Why Do They Behave That Way?

October 07, 2014

“Neuroscience has recently put forward the startling fact that teen brains resemble blueprints more than they resemble skyscrapers in their malleable structure. Secondary educators who once considered a teenage mind an empty house that needed furnishings would do better to understand it as the framing of a house that still needs walls, wiring, and a roof” (Feinstein, 2004).

The two words, middle and school, when set side by side often elicit an energized response from parents of early adolescents. It is a period of development that is often misunderstood and misjudged. In my earlier work as a middle school teacher, I was asked more times than I can remember, "How do you have the patience to work with that age group?" My response always related the thrill of working with students who are at such a critical period of development since the habits they create in middle school are the ones that will set them on course for their adult life.  

Because the traditional junior high approach is a dramatic mismatch for the needs of the adolescent, educating 12 to 14 years-olds is a controversial subject for educators. Why is this so? According to Maria Montessori, "My vision of the future is no longer of people taking exams and proceeding on that certification from the secondary school to the university, but of individuals passing from one stage of independence to a higher, by means of their own activity, through their own effort of will, which constitutes the inner evolution of the individual." (Maria Montessori, from Childhood to Adolescence)

Why are Montessori middle school programs far superior to all other models of education for early adolescents? The reasons are numerous and extremely important for the health and well-being of young people today. Let's begin with a few of the most critical developments that take place in the human brain during early adolescence which have been revealed in the past decade. Following FMRI (Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) scans conducted by Dr. Jay Geidd of the National Institute of Mental Health, researchers revealed that to a degree previously not understood, early adolescents leave childhood with a brain that is destroying old neural connections and building new ones. We have always been able to see the physical changes that a teen faces throughout puberty.  Now we know that the brain is undergoing major changes as well. We can see in a typical school setting, that teenagers are navigating a cerebral superstorm without a compass.

The pruning of unused neural connections was verified by Dr. Paul Thompson at the UCLA Lab of Neuroimaging. The brain of the early adolescent goes through an intricate process of pruning neurons. Those that get used regularly will get strengthened through the process of myelination, and those that do not get used will get sloughed off. Simply put, any information that teens use and learn in school will be hard-wired into the brain's structure, both good and bad. Anything they ignore will lose priority and risks being destroyed from the neural network. Research has shown that this pruning that takes place in early adolescence permits the teenage brain to organize its circuitry and refine thinking processes (Thompson et al., 2000). Adolescents are primed to become critical thinkers, but only if immersed in an environment that supports their development. Moreover, Dr. Thompson witnessed the formation of new gray and white matter in adolescent brains. The results of this study have shown that short-term memory increases by about thirty percent during adolescence. With these and other revelations about dramatic changes taking place in the teen brain, it is clear that early adolescents have a perfect opportunity to build a better brain, and they also run the risk of wasting the brain's potential for learning and growth.

All of this valuable information is applied in a Montessori middle school classroom. The first priority in a Montessori middle school classroom is to build a strong community. This is done to create an atmosphere where the brain of an early adolescent can be utilized fully, in order to develop in a way that expresses the student’s character with integrity. There is no pressure for students to express themselves in a way dictated by external forces like peers or media influences. This cannot be said about classrooms in most traditional middle schools. All of us can remember feeling very insecure, about what someone might think or say or about the question, “should I honestly and openly express myself in middle school”?

The power of building a strong community is the foundation for the next most important quality of a Montessori middle school curriculum.  A great program is designed to teach to all parts of the early adolescent. There is emphasis on every facet of life, including physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual, and value is given to all of these components. Students are immersed in a program that will develop the whole child, not just the cognitive one. Lastly, Montessori middle schools are designed to integrate and connect the experience of early adolescents with their purpose and place in the world. Through self-reflection, service learning, and experiential learning activities, students are given a clear picture of how they fit into the greater community, and the world.

The middle school program offered by Cambridge Montessori School is the capstone of a complete Montessori education. It takes all of the intense lessons that students engaged in from Toddlers through Elementary and provides a playing field where all of this knowledge and experience becomes rooted and framed into a perspective that will serve young people for the rest of their lives. The power of this comprehensive program is immeasurable for all students. In my previous experience as a Montessori educator, I have personally witnessed students who struggled academically when they entered middle school. However, with the development of strong habits and a strong sense of self over the course of two culminating middle school years, these students went on to be very successful in high school and college. I have witnessed students who had discipline issues in upper elementary shift perspectives and define their identity around positive choices in middle school. The growth that a Montessori middle school program can provide for students is immeasurable. Following ten years of observation and teaching at this level, I remain as awestruck now as I was back then by the power of a Montessori middle school education.  

 
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