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 6: Middle Schooling in New Zealand and in Similar Countries

As indicated earlier, the 'middle school/middle schooling' structure and concept developed in the USA in the early part of the 20th century.


Overall, the research evidence on middle schooling in the USA, where around 20 million 10 to 15 year-old American students are enrolled, is mixed. There have been concerns that societal and demographic pressures, rather than evidence of their effectiveness, has led to the development of separate schools for young teens.


There has been a diversity of approaches to middle schools in the UK. As well, a marked decline in the number of middle schools since the early 1980s has occurred, and this decline is ongoing. Factors such as the introduction of National Curriculum and National Assessment, concerns over educational standards in middle schools, and financial concerns over maintaining a third tier of educational provision have all influenced this decline.


By contrast, Dinham and Rowe report that, in Australia, there has been an increasing focus on middle schooling over the past 20 years, albeit mainly in the non-government sector. But they caution that there is so far not a great deal of firm evidence on the effects of middle schools and middle schooling approaches on personal, social and academic achievement outcomes and that middle schooling in Australia is "…something of an unfinished project".

However reference is made in the review to two quite recent Australian middle schooling studies — the "Middle Years Research and Development Project" and "Beyond the Middle" — which have identified important factors for bringing about positive advances for students. These factors include the following. That:

  • schools and their communities recognise that there is a need for change;
  • school leaders and teachers believe that they have a responsibility for sustaining motivation and improving skills of teachers and students respectively;
  • whole-school commitment is secured;
  • there is a focus on the teaching–learning practices in the classroom;
  • approaches to assessing and reporting social and academic student outcomes are integrated and aligned;
  • school-based innovations in middle years pedagogy and assessment focus on student outcomes;
  • the curriculum is made less crowded to enable depth of understanding;
  • primary and secondary schools collaborate through clusters to build curriculum consistency and facilitate student transition;
  • professional learning teams are established to support teachers to plan, implement and evaluate school change;
  • reforms are supported by targeted increases in resources;
  • data-informed, evidence-based, evaluative approaches to instructional effectiveness and school improvement are adopted;
  • there is cooperation, consistency and partnership between primary and secondary teachers/schools;
  • there is use of a whole-school design model and a set of strategic intentions as a conceptual guide;
  • there is investment in teacher professional development; and
  • there is ongoing professional development of leaders to enhance staff and student learning.

New Zealand

Dinham and Rowe observe that despite debate and discussion that has taken place over many years, with 'strong views both in favour of and against the concept', 'middle school education has been relatively slow to develop in New Zealand'. They note however that New Zealand 'is unusual in having Intermediate Schools [first established in the early 1920s] catering for Years 7 and 8'.

Ward (2000) explained:

"In New Zealand … Intermediate Schools … feature homeroom teaching, characteristic of primary schools, with some additional specialist teaching. In this way they offer the pupils the continuity of the familiar integrated curriculum delivery model, while introducing specialist teaching which is more characteristic of secondary schools."

The reviewers refer to Nolan and Brown (2002) who 'make the point that although many elementary and intermediate teachers in New Zealand appear to be opposed to the four-year-model of middle schools (Years 7–10), they are increasingly adopting the philosophy and approaches of middle schooling'.

They also offer for consideration the following statement from Nolan and Brown:

"[While] the elementary and secondary schools which predominate in New Zealand have changed and developed in both general and specific ways over the years … the general form of education they provide has remained essentially the same. The elementary schools remain expressive and nurturing, focussed on the development of generic attitudes, knowledge and skills. In some important respects … New Zealand elementary schools are renowned internationally, but they are nonetheless not places well suited for emerging adolescents. The secondary schools have persisted with a largely discipline-based, compartmentalised, and academic curriculum and, in the main, their teachers employ a didactic form of pedagogy. The intermediates are generally thought to be different from the elementary and secondary schools. It remains moot … as to whether they cater to the needs of the children who attend them any better than do the other types of New Zealand schools which emerging adolescents attend."


  1. National Middle School Association – NMSA (2003a). This we Believe: Successful schools for young adolescents. Westerville, OH: Author. And, National Middle School Association – NMSA (2003b). Research and resources in support of 'This we Believe'. Westerville, OH: Author.
  2. Augustine, C., Juvonen , J., Le, V-N., Kaganoff, T., & Constant, L. (2004). Problems and Promise of the American Middle School. Rand Corporation. Available for download at: http://www.rand.org/pubs/research_briefs/RB8025/index1.html.
  3. Refer: UK Middle Schools. (undated). UK Middle Schools. Available at: http://www.tafkam.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk/msuk/index.html
  4. Luke, A.; Elkins, J., Weir, K., Land, R. et al. (2003). Beyond the middle: A report about literacy and numeracy development of target group students in the middle years of schooling (Volume 1). Canberra: Commonwealth Department of Education, Science and Training.
  5. Refer: Hill, P.W., Jane, G., Mackay, A., & Russell, V.J. (2002). Middle Years Research and Development (MYRAD) Project. A report to the Learning & Teaching Innovation Division, Department of Education & Training, Victoria. Melbourne, VIC: Centre for Applied Educational Research, The University of Melbourne.
  6. Refer Luke, Elkins, et al (2003). Ibid – endnote 13 above.
  7. Ward, R. (2000). Transition from middle to secondary school: a New Zealand Study', International Journal of Educational Research, 33, 365-374.
  8. Nolan, C., & Brown, M. (2002). The Fight for Middle School Education in New Zealand. Middle School Journal, 33(4), 34-44.