Education Commentary

Toward A More Human Scale

September 01, 1989 2 min read

Following are excerpts from Turning Points: Preparing American Youth for the 21st Century:

School should be a place where close relationships with adults and peers create a climate for personal growth and intellectual development.

Many large middle grade schools function as mills that contain and process endless streams of students. Within them are masses of anonymous youth. Student populations in a middle grade school exceed 1,000 in many jurisdictions and reach as high as 2,000 in some urban areas.

Such settings virtually guarantee that the intellectual and emotional needs of youth will go unmet. Consider what is asked of these students: Every 50 minutes, perhaps six or seven times each day, assemble with 30 or so of your peers, each time in a different group, sit silently in a chair in neat, frozen rows, and try to catch hold of knowledge as it whizzes by you in the words of an adult you met only at the beginning of this school year. The subject of one class has nothing to do with the subject of the next class. If a concept is confusing, don’t ask for help, there isn’t time to explain. If something interests you deeply, don’t stop to think about it, there’s too much to cover. If your feelings of awkwardness about your rapid growth make it difficult to concentrate, keep your concerns to yourself. And don’t dare help or even talk to your fellow students in class; that may be considered cheating.

Understandably, teachers are reluctant to offer to work under these conditions, although many are required to do so. Many youth manage to cope and some even flourish within such structures. But many others fall behind.

Three qualities should be infused into such a setting. First, the enormous middle grade school must be restructured in a more human scale. The student should, upon entering middle grade school, join a small community in which people—students and adults—get to know each other well to create a climate for intellectual development. Students should feel that they are part of a community of shared educational purpose.

Second, the discontinuity in expectations and practices among teachers, the lack of integration of subject matter, and the instability of peer groups must be reduced. Every student must be able to rely on a small, caring group of adults who work closely with each other to provide coordinated, meaningful, and challenging educational experiences. In turn, teachers must have the opportunity to get to know every one of their students well enough to understand and teach them as individuals. Every student must have the opportunity to know a variety of peers, some of them well.

Finally, every student needs at least one thoughtful adult who has the time and takes the trouble to talk with the student about academic matters, personal problems, and the importance of performing well in middle grade school. The student who feels overwhelmed by course work, worried about a health problem, intimidated by classmates, or accused of misbehaving needs to be able to confide in someone with experience and access to authority. So does the student who has just scored well on a test, painted a terrific portrait, or earned a berth on an athletic or scholastic team.

A version of this article appeared in the September 01, 1989 edition of Teacher as Toward A More Human Scale