sometimes. (Teacher interview,
December 2014)
The teachers from Manitoba discussed how fortunate they felt in having many provincial
resources available to specifically support teachers working in middle level learning
environments. Further, both teachers had been part of the middle years program at the
University of Manitoba, giving them course work and practicum experiences specific to early
adolescents and middle level learning environments:
I feel my university program did a very good job in preparing me to teach middle
years students; things like how to set up my classroom and design lessons in ways that
are best for their developmental needs. Now, as a teacher, there are many resources
from the province that I access to help me in my work with my students, like the
Integrated Learning through Inquiry: Planning Model developed by the province.
There is also a provincial network for middle years teachers in Manitoba that are in
regular contact with each other for ideas and support. (Teacher interview, December
2014)
Now viewed as a legacy project, The Interdisciplinary Middle Years Multimedia Project
created by Manitoba Education, aimed to support interdisciplinary approaches to teaching
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and learning (with a focus on learning technologies) in the province’s middle level learning
environments. Both teachers referred to the website for this project, indicating it is widely
used by teachers in their respective schools for ideas on interdisciplinary teaching units.
Assessment practices improve student learning and guide teaching. All four
teachers identified assessment practices as an area they would like to develop further. They
expressed feeling as though assessment in their classroom was often one-sided; students
waited to be told if they had been successful in a task, and final grades came as a surprise.
As with teacher approaches to instructional design, teachers’ beliefs about assessment
reflected where they lay on the continuum of teacher-centered versus student-centered
approaches to teaching and learning. Teachers who adopted a more teacher-centered
approach in their classroom described assessment practices that were more summative, with
feedback reserved for the end of a task or the end of a unit, “I tend to give my students a lot
of written feedback when they hand in an assignment or project. So the next time they have
to do something similar they have an idea about what they can do differently” (Teacher
interview, December 2014).
Teachers with a more student-centered approach in their classrooms described
assessment practices that involved their students in the following ways: co-creating criteria
for tasks, co-designing rubrics, on-going feedback loops which give students opportunities to
improve upon their work, in addition to incorporating self-reflection and peer-assessment
practices:
I really got a wakeup call when one of my students came up to me right before report
cards were going home and asked if could tell him what grade he would be getting.
He said he was so worried and wanted to be prepared for how his parents would
respond to a bad grade. This was an excellent student, and yet in my classroom, he
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did not have any idea of if he was doing well or not. I realised I had been holding on
to the assessment process in my class too tightly and not letting my students be a part
of this. I have worked hard to change that. It is still a work in progress, but I think if
you asked any of my students now what grade they could expect on their report cards,
they would be able to tell you. There are no surprises and there are always
opportunities for “do-overs” and second chances. (Teacher interview, December
2014)
In light of ever-evolving report card structures in one Alberta district, the school of one
teacher has chosen to implement a more on-going process of communication with students’
families about student learning. The teacher described the positive impact this new process
has had on students and their families:
Two report cards per year simply do not provide families with the kind of information
they need to support their child’s learning. And because our report card has changed
three times in three years, parents really don’t know what to think of it any more. At
my school we also send home progress reports, which separate student learning into
the categories of growth, progress and achievement. We remove the grades all
together and focus on descriptive feedback about what the student is doing well, what
skills they need to work on and what the family and the school can do to support the
student. When parents come in for student-led conferences, the conversation is
entirely different. They tend to see their child as more capable, that everyone is a
work in progress. (Teacher interview, December 2014)
Strong relationships exist. Teachers felt students’ relationships with each other
were one of the most important factors impacting the early adolescent learners in their
classroom. These relationships can have both a positive and negative effect; teachers
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believed, “For some students, the relationships and being cool outweigh being a good
student, not that the two are mutually exclusive, but the learning suffers” (Teacher interview,
December 2014). One teacher explained, with a furrowed brow, “They are just so awkward
around each other sometime, especially students in grade 6. I have to do a lot of work with
my students around how to be a good classmate and appropriate friendships” (Teacher
interview, December 2014). Another teacher saw her students becoming increasingly selfconscious and that having a negative impact on things like their willingness to ask questions
in class and show enthusiasm for what they were learning, “It was like all of a sudden,
looking good for their friends overtook the need to do well in school” (Teacher interview,
December 2014).
Teachers articulated different views towards establishing relationships with their early
adolescent learners. All agreed that trust and respect needed to be the foundations for all
positive teacher/student relationships. Their opinions differed in how to best establish trust
and respect with their students:
I guess I believe in what you would call positional authority. It sounds terrible when I
say it--I make it very clear to my students that we are not equal, that my classroom
isn’t necessarily a democracy. It doesn’t mean that I won’t take their needs and
opinions into consideration, because I really do and I know my students would say the
same thing, but I have the final say, the final word. I have clear boundaries with my
students. I don’t feel that the best way to get students to respect you and like you is
by asking them about the party they went to on the weekend. I want to get to know
my students through the learning we do together. I have to earn their trust and
respect, just like they have to earn mine and I think the most appropriate way to do
that is by showing them that I am here to bring out the best in them and hopefully get
them excited about learning. (Teacher interview, December 2014)
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Another teacher described what she views as a more “soft approach” to working with her
early adolescent learners:
I want them to know that I am here for them and if they have problems at school or at
home they can come to me. I think that they need to feel safe with me so they can
open themselves up to learning new things. It is my job to gain their trust and respect
by being consistent and fair and showing them I care. Then I think they develop
respect and trust in me. I also find that with early adolescents it is really important
that they know you don’t hold a grudge when they make mistakes, because they do a
lot. When I have had to discipline a student, I end it with a hug or a “high 5” so
students know whatever happened is over and we just start again. (Teacher interview,
December 2014)
The relationship early adolescents have with their learning is an issue teachers believe is
ever-changing, very individual and very contextual. Some students exhibit a deep sense of
connection with and purpose in their learning; teachers have a difficult time pinpointing why
this exists, other than some innate characteristic. Other students show this connection in
pockets, which teachers believe is associated with the particular topic they are studying.
Some students require a lot of coaching and support in order to connect to and find meaning
in their learning, while other students, a teacher describes with disappointment, “…just never
seem to find meaning in their learning. It is my job to bring out this joy of learning in each
student, so I feel guilty when I just can’t seem to reach a student” (Teacher interview,
December 2014).
Teachers improve their practice in the company of their peers. The views
teachers held about professional learning and collaboration differed greatly. Some teachers
felt district-wide professional development days were “highly ineffective” (Teacher
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interview, December 2014), citing, “we talk a lot about personalised learning for students, yet
we don’t give teachers the same kind of personalised learning opportunities” (Teacher
interview, December 2014). One teacher, who was part of her school’s professional
development committee, felt that professional development days “…forced teachers to all be
in the same room and discuss issues that are important to teaching and learning” (Teacher
interview, December 2014). She went on to explain that the work of teaching is very
complex and very time consuming, “sometimes you almost need an excuse to bring everyone
together and if this is the only thing PD [professional development] days do, then I think it is
not a waste of time” (Teacher interview, December 2014). One teacher from Alberta is part
of a large and very diverse staff. She explained that with such a complex group of teachers it
becomes difficult to meet the professional learning needs of everyone and wishes,
“…[teachers] would be entrusted with coming up with our own professional learning
activities. Then it would be more meaningful” (Teacher interview, December 2014).
Teachers felt that ongoing opportunities to collaborate with teachers within their
school and form professional networks with teachers outside of their school were of most
benefit to them, because they were able to access timely, relevant support and resources from
their colleagues:
As a pretty new teacher, I feel that every day is a professional learning day for me. I
don’t want to criticise my university training, because it was very good in many ways,
but maybe too general if I could make one criticism. It was general classroom
management, general strategies to engage reluctant learners. Everything was general,
aimed for the average student. Well, I don’t have just average students. I have a huge
range. Having worked with teenagers for the past two years, I understand there was a
whole piece related to child development that was missed in my university program. I
rely on my colleagues in this school for advice and support. Our doors are always
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open so if I want to go in and observe a lesson, that is okay. I have learned so much
this way. (Teacher interview, December 2014)
Lessons learned. My last question for teachers asked them to share any lessons
learned throughout their work with early adolescents that may benefit others in similar
professional contexts. They had much to say, and a lot of it came in the form of, “I wish
someone would have told me….” I hope through these final words shared by teachers
involved in my study, readers will see the tremendous joy they derive from their work with
early adolescents and, like these teachers, choose to see children of the middle years as a
privilege to teach:
Teachers need to stop trying to find the magic bullet or the perfect fit. It isn't out
there. Every “option,” every new theory about teaching and learning will have its up
side and its down side. At the end of the day it is just you and your students and you
have to figure out what is best for the student in front of you, not try to force a fit with
something you read in a book that tells you it is the right thing. (Teacher interview,
December 2014)
Another teacher wished he had paid more attention when he was going through puberty
himself:
You cannot deny the very real changes happening to your students during puberty.
It’s like one day they wake up and their whole world has been turned upside down.
Their bodies don’t work the way they used to, they respond strangely to things they
once considered normal--and friendships change. And this absolutely impacts their
learning. Some days you just have to throw your whole plan out and deal with
whatever it is the kids are fixated on so they can get it out of their system and move
on. (Teacher interview, December 2014)
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The impact of technology and social media on the lives and learning of early adolescents is
significant. One teacher described her approach to using her classroom as a forum for
students to become responsible digital citizens:
When I first started teaching, I never thought I would allow my students to bring their
phones into my class, and the thought of using things like Twitter and Google as
teaching tools was absurd. Well, I guess I am a big hypocrite, because all of these
things play a huge role in the daily teaching and learning in my classroom. I realised
that this technology is not going away and it is very much a part of the world the
students are growing up in. So, I could choose to become the “cell phone police,” or I
could decide to use my classroom as a perfect place for students to learn to use
technology responsibly. I chose the latter. It is much more than using iPhone and
iPads and fancy applications, students are using the technology and the language of
the technology they are very familiar with to express themselves and their learning.
So, I would tell others to embrace the technology, it is not going away, and use it in
ways that make sense for you and your learners. (Teacher interview, December 2014)
This last bit of advice from a Canadian teacher is perhaps most revealing:
Never be afraid to make mistakes or admit you are wrong in front of your students.
Number one, they will love that their teacher messed up. And number two, as their
teacher you are the perfect position to teach them how to problem solve their way
through mistakes, how to figure out where things went wrong, how to make better
choices next time and how to make amends, if necessary. I think my early adolescent
students are sometimes so afraid to make mistakes that it sometimes paralyses them. I
try to show them by example to embrace mistakes as a part of the learning process,
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that if we aren’t making mistakes, we aren’t taking the risks we need to grow as
people and learners. (Teacher interview, December 2014)
Images of the Student Experience in Canadian Middle Level Learning Environments
The experience of Canadian early adolescents in school is as diverse as the nation
itself. Some of the diversity can be attributed to the nature of early adolescent development,
with a student’s experience in schooling being very much dependent on his or her own
developmental readiness. Another factor contributing to the diverse experience of early
adolescents in Canada’s schools is the very different approach each province/territory, each
district and each individual school has taken with regards to its early adolescent learners.
The two provinces used for the purpose of my study have significantly different approaches
towards supporting and resourcing middle level learning environments; these approaches
filter down to the school districts within the province and then on to individual schools. In
the absence of a specific and clearly articulated philosophy related to leading, teaching and
learning in middle level learning environments, these very critical components will be left to
chance, with leaders and teachers doing what they believe to be best for their learners. Thus,
the diversity of experiences that will be communicated through the lived experiences of the
students I have had the privilege of speaking with would be expected. [I am not convinced
that diversity of experience, and at times I would question the quality of experience, is what
we should be aiming for in educating Canada’s early adolescents.]
What makes your school a great place to learn? Canadian early adolescents
responded to the question, “What makes your school a great place to learn?” as I had grown
accustomed to from my experience as a Canadian educator. The standard list included their
friends, their teachers, and time they were able to spend with their friends outside of class,
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such as breaks between classes and the lunch break. I was pleasantly surprised with the
stories two students shared, detailing what they like best about their school:
In this middle school I met my best friends and we have been friends for three years.
I didn’t have a lot of close friends in elementary school. We didn’t have a lot of
freedom to meet other kids unless they were in our class, but in middle school we
have lost of chances to meet new kids, kids who have the same interests as us.
(Student interview, December 2014)
Another student described the learning commons as his favourite room in the school and why
he considers his school to be a great place to learn in:
Our learning commons is a bright open space. All of the furniture is movable and we
can change things around to suit the needs of the students or the teachers. I love the
big beanbag chairs and the tables and chairs that move up and down. There are 40
iPads and four laptop carts for students to use, a big screen interactive TV and a
media room with a green screen. The learning commons used to be a dingy old
library and you had to be so quiet when you went there; and, usually you only went to
the library to take out books. The learning commons in always noisy, but in a good
way, like noise that comes from kids working together and getting excited about
things they have learned or done. If our teacher ever gives us a choice of where we
want to work, I always come to the learning commons. (Student interview, December
2014)
For the most part students expressed being happy with their school, with the exception of one
boy, who first asked if I was going to use his name in my research or tell his teachers what he
said. When I answered “no” to both questions, his whole demeanour changed and he became
very serious:
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Is it okay if I tell you I don’t think my school is so great? I don’t hate it, but I just
don’t think everything is so wonderful. I feel that if you aren’t what teachers think a
typical teenager should be, all perfect and polite and happy, then you don’t fit in here.
I’m different, I dress differently and like things I know my teachers think are weird. I
have friends here though that are just like me and we all feel that teachers judge us
and treat us differently in class. Maybe it would be the same no matter where I went
to school. (Student interview, December 2014)
What makes a great teacher? Canadian students’ reported mixed feelings about
their teachers, as expressed previously in an excerpt from a student focus group interview.
Both boys and girls described experiences with great teachers and also with teachers who
made them dislike coming to school, often within the same school and during the same
school year. Students felt the unpredictability of individual teachers along with the large
differences between their teachers was most difficult to handle. In only one school I visited,
do teachers “loop” with their students, spending at least two years with the same group of
students. In the other three schools students reported working with a new set of teachers each
year:
I feel like you never know what you are going to get when you walk into a class with
a teacher. Sometimes they are all happy and nice and other times they are like, “sit
down and be quiet and do what I say.” I guess I would rather have a teacher who is
really strict all of the time, because then at least you know what to expect and what
you need to do and how to act to make everything go smoothly. (Student interview,
December 2014)
Another student explained her experiences with her teachers in this way:
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I have six different teachers. About half of them are really relaxed and involve the
students in a lot of decisions in the class. The other half are very strict, they stand at
the front of the classroom and read from a textbook and tell us to answer questions at
the end of the chapter. They sit at their desk the whole class and you feel like they are
just waiting to jump on you if you talk. I feel like I have to change who I am
depending on which class I am in and that is hard because being a teenager is hard
enough to begin with. (Student interview, December 2014)
One boy in grade 6 described his two primary teachers in the following manner:
I think my two main teachers are a perfect pair. One is a hugger and one is a kick you
in the butt teacher. But they work well together and I think they bring the best out in
me. Some students respond better to teachers who are more soft and some need
teachers who are more firm, and other students need both, depending on the situation.
I need both, sometimes hugs and sometimes a kick in the butt and my teachers seem
to know what I need so I can be my best. (Student interview, December 2014)
Canadian students used the following characteristics most often to describe what makes a
great teacher: kind, patient, very patient, funny, fair, good listener, calm, is interested in their
students and is excited about what they teach. One student told the following story about his
favourite teacher:
I never used to like social studies. I thought it was boring, like only about wars and
things that happened a long time ago. Then I got [teacher’s name] for social. The
first day of class she was dressed up in this costume and started telling us stories
about the Renaissance. She walked around the room, stopped at the desk of every
student and even stood up on a table during one part and started moving her arms like
this. You felt like she was telling the story just to you. [Teacher’s name] ended her
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story, shouting, “Wake up people, this isn’t just about a bunch of dead people, this is
about people who have shaped the world you live in today!” She was right. She is
the kind of teacher that would do whatever it takes to make sure her students learn
about social studies and also learn to be good people. (Student interview, December
2014)
Engagement in and relevance of learning. Canadian early adolescents study far
fewer subjects than students of the same age in Finland and Germany. In Alberta, all early
adolescents attending middle level learning environments study six core subjects, language
arts, math, science, social studies, physical education and art/music. A minimum of 30
minutes of daily physical education is a requirement for all students, grade 1 to grade 9, in
Alberta. Depending on the configuration of the middle level learning environment, the
available facilities within the school and flexibility of the timetable, students may be given
course choices under the umbrella of exploratory courses as they move into higher grades in
their school. Students I interviewed described exploratory courses such as band, French,
digital photography, cooking, wood shop, sewing, computer programming, drama, journalism
and outdoor education. Unfortunately, students in Alberta are not required to learn a second
language and schools are not obligated to offer second language instruction. The courses
offerings available to students differed according to school and grade of student:
When we first came to middle school we didn’t have any choice about the courses we
took. It is only in grade 7 where kids get to choose which I think is unfair. If we are
all at the same school then we should have the same options available to us as the
older kids. Even the clubs and sports teams at the school are only for the older kids,
so the younger kids feel left out a lot. (Student interview, December 2014)
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Students described their exploratory courses as where some of their most exciting learning
occurs; along with core courses where they are able to do a lot hands-on experiments and
project work:
I like all of my option courses. I guess I should because I chose them. I feel like the
things I am learning in those courses are more practical, like how to design websites
and how to cook. I also have a sewing option, which is my favourite because I want
to be a fashion designer, so I really pay attention to all of the things my teacher tells
me that I can improve on. (Student interview, December 2014)
Other students expressed frustration in what they felt was out-dated learning:
According to my mom, we are studying the same topics in grade 7 Science as she
studied when she was my age. I know there are some basic principles in Science that
stand the test of time, but come on, the world has changed so much and there have
been so many discoveries and advances in science and so many other areas. So I
think what we are learning should be more flexible and keep up with the changing
times. (Student interview, December 2014)
One boy in grade 6 trusted that his teachers would ensure what he was learning was relevant,
“I think I am too young and haven’t had enough life experiences to say if what we are
learning is relevant. I hope that my teachers make that decision for me” (Student interview,
December 2014).
Student agency in their learning. Opportunities for students to have voice and
choice in their learning was more dependent on their individuals teachers than on any
apparent school or district-wide policies or philosophies, “I think some teachers just like to be
in more control over what is happening in the class, so if everyone does the same thing at the
same time, it is easier for the teacher to manage” (Student interview, November 2014). Some
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students felt the amount of voice and choice available to them in their learning was more
related to the subject they were studying:
In math and language arts we don’t have much choice at all. We learn a concept in
math and then answer the questions the teacher assigns to us. In language arts we
have class novel studies where everyone reads the same book and we usually have to
write about the same thing. The only place we get a choice is during silent reading,
we can bring our own books. In social and science, we do a lot of projects about
bigger themes. Then we have quite a bit of choice. We can work in groups or alone,
we can choose what topic we want to do research on and we can also pick how we
want to present our work to our teachers, like an iMovie or a website or poster.
(Student interview, December 2014)
Assessment and feedback that improves performance. Teacher assessment and
feedback practices were described to me by some students as being frustrating; other students
felt their teachers had very fair assessment practices and sometimes gave them opportunities
to improve their work:
I get nervous around report card time, because I never really know what grades I will
get. Some of my teachers don’t give us back assignments after we have turned them
in. We usually mark our tests in class, which can be embarrassing. The student who
marked our test hands it back to us, the teacher collects the test and then we move on
to the next unit. But what about if I get a bad grade, then I would like to know where
I went wrong and what I can do better next time. (Student interview, December 2014)
A girl in grade 6 described how her teacher takes students’ opinions into account when
creating criteria for a task:
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When our teachers gives us an assignment we sit down together as a class around the
Smart Board and we all give ideas about what we think the criteria for the assignment
should be and what the standards for 1,2,3,4 on the rubric should be. Sometimes our
teacher has to give us a lot of help, but we are getting better at it. Then he takes all of
our ideas and the next day he comes back and gives us a sheet with the criteria for the
assignment on it and a rubric that tells us what level of quality we should aiming for.
Our favourite rubric is the bulls-eye rubric because it is clear what we need to do to
get a good mark. (Student interview, December 2014)
In terms of ongoing feedback students could use to make adjustments to their learning
strategies or improve their work, students explained that their teachers used very different
approaches. One student felt that if students wanted to improve their work, it was the
responsibility of the student to negotiate with their teacher, “But you would have to do it after
school when no other kids were around or they might think you were sucking up to your
teacher instead of just wanting to get a better grade” (Student interview, December 2014).
Another student described a similar feeling, that it was largely left to the students to ask for
feedback and for opportunities to improve their work:
If I go to my teacher and ask for feedback about some work I have in progress, they
will give it to me and I always use it to make my work better. Most teachers just
don’t build that kind of feedback into class for every student. (Student interview,
December 2014)
The assessment practices of one particular teacher at the school were discussed at length by
the students, wishing other teachers might take note of what this teacher did and the positive
impact it had on the students’ confidence as learners:
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[Teacher’s name] sits down in a conference with each of us. He brings out all of the
work we have done in that term and we talk about what we did well and what was not
great. Then he says, “Based on all of this, what grade do you think is fair for your
report card?” And we kind of talk about it and negotiate it a bit. He always has the
final say, but at least it isn’t a surprise and you feel like you were part of it. If he
says, “This is what I think your grade should be,” and you don’t agree, or want to do
better, then he gives us back some assignments we didn’t do so well on and we can
redo them. (Student interview, December 2014)
Friendships and resiliency. Early adolescents in Canada responded in slightly
different ways to the question about the importance of their friends in their learning.
Whereas in both Finland and Germany, students overwhelmingly identified their friends as
one of the best things about their schools and very important to their learning, Canadian
students expressed mixed feelings about the role friends played in their learning, “There are
positives and negatives about having your friends in class with you. Friends can sometimes
make things less stressful, but if you are fighting with your friends then it’s more stressful.
Friends can also be distracting” (Student Interview, December 2014). Another student
voiced frustration at what he felt was a deliberate attempt to separate groups of friends into
different classes:
I don’t know why it’s such a big deal. They tell us to write the names of two friends
on a piece of paper and we can be in a homeroom next year with one of them for sure.
So it’s hard because you can only pick two. I don’t know why they wouldn’t want
students to be happy and be in a class with all their friends and not put pressure on us
to pick some friends over others. (Student interview, December 2014)
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Some students felt that as long as they were together with their friends in the same school and
they had ample opportunity to connect with them throughout the day that being in the same
classes became less important, “As long as I can see my friends during break, eat lunch with
them and hang out after school, it doesn’t really matter that we are in all of the same classes”
(Student interview, December 2014).
Sources of student support. While the importance that Canadian students from both
provinces expressed in having their friends alongside them in their learning was mixed, they
agreed on the important role friends played in their lives, “Sometimes I feel the only people
who get me and get what I’m going through are my friends” (Student interview, December
2014). Unlike students in Finland and Germany, Canadian students do not have the same
access through their schools to multi-faceted support teams. In only one school did students
indicate they had a guidance counsellor available to support the students in their school; this
unfortunately is the norm in most middle level learning environments in Alberta, less so in
the province of Manitoba. However, students did express that there were certain teachers in
their school they could trust and go to for help if they needed it. Typical of schools in
Alberta is a lengthy process to access any professional support for students (paediatrician,
psychologist, social worker or multi-professional team). Parents are often forced to seek
outside support, at their own expense, if students require specialised support for their
learning, behaviour or physical development.
Use of technology to support student learning. Another aspect of learning where
Canadian students described very different experiences than their counterparts in Finland and
Germany was in the use of technology in their learning. Students in both provinces explained
with great detail (and enthusiasm) the technology available for their use at school, as well as
the relatively open policies schools had related to student-owned devices in the classroom,
“There is a wireless network that we can connect our phones to and then the school has tons
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of iPads and laptops for us to use whenever we need them” (Student interview, December
2014). This was typical of what the other groups of students described about the technology
in their schools. I was curious to hear if students felt this open access to technology had a
positive or negative impact on their learning. Student responses were quite insightful and for
the most part focused on the use of technology allowing them to access information and share
their learning in ways they would not have been able to if their schools’ policies about
technology were more restrictive:
I can’t say that 100 percent of the time I use my iPhone only for what my teachers ask
of me, but I think that like 90 percent of the time students use their devices in the right
way. We have a lot of computers at our school, but not enough for every student, so it
is really good that they allow us to use our own phones and tablets. We all know the
rules about what happens if we are using our devices inappropriately and I think no
one wants to test the rules and push the limits, so we don’t break the rules very badly.
(Student interview, December 2014)
Another student explained how using technology in his learning has made him feel more
confident:
I never used to be a good writer, I used to find it really hard. Then I had this one
teacher and she said, “why don’t you use your iPad and blog about it.” In some ways
it was sort of a trick because she knew I liked to read and make blog posts, so instead
of saying, “write an essay,” she would say “blog about it.” I guess it doesn’t really
matter because in the end she got me to write and like it. I am good with technology
so I often help my classmates use new programs and sometimes I even teach my
teachers how to use different things or fix things they have messed up. When I use
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technology it makes me feel like I am like other smart kids in my class. (Student
interview, December 2014)
Another student honestly (and bravely) explained how difficult financial times for her family
have not allowed them to purchase technology for her or her siblings. Being able to access
technology at school helped her feel as though she was “on a level playing field” with her
peers:
My dad got injured at work and lost his job. My mom now works two jobs just to
keep everything going in our family. Our computer broke, and we couldn’t fix it and
we can’t afford to have the Internet at home anymore. When I come to school
though, there is all of the technology for me to use, so I don’t feel like I am at a
disadvantage. I can do the same research and create beautiful websites and make
movies just like my classmates. (Student interview, December 2014)
Feeling safe and secure at school. Canadian students for the most part reported
feeling safe at school, despite the fact that all students acknowledged there were known
bullies in their schools:
Bullying is something that is always going to be there. I don’t feel scared at school
though. I think all of the talks and assemblies we have on bullying isn’t really
helpful. I think we should focus on helping all kids feel good about themselves and
have more activities that bring the whole school together. Maybe then there would be
no need for kids to bully each other. (Student interview, December 2014)
Students described things like fire drills and lock-down practices, which also helped them to
feel prepared should any such event take place at their school. Contrasting schools in Finland
and Germany, all Canadian schools I visited had some type of controlled entry into the
building, often monitored by cameras and locked doors. Two schools required students to
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wear visible identification at all times. Student attendance was checked each morning and
afternoon, with phone calls being placed to parents or guardians should a student absence or
late not be accounted for. In the words of one student, “You get used to the locked doors and
making sure you are on time. In the end it is for our own safety” (Student interview,
December 2014). Another student explained how her principal made her feel safe at school,
“My principal is a very nice lady and is always smiling. She is out in the halls a lot and when
I see her and she is smiling, then I know everything at the school is okay” (Student interview,
December 2014).
Risk taking in learning. Did the measures described by students taken to ensure
their safety and security at school translate into a sense of safety required for students to take
the kind of risks in their learning that support their growth as individuals and learners?
According to students, not necessarily:
I’m not as comfortable taking risks as I would like to be. I don’t usually raise my
hand in class unless I am positive I have the right answer and I usually pick the same
way of presenting my learning to my teachers, either a poster or a PowerPoint. I
guess I am worried that I may mess up if I try something new and I will look silly in
front of my classmates. Even worse I could fail and get bad grades. (Student
interview, December 2014)
Another student described the pressure he felt to do well in school and how that often
prevented him from doing things outside of his comfort zone:
I feel pressure to do well, but a lot of that pressure comes from me. I don’t want to let
anyone down, not my parents or my teachers. If I stick to certain things that I know I
can do well, then I should be safe, I know I will pass and not fail; I just don’t want to
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fail. I know it may only be grade 7, but I still think it is important to do well.
(Student interview, December 2014)
Would you change anything? I must admit that the final question I asked students is
my favourite--I just never know what students will say and always feel I will have learned
how to better meet the need of the early adolescents in my own school as a result. The
number one change Canadian students indicated they would like to see in their schools was
more choice--more choice related to the subjects they study, the teachers they have, the
students in their class, the way their school looks, and even the books in their library:
I think that if our principal asked us about how we would design our perfect school,
he may get some really good ideas. My school doesn’t really look like much on the
outside and when you get inside it isn’t much better. Maybe people don’t see it as
very important, but I think that for kids, the way a school looks and feels, like if it
feels welcoming, it really makes a difference. You should be proud of your school
and feel good about it being a good place for you to learn in. (Student interview,
December 2014)
One student giggled as she described some of the resources available for students in the
school library:
There is a whole section in the library for encyclopaedias. Some kids don’t even
know what they are. Let’s be honest, no one uses them, they look perfectly new.
Kids today don’t use encyclopaedias, we Google, we use Wikipedia. Then some of
the textbooks we use in class, they smell so bad, the pages are torn, they have been
written all over. In one textbook I have, someone signed his name and put the date
1987. That is almost 20 years old. We need newer resources. (Student interview,
December 2014)
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Students also described the need for their schools to do more to increase school spirit and
build a strong school community:
Sometimes at the beginning of the year we have things like pep rallies, class
competitions and teacher/student soccer games. Then this all fades away, but those
kinds of things are so great. They bring the whole school together and we can
celebrate being a [school mascot name]. I know learning is serious, but if we can
have times when we are just a bit more silly, then I think it makes us more focused
when it is time to learn. (Student interview, December 2014)
One boy in grade 6, with a fiery personality, was desperate to get in the last word during our
interview, to which I happily obliged. [He would be happy to know I allowed him to have
the last comment here as well.]:
One of my friends is in a school and they have something called “Genius Hour.” For
one hour every week, students get to pick anything they want to learn about (it has to
be appropriate, of course) and they do research and become like the school expert on
that topic. Then they come up with some sort of creative way to show what they have
learned and at the end of the year they have a “Genius Fair” at their school where all
of the parents come in and students explain their project to everyone. I want to do
that at my school. I also want to have a class that teaches me how to be a Lego
engineer. (Student interview, December 2014)
I will conclude this section by going back to my initial thoughts about the
tremendously diverse experiences with school that Canadian early adolescents describe.
What stands out for me, more so than the 24 very different school experiences shared with
me by the 24 Canadian students who participated in my focus group interviews, was the
individual differences students experienced themselves, within one school year, at the same
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school. I have still not been able to reconcile the challenges this type of inconsistency must
pose for early adolescent learners. [As a country Canada is often celebrated as being a
cultural mosaic, and while I can certainly appreciate this on many levels, I do not believe that
mosaic is the kind of descriptor we should aspire to for the experience of Canadian early
adolescent learners in middle level learning environments.]
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Chapter Five - Emerging Themes and a Framework
What we find changes who we become.
- Peter Morville
Organisation of the Chapter
In Chapter Five, I begin by presenting a conceptual visual framework, which is a
synthesis of key factors that have emerged through my interviews with instructional leaders,
lead teachers and students as being significant in the establishment of developmentally
responsive, intellectually engaging middle level learning environments. As described in
Chapter Three: Methodology, using data analysis methods outlined in Charmaz’s (2000,
2003, 2006) constructivist grounded theory, core categories from each case were examined in
a cross-case analysis to determine those categories that were common to all three cases. The
core categories I have extracted from the cross-case analysis are presented in a multi-layered
and multifaceted framework (see Figure 1). Common core categories, which will now be
referred to as “factors” (using the language of my original research question), have been
grouped into four clusters: Cornerstone Factors, Synergistic Factors, Contextual Factors and
Essential Factors. Then I explain the rationale behind the grouping of factors into four
clusters, underscoring the importance of each factor in the context of early adolescent
learning. Within each cluster one or more connecting factors are emphasised, uniting subfactors under this umbrella. Key factors within each multifaceted cluster are further
understood, connecting to the lived experiences, beliefs and values shared with me by study
participants.
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Conceptual Visual Framework
Figure 1. A Conceptual Visual Framework Representing the Factors that Contribute to
Developmentally Responsive, Intellectually Engaging Middle level Learning Environments.
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Proposed Framework
The intention behind this proposed framework is to highlight, for all who work with
early adolescents in middle level learning environments, the many layers of factors that have
emerged through my research as significant in the establishment of developmentally
responsive, intellectually engaging middle level learning environments. It is my hope that
this framework will be used to guide the work of instructional leaders, teachers, families,
communities and school districts as they work to create learning environments that will
support the unique developmental and learning needs of early adolescents. At the core of this
framework are the students who, as my interviews have confirmed, we need to ask [instead of
hypothesising with best of intentions] what it is they require most from us; our students are
very eager to tell us. The practices of instructional design and assessment, essential elements
in the daily work of teachers, are often seen as tasks of the teacher alone--and things that are
“done to students.” What was very clear from my interviews with students is their desire to
be more involved in all facets of their education. [This does not necessitate a swinging of the
student agency pendulum 180 degrees in opposition from where it currently lies to find
students involved in managing their schools, writing curriculum, approving budgets and
hiring teachers…yet as I re-read the sentence, it does not seem completely absurd.] In so
many aspects schooling, student agency and voice has been completely left out of any real
decision making with regards to how their schooling experience unfolds--and, if student
voice is celebrated primarily as being the choice between a poster or a PowerPoint
presentation as a means of sharing their research, then I believe educators’ notions of voice,
choice and agency are perhaps misguided. The creation of a learning environment that
supports the unique developmental and learning needs of early adolescent learners needs to
be co-created with the very individuals that will be most impacted--the students. For this
reason, students lie at the centre of the proposed framework under the heading of “Essential
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Factors.” In order to ensure middle level learning environments are responsive to the needs
of early adolescent learners, the learners themselves can no longer be left out of the
multifaceted learning equation. Transformation of middle level learning environments
involves a complex interplay of many factors, perhaps none more important than the students.
Rationale Behind Key Factors, Cluster Groupings and Descriptions
During the analysis of data, recurring codes were grouped into core categories. Core
categories common to all three cases became key factors, which formed the basis for the
framework I propose. Multiple key factors emerged as significant, and while I made every
attempt to pare them down, the story the data told was clear. Although I feel it is important
to include all of the key factors identified through the cross-case analysis, I also believe,
where possible, it is important to simplify this complex phenomenon while preserving all
essential elements. The term “simplexity” seems to fit this outcome of my research study
quite well--“Referring to an idea, or concept that appears to be simple to understand, yet is
very complex in its true description” (Urban dictionary, 2014, para. 1). It is for this reason I
grouped factors with the intentionality I have. The four clusters (Cornerstone Factors,
Synergistic Factors, Contextual Factors and Essential Factors) bring together groups of
factors into layers that provide the foundation for subsequent layers to build and expand
upon. Key connecting factors within each cluster, such as “education as a fundamental
cultural value” one of the Cornerstone Factors or “instructional practices” one of the
Contextual Factors, illustrate what my research data has shown to be essential elements that
support the transformation of middle level learning environments. These seven connecting
factors emerged from the cross-case analysis as the seven core categories of codes common
to all three countries. Sub-factors (shown as bulleted points in the conceptual visual
framework, and found to be recurring codes in the data) identify specific characteristics and
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actions found in developmentally responsive, intellectually engaging middle level learning
environments.
The Cornerstone Factors of “education as a fundamental cultural value” and “preservice, in-service and ongoing teacher development” are viewed as foundational and
fundamental. This does not suggest however, that in the absence of these cornerstone factors,
none of the subsequent layers of factors would be possible or attainable; simply, the data has
shown the cornerstone factors set the stage for the other factors to unfold in a more
intentional, supported and sustained manner. The Synergistic Factor of “instructional
leadership” and the accompanying sub-factors describe features of instructional leadership
that both support, as well as advance, transformation in middle level learning environments.
The type of instructional leadership (and associated characteristics) described in the proposed
framework has been shown through this research study to create the conditions for the
contextual factors to exist and evolve. Contextual Factors of “instructional practices,”
“school culture” and “engaging families and the community” reflect the unique context of
each school--these factors need to be purposefully nurtured by all those supporting early
adolescent learners within each school. The Essential Factors, with explicit focus on the
students, are found at the centre of the proposed framework--this was done deliberately as the
early adolescent voice [actually speaking with students and using this information and
feedback to guide next steps] is often downplayed when establishing a learning environment
that meets their needs. Students should be seen as the driving force behind everything that is
undertaken in the name of middle level transformation; they need to be provided with real
opportunities to develop agency in their learning. Taken as a whole, the factors and subfactors presented in the framework represent what the data from this study indicate as
contributing to the establishment of developmentally responsive, intellectually engaging
middle level learning environments.
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Cornerstone Factors
Education as a fundamental cultural value. It was not until I had the opportunity
to step outside the educational contexts of my home district and home province that I was
able to truly understand how deeply rooted education is in the culture of so many countries.
“Education as a fundamental cultural value” is very apparent in both Finland and Germany,
albeit stemming from different historical, philosophical and ideological roots. The socialist
principles of Finnish society embrace education as a means of safeguarding a place for
everyone. Similarly, the tiered system of education in Germany, although undergoing reform
in some Länder, can be viewed as a way of ensuring students, aligning with their abilities and
aptitudes, are prepared for the realities of a multifaceted workforce, thereby sustaining a
strong German economy and society. It was evident in every conversation I had with
instructional leaders, teachers and students in Finland and Germany that there was a different
importance placed on education--something intangible, almost as if education was inherent in
the DNA of citizenship. Even though I may have disagreed with some aspects of their
beliefs, to say that education was sacred to those I interviewed in Finland and Germany
would not be an exaggeration. This same cultural relationship with education does not exist
in Canada. I certainly do not want to imply that education is not important to Canadian
parents and Canadian children--I know this is not the case. However, as a nation we have not
embraced education in the same way I witnessed in Finland and Germany. Education in
Canada is generally viewed as a right afforded to all children, yet I do not believe we
understand that with rights come responsibility. Far too often education in Canada is an
afterthought. It is one of the first line items to be cut during difficult economic times and
teaching is one of the last vocations to be acknowledged as “professional.” Generally
Canadians do not see education as the gift that it is--there is an arrogance of entitlement that
surrounds education in Canada. Education in Canada is not clearly understood as a cultural
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imperative and like so many other things Canadian, education has become an incredibly
polite and apologetic scapegoat for what society perceives as the failings of the previous
generation.
Early adolescent learners as a key priority. It should come as no surprise that in
order to affect real change in middle level learning environments, early adolescent learners
need to be made a priority. I did not find this to be a school-based problem; I found
principals and teachers to be genuine in their intent and desire to make the schooling
experience for early adolescent learners more meaningful, and simply, just better. It is the
failure to acknowledge early adolescent learners as a priority at higher jurisdictional levels
that is troublesome and problematic. As highlighted in Chapter Two, the early adolescent
years, while challenging in many regards, are understood to be significant in setting students
up for success in later grades, post-secondary school and career paths (Belfanz, 2009;
Wormeli, 2011). Further, current research from many corners of the globe has identified
early adolescents as being at risk for disengagement from school, physical and mental health
problems, and involvement in dangerous social behaviours (Haigh, 2004; Hill & Russell,
1999; Rumble & Aspland, 2009; Russell, 2003). Despite the tremendous amount of evidence
indicating early adolescent learners require specific attention and support both in and out of
school, with the exception of a small number of instances, early adolescent learning has not
been put at the forefront of recent education reforms; early adolescent learners and middle
level learning environments have not received the same widespread attention as other
populations of learners. Perhaps long-held myths about dysfunctional “pre-teens” have left
the public and policy makers believing early adolescents are not the group of learners most
worthy of their time and attention. However, if we are not able to shift the thinking that has
often left what happens to this group of learners to chance, the uncertainties facing our early
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adolescent learners and those working with them in middle level learning environments will
grow. I know this to be true without a shadow of a doubt.
Responsive legislation and policy. Understanding the intricacies and complexities of
the work of instructional leaders, teachers and students, requires more understanding than
one’s own experience as a student would provide. [I am always surprised to find out how
little experience, background and expertise those responsible for education in various
government ministries have. To be a central figure in the creation of comprehensive and
influential education policy based on the credentials of a successful career in copy sales or
farming has been a contentious issue in Alberta for many years.] The most well informed
environment for education in Alberta came under the leadership of then Education Minister,
Dave Hancock; although he was a lawyer by trade, his wife is a school principal. I believe
there was a different level of respect he showed towards education and teachers in the
province that educators in Alberta have not experienced since he left office. Those with the
power to create legislation and policy concerning education need to have some level of
expertise in the field of education. Education is unlike any other field of work in that people
often believe their own experiences as students bestow on them the expertise to make
judgements about the work of teachers and what happens in schools. I am not sure people
would use the same logic with a doctor, “Because I have been a patient, I now possess an
intimate medical knowledge allowing me to diagnose illness in others” or with a lawyer, “I
have often argued with friends and family and won, so these skills should make me an expert
in complex litigation.” Only when those making decisions that will significantly impact a
generation of learners and teachers understand the complex work of teaching and learning
(because they have been teachers themselves, or because they have felt the weight of
responsibility a principal carries when entrusted with the care of an entire school, or because
they appreciate the difficulty university faculties face in developing teacher preparation
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programs, or because they too have mentored a group of pre-service teachers), then, and only
then, will we know informed decisions about education are being made, for the right reasons.
Many examples illustrate that education legislation, policy and other associated
regulations, such as curriculum and Programs of Study, are slow to change. Education policy
is often a larger reflection of the ideologies of a particular political party in power than what
research suggests is best for teaching and learning. Inherent in education policy should be a
caveat that allows government officials and educators to collaborate to ensure that the current
vision and direction for education is reflective of the society students are growing up in and
responsive to the needs of the many populations of learners our schools systems support. To
ensure the best interest of all those impacted by our schools is reflected in education policy
and legislation, it would be well advised to include the voices of all key stakeholders. The
student voice has for far too long been a missing component when policy impacting their
experience in education is revised. During an interview, one Canadian student asked me
quite inquisitively, “So, who decides what we do and learn in school every day?” (Student
interview, December 2014). When I replied that it was a rather complex interplay between
government regulations, district and school philosophies and also what his teacher thinks is
best for the group of students, he threw up his hands and replied, “Well no one ever asked
me! If anyone wants to know what is important for kids to learn, they should ask the kids”
(Student interview, December 2014). He is very perceptive. Further, legislation needs to
acknowledge that not all learners are the same. Thinking of education legislation and policy
in a more responsive manner that is reflective of current research and the needs of today’s
learners would lend itself to more effective systems of education.
Systemic commitment. The existence of a larger and more universal commitment to
early adolescent learning and transformation in middle level learning environments was
articulated by many study participants as being essential to supporting the work of
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instructional leaders and teachers. This larger systemic commitment, in the opinion of study
participants, paved the way for so many other factors to unfold. One Canadian principal
explained:
The work of a principal is already complex, but when you know you have a provincial
commitment to the middle years as a priority, you feel that you don’t have to reinvent
the wheel. Everyone is working together, moving in the same direction, wanting the
same thing. (Principal interview, December 2014)
In the absence of a priority systemic commitment to early adolescent learners, instructional
leaders and teachers felt they were left to their own devices, desperately hoping to do the
right thing for their students:
So, no. No one has told me middle years are a priority and no one has told me that
they aren’t. But I see strategies out there for early learning and then for high school
success and the middle years aren’t mentioned. I know it needs to be a priority, but
there is no larger system support, so at my school, we are just doing what we think is
best for the students. It’s hard not to think that it would be better if someone from the
system just said, “this is what we believe about teaching and learning in the middle
years and this is what we are going to do to achieve it.” (Teacher interview,
December 2014)
Systemic commitment sets the tone for those working with early adolescents in middle level
learning environments, signalling to all that the work of leading, teaching and learning in
middle level learning environments is viewed with the same intentionality and importance as
the early years of learning or high school.
Resource and support effective people and practices. In order for meaningful and
sustainable transformation to occur in middle level learning environments around the world,
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there needs to be an intentionality with which schools are provided with the resources and
supports needed to meet the needs of early adolescent learners. A clearly articulated systemic
vision related to leading, teaching and learning in middle level learning environments is an
important first step to providing the underpinnings necessary to understand where support
and resources ought to be directed. When a system has not articulated what is believed to
constitute a high quality middle level learning environment, there is the danger of an
“anything goes” mentality. Along with this comes the risk of “throwing scarce resources” of
money, time and people at misguided endeavours. When awareness exists related to the kind
of instructional leadership, instructional practices and contextual philosophies important in
the establishment of developmentally responsive, intellectually engaging middle level
learning environments, then proper resources and support can be directed towards these ends.
The Canadian province of Manitoba provides an excellent example of the positive impact a
systemic vision related to middle level transformation has had on the kind of responsive
supports and resources available to principals, teachers, students and families. Manitoba
principals and teachers articulate the support they felt from the district and province in their
work with early adolescents:
I am part of a middle years network in the province. We communicate regularly,
share resources and receive support from the provincial consultants. I think this
creates a situation where we receive quality support, and the resources we receive or
sometimes create ourselves and share out are specifically targeted at this population
of students. (Teacher interview, December 2014)
Many principals and teachers indicated that the issue of uncertain funding in education or
funding directed at other populations of school-aged children (early learning, high school,
special education, aboriginal education) posed challenges to the kind of learning environment
they wanted to create for their early adolescent learners, “You start to get the sense that
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maybe middle schools and middle school teachers and students aren’t valued in the same way
as other age groups. It’s kind of disheartening” (Teacher interview, December 2014).
Resources and supports for early adolescent learners need to be designed specifically for
them, by those who understand students’ unique developmental needs and the needs of those
teachers working with them every day. Trying to “retrofit” resources designed for younger or
older learners can leave both teachers are students frustrated:
I was struggling to find material for my grade 7 social studies class. When I asked
other teachers where I might find some resources the kids would really like, they said
they thought there were some old high school textbooks in the library that I could use
and just read it to the kids so they could understand the language and have them do
fewer questions at the end of the chapter. I was kind of stunned. (Teacher interview,
December 2014)
There are also examples in Finland where national curriculum supports have evolved
to reflect the changing needs of and demands placed on students as they grow and mature
both within Finnish society, as well as the larger ever-evolving global society. In Germany,
the Länder have made efforts to ensure curriculum reflects the world students are growing up
in, with recent additions of media competency, understanding the connection between the
subjects and the world of work and increased cultural awareness. Other countries such as
Australia and New Zealand provide excellent examples of how the intentional direction of
resources and supports to early adolescent learners and their teachers has made a positive
impact on student learning and development (Haigh, 2004; O’Sullivan, 2005). A significant,
yet perhaps seldom expressed, aspect of appropriately resourcing and supporting middle level
learning environments is that principals, teachers and students feel their work is important
and they are valued.
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“Just right” resources and support become especially significant when teacher training
programs do not prepare teachers for the unique developmental and learning needs facing
early adolescent learners; this issue will be furthered described in the next section on “preservice, in-service and on-going teacher development.”
Pre-service, in-service and on-going teacher development. Teacher preparation
programs that provide new teachers with an understanding of early adolescence as a
developmental period and the instructional needs of early adolescent learners are of utmost
importance. The notion of specialist teachers, who have expert subject knowledge only,
being effective in designing learning experiences for learners across the developmental
spectrum can no longer be viewed as most conducive for teaching and learning. Similarly,
generalist pre-service teacher training does not provide teachers with the subject expertise
needed to connect early adolescent learners in authentic and meaningful ways to their
learning. Neither approach to teacher training sufficiently prepares teachers to understand the
unique developmental needs of early adolescents that impact their learning in various
curriculum disciplines. In only one instance during my interviews did teachers indicate they
had been part of university pre-service teacher training that focused on key aspects of early
adolescent teaching and learning. These two Canadian teachers felt their university training
had made certain they understood well the learners they work with in their classrooms every
day:
To this day, what I learned in a class called the Psychology of Adolescence plays a
significant role in the kind of learning tasks I create for my students. I am always
thinking what did [professor's name] say about creating interest for adolescents in a
topic. What did he say were the "look fors" to determine if students were disengaging
from the learning? How do I get a group of grade 7 students back on track? Some of
this I learn and refine every day I step into my classroom, but I had the foundational
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skills even before I stepped foot into my classroom on that very first day. (Teacher
interview, December 2014)
It is essential that all teachers working with early adolescents in middle level learning
environments have the necessary preparation (pre-service training and in-service professional
learning) that will allow them to create the kind of learning environment in which their
students, as well as their teaching practice, can flourish. I heard very clearly through the
experiences teachers shared with me that they wanted to serve their early adolescent students
well and were prepared to do whatever was necessary to be better for their students:
If I am being honest, I would say that I feel overwhelmed sometimes. I have pupils
will many different needs. My university training did not prepare me to teach such a
diverse group of pupils. Many times I am using trial and error in my class and I know
this is maybe not the best method, but I don't know a better way. I don't want to let
my pupils down. (Teacher interview, December 2014)
I know there is more that can be done to ensure the education systems that serve our teachers
provide better supports for them.
Develop teachers as experts in early adolescence. During the interviews, both
principals and teachers articulated very diverse experiences in their teacher training
programs. Most, however, expressed they were first trained to teach subjects, some with
more specificity than others, and then trained to teach students. The experience of my
interview participants is not unique, as I know this type of approach towards teacher training
to be common--from my own experience and that of my Alberta colleagues. I believe this
approach to be detrimental to the important work of teaching and learning in middle level
learning environments. The data emerging from this study has shown that an important
efficacy develops in teachers when they believe they have the skills and abilities to
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effectively meet the needs of their learners. The key here is the word "learners" not
"subjects"--teachers' self-efficacy came from knowing they had served their students well,
not from feeling they had taught a subject well. Teachers need to continue to be supported in
understanding their real work lies is teaching students, not subjects. Teachers who are
experts in early adolescents first are better able to design learning opportunities that will draw
their learners in to the wonders of the disciplines they are studying.
Professional learning reflects current research and current learners. Instructional
leaders and teachers I interviewed had very diverse experiences and beliefs related to
professional learning. Canadian participants had far more professional learning days built
into the school year as compared to their counterparts in Finland and Germany; however,
teachers in Canada expressed more dissatisfaction with their professional learning
opportunities than teachers in Finland and Germany. Teachers in Canada articulated they
often felt left out of any decision making related to the school-based professional learning
opportunities:
The principal usually decides what he feels is important for us to discuss. When you
have a large staff it is hard to meet the needs of everyone, so there is usually a big part
of the staff that kind of shuts off during PD days. [They] bring their laptop and do
marking or planning. I think it would be much better if teachers could give their input
into what happens during PD days or better yet, teachers were allowed to go out and
seek their own professional learning. (Teacher interview, December 2014)
Most teachers easily identified in which areas of their practice they needed to develop and
expand their thinking. Principals’ views of professional development for their staff were
more often based on systemic goals and direction. Some teachers articulated that the
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professional learning needs of individual teachers were sometimes at odds with what the
"system" felt was needed:
I know exactly what I need to learn more about. It is about the very specific things
related to my daily work with teenagers and also I need to become more of an expert
in the disciplinary understanding of mathematics. I am not alone in this. The PD we
often have is very general and about system vision. I sometimes walk out of a PD
session at school and feel incompetent. (Teacher interview, December 2014)
Meaningful in-service professional learning must be ongoing, timely and relevant.
Much professional development is viewed by Canadian teachers as something that happens
on select days every year and, in the opinion of many teachers, is disconnected from the real
work of teaching and learning taking place in classrooms. Teachers in Finland and Germany,
where the number of days devoted to professional development were few, viewed
professional learning as more of a daily collaborative occurrence, "I think professional
learning happens every day, you do not have to go away to a conference or workshop. Your
very own classroom provides great opportunities for your own learning" (Teacher interview,
November 2014).
Middle level research advocates for responsive pedagogies that reflect the unique
learning needs of early adolescent learners (Wormeli, 2011). Similarly, teacher professional
learning should be thought of in a more responsive manner, both reflecting the needs of the
teachers and of the learners they work with each day, as well as aligning with current
research that examines best practice in middle level learning environments. Schools often
have available to them a significant amount of data related to the learners in their classrooms
that could be used in a more intentional manner to guide ongoing professional learning which
would respond to very real issues emerging from school-based data stories.
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Synergistic Factors
Instructional leadership. Almost every book about educational leadership has found
its way onto my bookshelves, yet looking at instructional leadership as a Synergistic Factor
has not been part of that discourse. By definition, a synergist is, “something that enhances
the effectiveness of an active agent” (Merriam-Webster, 2014, para. 1) or “an agent that
increases the effectiveness of another agent when combined with it” (Merriam-Webster,
2014, para. 2), further, a synergist is, “[an agent] that acts in concert with another to enhance
its effect” (Merriam-Webster, 2014, para. 3). Admittedly, I am a bit of a science “geek”;
however, there is something very intriguing about looking at the work of instructional
leadership through the lens of a synergist. To illustrate this idea--instructional leadership (as
the synergist) creates the conditions, acting as a catalyst [another science term I love] for an
intense reaction to unfold, which is the work of teaching and learning in the classroom.
Many labels have been used to describe the work of a principal (change agent, servant leader,
transformational leader, charismatic leader, etc.), yet when I think about the image these
labels create, all are centred around the traits of the leader, rather than the conditions they
create for others. Effective instructional leadership cannot be an egocentric undertaking.
A second image of instructional leadership, again making reference to the sciences,
comes to mind--this time involving the laws of physics. If we agree with notion of energy
conservation, that the energy within the universe is constant and therefore cannot be created
or destroyed only changed into a different form, as proposed in the first law of
thermodynamics, it would seem reasonable to look at the synergistic quality of instructional
leadership as a factor that creates the conditions within school for energy to be shaped in
ways most conducive to learning. Now taking into account the Newton’s third law of
motion, stating “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction” (Newton, 1686),
instructional leaders must be cognizant of the kinds of opposite reactions elicited by their
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actions. Practical wisdom might suggest that forcing or pushing teachers towards a desired
end may not yield the anticipated positive results. Actions of instructional leadership must
never lose sight of the most important outcome, which is student learning. This necessitates
the work of an instructional leader to be very “finessed”; making sure the necessary
conditions are in place, bringing together the right people and producing an intentional first
action allowing to for the reaction of teaching and learning to unfold in the classroom.
Instructional leadership as a synergistic factor--I think there is great potential here for a
transformation of sorts in the way the work of an instructional leader is approached and
viewed.
Clear vision and direction. Having been in the roles of both teacher and instructional
leader, I understand very well the importance of a clearly articulated vision of a learning
environment that supports high quality teaching and learning. I also understand the negative
impact that can result from the absence of a clear vision and direction for early adolescent
teaching and learning in a middle level learning environment. In all interviews with teachers
from Finland, Germany and Canada, they expressed their desire to be good teachers, and to
improve their teaching practice for their students, students’ families and also for their school
principal. However, when instructional leaders are not able to able to articulate a vision for
their school and the direction for teaching and learning, teachers are left feeling they are
“trying to hit a moving target.” Playing, “guess what is in my principal’s head” has never
served anyone well and truly distracts for the important work of teaching and learning.
I am drawn to a quote often attributed to Albert Einstein that reads, “If you cannot
explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough” (n.d.). This rings true for the
important task an instructional leader has in articulating a clear vision and direction for
his/her school. This does not have to come in the form of a multi-volume declaration, rather
a clear vision that teachers can commit to (even if there is not consensus) and feel they have
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the capacity to achieve; Robinson (2011) describes establishing clear expectations and
pursuing priority goals as the improvement aspect of student-centered leadership. A clearly
articulated vision for early adolescent learning should be viewed as an essential undertaking
of instructional leadership and a sign that the instructional leader understands well what is
needed to create a developmentally responsive, intellectually engaging middle level learning
environment.
Visible and responsive. What immediately comes to mind when I think of “visible
and responsive” instructional leadership is the story shared with me by a young girl from
Canada who explained that her principal made her feel safe at school by being a constant
presence in the school, greeting students in the morning and at the end of the day, patrolling
the hallways during class breaks and coming into the classroom to share in the learning with
students. I can think of no other role more important than an instructional leader who is a
positive presence in all aspects of students’ learning at school. The responsive descriptor
comes from an instructional leader who knows that in the world of a middle level learning
environment, no two students, or teachers or even days can be viewed and approached in the
same manner. This involves skill in being able to “read” individual and daily contexts to
know what is most required of their leadership at that particular time with that particular
person. One Finnish teacher gave the following example, which clearly illustrates the
importance of responsive instructional leadership in middle level learning environments:
I felt my students were out of control and I felt could not handle them. I told my
principal I was struggling but didn’t know what she thought about it. The next day,
she came into my class and did not say anything, just observed. Later that day we
debriefed what she had seen and what I felt. We talked about strategies; she told me I
was doing a good job. The day after she was in my classroom again and we worked
with the students together to discuss what makes a good group and how we can be a
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team together. I think the students saw that she supported me and that it wasn’t about
getting people in trouble, but just wanting the class to be good for everyone. Things
in my classroom became much better after this. I felt like I had my confidence back
too. (Teacher interview, November 2014)
The work of an instructional leader is complex and comes with no instruction manual
outlining what course of action to take given a certain situation. The story shared by this
teacher demonstrates the responsive nature of effective instructional leadership and also the
“just-in-time” quality--believing in teachers until they can once again believe in their own
capabilities is a very powerful act of instructional leadership.
Courageous and unconventional. As demonstrated through my study interviews,
instructional leaders who have been shown to affect meaningful and sustainable change in the
learning environments for their early adolescent learners show courage, and at times a hint of
unconventionality. These are characteristics I have given them, certainly not how they have
described themselves. Sometimes transformation takes real courage, courage to reflect on
what has been done in the school in the past, courage to ask why and then courage to say,
“we can do better.” In all three countries studied, I observed schools which have a “history
of grandeur”--a community mythology of being good schools that actually prevents them
from becoming the kind of learning environments that best support the learning and
developmental needs of early adolescents. To move a school from out-dated, deeply rooted
philosophies and practices requires courageous leadership.
For an image of courageous and unconventional instructional leadership, I return to a
delightful interview with a principal in Germany. His entire demeanour was so disarming; it
was easy to see why his teachers and students thought so highly of him. As he gave me
examples of courses his school offers to students and told me stories about the kind of
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experiences and opportunities he sought to create for his students, all I could do was smile
and hope my children would some day have the privilege of attending a school under the care
of an instructional leader like this man. There is a part of unconventionality that requires
creativity and “thinking outside of the box” while doing the right thing for early adolescents,
because it is simply the right thing--apologies necessary for “bending the rules” come later
on. Another part of unconventionality rests in not being afraid to ask and to try, and this
principal had many examples of to share, “Sometimes we try things and sometimes they
don’t work. But it doesn’t mean we stop trying, because now we have better information to
make better decisions next time” (Principal interview, December 2014). There is one final
element of unconventionality that is very important for instructional leaders, especially in
middle level learning environments. If there was one quality I would use to describe all early
adolescents learners, it would be “quirky,” and I would characterise truly effective
instructional leaders and teachers of early adolescents in middle level learning environments
in the same way. This quality gives middle level learning environments an undeniable
energy and makes it difficult to not be drawn into the “quirkiness” of the students.
Instructional leaders that possess a “hint of unconventional in their blood” fit well with early
adolescent learners and have demonstrated through lived experiences shared during
interviews their willingness to advocate for what they believe is best for their students and
teachers:
It is extremely difficult to convince my [supervisors]. They don’t understand us and
that is okay. Some people can’t stand my work, the way we work here. But we have
the results that show this works for kids. So I am okay with it…Every time we need
something it is a fight. A battle. Day in, day out. Year after year. A battle I
shouldn’t have to fight, but I do. I don’t need them, but I need their money. It makes
me tired. (Principal interview, December 2014)
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Contextual Factors
Contextual Factors are those school-based practices, processes and philosophies that
create a learning environment conducive to early adolescent learning. I do not intend,
through the discussion of these Contextual Factors, to present them as a prescribed formula to
be followed, or to indicate that the absence of one or more of these factors will result in a
poor learning environment for early adolescents. Rather, I hope instructional leaders and
teachers will use these Contextual Factors as they reflect on the current contextual
environment within their own schools, and ask themselves, "Do our current practices,
processes and/or philosophies serve our early adolescent students well?"
Instructional practices. When examining the instructional practices that best serve
the needs of early adolescent learners, I return to an interview with a principal in Germany,
who captured the vision of teaching and learning in his school with the phrase, “Failure is not
an option” (Principal interview, December 2014). Instructional practices designed for the
early adolescent learners in his building have at their core the purpose of ensuring all students
experience success. When I asked teachers in all three countries about instructional practices
they felt best suited the unique learning needs of early adolescents, they had different views,
and I think this should be expected. Just as it would be difficult to find two early adolescent
learners exactly alike, to identify one particular teaching or classroom management style or
learning task as best serving the needs of early adolescents is inherently problematic. What I
hope instructional leaders and teachers keep in mind when they consider the sub-factors
under the connecting factor of “instructional practices” is that at the core of every
instructional decision must be an intimate understanding of the individual learners they work
with each and every day. As an undergraduate student, I remember one of my professors
discussing the “art” and “science” of teaching. I am not sure I understood exactly what he
meant until I faced my own students in my very first classroom. The “science” of teaching is
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knowledge that comes from those theoretical elements related to pedagogy and the
disciplines you are teaching. The “art” is knowledge that emerges from a true understanding
of your learners and being able to create the conditions within your classroom, drawing on
both types of knowledge, for learning to unfold.
Disciplinary expertise. I do not envy the position school systems often put
primary/elementary school teachers in, asking them to deliver all subjects to students in ways
that will inspire and excite their students. I believe this is an incredibly challenging task and
feel fortunate I have never been placed in this position. In order to connect early adolescents
to their learning in authentic and meaningful ways, a certain degree of disciplinary expertise
is required. This goes beyond being able to teach students how to do basic computations in
mathematics or carry out an experiment in science, and it necessitates that teachers be able to
engage their students in the same kind of work and the same kind of thinking that those
experts in the discipline do. What kind of questions does a scientist ask? What does a
mathematician do when she encounters an equation she cannot solve? What tools does a
geographer use to tell the story of a landscape? Without disciplinary expertise, it becomes a
very challenging undertaking to engage early adolescents in this type of thinking. It also
becomes increasingly difficult to support a very diverse group of early adolescent learners in
connecting to and finding meaning in their learning if a teacher only has surface level
understanding of the subjects they teach. Early adolescent learners in Finland, Germany and
Canada are so perceptive, they “can easily spot a teacher” who is not passionate about the
subjects they teach or does not have the depth of understanding in the subjects they teach to
satisfy the curiosities of their students. I advocate for disciplinary expert teachers in middle
level learning environments, as this creates the conditions where both teachers and students
can most experience success, as evidenced in the classrooms involved in this study.
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Expertise in early adolescent development. Teachers in Finland, Germany and
Canada bring to their classrooms diverse experiences in pre-service teacher training programs
and also very diverse backgrounds and expertise, all which impact the particular lens through
which they view teaching and learning. This is something that cannot be controlled for.
However, there is much that can be done to support teachers in middle level learning
environments in becoming experts in early adolescents and the early adolescent
developmental period. This, and disciplinary expertise, are two factors which impact the
success both teachers as well as early adolescent learners experience in school. A mismatch
between the learner and the teacher's knowledge of the subject and/or knowledge of the
conditions that impact learning can have devastating effects on an early adolescent’s
engagement in their learning. Ongoing professional learning in the field of early adolescent
development and early adolescents as learners is essential to ensuring that disengagement
from learning during this developmental period does not occur.
Responsive instructional design and assessment practices. When teachers have both
disciplinary expertise as well as expertise in early adolescent development and learning, it
becomes easier to see which instructional practices best serve the needs of a particular group
of learners (or an individual learner) at a particular point in time. This is likely to change the
next day; however, when teachers approach teaching and learning in middle level learning
environments through the lens of responsiveness, they are better able to adapt to the everchanging needs of their students. Responsive instructional practices do not take on the form
of an "anything goes" or "laissez faire" approach. Quite the opposite; teachers I interviewed
in Finland, Germany and Canada experienced the most success when they made it clear with
their students from the outset what they could expect from each other in their classroom
learning community:
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I think it is important for my students to know that I will treat each one of them fairly,
but they should not expect this to look the same for each and every student. I tell
them they are each individuals and as much as is humanly possible I will approach
their learning, and consequences for poor choices, in an individual manner. We talk
about things that are negotiable in the classroom and things that are not negotiable. I
use the same process for each class I teach, and honestly, what I call the "rules of
engagement" are slightly different for each class, because each class is different and
each class responds differently to different situations. I am as flexible as I can be with
students while still maintaining a calm and supportive learning environment.
(Teacher interview, November 2014)
A recent article in The New York Times, entitled "Raising teenagers: Protect When You Must,
Permit When You Can" detailed the author's parenting approach for her two adolescent sons.
This philosophy reflects the important lens through which teacher participants viewed
responsive instructional practices in their middle level learning environments.
Authentic learning tasks. When students in all three countries described to me times
when they felt really excited about their learning, they articulated learning experiences that
were authentic, true to disciplinary ways of knowing and doing, involved elements of selfdirected learning and were often hands-on/experiential. Although students did not use those
very same terms they do in fact accurately illustrate the students' examples. Early
adolescents are capable learners (far more capable than they are often given credit for) and
they need to be provided with learning tasks that are challenging and offer them multiple
opportunities to demonstrate their unique aptitudes and to experience success. Moreover,
learning tasks for early adolescents need to be authentic to the disciplines they are studying,
while also reflecting and connecting students to the world they are growing up in. Neatly put
together posters, PowerPoint presentations with whirling animation or other examples of
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"busy" work are simply not the type of challenging learning tasks that foster deep
understanding for early adolescent learners.
Unfortunately in most of the countries studied, there are some examples of early
adolescent students sitting in neat rows, silently reading textbook chapters and independently
answering questions at the end, as their behaviour or developmental readiness has been
deemed unsuitable for other types of learning tasks. This is a shame, and it is understandable
that students would disengage or report not finding relevance in school if they experienced
this kind of learning day in and day out. On the door of one of the Alberta classrooms, a
teacher placed a large poster that reads, "Sorry about the mess, but we are learning here." A
poster on the door of another classroom in the same school reads, "In this room, we don't do
easy, we make easy happen through hard work and learning." Both serve as reminders to all
who enter the room or pass by in the hallway that real learning is messy (the classrooms will
not always be quiet and you likely will not find students sitting in rows) and involves hard
work (allowing students to struggle and linger with a learning task instead of teachers
jumping in to rescue them is a skill teachers in all three countries admitted they need to
practice). In these classrooms learning and growth happen every day, sometimes in small
ways, and sometimes in "take your breath away" ways. Early adolescent learners deserve to
be provided with the kind of learning tasks that will create a vibration of excited energy in a
classroom and will be the topic of dinner conversation at home for weeks--this is when real
learning happens for early adolescents.
School culture. The one finding that emerged from my research as most surprising to
me was the factor of school culture. “Learning together” (Principal interview, November
2014) was a simple, yet powerful, phrase used by one Finnish principal and encapsulates the
factor of school culture well. Students in all three countries described in great detail the
important role all aspects of school culture played in their experience with school. School
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clubs, school sport teams, "spirit days," intramurals, an understandable school philosophy,
access to support personnel, and even the way the school looked were all examples students
gave of elements they felt enhanced their school experience, created a sense of identity and
facilitated their feeling of being connected to a larger school community. These factors,
which students identified as being so very important, are often an after-thought as most
instructional leaders and teachers focus their attention on the learning attached to the
curriculum inside the classroom. I understood much more clearly after my conversations
with students (and to some extent instructional leaders and teachers) the student view that
learning takes place not only in the classroom, but also in other settings within the school.
Students felt it was sometimes through participation in the school band, basketball team or
debate club, where they learned more about themselves as an individual person:
I play on the school basketball team and I feel very proud to represent my school.
Being on the team has shown me that if I work hard I can reach my goals. My coach
is also my math teacher and he says that the hard work I have learned to put into
basketball can work for me in math, too. (Student interview, December 2014)
Providing students with a rich program of extra and co-curricular opportunities was believed
by students to increase their commitment to their studies. Part of the early adolescent
developmental period sees the emergence of both a strong sense of social justice, along with
an identity as an individual outside of their family. Effective middle level learning
environments provide students with opportunities to grow, learn, express themselves and
experience new things in a safe and caring environment. Creating a school culture that will
support early adolescents in all of these things needs to be approached in a very intentional
manner and seen by instructional leaders and teachers as a task as fundamental as ensuring
quality teaching and learning inside the classroom.
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Cohesive instructional program. I was surprised to hear Finnish, German and
Canadian students discuss confusion at times related to what it meant to be a student in their
school; they felt there were different expectations placed on them by different teachers.
Standards for student behaviour changed depending on the time of year and the language
students felt their teachers used to describe similar concepts across the grades changed
regularly. Although they did not use the words “coherent, consistent and cohesive,” this is
exactly what they were describing. Interestingly enough, their teachers often echoed the
same sentiments:
As a staff I would really like us to work on being more consistent with our practices.
I don't mean that I want us all to be clones, but for example, I teach language arts.
When I teach my kids about story writing, I use the "stuck story" model. Other
teachers in grade 7 use different methods and I know my students have said they
learned a different format for story writing in grade 6. So I think this is confusing for
them. If we could come together and say, this is the one method we will use to teach
story writing and use common language for things, then I think it makes it easier for
students and I think teachers can support each other better this way too by creating
common resources and assessments. (Teacher interview, December 2014)
An important element of a cohesive instructional program is that it provides students with
clear expectations related to their learning, their behaviour and what it means to be a student
at a particular school. The notion of a “constantly moving target” makes it difficult for
students to know what is expected of them and if they have attained those expectations. I am
not certain schools in my study approach or view cohesiveness of philosophy and
instructional program with the intent that it perhaps deserves. There is much to be celebrated
about teachers having autonomy in their classrooms, however a cohesive instructional
program does not need to take away from this autonomy--the two can coexist quite nicely. A
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cohesive instructional program ensures there are clear standards, expectations and
philosophies, supporting students as they navigate what can already be a confusing
developmental period. Additionally, a cohesive instructional program can serve to support
teacher learning, through collaboration and strengthening of practices towards a common
end. Effective middle level learning environments do not needlessly complicate the lives of
students and teachers, but create the conditions for both to experience success.
Flexible and responsive school processes. The factor of “flexible and responsive
school processes” ensures that structures and processes involved in the daily operation of a
learning environment for early adolescents are purposeful and responsive to the needs of the
students. Flexibility allows for typical processes and structures to change should they no
longer meet the needs of students, teachers and the school community. School processes and
structures were found to be very contextual across the three countries studied; no two schools
serve the exact same communities nor are comprised of the same learners and teachers.
Therefore, school processes and structures need to be considered carefully and selected in a
purposeful way, reflecting the unique context of each school.
Although processes and structures will vary among schools, based on the interviews I
conducted for this study and my own professional experience, there are several key areas
schools need to be cognizant of. The first is school start and end times. While it is
understandable that factors outside of the immediate control of the school often dictate when
school begins in the morning and consequently when it finishes at the end of the day, more
needs to be done to advocate for a school day that better reflects the developmental needs
(especially the sleep patterns) of early adolescents. It seems perhaps a bit foolish to continue
to clash with sleep-deprived adolescents when there appears to be numerous solutions that
would benefit all those involved. One bleary-eyed Canadian student expressed his frustration
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to me through numerous yawns that his younger sister's school starts at 9 a.m. each day,
while his school starts at 8 a.m.:
I have to get up before 7 a.m. to make sure I get to school on time. Some nights I
have fencing practice or Hapkido and don't get home until 8 or 9 p.m. Then some
days I have a lot of homework and I don't get to bed until 11 p.m., sometimes it is
midnight before I can calm down enough to go to sleep. Then I have to get up so
early again the next day. My younger sister never has any homework and all of her
after school activities end way before suppertime, so I think the younger kids should
start school earlier. (Student interview, December 2014)
The second key area seems to be value some schools place on very out-dated
timetables or schedules. The notion of moving students around to a new class every 45 or 50
minutes, while common practice in many middle level learning environments, yields
questionable results. Several Finnish, German and Canadian instructional leaders expressed
concern with the notion that the beginning of learning should be signalled by a bell, with
another bell, just 45 minutes, later indicating the end of learning. My own experience, along
with the kinds of learning experiences students I interviewed in all three countries described
to me as being engaging, has shown that deep engagement in learning often requires a more
flexible approach to scheduling. Several schools in Germany and Canada used large blocks
of learning time, where teachers negotiate with the colleagues how to best use that time to
facilitate student learning opportunities. A more fluid manner of looking at schedules and
timetables allows for learning to unfold logically, rather than be dictated by a bell.
The final consideration in the sub-factor of “flexible school and responsive processes”
worthy of discussion is flexible student groupings. For some educators, this has a negative
connotation, often associated with the streaming of children into ability groups. This is not
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necessarily the case. There are many ways to flexibly group early adolescent learners to
ensure their learning needs are not only being met, but also enhanced and extended. Teachers
I interviewed in all three countries described flexible groupings based on interest, on special
supports required, on readiness for a particular task or even on opportunities for students “to
shine” and teach other students concepts. The key is for appropriate “regrouping” to become
a norm in the school culture because relegating students to a particular group indefinitely can
be viewed as pretty punitive. Flexible groupings allow students to connect with other
students who share similar interests or those students they do not work with often; this
contributes to the building of a strong classroom community. Teachers in all three countries
described the opportunity to see their students working with different peers, under different
circumstances, which assists teachers in understanding their students better. In several
schools in Finland, Germany and Canada, teachers described working with colleagues to
create flexible groupings with same grade students across several different classes. Teachers
felt this was particularly helpful when certain teacher-student pairings were strained, giving
the student an opportunity to work with another teacher with whom they may experience
more success.
Access to multidimensional support services. Both teachers and students in Finland,
German and Canada described the value they placed on having access to in-school supports
for students. These supports came in the form of school counsellors, social workers,
psychologists, school nurses, and even, paediatricians. Teachers in all three countries felt
that being able to quickly access these professional supports made a significant difference in
ensuring students' needs were met in a timely manner before student learning and
relationships were negatively impacted. Finnish and German students who had access to
such supports at school viewed these professionals as part of the school “family” and felt
more comfortable independently asking for assistance when needed. In Canada, it is rare for
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middle level learning environments to have access to in-school professional support from the
medical and mental health sectors. The school guidance counsellor or resource teacher is
often one of the first positions cut during difficult budget times. This is an area that warrants
careful consideration in middle level learning environments to ensure the multifaceted needs
of early adolescent learners are supported in a timely manner by trained professionals.
Intentional processes for student transitions. The transitioning of students, be it
from one school to another or within a school, from grade to grade, is a process that must be
treated in a very intentional manner. Students I interviewed in all three countries cited their
first year in "middle school" as the most difficult:
Primary school was very different. You had one teacher and everything was much
more relaxed. I had been in the same school with the same friends for many years.
And I came to this new school and everything was new and I feel like I didn't fit in.
(Student interview, December 2014)
Teachers in all three countries also felt early adolescents' first year in a middle level learning
environment was most challenging for them:
In some ways it is like the pupils are learning everything over again. Learning about
how to make friends and learning how to learn again. In class, I see first year students
to our school as being more hesitant in their learning and more unsure of themselves.
(Teacher interview, November 2014)
As with many factors discussed in this section, to identify one set of procedures to be used by
all schools in the transitioning of all early adolescent learners would be naïve. Middle level
learning environments must determine the best way to work with their primary schools to
ensure the proper resources are in place to support the incoming class of students. Primary
teachers have often had the opportunity to get to know their students over multiple years.
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The information these teachers hold about each student is invaluable; principals in Canada
and Finland described the importance of finding a way to capture and use this information in
their middle level learning environments. Beyond events like information nights and new
student orientation days, each middle level learning environment needs to consider how they
will welcome new students, ensure these students feel accepted as part of a new learning
community and determine how to provide ongoing support to new students so they are able to
experience success in their new learning environment. Instructional leaders, teachers and
students I interviewed in Finland, Germany and Canada described different processes used to
support students during times of transition. Some schools focused more on ensuring they had
information about students' academic profiles, while others focused more on team building
activities. Across the three countries, I could not identify one format as more beneficial than
the other; the most important consideration is that processes exist to support students during
times of transition and these processes are revisited to ensure they are meeting the needs of
early adolescent learners.
The transitions students make from year to year within a school also need to be
carefully considered. Many middle level learning environments I had the opportunity to visit
in Germany and Finland used the practice of what is often referred to in Canada as "looping,"
when a teacher stays with a class of students for multiple years. Teachers in Finland and
Germany who had looped with their classes found it to be extremely beneficial:
When you have the same class for several years, you develop very good relationships
with the pupils and also their families. More trust exists. When you start a new year
with students, it isn't like you are staring over again, you feel you can kind of pick up
where you left off. I know how to support my students so much better now because I
have been their class teacher for three years now. (Teacher interview, November
2014)
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Students from Finland shared similar perspectives:
I have had [teacher's name] for three years now and she is a very good teacher for me.
She knows me very well as a student. I know what she expects of me and what she
expects from the group and I feel we can move through things very fast because we
all work so well together. (Student interview, November 2014)
The practice of looping is used much less frequently in Alberta, yet when we consider the
important role trusting relationships with teachers and peers play in the learning of early
adolescents, it is perhaps a practice that should be considered more carefully.
Engaging families and the community. For me, a statement shared with me by a
principal in Finland best exemplifies this factor, “It takes a [connected] community to raise
our children well” (Principal interview, November 2014). The work of teaching and learning
is a complex interplay of relationships and emotions. The work of a teacher in a classroom of
early adolescents can at times feel like it is the teacher, alone, against the world, yet it does
not have to be; the life of an early adolescent learner in school can be confusing, frustrating
and joyous, often all at the same time, yet this experience, too, can be made better.
Instructional leaders and teachers I interviewed in all three countries felt that some of the best
success they had in supporting their early adolescent learners was when they approached it
from a partnership perspective, involving school leaders, teachers, the student, their families
and others in the community who know the students well. Early adolescents in all three
countries frequently report, “…feeling alone and like no one understands me” (Student
interview, December 2014). While it perhaps becomes increasingly difficult for adults to
understand what it is like to “walk in the shoes” of early adolescents growing up in today’s
society, educators can certainly create the conditions to ensure these learners feel they have
an entire school community supporting them, wanting the best for them as learners and as
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individuals. My interviews have shown that two key factors, communication with students’
families and developing trusting relationships between the school and surrounding
community, are important components in creating a network of support for early adolescent
learners.
Ongoing and timely communication with students’ families. My own personal and
professional experience with early adolescents (as a teacher, instructional leader and mom),
coupled with the views expressed by instructional leaders and teachers in all three countries,
has highlighted the essential nature of creating a plan for ongoing communication between
the school and families focussing on student learning. Some instructional leaders and
teachers previously assumed that positive communication unfolds naturally throughout the
course of the year, by way of report cards, school assemblies and other chance encounters. A
principal in Alberta explained that it is very important to understand that this simply is not
the case. Effective communication between the school and students’ families requires effort
on the part of all parties involved; it also necessitates commitment, ensuring the early
adolescent learners see themselves as an essential component in a positive partnership
between the school and their family--not a punitive relationship that seeks “to make their life
difficult.” Instructional leaders in all three countries expressed concern that in the absence of
a process for ongoing and timely communication with early adolescents’ families, crucial
information may be missed; the student may fall behind in their learning, or other life
circumstances may arise that could impact the student’s learning and behaviour at school.
The fears of being “too late” or having a student “slip through the cracks” are very real and
may carry with them consequences damaging to early adolescents as learners and as
individuals.
The instructional leaders, teachers and students I spoke to in Finland, praised the
Wilma system as a means of ensuring all necessary parties had access to the information
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needed to support a student’s learning and life at school in a timely manner. Everyone
involved in the learning of the student receives the same type of information, sent directly to
mobile devices or email inboxes. Colour codes dictate the category and urgency of the
information, and proper courses of action can be set in motion in a timely manner. It is
equally important to communicate and celebrate the many positive occurrences in the lives of
early adolescents at school--I believe the colour code in Wilma for a celebratory occurrence
is teal green! Parents and students in Finland have quick access information about daily
homework and upcoming assignments, along with anecdotal notes teachers may have
included in the Wilma system about students’ work during class. Students, parents, teachers
and instructional leaders in Finland have embraced the Wilma system as a means of creating
an effective support system for students, ensuring student learning is both supported as well
as celebrated.
The sophisticated Wilma system serves Finland well; however, schools do not
require access to a national computer program to create an intentional plan for
communicating student learning with families. Interview participants in Germany and
Canada detailed other creative ways schools have worked to involve students’ families in
their learning; student learning plans/logs, interim progress reports, student-led conferences
and celebrations of learning, all have the intent of creating multiple opportunities to engage
families in a partnership around student learning. One teacher in Germany who has worked
with the same group of students for three years, felt fortunate to have positive relationships
with the families of her students; this, however, did not come without hard work:
The first weeks of school I just started calling a few parents every day. It was most
often about positive things about their child and sometimes parents were very
surprised. Some told me they had never received a call from the school unless it was
a bad thing happening. I continued to do this every day and soon, I had parents
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calling me or emailing me to tell me things they thought I should know about their
child. The parents just recently invited me to a class meeting and asked if there was
anything they could do to help me. We work together very well now. (Teacher
interview, December 2014)
Establishing processes for ongoing and timely communication with students’ families should
be seen as the work of everyone in a school, as it is a significant factor in ensuring early
adolescents understand there is a network of people supporting their learning.
Linking school and community fosters trust. Long held myths about the early
adolescent developmental period and associated negative behaviours have in many
communities created adverse relationships between community members and schools. The
communities in which early adolescents are growing up in provide tremendous opportunities
for them to find roots and a sense of belonging. This can only happen however, if early
adolescents do not feel ostracised from this community and the community finds ways to
trust some of its youngest members. Communities hold a wealth of knowledge, expertise,
experience and culture which can add to the richness of the student learning experience in so
many ways. For many communities in all three countries, the school serves as a central
gathering space for those of all ages and there exists many possibilities for connecting
schools and community members in ways that can begin to foster the types of trusting
relationships that will allow students, schools and communities to flourish. I return to an
example shared with me by a principal of an urban Canadian middle school. The school is
located in a high poverty neighbourhood, and for a long time there had been a sense of
distrust, and in some cases fear, of the early adolescents attending his school:
They weren’t bad kids at all. Many came from difficult circumstances and struggled
to find their way. I just wanted the community to be able to see these kids and what
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they could do in school, and then I thought they might think differently of them or at
least not cross to the other side of the street when they saw my students walking
towards them. (Principal interview, December 2014)
This principal set about to create opportunities for the community to be more involved in his
school. He started out small, advertising in the community newsletter that once a month he
would have coffee and donuts in the staff room, followed by a tour of the school for anyone
who wanted to join him. “No one came that first month; the second month, it was me and
one other person and a lot of donuts” (Principal interview, December 2014). He kept
working at it, going into one of the community centres and speaking about his school to
anyone who would listen. He also spoke to some of the police officers who were on the
neighbourhood patrol and asked for them to spread the word. The next month, 15 people
showed up at the school and the following month it was there were 25. “I thought, oh boy,
what have I gotten myself in to?” (Principal interview, December 2014). He then started
having students give the tours of the school, and slowly, as the principal describes, he could
just “feel” the atmosphere in the neighbourhood begin to change. “We had people coming
into the school, asking if they could volunteer to read to the kids or help out wherever was
needed” (Principal interview, December 2014). He went on to explain a instant of concern
and then embarrassment he felt when one day a big truck pulled up in front of the school,
loaded with picnic tables and benches; he admits that for a second he thought his students had
vandalised the furniture and it was being brought back to the school to demand that
restitution be paid:
I went outside to see what was going on. It was a couple of retired carpenters from
the community. They said their wives had been to the school for a tour and saw that
the kids had no place to sit when they went outside during the lunch break. So, they
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set their husbands to work making picnic tables and benches. I couldn’t believe it.
(Principal interview, December 2014)
More and more opportunities began to open up to connect the community and the school’s
students in positive ways. Some individuals in the community decided to plant a community
garden; and so one of the teachers took it on as a project, asking her students to determine
what kinds of seeds would grow the best in their particular climate zone and what might be
the most cost effective way to build and care for the garden. The students presented their
work to the community committee in charge of the garden and were asked if they would be
interested in helping to care for the garden. Students now volunteer at the local seniors
centre, helping residents write letters to family members and friends, and they also go to the
local public library to read at story time for pre-school aged children. The principal provided
this last story as an example of knowing that the relationship between his school, his students
and the community had changed forever:
It was the day of the grade 9 farewell for our oldest students. Kind of like a
graduation ceremony. My vice principal came rushing into the office saying there
was a problem in the gym. I kind of ran to the gym, expecting a big fight or
something, but what I saw, to this day, still brings tears to my eyes. The gym was
filled with people from the community who wanted to come out and celebrate these
students. [My vice principal] said, “what are we going to do?” and I told him that we
better get more chairs. (Principal interview, December 2014)
Whether it comes as more natural in some communities or has to be fostered through very
intentional work, the importance of creating opportunities for early adolescent learners to
connect in positive ways to the communities they are growing up in is an important factor in
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middle level learning environments that support early adolescents as learners and as
individuals.
Essential Factors
Students. “Without a shadow of a doubt,” the essential factors in any learning
environment are the students. In Finland, Germany and Canada, students are the reasons
schools exist, the reasons teachers have jobs and the reasons governments have ministries of
education. It is, however, sometimes forgotten that all that is done in the name of education
should have as its core the purpose of serving the needs of students. In all three countries,
government officials, curriculum specialists, principals, teachers, all with good intentions,
make decisions every day that impact the learners in their schools, yet often those decisions
are made using “average data” or “perceptions about early adolescents” rather that actual
feedback in the form of student voice. [I know I have been guilty of this in my own school. I
am not certain I can count the number of times a decision was made at my school because
“we” felt it was right for students, or the district decided it was the “next best thing” for
teaching and learning.] Instructional leaders, teachers and district officials in all three
countries have at their disposal such a wealth of information and insight into the needs of
early adolescent learners. Going forward, the needs students articulate must be used in more
intentional and purposeful ways to guide the work of teaching and learning middle level
learning environments.
Real opportunities for student agency, voice and choice. Early adolescent learners
in Finland, Germany and Canada clearly articulated the need to be provided with real
opportunities for voice and choice in their learning. This goes far beyond selecting between
two novels a teacher has already pre-determined or choosing to do the even numbered
questions at the back of the textbook instead of the odd ones. Students explained that they
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need real choices--choices that will develop their problem solving abilities and their
metacognitive skills. Learning can no longer be seen as “we teach, they learn” or worse yet,
something that is “done” to students. This out-dated view of teaching and learning does
nothing to foster the kind of student agency early adolescents need for their healthy growth
and development in our schools today and for their lives tomorrow. Early adolescent learners
in all three countries possess the skills and abilities to be treated as partners in their learning.
Educators must not forget that an essential task for early adolescent learners is the
development of self-efficacy so students become increasingly independent and self-directed
in their learning. Early adolescents who experience success in school come to understand the
locus of control for their learning lies very much within themselves. This aligns with ideas
put forth in Dweck’s (2008) Mindset. Instructional leaders and teachers in all three countries
articulated that effective middle level learning environments create the conditions for
students to exercise increasing amounts of agency in their learning by providing them with
opportunities to make meaningful choices and exercise their voice in important matters that
impact their learning. This is done within a school environment that cultivates the
development of the growth mindset, by encouraging effort and resiliency, rather than
rewarding achievement only:
At the end of every term we celebrate our students, but not in the traditional way of
awarding students with the highest grades. We celebrate students who have
demonstrated growth, perseverance and resiliency, as learners and as developing
young citizens. Everyone in this very big school comes together, and students receive
certificates, get their picture taken and everyone claps. This may seem like a small
thing, but it has resulted in a tremendous shift in the way our school looks at what it
means for students to be successful and the kinds of traits we try to develop in our
students. (Principal interview, November 2014)
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When equipped with the tools to see themselves through the lens of a growth mindset,
students truly hold the power to determine their fate as learners. This self-understanding
cannot simply come from a single standardised test score, or a piece of paper filled with
letters and percentages. Student agency and self-efficacy emerges from the purposeful and
deliberate creation of a learning environment where the student voice is valued and
encouraged as an essential component of the learning equation.
And now that I have heard from so many students in Finland, Germany and Canada
and had the opportunity to reflect on the many things I have done as a teacher and
instructional leader believing it was best for my students, the only thing left to do is practice
the words of Maya Angelou, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you
know better, do better” (n.d.). All those who work with early adolescents in middle level
learning environments have some work to do.
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Chapter Six - Conclusions
I will close my dissertation by sharing what I describe as, “the so what and now
what”--what implications and recommendations for all who work with early adolescents in
middle level learning environments have arisen from the study and what are the next steps in
ensuring today’s middle level learning environments are responsive to the needs of early
adolescent learners.
Nothing but the Essentials
I picture that I have been asked to share my research findings at a conference; and, at
the conclusion of my presentation someone, who identifies herself as a new principal of a
middle school, probes me for what she terms “nothing but the essentials”--what does she
need to do tomorrow to ensure her school is meeting the needs of her early adolescent
learners. I pause for a moment. I consider the language I will use. Do I reply to her with
“suggestions?” Is that a strong enough term? What about “recommendations?” No--I think
my research has shown a greater “call to action” is needed. Therefore, I mentally dissect the
seven connecting factors found in the data and represented through the conceptual visual
framework (see Figure 1), take a deep breath and respond to her in the following manner,
“What I am about to share with you are the necessities of any learning environment that aims
to support the unique developmental and learning needs of early adolescent learners.”
1.
The students - Please never lose sight of the fact that the early adolescent learners
you have in your school are the most important resource you have at your
disposal to easily gauge if you (as the instructional leader) and your teachers (as
facilitators of learning) are on the right track. Talk to your students. Ask them
about their experiences in your school. Provide your students with authentic
opportunities to develop agency in their learning by demonstrating to them
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through your actions you consider them and their voices as important factors
when creating a learning environment in which they will flourish. Shadow some
of your students throughout the course of their day at school if you truly want to
understand what it means to be an early adolescent learner in the middle level
learning environment you have been entrusted to care for and lead. Base any
decisions you make on what you learn from your students and about your
students. Do not attempt to find a “quick fix” in the latest innovation or packaged
program. Find the answers you need to create a developmentally responsive,
intellectually engaging learning environment, in those very students who are the
reason you are here today, wanting to know how to make their experience in your
school exactly what it needs to be, so they, too, may see the world of possibilities
that exist for them.
2.
The instructional leadership - You will be tasked with countless “things” as an
instructional leader (meetings, paperwork, measures of accountability, etc.);
however, please always remember that protecting the learning environment in
your school and those within that environment (your students and your teachers)
are your most important responsibilities. You will need to support your teachers
in understanding the myriad of “things” in the life of a teacher that may detract
from the real work of teaching and learning in their classrooms. [I find the
following statement is a good way to help teachers understand what is truly
important: “If at the end of the day you cannot say that what you have done has
positively impacted your students, then you need to alter your course so you do
not lose your way.”] You will need to “protect when you must [and] permit when
you can” (Lahey, 2014, para. 1) your early adolescent learners as they navigate
this developmental period. And on some days [and, hopefully there are not
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many], you will need to be the one who holds on to hope and believes in your
teachers, your students and their families, until they can do this for themselves
once again. As the instructional leader, you are the synergist who brings together
the necessary elements and creates the conditions [and yes, sometimes this
happens by “clearing through the mess”] for your teachers to teach and your
students to learn. Savour your role and what your instructional leadership has the
potential to create every day--for each student and each teacher in your care.
3.
The teachers – After your students, your teachers are the most significant
resource your have in your school. Just as you know how important it is for your
teachers to come to know and understand each of their students as learners and as
individuals in order to better support student learning, you must do the same with
your teachers. Do not mistake this for friendship. Trust in your teachers (unless
you have clear evidence to the contrary)--trust that they want to do whatever is
necessary to be the best they can be for their students. The only way you will
know how to support the growth of your teachers and their pedagogical practices
is by engaging in continuous and ongoing professional conversations and
professional learning with them. Be present in their classrooms (not in an
evaluative way with a clipboard and checklist) in a manner that allows you to
truly understand their work and the ways in which they approach teaching and
learning. By doing this, you will continue to grow and develop as an
instructional leader, alongside your teachers; for your teachers to see you as a
learner as well is a very powerful act of instructional leadership. Provide your
teachers with professional learning that will develop their understanding of the
early adolescent learners in their classrooms. Remember the times as a classroom
teacher, when you and your students were in what can only be described by
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Csikszentmihalyi’s (2008) “flow.” It was like a “perfect storm”; the classroom
environment, the task, the conditions, the students, you--it all came together in
just the right combination to create an amazing moment of learning. Every
teacher should have those moments to remember and savour; help your teachers
to develop their pedagogical practice in ways that will allow them to create the
kinds of authentic learning opportunities their students will talk about for years to
come.
4.
The school culture – You can tell a lot about a school from the feeling you get
when you walk through the front door. Take the steps necessary to ensure your
school is a welcoming place for your students and their families--and a place
where your teachers want to come to work every day. The things that may seem
frivolous or extraneous to the work of teaching and learning in the classroom are
in fact known to have a significant positive impact on your teachers and students
and the learning culture within your school. School clubs, sport teams,
intramurals, the school band or drama production--all provide amazing
opportunities for your teachers and students (and even you) to learn together in
non-traditional ways. For some of your students these opportunities will be the
reason they come to school. They may always struggle in math class, but they
shine on the basketball court--every student deserves to find that place within
their school where they shine. There is something very powerful that happens to
the culture of a school when teachers, students and their families unite in support
of a common purpose. As silly as it may sound, your students take great pride in
identifying with the school name and mascot that has been chosen. [Being
recognised as a “Titan” (the school mascot name) and wearing that bright orange
(the school colour) “hoodie” with the school logo is significant in the life of an
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early adolescent.] Create a school culture that you would want your own children
to be part of. That is a very good litmus test.
5.
The school philosophy – There is something to be said about a strong sense of
consistency, cohesiveness, coherence and dependability in the “school life” of
early adolescents, when many other aspects of their growth and development
seem not within their immediate control. Please examine the processes at your
school, many which probably existed long before you arrived, to ensure they are
serving your current school population well; and, then do not hesitate to do away
with those structures and philosophies that may be doing more harm than good.
If there was one word I would use to describe the kind of middle level learning
environment (and subsequent school processes) that best support this
environment and the learners within it, it would be “flexible.” Do not confuse
this with “anything goes” or “laissez faire.” Flexibility very much reflects the
needs of early adolescent learners. Your school timetable needs to accommodate
large blocks of learning that can be negotiated among the teachers to allow
students to delve deeply and linger with topics and issues important to them. The
start and end to learning must not be dictated by the sounding of a bell or by the
passing of a week or month. Be careful that you not ask your teachers to create
unit plans and year plans that determine the pace of learning. This pace, of
course, can only be dictated by the actual learning students demonstrate. Ensure
the right people are in place in your school to support the unique learning and
developmental needs of your early adolescents. This includes your teachers,
support staff and any others your budget will permit--such as psychologists,
social workers, etc. Please be open to all possibilities that exist with regards to
how you might schedule your school, deploy your teachers, group your students,
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and secure learning resources and tools. Some of the most unconventional
approaches can yield amazing results.
6.
The school community – The community in which your school is situated can act
as a powerful force for your school; and, whether this takes on a positive or
negative tone, in many ways rests in your hands. The positive relationship
between your school and its community is one that you want to nurture. You
want to shape this relationship so your early adolescent learners are not only
supported while in your school, but also the moment they step outside--the
community can do this, but you will also need to create the conditions in which
this can occur. Early adolescents are not always seen in the most positive light by
older generations. Therefore, your students need opportunities where they can
demonstrate to the community they are growing up in how they can contribute to
it in positive ways. Be creative; open up your building to those in the
community; ask them to share in your students’ learning. Take every opportunity
to showcase your students’ unique talents and abilities to the community. Help
the community see your early adolescent learners as the kind, caring and capable
individuals you know them to be. Then you will have created a school
community; and, this is exactly what your early adolescent learners need to
support their healthy growth and development as learners and as individuals.
7.
The greater vision – What is it that you hope for when you close your eyes and
see the perfect place of learning for your early adolescent learners? This is your
greater vision and even though it may not be your current reality, it is what you
continue to strive for. Never lose sight of it--this is important! Please know that
to achieve your greater vision, there are some things that are out of your control;
and, this will be very frustrating. You cannot control the government or their
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policies impacting education, nor is it likely that you will be able to alter the
opinions of those who do not hold education, early adolescents and the work of
teachers in the same high regard as you do. The prospect is better that you (both
by example and through the philosophy you live at your school) influence
practices towards early adolescent learners and middle level learning
environments at a district level. Yet, the exceptional work and substantiated
beliefs and practices happening in schools on a daily basis may be lost on “senior
management,” many of whom have not truly engaged in the real work of a school
in years. Direct your energy towards resourcing and supporting the good work
already taking place in your own school, work towards changing those schoolbased practices and philosophies that do not serve your students well and always
approach with scepticism those who serve to derail your progress towards that
essential place of learning. Be a tireless advocate for leading, teaching and
learning in the middle years--this is how you will realise your greater vision, one
student, one teacher and one school at a time, beginning with your own.
A Call to Action
At this point in my dissertation, I feel it is redundant to create a list of implications
arising from my research and attempt to convince readers of the impact of my study. I
believe this has been illustrated in great detail through the three case studies I have presented
and further highlighted in the framework I have proposed. In many ways, this is where I
have found the available research related to middle level learning environments and early
adolescent learners lacking: lists of recommendations, strategies or multi-point plans. I do
not want to add yet another list--I want the stories of my participants to be remembered, and I
want their words to echo in the minds of instructional leaders and teachers when they make
decisions impacting the learning of early adolescent learners. I want the framework I have
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proposed, not to be thought of as a “lock-step plan” to be carried out, but something that may
disrupt current thinking just enough for the first steps towards transformation of middle level
learning environments to take root. But if there were one implication I would emphasise for
instructional leaders, teachers and students, it would be this: We can no longer be
comfortable with the status quo, believing this will create the kind of learning environments
needed to support our early adolescent learners. We must act. And if instructional leaders,
teachers and students take action together, I believe “some pretty incredible transformation”
can take place.
Further Questions
As I near the end of my dissertation, I feel that in many ways I have more questions
now than answers. I have more things about early adolescent learners and middle level
learning environments that I want to know about. Perhaps this is the brilliant part of
engaging in research; in the end, it creates lifelong learners in all of us, always seeking to
understand more. Through the three case studies from Finland, Germany and Canada that I
have presented, along with a general framework through which to view developmentally
responsive, intellectually engaging middle level learning environments, I believe I have shed
light on the research question I set out to answer, “What factors contribute to
developmentally responsive, intellectually engaging middle level learning environments for
early adolescents?” There are several broad questions and perceived gaps in existing
research, however, connected to the following themes that may warrant further consideration:
1.
Generalisability of the framework - This study focused on leading, teaching and
learning in middle level learning environments in Canada, Finland and Germany.
How might the framework that is a reflection of the data obtained in these three
countries apply elsewhere?
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2.
343
Current state of North American middle level reform - The movement towards
separate learning environments designed to support the unique learning needs of
early adolescent learners began in the United States many decades ago. In light
of numerous education reforms in the United States, what impact has the middle
years movement had on their present-day learning environments for early
adolescents? How does this compare with the current state of middle level
education in Canada?
3.
Role of cultural values in education - How might the role of cultural values and
ideological beliefs associated with education and their impact on schooling
systems, especially middle level learning environments, be further explored to
determine how to best use these factors in the advancement and transformation of
schooling for early adolescent learners?
4.
Student agency - The development of student agency and providing authentic
opportunities for student voice in areas that impact their learning seem to be
missing pieces in middle level learning environments that seek to be
developmentally responsive and intellectually engaging. What do instructional
leaders and teachers need to do to support early adolescent learners in developing
agency in their learning?
5.
Teacher training - How might university teacher training programs work together
with instructional leaders, teachers and students in middle level learning
environments in more intentional ways so as to better prepare new teachers for
the realities of teaching and learning in the middle years?
6.
Teacher professional learning - Is there evidence to support one form of teacher
professional learning as being more effective in facilitating teachers’
LEADING, TEACHING AND LEARNING IN THE MIDDLE
344
understanding of pedagogical practices that best meet the needs of early
adolescent learners?
7.
Principal leadership development - What structures and processes might be
needed in a leadership development program for prospective middle years
principals? What long-term benefit might this type of leadership development
have for leading, teaching and learning in the middle years?
8.
Creating a data story – What data is currently available and what data is still
needed that would support school systems in making better informed decisions
about the leading, teaching and learning in middle level learning environments?
9.
Implementation factors - What factors have prevented large-scale implementation
of research-supported recommendations for transformation of early adolescent
learning and middle level learning environments?
10. Sustainability of reform - Is there evidence that sheds light on the sustainability of
reform and transformation efforts in middle level learning environments in the
absence of a district-wide improvement strategy towards this end?
I have come to understand that with a subject as complex as early adolescent learning, there
may never be definitive answers to the fundamental question of how to make their experience
with schooling better--and, I have come to terms with this. Educators working with early
adolescent learners in middle level learning environment do not need someone else
professing to hold a simple solution to their complex and challenging work. This is why I
have shifted away from a formulaic response to my original research question. I hope the
framework I present can begin a dialogue, ensuring the important discussion related to
effective learning environments for early adolescent learners never ends. If there were to be
a next step, it would be to ask all those who work with early adolescents in middle level
LEADING, TEACHING AND LEARNING IN THE MIDDLE
345
learning environments to forever be reflective practitioners; to continue to reflect on the
practices and processes we expose our students to and always examine “the why.” I have
asked this of myself, as well.
Final Thoughts
The phrase “intellectual fearlessness” was used in a recent book The Power of Why,
by Amanda Lang (2012). I was inspired by the way the she described the innovation
necessary in learning environments to move students beyond the quest to find the right
answer, in the fastest and most efficient way possible, towards fostering a deep desire in our
students to ask and continue to ask the questions needed to instil this sense of intellectual
fearlessness--a notion that minds are active and open to all the possibilities that may exist,
and continue to develop and flourish as deep understanding emerges. This is in stark contrast
to minds being “pre-set” to hone in on a predetermined target of skills needed to pass
students along to the next task on the “conveyor belt of curricula.”
When I look at the enormous diversity that exists among the learners who fall into the
“middle years” category, if there is one thing I now believe that could unite our instructional
leaders, our teachers and our schools in transforming the learning experiences for our early
adolescent learners, it is this concept of intellectual fearlessness--the belief that all early
adolescents deserve the opportunity to develop into intellectually fearless learners. It is the
commitment to transforming our middle level learning environments, through
developmentally responsive instructional leadership and instructional practices, through the
development of student agency, and through the application of current research related to
early adolescent learners and the neurosciences that will create a culture of intellectual
fearlessness. I believe that the right kind of middle level learning environment can transform
the entire learning experience for these students, the most fearless of our learners.
LEADING, TEACHING AND LEARNING IN THE MIDDLE
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Final words. I recently read Sheryl Sandberg’s (2013) book, Lean In. It was fantastic
for so many reasons, yet my “takeaway” from the book was less about feminism, and more
about “leaning in”--period. According to Sandberg (2013) leaning in is, “being ambitious in
any pursuit” (p. 10). Instructional leaders, teachers, students, parents and the school
community, need to absolutely “lean in” when it comes to creating learning environments
where early adolescents can flourish. Sandberg writes that she did not deliberately set out to
make her book a manifesto for the woman’s movement, but in many ways it has taken on that
tone--she just wanted to inspire others. I feel the same way. In no way should a research
dissertation be considered a manifesto, yet I would be lying if I did not admit that I secretly
hope the work I have presented creates a synergy for real transformation in middle level
learning environments. With regards to leading, teaching and learning in middle level
learning environments--we need to lean in. That is all.
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Appendix A
Australian Middle Years Reform Conceptual Diagram
(Rumble & Aspland, 2009, p. 6)
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Appendix B
Breaking Ranks in the Middle Recommendations
369
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(National Association of Secondary School Principals, 2006, p. 4-6)
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Appendix C
Turning Points Design Principles and Practices
(Centre for Collaborative Education, 2003, p. viii)
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Appendix D
Robinson’s Five Leadership Dimensions with Effect Sizes
(Robinson, 2011, p. 9)
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Appendix E
Robinson’s Leadership Dimensions and Capabilities
(Robinson, 2011, p. 16)
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Appendix F
Teaching Effectiveness Framework
374
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(Friesen, 2009, p. 7-11)
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Appendix G
International Research Study Information
Dear Participating School Principal,
Re: Leading, Teaching and Learning in the Middle: An international case study narrative
examining the leadership dimensions, teacher practices and contextual philosophies that
have transformed teaching and learning in the middle years.
My name is Brandy Yee and I am currently a PhD student at the University of Heidelberg. I
have the great privilege of working with Dr. Anne Sliwka as my supervising professor. For
the past 13 years, I have worked as a middle years teacher, middle years program specialist
and assistant principal in a middle school. During this time, these early adolescent learners
have captured my interest and curiosity. Understanding how to best meet the unique learning
needs of these learners is my area of passion and has become the focus of my PhD research.
The intent of my dissertation is to use the themes emerging from conversations with
instructional leaders, lead teachers and students to better understand the conditions necessary
to create developmentally responsive, intellectually engaging learning environments for early
adolescents. Through the close examination of leadership dimensions, teacher practices,
student agency and the interaction of the three in the context of middle years teaching and
learning, I will also seek to create a framework or model that could be used to support the
creation of developmentally responsive, intellectually engaging learning environments for
early adolescents.
In 2010, the Canadian province of Manitoba presented a document entitled, Engaging middle
years students in learning: Transforming middle years education in Manitoba, that describes
the province’s vision for teaching and learning in the middle years. I have used this
document as the “lens” from which to examine three additional pieces of research that reflect
current thinking about instructional leadership, teacher instructional design and assessment
practices and the impact of student mindset on learning. This research comes from:
 Viviane Robinson’s examination of leadership dimensions that impact student
outcomes (2011);
 Sharon Friesen's Teaching Effectiveness Framework (2009); and
 Carol Dweck's exploration of the growth mindset (2008).
In the context of my research focus, the Manitoba Middle Years document has framed these
pieces of research by adding the very important layers of understanding and attending to the
unique developmental needs of middle years learners in order to create effective learning
environments for them.
Using a semi-structured interview format with instructional leaders and key lead teachers and
a small focus group format with students, I will attempt to draw out common themes related
to the beliefs and experiences of these three groups in the context of middle years learning
environments. The focus of all questions will be centered on the conditions necessary for the
creation of optimal learning environments for early adolescent learners.
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In developing questions for instructional leaders, lead teachers and students, I have used the
following overarching questions as guides:
1. Using the research articulated by Viviane Robinson (2011) in her book StudentCentred Leadership as a lens, “What leadership dimensions contribute to the creation
of a developmentally responsive, intellectually engaging learning environment for
early adolescents?”
2. Using Sharon Friesen’s (2009) Teaching Effectiveness Framework as a lens, “What
instructional practices do teachers draw upon that contribute to the creation of a
developmentally responsive, intellectually engaging learning environment for early
adolescents?”
3. Using Carol Dweck's (2008) Mindset as a lens, “How do early adolescents articulate
their needs in ways that contribute to the creation of a developmentally responsive,
intellectually engaging learning environment?”
As part of this study, I am asking you to spend approximately one hour of your time in
conversation with me about your experiences and beliefs regarding teaching and learning in
the middle years. I would also ask that you permit me to speak to an additional two or three
teachers at your school on an individual basis, along with a small focus group of six to eight
students.
If you and your staff would be willing to work with me, I would be happy to contact you in
the next week so you can ask me questions about my research and get a sense of who I am
and what I may be able to contribute to your school. I would also be happy to send you the
question guides I have created and the consent from that explains what happens with the
information you give me.
For further questions concerning matters related to my research, you may contact:
Brandy Yee
by telephone: (403) 984-7775 or (403) 680-9753
by email:
[email protected]
I hope you will be interested in participating in this study.
Sincerely,
Brandy Yee
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Appendix H
Participant Interview Guides
PhD Research Questions for Brandy Yee
Leading, Teaching and Learning in the Middle
Name:_______________________________Position:______________________________
Location of Interview:___________________________ Date: ______________________
Please tell me a little bit about yourself and your background as a teacher and instructional
leader.
What do you feel are your most important roles as an instructional leader?
Instructional Leaders - focus on Robinson's Leadership Dimensions
1. Establishing goals and expectations
 What is your philosophy about teaching and learning in the middle years?
 How do you establish and communicate the academic focus/direction for your school?
 How do you ensure your teachers are personally invested in and committed to the
goals of your school?
 What is your school philosophy about the use of learning technologies to enhance and
extend the learning of early adolescents?
2. Strategic resourcing
 In what ways have you resourced your school in order to support the unique learning
needs of your early adolescent learners?
 In what ways have you had to rethink traditional patters of allocating time, staffing
and money in order to create a developmentally responsive learning environment for
early adolescent learners?
 What do you look for when hiring teachers that will work with your early adolescent
learners?
3. Ensuring quality teaching
 What are your most important beliefs about what constitutes a high quality,
developmentally responsive learning environment for early adolescent learners?
 In what ways do you and your teachers use data for the purpose of improving teaching
and learning?
4. Leading teacher learning and development
 What factors do you consider when selecting professional development opportunities
for your teachers?
 What opportunities do your teachers have to collaborate with each other?
 In what ways have you supported your staff or provided opportunities for your staff to
expand their understanding of the unique needs of early adolescent learners?
 To what extent and how has current research about early adolescent/middle years
learning guided professional learning opportunities for staff?
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5. Ensuring an orderly and supportive environment
 What have you considered when creating a timetable that will support the unique
needs of your early adolescent learners?
 What kinds of opportunities are there for your students to provide feedback about
their attitudes towards school and learning?
 Is what ways does your school address and support the unique physical, cognitive,
emotional and social needs of your early adolescent learners?
 What are your most important beliefs about how to create a developmentally
responsive learning environment that supports early adolescent learners?
 What structures and processes have you put in place that support a developmentally
responsive, intellectually engaging, middle level learning environment?
What are your most important beliefs about instructional relationships as they relate to
supporting your early adolescent learners?
What are some of the most important lessons you have learned through your experiences in
education that you feel would benefit others?
Is there anything else you would like to tell me that I might have missed or that we have not
addresses through our conversation?
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PhD Research Questions for Brandy Yee
Leading, Teaching and Learning in the Middle
Name:___________________________________Position:__________________________
Location of Interview:_______________________________ Date: __________________
Please tell me a little bit about yourself and your background as a teacher.
What do you feel are your most important roles as a teacher of early adolescents?
Teachers - focus on Friesen's Teaching Effectiveness Framework
1. Thoughtful and intentional design of learning that engaged students
 What are the most important factors you consider when designing learning for your
students?
 Is there a particular style of teaching you believe is more suited to the unique
developmental needs of early adolescent learners? Why?
 How do your incorporate student voice into your instructional design process?
 How do you meet the wide range of academic and developmental needs of the young
adolescent learners in your classroom?
2. Work students asked to undertake is worthy of their time and attention, personally
relevant and connected to the world in which they live.
 How do you ensure students feel connected to and personally invested in their
learning?
 What are the key factors you consider when trying to foster student intellectual
engagement and investment in their learning?
 What kind of opportunities do students have to make decisions or voice their opinions
about their learning and what happens to them in school?
3. Assessment practices focused on improving student learning
 What are your most important beliefs related to assessment?
 What opportunities do you provide for students to be involved in the assessment
process?
 How do you communicate student progress towards intended learning targets with
them, with their families?
4. Teachers foster relationships that promote a culture of learning
 In what ways has your school created a safe and caring learning environment for your
early adolescent learners that promotes both risk taking and the development of trust?
 How do you foster positive learning relationships with your students?
 In what ways do you create the conditions that foster increased student independence
and self-regulation in their learning?
 What are your most important beliefs about how early adolescents learn best?
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5. Teachers improve their practice in the company of their peers
 What opportunities do you have to collaborate with your colleagues?
 What professional learning related to better understanding the unique cognitive,
physical, emotional and psychological development of early adolescents have you
been a part of?
6. Effective use of the technologies of our time
 How do you incorporate the use of learning technologies to enhance and extend the
learning of your early adolescent learners?
What are your most important beliefs about what constitutes a high quality, developmentally
responsive learning environment for early adolescent learners?
What are some of the most important lessons you have learned through your experiences in
education that you feel would benefit others?
Is there anything else you would like to tell me that I might have missed or that we have not
addresses through our conversation?
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PhD Research Questions for Brandy Yee
Leading, Teaching and Learning in the Middle
Name:_____________________________________ Position:________________________
Location of Interview:__________________________________ Date: _______________
Please tell me what makes your school a great place to learn.
Students - focus on Dweck's Growth Mindset
1. Voice and choice
 What kind of opportunities do you have to make decisions or voice your opinion
about your learning and what happens to you in school?
 Can you give me an example of when you felt you and your teacher worked together
to create a learning opportunity that you were really passionate about?
2. Respond to setbacks and challenges
 When you are faced with challenges in school what do you do?
 Who do you turn to for help you when encounter set backs and challenges?
 What kind of opportunities do you have to collaborate with, learn from and support
your peers?
3. Relationships with teachers
 In what ways has your school created a safe and caring learning environment for you
and your peers?
 How comfortable do you feel taking risks in your learning?
 In what ways have your teachers helped build trust (among students and between the
teacher and students) in your classrooms?
 What opportunities do you have in your school to connect with adults who may serve
as mentors for you?
4. Connected to learning, relevant
 Can you give me an example of a time when you felt that the work you were doing
was similar to what experts in the field would be doing?
 To what extent do you feel the learning experiences you are given are relevant to you
and the world you know outside of school?
5. Feedback given by teachers
 What forms of feedback do your teachers give you about your work and how you are
progressing in your learning?
 What opportunities do you have to talk to your teachers about how you are doing in
school and what you can do to improve?
 How do you use the feedback your teachers give you to improve your work?
6. Effort
 What strategies do you use to improve your work?
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

387
How would you describe your interest in learning and motivation towards doing well
in school?
How do you feel about the expectations your teachers put on your for your learning?
What kind of expectations do you put on yourself to do well?
7. Response to success
 How do you respond when you get feedback from your teachers that indicate you
have been successful in your learning?
 What do you want most from your experience in this school? What goals do you
have?
Is there anything else you would like to tell me that I might have missed or that we have not
addresses through our conversation?
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Appendix I
Case Study Protocol (adapted from Yin, 2003)
Leading, Teaching and Learning in the Middle - Research Study
Brandy Yee – University of Heidelberg
1. Background
 Previous research on the topic – none using the same lenses I have chosen, the
Manitoba Middle Years framework, examining leading, teaching and learning in the
middle years through the work Robinson, Friesen and Dweck.
 Main research question being addressed by this study - What factors contribute to the
establishment of developmentally responsive, intellectually engaging middle level
learning environments for early adolescents?
 Additional research questions that will be addressed –
 Using the research articulated by Viviane Robinson (2011) in her book StudentCentred Leadership as a lens, “What leadership dimensions contribute to the
creation of a developmentally responsive, intellectually engaging learning
environment for early adolescents?”
 Using Sharon Friesen’s (2009) Teaching Effectiveness Framework as a lens,
“What instructional practices do teachers draw upon that contribute to the
creation of a developmentally responsive, intellectually engaging learning
environment for early adolescents?”
 Using Carol Dweck's (2008) Mindset as a lens, “How do early adolescents
articulate their needs in ways that contribute to the creation of a
developmentally responsive, intellectually engaging learning environment?”
2. Research Design
 Collective case study design, with data analysis informed by constructivist grounded
theory.
 Phenomena of study – examining the lived experiences of instructional leaders,
teachers and early adolescents in middle level learning environments to better
understand the factors that contribute to the establishment of developmentally
responsive, intellectually engaging middle level learning environments.
3. Data Collection

4.
Semi-structured interviews, participant and direct observation, ongoing memo writing
and document review.
Data Storage/Management

Data will be stored using various computer applications, including cloud-based and
external hard drive storage systems. Management of this amount of data can be
daunting. Participant interview guides, observation guides and a modified conditional
relationship assisted not only in the collection of data but also in organising the vast
amount of data generated.
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5.
Data Analysis

6.
Credibility
Transferability
Dependability
Confirmability
Authenticity
Interpretive and Methodological Rigour – refer to questions adapted from the work of
Stake, Fossey et al. and Charmaz.
Study Limitations

9.
Interview guides developed help to focus questions for each participant group
(instructional leaders, lead teachers and students) on key tenets of identified
foundational research (Robinson, Friesen, Dweck), while maintaining the lens of
middle level learning environments.
Criteria for quality of the study






8.
Data will be analysed in two parts; part one will focus on in-depth case study analysis
and part two will focus on cross-case analysis of the three cases. The following steps,
although not in a linear or predictable sequence will be utlised: open coding, focused
coding, memo-writing, visual mapping, development of core categories.
Case study interpretation

7.
389
All factors identified in Chapter 1. Any impact of the researcher and the familiarity
of the researcher with the phenomenon being investigated are by choice of the
research paradigm and study design, viewed to enrich the study, adding depth to the
social construction of the phenomenon.
Reporting

Target audience – instructional leaders and teachers working with early adolescents in
middle level learning environments.
10. Schedule






July 2014 – First meetings and set of interviews in Germany (1 site).
July 2014 to November 2014 – Initial coding of data. Formulate a plan for data
management and storage.
October 2014 – Canadian research, initial site meetings and follow-up interviews,
Alberta and Manitoba (4 sites).
November 2014 – Finland research, initial site meetings and follow-up interviews (4
sites).
December 2014 – Return to Germany, complete interviews (3 sites).
December 2014 – April 2015, analysis of data and writing of results.
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Appendix J
Observation Guide
Category
Observations and Anecdotal Comments
First Impressions
of school
Post-interview observations
Principal, AP, VP
Post-interview observations
Students
Post-interview observations
Teachers
Celebrating
Student Learning
Specialised
Resources
Available to
Students
External
Agency/Wrap
Around Support
School
Community/
Community
Partners
School Facilities
LEADING, TEACHING AND LEARNING IN THE MIDDLE
391
Appendix K
Conditional Relationship Guide
Category
What
What is this
issue/factor?
When
When does this
most occur? When
does this take
place?
Where
Where is this
important? Where
does this occur?
Why
Why does this need
to occur? Why is it
important that this
occurs?
How
How does this
occur? The ways in
which this occurs?
Early adolescent learners as
a priority
Identifying early adolescent
learners as a priority at various
government levels (national
and regional), including
school districts and within
schools.
Responsive Legislation
& Policy
Legislation and policy governing
education at the national and
state/provincial/regional level that
is reflective of the needs of early
adolescent learners and their
teachers.
Establishing learning
environments that best support
the unique developmental and
learning needs of early
adolescents.
Trying to create policy and
legislation that will identify early
adolescent learners as requiring
supports different than other
populations of leaners and
supporting transformation in
current middle level learning
environments
Ensuring resources, curriculum,
supports, etc…serve the needs of
early adolescent learners and their
teachers. Creating ways to revisit
policy when it no longer serves the
needs of early adolescent learners.
Training teachers, creating
resources, supporting and
resourcing schools, teachers
and students properly,
Valuing the work of
instructional leaders, teachers
and students.
Acknowledging early
adolescents have unique
learning needs.
Requires an understanding
that early adolescents have
unique developmental and
learning needs that need to be
supported.
Ongoing professional learning
for teachers.
Ensuring policy and legislation are
current and reflect current state
and needs of middle level
learning.
Making it known these learners
are important and will be
supported properly.
Creating policy to support work in
middle level learning
environments.
Cultural Value of Education
Systems/districts committing
to (showing support of) early
adolescent learners and
middle level learning
environments.
Establishing direction for the
system/district as to a vision
and direction for leading,
teaching and learning in the
middle years.
Creating professional learning
opportunities.
Forming system supports and
resource teams for middle
level learning.
Launching networks of
teachers and leaders with a
common purpose.
Making it known to all that
the middle years are
important and that schools,
students and teachers will be
supported appropriately.
System leaders committing to
early adolescent learning and
middle level learning
environments.
Determining long term vision
Developing ways policy to change
more quickly to reflect current
times.
Support this through
developmentally responsive
learning environments.
Consequence
Systemic Commitment
Cultural Value of Education
Committing resources and
support.
Showing support of middle
level learning environments
and their leaders, teachers and
students.
Cultural Value of Education
*This represents only a portion of the conditional relationship guide I used, not the entire
document. Here I was examining the relationship between the connecting factor
“Education as a fundamental cultural value” and several sub factors.
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