Teaching and Learning in Middle Schooling: A Review of the Literature

Publication Details

This paper is a summary of a review of literature carried out in 2007 for the Ministry of Education by Dinham and Rowe of the Australian Council for Educational Research.

Their review, and the summary presented here, are components of a Ministry research programme focused on teaching and learning in the middle schooling years. Other projects within the programme include: a "Study of Students’ Transition from Primary to Secondary Schooling"; an investigation of the skills, knowledge and values that may be required by teachers to most effectively meet the needs of Years 7 to 10 students; and an in-depth analysis of ‘student engagement’ during the middle schooling years.

Author(s): Ministry of Education.

Date Published: March 2009

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Section 9: Responses to the Issues and Perceived Problems: Does 'Middle Schooling' Make a Difference?

'Responses to the issues of middle schooling have ranged from the adoption of single strategies or interventions to the less common and more challenging totally integrated approaches. While data on student achievement and phenomena such as suspension and absenteeism are fairly readily available, linking these outcomes to matters such as curriculum, pedagogy, assessment and school organisation is more difficult.'

According to the reviewers, one of the issues with attempting to measure the outcome of any intervention is that it is difficult to distinguish the effect of that initiative from the many activities that schools will be undertaking in the middle years at any given time.

'A further problem occurs where more than one school is implementing an initiative, often from a centrally determined (systemic) and supported program. In this case, there is frequently a range in program 'take up' and thus effect. Some schools will be "early adopters" and will enthusiastically take up and support an initiative, while other schools may only do the minimum in supporting and driving the intended change. Thus, in measuring or evaluating the overall outcome of any initiative, there is likely to be a wide range of both adoption and impact.'

The Importance of Teacher Professional Learning

The reviewers note that 'teacher professional development is vital in the success of any initiative or intervention. Teachers need time, space and external assistance if a strategy is to have a realistic chance of success. Reluctance of teachers (and schools) to change, poor preparation for and 'selling' of the change, together with imposition of extra responsibilities, can all put a brake on the success of new programs and approaches.'

'What many empirical studies have demonstrated is that change management can be as important as the nature of the change itself. There can also be problems with mandated versus voluntary and self-directed change, the latter often having a greater deal of commitment, empowerment and resultant effectiveness.'

Leadership and Teachers' Professional Learning

Another key factor in creating an environment where teachers can teach and their students can learn is that of educational leadership. Effective educational leaders place students and their development at the centre of the school and support the professional learning of staff. They create a climate of high expectations, professional behaviour and accountability to set in place an upward cycle of improvement.

Intervention Responses

Many responses to the perceived challenges and problems of the middle years have involved merging or compromising the features of primary and secondary schooling, often in a largely secondary setting. In summary, interventions include any combination of the following approaches:

  • designated junior secondary schools (eg, Albany Junior High School, Auckland, established in 2005); establishing separate senior secondary schools/colleges;
  • physically separating junior secondary classes from senior students and teachers, and from primary classes in some cases;
  • use of home rooms to reduce disruption and to establish a richer learning environment, especially in literacy;
  • generalist teachers, team teaching and integrated curricula/inter-disciplinarity;
  • flexible learning spaces and a more open attitude, breaking down the isolation of the individual classroom;
  • more holistic view of teaching and learning; meta-cognition;
  • collaboratively designing and assessing/moderating common assessment tasks; 'outcomes based' learning, 'authentic assessment';
  • data informed decision making; explicit achievement standards and targets;
  • fewer, but longer, lessons to enable greater depth of treatment and reduce disruption;
  • increased level of pastoral care from a team of teachers who are more available and who 'follow' students as they progress through the school;
  • consistent follow-up and early intervention in problems through procedures and teacher communication and cooperation;
  • efforts to increase student engagement through such means as 'student centred learning' and focussing more on perceived needs and interests of students;
  • more frequent, better informed feedback to students and parents;
  • sharing student performance and other data with feeder primary schools – knowing students better as people and learners; more effectively understanding and meeting their needs;
  • explicit, high behavioural standards.

From their analysis of the research on middle schooling, the reviewers consider that there is little firm research evidence on the effect of various initiatives on student outcomes, especially student achievement. However, on the basis of the studies they found that provide some more robust insights about the impact of middle schooling initiatives, they record that:

  • teachers in these studies believed that the introduction of middle schooling practices improved student engagement and attitudes to learning; there was also evidence of gradual change in teaching practices;
  • interdisciplinary team teaching was seen as a promising practice that had a positive effect on the achievement and engagement of middle years students;
  • students and teachers believed that project-based learning is beneficial and effective;
  • a considerable number of studies demonstrated that co-operative learning methods produced higher achievement than competitive and individualistic learning;
  • the effect of flexible scheduling on student motivation and achievement appeared to be inconclusive;
  • keeping groups of students together for two or more years with the same teachers seemed to be a promising practice to improve teacher-student relationships and student attitudes to school;
  • student advisory programmes appear to be a promising, although yet unproven, practice to promote a positive school climate;
  • more research is needed to determine how middle schooling practices might best be implemented in different circumstances.

Although research has confirmed that many of the approaches listed above are desirable and can be effective in the overall context of quality teaching, each needs to be considered in the broader context of the school and the teaching and learning environment. The reviewers point out that 'none of these interventions is likely to be effective if introduced in isolation'.


  1. For example: NT COGSO (2005, p.5). Ibid.
  2. Elsworth, G., Kleinhenz, E., & Beavis, A. (2004). Evaluation of the Middle Years Reform Program. Melbourne, VIC: RMIT University, and Australian Council for Educational Research.
  3. Aubusson, Brady and Dinham (2005). Ibid.
  4. Aubusson, P., Steele, F., Dinham, S.K. & Brady, L. (2007). Action learning in teacher learning community formation: informative or transformative? Teacher Development, 11(2), 133-148.
  5. For example, NT CGSO. Ibid.