A visiting parent asked a 6th grade girl how she was adapting to starting middle school. Even the beginning of her answer stopped me in my tracks: "At my old school, my teacher didn't know how much we knew." I wondered what exactly was going to come next. She continued: “She didn't let us have responsibility. Here my teacher lets me email a grown-up at a company. I feel like I have responsibility. This school is more fun!"
The student was referencing a project she and her peers were working on, to explore how bias is built into technology. They had studied multiple forms of cognitive bias and then taken on three tech companies as their consulting clients, examining their practices for evidence of bias. Later that day after our chat, she and her peers held several Skype calls with these employees, asking questions to gather information for their recommendations on bias.
Let me just re-state one thing...these students were in 6th grade. 11 years old. They were consulting with tech companies on bias. They were not being shuffled from one class to the next to receive lectures; they were grappling with sophisticated material, relevant to the problems of the real world. And they were engaged. They wanted to show up. They were nervous before each Skype call or meeting with their clients, but elated after.
I can't think of a better recent example of how adolescents need access to the real world. We do them no service to keep them isolated in a school building. Adolescents have a deep psychological drive to find ways to contribute to others, to be useful and valuable, as they sense that they're growing up and gaining insights into how adults behave. If we coop kids up within schools without connecting their work to the real world, many students will conclude that schools are a game to keep them occupied. They may play along, but they will not give their full energy. If you want to see them reach their full potential, show them that you trust them enough to facilitate contact with adults in the real world, with work and problems of interest to adults. Bring in outside experts to review the kids' work; get kids out of school to discover and examine issues around them, and then help them make sense of them.
Without this, the likely path is what research shows happens systematically in middle school: students' sense of engagement and connectedness in school plummets between 6th and 8th grade. They disengage when they see that the changes within them - more sophisticated cognition, deeper social and emotional awareness - are not reflected in the school around them.
Giving kids access to the real world is powerful antidote to this effect. As they become adolescents, we may no longer appear to them as all-knowing, all-powerful adults, but we do have some tricks up our sleeve. One of the best is our ability to introduce them, thoughtfully, to the adult world. To open doors they can't yet open, yet are powerfully driven to explore, with wise accompaniment. This is how you keep the lights on and the passion to learn alive and growing, as it should, during adolescence.