Lessons From My Middle Schoolers – Part 2: They Want a Purpose for Learning

I chose to teach at the middle school level because I just love that age group. They are constantly straddling the fence between child and teenager. Many of them look for approval from an adult figure while also pushing the boundaries of what’s acceptable (or not).

Middle schoolers are also refreshing because while they have a filter, many of them tend to trip over that especially when curiosity takes hold of them. Some of my favorite inquiries over my career include questions such as “Are you having a bad hair day?” and “Did you not sleep well last night? You don’t look well.” Believe me when I say that these queries came from a good place—they were not meant to be malicious. 

This lack of filter also extends to academic work. Middle schoolers know when they are being given busy work. Assigning 100 math problems for homework can easily be construed as busy work when 20 problems would probably suffice for practice. Answering questions at the end of a chapter in the history book is another assignment that would likely be perceived as busy work if it doesn’t result in some type of application of that knowledge when they come back to class the next day. 

Now they may not tell a teacher that they think the tasks are busy work, but they certainly talk about with their peers. And in my case, many of them wrote about it in their Living History Journals, but some just flat out tell me that they are being given busy work. They won’t tell me the teacher’s name (and I never ask), and they have no problem telling me which class it is—I guess they don’t realize that at a small school it’s easy to identify who teaches what and who’s giving busy work or not. 

Middle schoolers can easily switch from the people-pleasing child to a surly preteen in 0.1 second. And that switch can be quickly triggered when they feel as if the academic work they are being asked to do seems like something just to keep them busy. 

This is why it is imperative to design learning experiences that are meaningful. The definition of meaningful learning that I am using here stems from the work by Jonassen and colleagues (2008). Their research specifically focused on meaningful learning with technology. In this case, they propose that in order for learning to be meaningful, it must be active, authentic, constructive, cooperative, and intentional (Jonassen et al. 2008). While they focused on meaningful learning with technology, I believe that their research is relevant no matter if technology is used or not. 

For example, instead of assigning a 100 math problems for homework, why not assign two or three problems and then have them look for an example of that formula or skill being used at home or in their parent’s workplace? Why not bypass the questions at the end of the chapter in the history book, and instead have students find an example of a similar instance in current events and explain the parallel(s)? Maybe even give students a choice on how they want to demonstrate their learning? 

Middle schoolers know that they need to follow the directions of their teachers. They understand authority. But more importantly, they want to do something that is meaningful. Nobody likes busy work—and middle schoolers are no different. 

Yes, it takes more work to design learning experiences that are meaningful. But aren’t our future leaders worth it?


Jonassen, D., Howland, J., Marra, R. M., & Crimsond, D. (2008). Meaningful learning with technology (3rd ed.). Pearson Education.

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