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Many 8th Graders Spend School Day As Passive 'Sponges,' Study Concludes

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Washington--Too many 8th graders spend their school day as "sponges," passively soaking up lessons without a chance to engage in meaningful discussions or to analyze what they are being taught, a new study by the National Association of Secondary School Principals has concluded.

While many teachers may be sensitive to their students' needs, the authors state, "we still found that most 8th graders spent their day as passive learners--listening to teachers, copying from chalkboards, reading assignments, filling in worksheets, and taking tests."

Expecting 13- and 14-year-olds to spend their days in rigid schedules, grouped by ability, and taught in a way that focuses on content coverage is to be "developmentally unresponsive," according the study, which was released at a press conference here last week. To remedy the problem, the study urges, the structure of the 8th-grade learning environment should be revamped to give students the opportunity to participate, question, choose options, and exercise responsibility. Teachers should not just transmit knowledge, but facilitate discussion among students to encourage critical thinking.

"[E]very school that houses an 8th grade ought to examine carefully and honestly its offerings and approaches," the study recommends, and "each such school should assess in which direction it is moving and whether it is part of the problem or a part of the solution."

The past three decades of reform in middle-school education have yielded some positive changes, the study notes, citing improvements in the learning climate and the increased attention paid to the setting of school goals.

Still, the study's authors, John H. Lounsbury and Donald C. Clark, add, the typical classroom does not incorporate what are considered the best educational techniques for 13- and 14-year-olds.

Among other findings, the study concludes that school is "too much a separate entity" and fails to recognize the life led by 8th graders outside of school. The two only connect as a result of chance or the efforts of a sensitive teacher, the authors state.

The report is the third in a series of "shadow studies" by the NAASP-- earlier studies examined the 9th and 6th grades--in which educators each observe one student throughout one school day and record what happens. The students are then interviewed at the end of the day.

In the 8th-grade study, educators "shadowed" 162 students in 161 schools nationwide in March 1989.

In light of their findings, the authors offered nearly a dozen suggestions for improving the experience of all middle-school students, including 8th graders.

In addition to recommending that the students' learning experience become more active, the authors urge that the 8th-grade curriculum be revised.

"[T]he curriculum of content, the bread and butter of the school pro gram, still is not reflective of what is known about the nature and needs of early adolescents," the report states.

Moreover, schools and teachers should be freed from "well-intentioned recommendations and requirements that are simply inappro priate for emerging adolescents," the report says.

Instead, they should be empowered to be creative in writing the middle-school curriculum.

The study also recommends that schools and teachers:

Organize schedules and activities so that students will be able to interact more, perhaps in longer periods between classes or a mid- morning break.

Pursue interdisciplinary instruction.

Reduce homogeneous grouping.

Implement more fully teacher advisory programs that focus on social and academic-support activities.
Raise student expectations of school and capitalize on the excitement generated.

Recognize the ultimate importance of the teacher.

Copies of "Inside Grade Eight: From Apathy to Excitement," order number 2109011, are available at $10 each from NAASP's publications sales office, 1904 Association Dr., Reston, Va., 22091; telephone (703) 860-0200.

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