Age Matters

I remember talking with a few sixth grade teachers (Russ, Philip, William, Josh) about reading and writing in middle school. I kept feeling like they were assuming too little of their students when they said, "John, that's too abstract" or "Yeah, my kids won't be interested in that right now." In contrast, when I shared those ideas with Stephen (a fellow eighth-grade teacher) I would hear, "That's great, but you might want to tweak it a little with . . ."

So, this year, in teaching sixth-grade, I often find myself baffled by the students. If I yell, they think it's their fault. If I apologize, they don't know what to do. They seem to love their teachers, regardless of how good or bad they are. And that's sixth grade right there.

But they also interrupt more often. They wiggle. They can't just "be chill" during an experiment. They still think, even after a hundred days, that technology is something cool. And that's sixth grade right there.

I'm seeing how they struggle with abstract concepts. Critical thinking feels new to them. I start a lesson on linear equations with the nature of equality, with what criteria makes a linear relationship and I realize, almost instantly, that I have to move it to an example and a series of examples and explain more than what I thought I would have to explain. It's the age when fractions are still hard and long division feels daunting. And that's sixth grade right there.

It's not an issue of low expectations to say, "Hey, kids just aren't ready for that yet." 

So, it has me thinking about the Common Core Standards and how few of the conversations seem to be about maturity and human development. It is absurd to ask a child to memorize the planets when she is still trying to figure out what happens to the moon when it changes each night. It is absurd to teach the notion of variables to a child who still sees the world in constants.

Yes, kids need to be ready for college, but not when college is a decade away. True, kids need job skills. However, job skills are a distant priority in a child who is trying to figure out how to "do school" and how to decode text and how to make it across the monkey bars without falling.

Don't get me wrong. I believe that children of all ages are capable of deep thinking. I believe that they can shock us with their wisdom and their insight and their knowledge. But I also believe that they are kids. And as kids, they don't think like adults. Not entirely, at least. So, when you ask a fourth grader to identify the key details in a job application or you ask a second grader (who still can't comprehend the size of the sea) to learn longitude and latitude, it's about as absurd as having an open bar in the cafeteria.



John Spencer is a teacher, author, speaker, and incessant doodler.
He is the co-author of Wendell the World's Worst Wizard
and the co-founder of Write About .

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