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Active learning in the middle grades classroom: overcoming the barriers to implementation.


The Association for Middle Level Education (AMLE) published a critical position paper in 2010, This We Believe: Keys to Educating Young Adolescents. In this publication, AMLE describes a framework containing four essential attributes and 16 characteristics of effective middle level schools. The 16 characteristics are further divided into 3 categories: (1) curriculum, instruction, and assessment, (2) leadership and organization, and (3) culture and community (NMSA, 2010). Of the 5 curriculum, instruction, and assessment principles there are 2 principles directly related to instruction:

* Students and teachers are engaged in active, purposeful learning (Active Learning).

* Educators use multiple learning and teaching approaches (Multiple Learning Approaches) (NMSA, 2010, p. 14).

Studies have found that middle level schools that more authentically follow or that have high levels of implementation with the middle school concept, now articulated in the This We Believe document, have higher student achievement (McEwin & Greene, 2010; Mertens & Flowers, 2006). However, an unfortunate trend reveals that this type of instruction is not regularly happening in many middle level classrooms. Anecdotally, many teachers report that these principles cannot be implemented in the climate of standardized testing and accountability (Wood, 2004). McEwin and Greene (2010) report in their survey of randomly selected middle schools that 81% of respondents reported regularly using direct instruction, while 64% of respondents reported regularly using cooperative learning, and only 42% of respondents regularly used inquiry teaching. They found that "schools still tend to rely more heavily on teacher-centered direct instruction" (p. 55). Musoleno and White (2010) also conclude that developmentally appropriate instructional practices that are aligned with middle school philosophy have decreased since the No Child Left Behind Act increased the pressure of standardized testing on schools and teachers.

Purpose of the Study

The purpose of this study was to examine teachers who choose to and are able to implement the instruction principles advocated by AMLE and understand the factors related to their ability to implement those principles. Specifically, two research questions were addressed:

1. What are the barriers or challenges that middle level teachers face when attempting to implement the instruction principles (i.e. active learning and multiple learning approaches) of effective middle level education proposed by the Association for Middle Level Education (NMSA, 2010)?

2. How are some teachers able to implement the instruction principles (i.e. active learning and multiple learning approaches) of effective middle level education proposed by the Association for Middle Level Education (NMSA, 2010) when many teachers report that these principles are not possible in the current climate of standardized testing and accountability?


Active Learning

The first AMLE instruction principle is, "Students and teachers are engaged in active, purposeful learning" (NMSA, 2010, p. 14). Active learning requires the student to take a "dynamic and energetic role" (Petress, 2008, p. 566) in his or her own learning. The learner is not overly dependent on the teacher, but rather takes control of his/her learning and plays an active role in the learning process (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 2003; Petress, 2008). One definition of active learning is:

The process of having students engage in some activity that forces them to reflect upon ideas and how they are using those ideas. Requiring students to regularly assess their own degree of understanding and skill at handling concepts or problems in a particular discipline. The attainment of knowledge by participating or contributing The process of keeping students mentally, and often physically, active in their learning through activities that involve them in gathering information, thinking, and problem solving. (Collins & O'Brien, 2003, p. 5)

The idea of active learning is clearly rooted in Dewey's theories on learning through experience. Dewey (1897) advocated for changing the view of learning from passively receiving knowledge from teachers to the view that learning proceeds from activity. The most effective instructional practices with middle level students involve student-centered approaches to learning where students are allowed to play an active role in their own learning and education. The focus of instruction should be the student, rather than the teacher (NMSA, 2010).

Advocates for active learning in the middle grades agree that learning comes through direct experience and interaction with the intellectual, social, and physical environments (Edwards, Kemp, & Page, 2014; Nesbin, 2012).

Intellectual--Active learning is fundamental to meeting the needs of early adolescents and methodologies that involve actively constructing new knowledge through problem solving and inquiry have long been advocated by leaders in the middle school movement (AMLE, 2012).

Students come to a learning situation with existing knowledge as well as misconceptions about the concept and constructivist theory suggests that teachers facilitate students learning as they build on that preexisting schema (Bransford et al., 2003). Young adolescents have an intense curiosity about the world around them and are trying to make sense of that world. Instruction is most effective when teachers use that curiosity to build on the existing knowledge students bring to the classroom (Nesbin, 2012). Instructional strategies such as problem solving, questioning, inquiry, and interdisciplinary projects are ideal for intellectual active learning.

An example of an instructional strategy that engages students in active learning intellectually is mind maps. Merchie and Van Keer (2013) found that 5 th and 6th grade students were able to improve their intellectual processing of textual information by using mind maps. The students were able to process the text more deeply and made more associations between relevant key words.

Capraro, Capraro, Carter, and Harbaugh (2010) found that middle school mathematics teachers who actively engaged students intellectually through probing for student understanding, encouraging curiosity and questioning, and using accurate representational forms saw improved student performance on measures of their learning of fractions, decimals, and percents.

Social--Early adolescents are peer oriented and using Vygotsky's notion of socially constructed learning (Bransford et al., 2003) is a significant aspect of classrooms that are aligned with the middle school concept (AMLE, 2012). Small group activities that allow middle level students to collaborate with each other as they learn content are engaging to young adolescents (Nesbin, 2012).

Hernandez-Ramos and De La Paz (2009) completed a research study comparing students who learned a social studies unit by working in groups to create multimedia projects to share with their classmates, with students who received more traditional, passive forms of instruction. The students who were engaged in the small group project-based learning experience did indeed perform better on the content knowledge test at the end of the unit than the students in the comparison group.

Physical--Young adolescents are active and energetic and physical movement in the classroom is important as well. Active learning strategies such as experiential learning, manipulatives, experiments, and hands-on projects engage middle level students (Nesbin, 2012). Randler and Hulde (2007) found that students in the middle grades were more engaged when they participated in authentic hands-on activities and in experiential learning.

General Research on Active Learning--Research has demonstrated that active learning is connected to increased student engagement and therefore, increased student achievement. Valentine and Collins (2011) found that high levels of student engagement enhanced student achievement scores, but even more importantly found that student disengagement greatly lowered student achievement levels. Yair (2000) concluded that the type of instructional method used by a teacher had an impact on student engagement as well. The more active instructional methods yielded higher rates of student engagement.

Multiple Learning Approaches

The second AMLE instruction principle is, "Educators use multiple learning and teaching approaches" (NMSA, 2010, p. 14). It is important to use a variety of teaching approaches with middle level learners that capitalize on their diverse skills, abilities, cultural backgrounds, and learning styles. Academic instruction should incorporate a variety of methods that are aligned with the content being taught. Methods that are characterized by inquiry, problem-solving, student-centered, hands-on experiences, experiential, technology, cooperative learning, and authentic activities such as service learning should be utilized in the middle level classroom (Pate, 2013; Tomlinnson & McTighe, 2006).

Middle level students should be able to learn in a variety of formats and contexts and they should learn to pose questions and solve problems using a variety of pedagogical techniques. Early adolescents come to middle level classrooms with a wide range of needs, background experiences, cultural backgrounds, and prior knowledge. Meeting the needs of their diverse students requires teachers who are flexible and versatile in their teaching approaches. Another consideration is student learning styles, as Sullivan (1993) reported in a meta-analysis of research on teaching based on student learning styles that flexible teaching resulted in improved achievement and attitude gains. Not only should instructional strategies be varied, but grouping strategies as well. Student achievement is positively enhanced when teachers carefully select a variety of learning experiences that offer multiple ways for students to interact with the content (Brodhagen & Gorud, 2012; NMSA, 2010).

Teacher Implementation

While there are research studies about the effectiveness of specific active learning strategies with middle grades students, not much is known about the gap in implementation. Even though active learning is widely accepted as the preferred method of instruction for middle grades students (Nesbin, 2012; NMSA, 2010; Pate, 2013), most middle grades classrooms still maintain a traditional mode of instruction (McEwin & Greene, 2010; Musoleno & White, 2010). In a study of middle school teachers responding to increased testing and accountability, Faulkner and Cook (2006) found that 100% of the teachers believed in the need for multiple instructional approaches. However, when reporting the strategies they had used in the previous 30 days, passive learning approaches such as lecture and worksheets were the most commonly utilized and active learning approaches such as inquiry-based activities and integrated units were the least utilized. There is a gap between what middle grades educators believe about active learning and multiple learning approaches and what is actually occurring the majority of the time in middle grades classroom instruction.

There is some limited research about the barriers to implementing multiple learning approaches in classrooms and what it takes for teachers to overcome those barriers. For example, DiCamillo and Gradwell (2012) studied two eighth grade social studies teachers who implemented simulations as an instructional strategy in spite of state curriculum requirements, state testing requirements, and teaching diverse students. The researchers claimed these ambitious teachers demonstrated that simulation is a plausible instructional strategy that could be implemented in other middle grades classrooms.

However, more research needs to be done to fully understand the barriers to implementing the type of instruction many middle grades educators have accepted as best practice and what can be done to help teachers overcome those barriers and implement active learning and multiple learning approaches in their instruction.


A qualitative research design was used for this study. This approach focuses on the explanatory power of the specific phenomenon and understanding the things that influenced these teachers so that they are able to implement the AMLE instruction principles in their classrooms.

Participant Selection

Since the purpose of the study was to examine teachers who successfully implement the AMLE instruction principles, participants were selected through an intensity sampling method (Patton, 2002), which involves selecting "information-rich cases that manifest the phenomenon intensely, but not extremely" (Miles & Huberman, 1994, p. 28).

The primary criterion for selecting the teachers was that the AMLE curriculum, instruction, and assessment principles were accurate descriptors of their classrooms. In order to find teachers who do exhibit these principles, the researcher sought names using three different methods. In a few cases, teachers with whom the researcher already had a working relationship with and had observed their teaching were approached. Suggestions were also solicited from undergraduate preservice teachers who do field placements in the local schools. They were asked to recommend teachers they have observed who implement the This We Believe Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment principles that were studied in class. Finally, principals in the university's partner schools were approached and asked for recommendations based on the five principles. In every case, before the participant was selected for inclusion in the study, it was verified with his/her building principal that the AMLE instruction principles were accurate descriptors of the teacher's classroom. In most cases, this was verified by a second source, either the researcher or one of the undergraduate preservice teachers.

Secondary criteria were considered as well. Teachers were selected from five different middle schools in four different school systems in the southeastern United States. It was important to include teachers from different schools and school systems to understand the variety of influences on the middle level classroom teacher as different school systems have polices in addition to state regulations that impact teachers' instructional decisions in the classroom. Urban, suburban, and rural schools with a variety of demographics were included in the study. It was also important to include at least two teachers of each of the four core subjects: language arts, science, mathematics, and social studies. In addition, it was desirable to have diverse participants in terms of gender and ethnicity, as well as teachers at different points in their career: beginning, midcareer, and veteran teachers. Having a diverse group of teachers would help to determine the contextual and intervening conditions under which the emerging theory holds (Creswell, 2007). Out of a list of 28 teachers suggested, only 10 were selected to be included in the study based on all of the criteria. Of those 10 teachers, 9 teachers from 5 different schools in 4 different school systems chose to participate. Table 1 gives an overview of the 9 teachers who agreed to participate in the study.

Data Collection

In order to learn about the teaching of each participant, three forms of data were collected over a period of 5 months: individual interviews, classroom observations, and lesson plans. This allowed for data triangulation and a more comprehensive understanding of the participants' teaching. Details about each of these data collection methods are found here:

Interviews. Each teacher participated in an individual, semistructured interview that lasted approximately 45-60 minutes. The interviews were audio-recorded and then transcribed verbatim. The interview protocol consisted of a series of open-ended questions for the participants about the two AMLE instruction principles (active learning and multiple learning approaches). The two instruction principles were placed in front of the participant for reference throughout the interview:

* Students and teachers are engaged in active, purposeful learning.

* Educators use multiple learning and teaching approaches (NMSA, 2010, p. 14).

For each principle, participants were asked about their beliefs regarding the principle, how the principle might be seen in their classrooms, the barriers to implementing the principle and how they have overcome those challenges as well as things that have influenced them in implementing the principle. Further questions were asked about their college teacher preparation programs, professional development, administrative support, and other teachers or resources that have influenced their teaching.

Observations. Direct observations have the advantage of helping the researcher understand the context in order to gain a holistic perspective (Patton, 2002) and in this case, gave the researcher the opportunity to observe the teachers implementing the AMLE instruction principles in their classrooms. Two classroom observations were completed on each participant by the researcher and these observations were scheduled in advance with the classroom teacher. The researcher assumed an "onlooker observer" role (Patton, 2002, p. 265) and sat out of the way of instruction. An unstructured observation approach was used, as described by McKechnie (2008), where the researcher attempted to document as much as possible about the classroom instruction and interactions without using a checklist or structured observation protocol. The observations were focused; however, by the guiding framework of the two AMLE instruction principles of active learning and multiple learning approaches. During the lesson, the researcher typed descriptive observation notes throughout an entire class period, including time notations every time the teacher moved to a new instructional method. These notes included excerpts of exact language used by the teacher and students whenever possible. During the lesson and after the class was over, the researcher recorded reflective notes at the end of the observation record, including thoughts and impressions related to active learning and multiple learning approaches with particular attention paid to the responses of the students and their level of engagement during various instructional activities.

Lesson Plans. The researcher requested and received 2 weeks of lesson plans from each teacher. The teachers were asked for a typical 2 weeks of lessons and to send the lesson plans in whatever format the school required them to use. These were sent electronically to the researcher and then filed by pseudonyms.

Role of the Researcher

The researcher's role was much closer to what Patton (2002) terms as an onlooker role rather than a participant observer role. For example, during the classroom observations, the researcher did not interact with the teachers or their students, but rather observed. However, it should be noted that the researcher could not completely use an etic approach as an outsider. For example, four of the teachers have previously supervised student teachers from the researcher's university and 3 of the schools were partner schools with the university. Therefore, the researcher began the study with some previous knowledge of the schools and the expectations placed on the teachers in regards to curriculum and instruction.

Data Analysis

The data were analyzed initially using the two AMLE instruction principles. Using MAXQDA qualitative analysis software the interview transcripts were reviewed and passages coded that directly or indirectly related to the two instruction principles of the This We Believe (NMSA, 2010) publication: active learning and multiple learning approaches. This holistic method of immersion was a first approach to understanding the overall contents and possible categories that may develop. During this process, MAXQDA was also used to record theoretical memos that were attached to specific passages as well as free memos that recorded impressions of the researcher and observations about patterns in the data.

Next the interview data were analyzed using the constant comparative method (Charmaz, 2006; Glaser & Strauss, 1967), a systematic approach that employs various levels of coding to theorize a phenomenon being studied. First, open coding was completed using emic codes, or key words of the participants themselves, such as "not letting it beat you" or "it's about the kids." Then the researcher proceeded through a process of axial coding and selective coding (Grbich, 2013). Through this approach to analysis, categories were developed and relationships were identified among those categories across participants. All of the interview transcripts were reviewed again and passages coded as "barriers" when the participants mentioned challenges to implementing one of the instruction principles, and passages were coded as "overcoming" when the participants mentioned ways they overcame those challenges in order to implement the principles. This category also included means of support they received such as professional development, mentoring, administrative support, resources, et cetera. The two codes, "barriers" and "overcoming" were directly aligned with the two research questions. Next, utilizing the MAXQDA software, intersections of these codes with the two instruction principles were examined. For example, passages were examined that were coded both "barriers" and "active learning"; "overcoming" and "active learning"; et cetera. This enabled the researcher to further refine the original emic codes into themes that intersected with both principles and all nine participants.

Figure 1 shows a tree diagram that illustrates this coding process. By beginning with the intersection of the initial codes of "overcoming" and "active learning" and then examining the emic codes in those interview passages (examples shown in Figure 1) such as "you just figure it out" and "you just do it", it is clear how these codes were categorized and themes such as "tenacity" emerged.

The observation field notes were also coded using MAXQDA. Only instructional time was coded, so activities such as bathroom breaks, transitions between activities, field trip announcements, et cetera. were not coded or factored into the instructional time of the class period. Two levels of codes were utilized. First, instructional activities were coded as whole class, small group, or individual using the following code book:

* Whole Class: Coded whole class if the class is engaged together in an activity. Examples: whole class discussion, listening to the teacher explain a PowerPoint, watching a video, reading a text orally, going over answers to a worksheet, et cetera.

* Small Groups: Coded small group if the students are working in small groups of 2-6 students. Examples: completing an activity in small groups, doing a worksheet together with a partner, completing a science experiment in small groups, discussing a question in small groups, et cetera.

* Individual: Coded individual if students are working individually on an assignment. Examples: completing a worksheet individually, working on the computer individually, reading a text individually, et cetera.

The second level of codes used for the observation field notes were active learning and passive learning using the following code book:

* Passive Learning: Coded passive learning if students receive information passively. Examples: listening to the teacher explain a concept, lecture, reading a text, watching a video, copying notes, et cetera.

* Active Learning: Coded active learning if students are actively engaged (intellectually, socially, and/or physically) in learning. Examples: discussions, answering questions, projects, problem solving, et cetera.


Several methods suggested by Harding (2013) were employed to check validity of the findings. First, as Harding suggested the researcher read the findings and then read back through the transcripts to confirm whether the story accurately reflected what was said by the respondents. Second, a member check was done with the participants at two points. The transcripts of the interviews were sent to each participant and they were asked to make any revisions, additions, or deletions that they wished. None chose to do so. Third, this report of the study was sent to the participants to determine if they believed it accurately described their views. All of the participants agreed that the report did accurately represent them. Harding makes a fourth suggestion which was followed as well. The researcher actively looked for data that did not fit the patterns and could provide an alternative explanation. Additionally, triangulation was used in gathering multiple sources of data on each teacher (interviews, lesson plans, and observations) and at least two people verifying the overall match of the teacher's classroom to the two instruction principles. Finally, as recommended by Harding, an outside researcher with no connection to the participants was asked to review this report and comment on whether the findings were justified.


These nine teachers have similar challenges to overcome as other middle level teachers. Only one of the teachers, Erin, teaches in a school that draws from an affluent area with well-educated, middle class families. The other eight teachers teach in Title 1 schools that draw mostly from low-income families. Table 2 gives an overview of the demographics of the schools the participants teach in. The school districts and the schools have been under immense pressure to raise standardized test scores and have implemented a variety of initiatives to accomplish that. The teachers must follow rigid curriculum guides that are aligned with benchmark tests. All of the schools require the content-alike teachers on each grade level to plan together and to implement the same lesson plans in their classrooms. To monitor this, the state has implemented a new teacher evaluation system that utilizes data from observations, data supplied by the teachers, and student test scores.

Of course, there are other challenges that middle level teachers must deal with in working with early adolescents in addition to state and district policies and regulations. An example of this occurred one day when the researcher arrived to observe Katherine More-field. She was sitting on a stool talking with her class. She saw the researcher and came to the door and apologized profusely that she had forgotten the scheduled observation. She reported that a student in that class had committed suicide two nights earlier. The observation was rescheduled, but this event is indicative of the wide range of challenges that a middle level teacher encounters.

The first research question deals with the issue of barriers. What are the barriers or challenges that middle level teachers face when attempting to implement the instruction principles of effective middle level education proposed by the Association for Middle Level Education (NMSA, 2010)? In examining the interview data, the teachers identified a variety of barriers to implementing active learning and multiple learning approaches. These barriers were categorized and four themes emerged: challenges related to the system, challenges related to students, challenges related to content, and challenges within the teachers.

Challenges Related to the System

Challenges related to the system (meaning the larger educational system within which their classrooms lie) were the most frequently cited by the teachers and the most common of these by far was time. The teachers lamented not having enough time to plan and not having enough instructional time. As Erin shared,

   You can't do as much as you used to could.
   We used to could do interdisciplinary things.
   There is no time for that. Every once in a
   while we might match up, but it gets harder
   and harder each year. We used to do full scale
   things, with all the subject areas, we'd have a
   huge event. We just can't do all of that and do
   all the criteria.

And Clarisa expressed it this way,

   Time is one, because you've got so much to
   teach that you feel like you've got to take the
   time to find out who the kids are. But I don't
   always have time necessarily because I've
   got to do x, y, z to get them ready for the

Most of the teachers blamed the time issue on high-stakes testing and the amount of content that needs to be covered in time to have the students prepared for the tests. Erin said, "You know, with the curriculum maps and emphasis on CRCT testing a lot of the creativity in teaching has left because of that." Aaron also suggested, "It's always the pressure that we are under now. It's not that educators are not trying to make work engaging, but we have so much to get through." That pressure seemed to be impacting the teachers' ability to implement the AMLE instruction principles.

In addition to time and standardized testing, the teachers also mentioned other challenges beyond their control including class size and lack of resources. Katherine admitted,

   You have a lot of students in the classroom
   and students like especially in the social studies
   and sciences where a lot of the SPED students
   are not covered in here [no inclusion
   coteacher], and if they have a hard time learning
   information and you don't have anyone in
   here to help you and you have 31 children in
   the classroom, that can be difficult. That can
   be very hard. That is a big barrier that I see.

Karina and Nick both mentioned lack of resources as an issue. Karina described working an extra job to make money so that she could buy science materials for various activities. Nick gave an example of having to read the first three chapters of a district-required novel on the board as a class because the student copies had not arrived.

Challenges Related to Students

Challenges with the students were also frequently mentioned. Clarisa explained, "Behavior is one because some kids can't handle it, they need that but they can't handle it." And Nick described a common early adolescent issue, "They might already have had something go wrong that day and they have already shut down for the day." The teachers described both disruptive behaviors by individual students as well as a whole group of students. But a couple of the teachers also mentioned student apathy as a challenge. Keisha observed,

   or a child that just doesn't want to get it. You
   get what I'm saying--a child that's capable
   but doesn't give a flying floozy about learning
   at all. Now that really does make my job
   difficult because you try these things and you
   have them in mind but they just are not willing.

The challenges with students were not just related to behavior; however, they were also related to the wide range of abilities in the classroom. As Erin asserted, "Because nowadays there is such a variety of ability in classrooms, that it's really a challenge to keep those stimulated who are really bright and keep the ones that are low not to give up and dance in-between that."

Challenges Related to Content

Another group of barriers mentioned by the teachers were related to the content they teach. Katherine claimed that a real challenge was teachers being uncomfortable with their content since they were moved among different grade levels and subjects regularly. This makes it difficult for the teacher to plan engaging activities and implement a challenging curriculum because they do not have "the comfort level" with the subject that they need to do that well. Two of the teachers also discussed the challenges of making their content relevant to the students. As Pam said, "Sometimes it's just a stretch to make the learning purposeful, I try to give the students a reason that yes, you will use this at some point in your life."

Challenges Within the Teachers

The final category of barriers was an interesting one. The teachers had internal dilemmas related to really implementing the instruction principles, even though they all readily stated that they believed they were important. One struggle that most of the teachers mentioned was that they just "need more ideas" and the time to find those ideas. Keisha expressed it this way, "You just run out of ideas ... when you run out of things to do and you say, 'I am overusing groups,' 'I'm overusing working with a peer,' 'I'm overusing the computers,' because they become over reliant on it."

Several of the teachers admitted that truly implementing the two principles well required more effort on the part of the teacher and they suggested the possibility that perhaps some teachers may not be willing to put forth the time and effort. Katherine claimed, "I really think it's a teacher's comfort ... it's hard to have a lot of different activities. It's easier just to throw out a worksheet or a PowerPoint that's created." And Crystal acknowledged that it was more challenging to use active learning in the classroom rather than a more teacher-directed approach and this requires a shift for the teacher,

   Just getting out of your comfort zone. Letting
   go. We are so used to direct instruction,
   whole class in rows, and then when we are
   really determined to shake it up, we put two
   desks together. So, I'm really doing something.

The barriers mentioned by these teachers seem representative of challenges commonly mentioned by middle level teachers. However, what is interesting is that all nine of these teachers have found ways to overcome these barriers and to implement the AMLE instruction principles in their classrooms. The next section describes how these nine teachers implemented active learning and multiple learning approaches in their classrooms.


Active Learning

In order to see the active learning principle in action, two observations were done on each teacher. During these observations time spent doing various activities were recorded and coded according to the codebook defined above. When this was tabulated, it was determined that the 18 lessons taught by the nine participants favored an active learning approach. In every case, over half of the instructional time was devoted to active learning. Table 3 displays the amount of minutes devoted to active learning in each lesson.

Multiple Learning Approaches

During the lesson observations, the teachers used a wide variety of pedagogical techniques. On average, four different instructional strategies were used per lesson. Table 4 lists the 23 different instructional approaches observed in the 18 lessons.


There were a variety of character traits and explanations offered by the teachers to answer the second research question: How are some teachers able to implement AMLE instruction principles of effective middle level education proposed by the Association for Middle Level Education (NMSA, 2010) when many teachers report that these principles are not possible in the current climate of standardized testing and accountability?

Characteristics such as "organized" or "patient" were mentioned by individual teachers, but not all of the teachers. However, there were three major themes that emerged from the data, were referred to repeatedly, and that describe all 9 participants. These three characteristics were clearly evident in the interviews and substantiated in the classroom observations: tenacity, student focused, and experimental.


After asking each teacher about the challenges they faced in implementing each of the instruction principles, the researcher asked the teacher how they were able to do that type of instruction in spite of the challenges and obstacles. The teachers began using phrases such as, "you just do it" and "you have to very determined." One character trait all nine of these teachers seem to have in common is a willingness and determination to overcome barriers to implement the type of instruction that aligns with This We Believe (NMSA, 2010) and that the teachers, themselves believe in.

Pam: I think it's tenacity, you can't just give it up ... I think it's a commitment that you just have to make. If you throw your hands up and say, "It can't be done," then you've kind of made your mind up that it can't be done. Sometimes it's just persistence.

Clarisa: I guess I try not to let it stop me, you can get so overwhelmed by all the stuff that's in your way that you just say forget it but I try not to say forget it.

Student Focused

It was very interesting in interviewing the teachers that they rarely spoke about themselves but they answered most of the questions by talking about their students. They were very student focused and always spoke about making instructional decisions in terms of the impact on the students. The nine teachers obviously truly enjoy working with early adolescents and seem to care deeply about their students. This was apparent not only in the language they used in the interviews, but in the classroom observations as well. Each of the teachers had clearly established relationships with their students and those relationships were an important part of the learning that takes place in the classroom.

Clarisa: But I see the look on the kids' faces when they walk in and see that and say, "I wish I had a mom at home that could help me the way your mom helped you". And I just try not to put them in that position, and I don't know maybe in that regard I shelter them too much, but anything I ask them to do--I want it to be something to build them up and not break them down.

Nick: The kids see that I care for them, that I am willing to listen to what they have to say. That is how they see that I respect them, by me listening to them. A lot of teachers want to shut them down and don't want to listen to what their problems are. You gotta help the kids out sometimes.

Keisha: You start to care a whole lot. and the look of frustration on the kid's face is pain-staking to me. I don't want them to be frustrated with something I taught.

Erin: Well, I think that if the teacher doesn't enjoy the age group she's in, then that's 80% of the battle. You know, you need to of course know the material but if you don't like the kids, then you can't think like a child and approach teaching that way. That's why I teach middle school. I absolutely adore the quirky nature of a middle school child.


Another character trait that all nine teachers had in common was the willingness to take risks, to try new things, and to adjust if it wasn't working for their students. All of the teachers had a willingness to learn new strategies and to experiment with them in their classrooms. They explore strategies they find on the Internet, through professional development, college courses, their own creativity, and from other colleagues. They evaluated the effectiveness of those strategies in terms of their students' success.

Clarisa: I guess one that I am willing to do it; a lot of teachers are not willing to try something different to think outside of the box. I am willing to try anything once as long as it's not going to hurt anybody. I'm willing to try it and if it doesn't work we will go back and revamp, redo it the next day and figure it out.

Keisha: Basically, I was forced to by seeing that kids were not getting it. I had to try something, I had to try something different.

Karina: We do teacher observations or peer observations. ... "Ooo, I like how she did that ..." "I want to try that ..." I have actually gone over to the high school since we are life science and they do biology and see how they do things and then bring stuff back here. So, I hate to say it but it's just a lot of 'I like that' ... 'I'd like to try that' ... just bring it in and go with it.


Because intensity sampling was used, this was a very select group of teachers. In fact, all nine teachers had at least a master's degree. It is not clear from the data how much their education impacted their teaching versus other influences. They are clearly motivated teachers, which brings into question the ability to generalize the findings to a "typical" middle level teacher. Future research should include a broader random sampling approach to include a variety of middle level teachers. In addition, all of the observations were scheduled in advance with the teachers. While they were told the observer wanted to see a typical lesson, it is possible that they may have altered their normal instructional practices knowing that they were being observed. Future research studies should include unscheduled observations that utilize a more structured observation protocol.

Further research should explore the intersection of these findings and research on teacher self-efficacy and teacher agency. Since these teachers possessed the confidence and tenacity to overcome the constraints and challenges they found themselves in, it brings into question how formidable the barriers actually are. Are the barriers expressed by these teachers and other middle level teachers real barriers that make active learning and multiple learning approaches prohibitive in the middle grades classroom or are they perceived barriers, which could be overcome by the typical middle level teacher if s/he is given appropriate support? Research about teacher agency could inform this research about middle level teacher implementation of the AMLE instruction principles and explore how teachers might be empowered to actively challenge restrictive practices and other obstacles in order to incorporate active learning and multiple learning approaches into their instruction.


This study adds to the limited research about active learning and multiple learning approaches in the middle grades in today's current climate of testing and accountability. The nine teachers who participated in this study demonstrated that it is possible to implement the AMLE instruction principles of active learning and multiple learning approaches despite experiencing many of the challenges common to middle level teaching. These teachers were not teaching in privileged bubbles, in perfect schools, with perfect students. They were in difficult situations and dealing with the same daunting challenges that plague teachers across the country. The teachers experienced challenges related to the system within which they teach, challenges related to students, challenges related to content, and challenges within the teachers themselves. However, the teachers all possessed three common characteristics that enabled them to overcome those challenges and to implement both active learning and multiple learning approaches. All nine teachers exhibited tenacity, were student focused, and were experimental in trying different instructional approaches.

Susan Edwards

Georgia Regents University


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* Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to: Susan Edwards,

Table 1

Teacher       Grade     Subject      Years of    Degrees Earned
(Pseudonym)                         Experience

Clarisa         6       Social          15       * BSEd in
Garcia                  studies                  middle grades

                                                 * MEd in

Pam McLean      8        Math           16       * BSEd in
                                                 middle grades

                                                 * MEd in
                                                 foundations of

                                                 * EdS in

Nick            8      Language         2        * BA in
Johnson                  arts                    communications

                                                 * MAT in middle

Keisha          5        Math           5        * BS in
Smith                                            elementary
                                                 (Grades 5-8)

                                                 * MEd in
                                                 curriculum and

Crystal         6       Science         2        * BSEd in
Jenkins                                          middle grades

                                                 * MEd in
                                                 curriculum and

Karina          7       Science         3        * BS in early
Jacobs                                           childhood

                                                 * MEd in
                                                 curriculum and

                                                 * EdS in
                                                 curriculum and

Aaron         6/7/8     Reading         2        * BA in
Harris                remediation                business

                                                 * MAT in middle

                                                 * EdS in
                                                 curriculum and

Erin Kiser      7       Science         25       * BS in middle

                                                 * MEd in

Katherine       8       Social          9        * BS in
Morefield               studies                  secondary

                                                 * MEd in
                                                 curriculum and

                                                 * EdS in
                                                 curriculum and

School Demographics

Teacher             School (Pseudonym)          Black   White   Other

Clarisa       Timberwood Middle School-Rural     48%     48%     4%

Keisha        Jefferson Charter School-Urban     96%     1%      3%

Crystal       Bryant Middle School-Rural         67%     32%     1%

Erin          Reston Middle School-Suburban      14%     73%     13%

Katherine     Greene Middle School-Suburban      34%     46%     20%

Teacher       Special   Gifted   Free or
(Pseudonym)    Needs             Reduced

Clarisa         12%      10%       71%

Keisha          8%        2%       99%

Crystal         9%        4%       82%

Erin            6%       20%       10%

Katherine       8%        8%       52%

Minutes of Instructional Time Utilizing Active Learning

              Whole    Small    Individual    Whole
              Class    Group      Active      Class
              Active   Active                Passive

Pam-1                    45
Pam-2           8        23                    17
Nick-1          21                  18
Nick-2          5        23                    25
Keisha-1        14       13         13          2
Keisha-2        14       46                     7
Katherine-1     47                              4
Katherine-2              52
Karina-1                 45         1           5
Karina-2                            43          2
Erin-1          5        50         4
Erin-2          10       22                    16
Crystal-1       12       21         4           3
Crystal-2       8        25                     7
Clarisa-1       12       15         5          15
Clarisa-2       48                  12
Aaron-1                             37
Aaron-2                             37

Total          204      380        174         103

              Individual       Total        Percent of
               Passive     Instructional   Instructional
                               Time          Time That

Pam-1                           45              100
Pam-2                           48              65
Nick-1            7             46              85
Nick-2                          53              53
Keisha-1                        42              95
Keisha-2                        67              90
Katherine-1                     51              92
Katherine-2                     52              100
Karina-1                        51              90
Karina-2                        45              96
Erin-1                          59              100
Erin-2            8             56              57
Crystal-1                       40              93
Crystal-2         5             45              73
Clarisa-1         13            60              53
Clarisa-2                       60              100
Aaron-1                         37              100
Aaron-2                         37              100

Total             33            894

Types of Instructional Activities Observed

* Small group problem solving
* Whole class discussion
* Teacher explanation
* Whole class question and answer
* Video quiz
* Silent reading
* Small groups writing sentences
* Whole class lecture
* Students listen to audio-recording
* Small group projects
* Whole class game
* Learning stations
* Video
* Math journal writing
* Solving problems on student whiteboards
* Whole class read aloud
* Worksheet
* Science lab activity
* Pop quiz
* Smartboard activity
* Rap song
* Lecture with PowerPoint
* Notes on foldables
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Author:Edwards, Susan
Publication:Middle Grades Research Journal
Article Type:Report
Date:Mar 22, 2015
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