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 7: Identifying Key Concerns of Middle Schooling

Frequently raised concerns regarding students in the middle years of schooling include the following.

The Primary to Secondary Transition

A key concern underpinning middle schooling has been the primary to secondary transition. However,  it is emphasised that 'while some students will find the transition somewhat difficult, other students will relish the changes associated with a larger school, a greater number of teachers, older students, a larger peer group, and the variety and challenge of the secondary school.'

The reviewers also note that 'paradoxically, while some students fear that secondary school work will be difficult for them, there appears to be a significant issue with expectations and standards in the early secondary years that are too low for some students.  Boredom and disengagement can result from a lack of challenge, and can lead in turn to behavioural problems.'

Literacy and Numeracy in the Middle Years

The early secondary years mark the point where some students who were already underachieving in literacy (and numeracy) in the primary years fall further behind their peers. Because so much of schooling is literacy based (including mathematics), those students inadequately equipped with literacy skills can stall and even decline in the early to mid-secondary years. However there are literacy programmes and approaches which have been found to be effective in the middle years. Teachers' professional learning to master these approaches is strongly advocated.

Like literacy, numeracy can also be problematic in the early secondary years where, again, some students plateau or even decline in achievement. Once more, the quality of teaching and teachers' professional learning have been found to be vital factors in facilitating student achievement in numeracy.

The Issue of Student Engagement

One of the most frequently stated concerns with schooling in the middle years is the decline in engagement and even disconnection with schooling that can occur for some students, and its resultant effects.

As with other educational terminology, looseness of definition can be problematic.  Student engagement is sometimes conflated with 'time on task' and lesson participation, although, alternatively, 'engagement' is often taken to be a wider outcome of schooling to do with school life, and not just something occurring in individual lessons.

The Longitudinal Surveys of Australian Youth (LSAY) project incorporated a study of student engagement. Its findings included:

  • Ÿ  that levels of engagement were higher where students believed that their school had a good climate, that is, that their school had high quality teachers, effective discipline, high levels of student learning and a positive school spirit;
  • Ÿ  that overall level of student engagement in the school was a strong predictor of [individual student] engagement and that high engagement at the school level moderated the negative effects of socio-economic status and indigenous status, indicating that the school environment has an important influence on student engagement.

Overall, the LSAY project found that the school a student attends does matter when it comes to engagement. This is partly a result of resources and advantage — wealthier schools can offer a greater amount and variety of extracurricular activities — but the efforts made by schools and the emphasis that is placed on extracurricular activity is also important. Strong participation in such activities more closely connects students to the school and "…[is seen to result in] 'flow-on' effects to more academic parts of the curriculum".

Higher-order Thinking

A concern with traditional schooling during the middle years is that of insufficiently high intellectual demands being placed on students, and the 'dumbing down' of the curriculum. Higher-order thinking is therefore seen as an important outcome of effective middle years schooling.

However, research results on the efficacy of teaching higher-order thinking skills in middle schooling contexts so far appear only tentative. Some studies report improved motivation, engagement and achievement, although Dinham and Rowe found that the effects of higher-order thinking skills approaches 'tend to be conflated with other learner-centred approaches'.

Pedagogy for the Middle Years

An often stated feature of middle schooling is the utilisation of pedagogies that are believed to be more suited to the developmental needs and interests of adolescents. Dinham and Rowe state that 'These are commonly taken to be strategies such as 'cooperative learning', greater student involvement in negotiating the curriculum, concentration on materials and skills relevant to middle school-age students and their lives, 'discovery learning', and 'team teaching'.'

They refer to an observation made by the Northern Territory Council of Government School Organisations (2005, p.26) in its review of middle schooling:

"Teachers are seen as the key factor in successful middle schools.  Classroom pedagogy must respond to the diverse needs and abilities of middle year students. To respond effectively, pedagogy must be flexible, reflecting creative uses of time, space and other resources as well as group and individual needs.  It must also be learner-centred with an emphasis on self-directed and co-constructed learning.  Flexible classrooms provide every learner with tasks that are engaging and that develop understanding and skills."

A common finding in the published literature, however, is that teachers frequently feel under-prepared and ill-equipped to adopt and utilise these approaches and strategies.The literature review records that: 'There is also concern about a general lack of middle school-specific teacher training, with the result that teachers are attempting to adopt their 'regular' training and teaching styles, either primary or secondary, to middle school settings. A further tension in preparing middle years teachers is achieving the 'right balance' between generalist teaching knowledge, which can work against depth, and subject specialisation, which can work against breadth of curriculum knowledge, pedagogy and understanding. The literature also recommends that middle years teachers have pedagogic knowledge and skills in literacy and numeracy, as well as ICT.'

An evaluation of three middle schools in Australia found that:

"…students [often]  held a negative perception of the teaching and learning environment provided in the schools." 

As a result, the evaluators, Rafiq and Woolnough (2005), recommended the need for specific pre-service and in-service training for middle years teachers, with such training underpinned by an understanding of adolescents' needs. But they also noted that teachers' enthusiasm for the concept was an issue and that interdisciplinary teaching needed to go further.

As well, Dinham and Rowe highlighted a further issue: that of the extent to which 'middle schooling' should be responsible for addressing certain social and behavioural issues. They stated: 'Overall, what comes through in Rafiq and Woolnough's evaluation report is a sense that the expectations for middle schools to solve a raft of problems associated with adolescence (bullying and violence, drugs and smoking are mentioned), in addition to facilitating student learning, is unreasonable.'

Discovery learning or 'constructivism'

Another key debate around middle schooling pedagogy is that of 'discovery learning'. Discovery learning is sometimes labelled cognitive constructivism, or social constructivism, and is seen by some as "a preferred instructional method" in education, especially during the middle years. Mayer (2004) is quoted:

"As constructivism has become the dominant view of how students learn, it may seem obvious to equate active learning with active methods of instruction.  Thus, educators who wish to use constructivist methods of instruction are often encouraged to focus on discovery learning – in which students are free to work in a learning environment with little or no guidance."

Mayer concluded from a review of the research literature that...

"…the formulaconstructivism = hands-on activity is a formula for educational disaster. Activity may help promote meaningful learning, but instead of behavioural activityper se(eg, hands-on activity, discussion, and free exploration), the kind of activity that really promotes meaningful learning is cognitive activity (eg, selecting, organising, and integrating knowledge). Instead of depending solely on learning by doing or learning by discussion, the most genuine approach to constructivist learning is learning by thinking … guidance, structure, and focused goals should not be ignored. This is the consistent and clear lesson of decade after decade of research on the effects of discovery methods.'

According to Dinham and Rowe, Mayer makes a vital additional point regarding constructivist-based discovery learning:

"The larger message … is that psychology has something useful to contribute to the ongoing debate about education reform … particularly given overwhelming findings from the large body of evidence-based psychological research for the primacy and utility of direct/explicitinstruction. … Whereas constructivismis an established, legitimate theory of learningand knowing, … it is not a theory of teaching."

They consider that this has particular relevance for effective pedagogy during the middle years, especially given the strong advocacy in middle schooling teaching for 'hands-on', 'action-oriented', constructivist learning activities.

In highlighting that constructivism should not be regarded as an operational theory of teaching, Wilson (2005, pp.2–3), (a former CEO of the Australian Curriculum Corporation), suggested that:

"… Australian and New Zealand operational views of constructivism confuse a theory of knowing with a theory of teaching. We confuse the need for the child to construct her own knowledge with a form of pedagogy which sees it as the child's responsibility to achieve that. We focus on the action of the student in the construction of knowledge rather than the action of the teacher in engaging with the child's current misconceptions and structuring experiences to challenge those misconceptions. … The constructivist theory of knowing has been used to justify a non-interventionist theory of pedagogy, whereas it is a fair interpretation to argue that constructivism requires vigorous interventionist teaching: how, after all, is a student with misconceptions supposed to challenge them unaided? How does she even know they are misconceptions?

We need, instead, a view of teaching which emphasises that the role of the teacher is to intervene vigorously and systematically; that is done on the basis of excellent knowledge of a domain and of student conceptions and misconceptions in that domain, assembled from high quality formative assessments; and that the purpose of the intervention is to ensure that the child's construction of knowledge leads her to a more correct understanding of the domain."

Wilson's assertions are said to highlight concerns about the many, pre-service teacher education programmes, including some in Australia and New Zealand, that are 'based on constructivist views of both learning and teaching'.

The Importance of a Language of Pedagogy for the Middle Years

A number of studies have highlighted the need for teachers engaged in middle schooling initiatives to have a language or model of pedagogy on which to base discussions, planning, teacher learning, student assessment and evaluation. The reviewers refer to middle schooling research which found that:

"…It was clear that there wasn't a shared language for talking about pedagogy between and among the teachers and researchers, and that those terms that were used did not necessarily mean the same thing to all participants."

In contrast, they cite evidence from an evaluation in which participating schools were required to use the recently introduced NSW Model of Pedagogy in planning, conducting and evaluating the Quality Teaching Action Learning (QTAL) projects with which they were involved. 'It was found that teachers, university advisors, system officials and the evaluation team members were all able to reflect on and communicate about pedagogy and pedagogic change using the framework and terminology provided by the NSW model. It was also apparent that many very experienced teachers had been revitalised by both the model and the QTAL projects, and were now engaging in deep discussion about teaching and learning, something which they admitted was largely absent previously.' 

Authentic, Valid Assessment

Dinham and Rowe state that there are two broad aspects of trends in assessment for the middle years. The first is the attempt to devise more effective and richer assessment tasks 'in-house'. The second is the increased use of externally devised standardised tests (state/provincial, national, international) and the reporting of student and school results in various forms, such as more easily understood student and school reports, and through formulating and publicising school 'league tables'.

In this context, they note that 'the interactive online Assessment Tools for Teaching and Learning (asTTle) is arguably the most sophisticated and advanced assessment monitoring tool available. AsTTle is an educational resource for assessing literacy and numeracy developed for the New Zealand Ministry of Education by the University of Auckland under the leadership of Professor John Hattie. AsTTleprovides teachers, students, and parents with information about a student's level of achievement, relative to the curriculum achievement outcomes.

An important feature of asTTle is that teachers can use the provided item bank to create an 'in house' test designed for their own students' learning needs. Once the tests are scored, the asTTle tool generates interactive graphic reports that allow teachers to analyse student achievement against curriculum levels, curriculum objectives and population norms.

The review document reports that 'highly effective schools have been found to increasingly use internal and external assessment techniques such as asTTle, using the derived achievement progress data for diagnostic purposes'.

Unlike what is available via asTTle, somehave expressed concerns about traditional assessment methods in schools: that they lack 'authenticity' in terms of validity,  and do not allow for 'assessment for learning' or the monitoring of student achievement progress and/or 'growth'. 

The implicit assumption with 'authentic assessment' is that such tasks are more likely to connect with students' life experiences. Such 'relevance' is considered important in motivating and engaging students. Another point worth noting is that most frameworks and models of pedagogy integrate assessment and, as asserted by Wyatt-Smith et al (2005, p.272), "effective pedagogy requires effective assessment… ."

The Assessment Reform Group (1999, pp.4–5) listed key ingredients for improving learning through assessment, that is:

  • Ÿ  the provision of effective feedback to students;
  • Ÿ  the active involvement of students in their own learning;
  • Ÿ  adjusting teaching to take account of the results of assessment;
  • Ÿ  a recognition of the profound influence assessment has on the motivation and self-esteem of pupils, both of which have crucial influences on learning; and
  • Ÿ  the need for students to be able to assess themselves and understand how to improve.

But, at the same time, the Assessment Reform Group identified several 'inhibiting factors' of, or cautions about, use of assessment, including:

  • Ÿ  "a tendency for teachers to assess quantity of work and presentation rather than the quality of learning;
  • Ÿ  greater attention given to marking and grading … rather than to providing advice for improvement;
  • Ÿ  a strong emphasis on comparing pupils with each other which demoralises the less successful learners;
  • Ÿ  that teachers' feedback to pupils often serves social and managerial purposes rather than helping them to learn more effectively;
  • Ÿ  teachers not knowing enough about their pupils' learning needs."

It is pointed out in the review document that 'with increasingly greater emphasis on assessment, reporting and accountability, occurring within a context of greater attention being placed on teacher and school performance, as well as litigation for educational malpractice, a key issue lies with the skills, knowledge and tools teachers and schools need to devise authentic, valid and reliable assessment tasks that aid and record learning progress'. 

Involving Students in the Curriculum and School

A frequently advocated feature of middle schooling is that of student involvement in classroom curriculum planning: research suggests that 'when students have a 'voice' in and ownership of aspects of the curriculum and the teaching/learning process, their learning is more effective and rewarding'.

Many studies have highlighted the importance of positive relationships with students. Positive relationships are a product of particular approaches to teaching and learning, but they are also the foundation or resource for further improvement in student, teacher and school performance. The ÆSOP study of Years 7 to 10 schools in New South Wales, for example, noted that features of 38 highly performing schools in terms of educational outcomes included a primary focus on students, learning and teaching:

"Within the school there was concern for students as people, and teaching and learning were the prime considerations of the school. There were, commonly, cross-school approaches to pedagogy, assessment, reporting and tracking of student achievement, with a particular focus on the primary to secondary transition. There was an emphasis on data-informed decision making … and on having clear guidelines and effective communication to ensure that everyone understood procedures and where he or she stood. However, when needed, compassion and flexibility were evident."


"Student welfare was found to be central … and seen as every staff member's responsibility. The purpose of student support and welfare was not about 'warm fuzzies' or boosting self-concept but of 'getting students into learning'. Support from school leaders for student welfare programs and procedures was essential and students clearly understood that student support and welfare was something done forand not to them."

Generalist Teachers, Curriculum Integration and Interdisciplinarity

Generalist teachers are frequently a feature of middle schools and middle schooling approaches.

A related approach is that of curriculum integration in the middle years rather than traditional discrete subjects. Research indicates that while there can be some slight gains in areas such as student behaviour, attendance and motivation through interdisciplinary approaches, there are also logistical and planning difficulties for teachers.

But the reviewers state that the research on the efficacy of one teaching approach over another in middle schooling, including in New Zealand intermediate schools, is equivocal.


  1. Wilson, B. (2005). Unlocking potential. Paper presented at the 2005 Australian and New Zealand School of Government (AZSOG) conference, The University of Sydney, 29 September 2005.
  2. Sellar, S., & Cormack, P. (2006). (Re)conceptualising Middle Years Pedagogy. Paper presented to Australian Association for Research in Education annual conference, Adelaide, SA, November 27-30.
  3. Refer: Aubusson, P., Brady, L., & Dinham, S.K. (2005). Action Learning: What Works? A research report prepared for the New South Wales Department of Education and Training. Sydney, NSW: University of Technology Sydney.
  4. Refer to: e-asTTle on the TKI website.
  5. For example: Dinham, S., Buckland, C., Callingham, R., & Mays, H. (2008). Factors responsible for the superior performance of male students in Years 3 and 5 standardised testing at one Australian Primary School. Curriculum and Teaching, 23 (1), (in press).
  6. See the ACT Department of Education and Training website.
  7. Wyatt-Smith, C.; Cumming, J., & Elkins, J. (2005). Redesigning assessment. In D. Pendergast and N. Bahr (Eds.), Teaching Middle Years Rethinking Curriculum, Pedagogy and Assessment.  Cross Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin.
  8. Assessment Reform Group. (1999). Assessment for Learning Beyond the Black Box.
  9. For example: Hunter, L. & Park, N. (2005, p.164). Negotiating curriculum. In D. Pendergast and and N. Bahr (Eds.), Teaching Middle Years Rethinking Curriculum, Pedagogy and Assessment. Cross Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin.
  10. ; See: Dinham, S.K. (2007c). How schools get moving and keep improving: Leadership for teacher learning, student success and school renewal. Australian Journal of Education, 51(3), 263-275.
  11. Rafiq, M-i-L., & Woolnough, J. (2005). Middle Schooling. An exploration of practice in the light of theory. Paper presented at the Australian Association for Research in Education annual conference, Parramatta, NSW, 27 November- 1 December, 2005.
  12. Mayer, R. (2004). Should there be a three-strikes rule against pure Discovery Learning? American Psychologist, 59(1) 14-19.
  13. See: Hilton, A. & Hilton, G. (2005, p.209). Higher-order thinking. In D. Pendergast and N. Bahr (Eds.), Teaching Middle Years Rethinking Curriculum, Pedagogy and Assessment. Cross Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin.
  14. Ibid – refer endnote 3 for details.
  15. For example: Hill, P.W., & Russell, V.J. (1999). Systematic, whole-school reform of the middle years of schooling. University of Melbourne: Centre for Applied Educational Research.
  16. For example: Dole, S. (2005, pp.123–132). Numeracy. In D. Pendergast and N. Bahr (Eds.), Teaching Middle Years Rethinking Curriculum, Pedagogy and Assessment. Cross Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin. And, Pegg, J., Lynch, T., & Panizzon, D. (2007). Exceptional Outcomes in Mathematics Education. Teneriffe, Qld: Post Pressed.
  17. Refer: Fullarton, S. (2002). Student engagement with school: Individual and school-level influences. Longitudinal Surveys of Australian Youth, No. 27. Camberwell, VIC: Australian Council for Educational Research.
  18. For example: Maclean, R. (2005, pp.104–112). Literacies and multiliteracies. In D. Pendergast and N. Bahr (Eds.), Teaching Middle Years Rethinking Curriculum, Pedagogy and Assessment. Cross Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin. And, Meiers, M. (2007). Writing to learn, NSWIT Research Digest, 2007(1).