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

Professor. Maker. Speaker.
I want to see schools unleash the creative potential in all teachers to transform classrooms into bastions of creativity and wonder. Read more →
Email me at john@educationrethink.com for speaking inquiries on design thinking and creativity.


  1. John,
    This is the way it should be. We say that kids need to fail but where is there room for failure when the ticket has to be punched. We say kids need to explore but when and where does that fit in? I agree, conversations should be occurring but are not to be found.
    I have always felt kids needed time, life is long, let learning happen in its own due course.
    Thanks again for a great message.

    1. Middle school is arguably the best place for this "safe failure" to happen. I think your post is timely and thoughtful and I wish more policymakers would read it!

    2. Thanks. I agree with Mike here. There needs to be room for failure in middle school.

  2. Yes. Age matters, as does maturity, both physical and mental. And of course, there are other factors, too. But you are very right. Thanks.

    1. Age and maturity. Exactly. Both of them are vital.

  3. I think even with the older kids (and adults) many of them are faking/aping an understanding/appreciation of the abstract, just enough to get a decent grade.

    The real problem is that there's no time to help everyone visualize the size of the sea because there are so many checkboxes of pointlessness lined up over the 12yrs. 90% of which will be forgotten within the following 5....

    1. I know that I've faked my way through things before ;)

  4. I taught older kids for a long time before I moved to 6th grade. Now I am teaching 6th grade and I confess I sometimes fail at scaffolding lessons into activities and concept that are approachable for my students. It's not that they aren't capable of deep critical and creative thinking. They just need me to walk them though the steps of it and provide a tighter framework than I am used to having to do.

    1. Yes! That's what I mean. I'm having to walk them through more of it. They are more risk-averse than eighth graders.

  5. I believe now the school system as a whole is only concerned with moving from lesson to lesson in order to get students to the next level and the student body as a whole is only concerned with memorizing the concepts in order to attain their letter grade. Personal maturity is not taken into consideration because it is not part of what teacher's are paid to assess and grade. I agree that these things should be taken into consideration. Interesting topic.


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