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From normal to nerd - and back again.

LISTENING TO people talk about the middle school years, I often think that phase should be renamed the "muddle school years," with many children mired in a state of "mental pause." More formally stated by Susan Harter, Nancy Rumbaugh Whitesell, and Patricia Kowalski of the University of Denver in the winter 1992 issue of the American Educational Research Journal, "The shift from elementary to junior high school has been causally implicated in producing lowered perceptions of academic competence, decreased academic motivation, and attenuated intrinsic interest in learning."

The reasons adduced for these changes are numerous: middle schools (used interchangeably with junior high schools here) are more impersonal, more formal, more evaluative, and more competitive than elementary schools. Some researchers have argued that this shift in school environment does not fit the needs of young adolescents. Just as these youngsters are bidding for more autonomy, the middle school controls them more; just as they are entering a period of increased self-consciousness, the middle school promotes social comparisons.

However, as Harter and her colleagues observe, most of the research in the area has focused on the transition from the sixth grade in elementary school to the seventh grade in middle school. It thus mixes a grade change and a change in school setting. In addition, most research has been cross-sectional and has looked only at systematic shifts in groups. These researchers set out to disentangle grade and school shifts and to see how different groups of students coped with the changes over time. (The researchers say that they will treat "individual differences" but do not do so.) Some students in the study changed grades but not schools; some changed both. Some students were entering the sixth grade; some, the seventh; some, the eighth.

One analysis showed that neither students who changed grades nor students who changed schools had particularly stable perceptions of their academic competence, with correlations between measures of such perceptions ranging from about .60 to about .70 over the seven-month period of the study. Those who were low in perceived competence when the study began showed increasing perceptions of competence later, while the reverse was true for those with high initial perceptions of competence (even taking into account the possibility of regression to the mean). Those who perceived their competence as declining also had lower intrinsic motivation for schoolwork and more negative reactions to school, while those who saw themselves as more competent over time also reported higher motivation and lower levels of negative feelings about school.

In terms of grade change alone versus grade and school change, students who initially had low levels of perceived competence and low intrinsic motivation reported anxiety about their schoolwork if they changed grades and school, but not if they stayed in their familiar school.

Harter and her colleagues state that students reported a greater emphasis on both academic evaluations and social comparisons in the middle grades. Students who reported perceiving a great deal of emphasis on academic performance and its evaluation in their new middle school environment also reported a significantly higher level of extrinsic motivation to perform and more anxiety about their performance. The differences between various groups did not seem to be generally affected by the grades the students were in.

All students showed much more awareness of changes in educational environment and practice than in social comparisons. The researchers note, however, that other research has found that, as children move up the grade ladder, they typically use social comparisons more but are less and less willing to admit it.

In some places, the researchers seem to imply that the downward trajectory of self-concept for some children will continue into the high school years. However, another study, this one by David Kinney of the University of Chicago in the January 1993 issue of Sociology of Education, suggests that, in high school, many students recover from the doldrums of the middle years. Kinney's research, when compared, to that of the Denver researchers, shows how dramatically different methods can reveal different outcomes.

Kinney conducted his research by "hanging out" with high school students both in schools and at social and athletic activities and by interviewing them about their current lives and their previous lives in middle school. His findings suggest that the Denver researchers may have overlooked a critical dimension of middle schools in their research. While they administered instruments to measure perceived academic competence, motivation, and so on, the most important distinction in middle school may be that between the "trendies"' and the "nerds." The latter are also known as dweebs, dorks, geeks, brainiacs, and computer jocks. The existence of these two groups and their extreme separation surfaces over and over in Kinney's case studies.

In conducting his research, Kinney attempted to give himself a neutral identity by dressing like the students, maintaining a distance from the faculty, and stressing the confidentially of the interviews. He also thinks he may have been helped by his youthful appearance: teachers who did not know him often mistook him for a student.

Kinney reports that in his interviews "members of all the different peer groups indicated that the adolescents consistently and vividly recalled their middle school experiences as being divided into two distinct crowds, the unpopular nerds or dweebs and the popular trendies. . . . The peer culture of middle school was defined primarily by the activities and concerns of the leading crowd of male athletes, cheerleaders, and their best friends." About 80% of the population were nerds or dweebs, while 20% were trendies.

The following exchange between two former middle school nerds is typical.

Ross: And middle school --

Ted: We were just nerds. I mean --

Ross: Yeah --

Ted: People hated us.

Ross: Well, they didn't hate us, but

we weren't --

Ted: Popular. Which was either you

were popular or you weren't.

Ross: In middle school it's very defined.

There's popular people and unpopular

people. It's just very -- rigid.

You were popular or unpopular. That's


Ted: And there wasn't people that

were in between.

Ross: Oh no!

Ted: You just had one route [to becoming

popular], and then there was

the other. And we were the other, and

-- basically you were afraid of getting

laughed at about anything you did because

if you did one thing that was out

of the ordinary, and you weren't expected

to do anything out of the ordinary,

then you were laughed at and

made fun of, and you wouldn't fit the

group at all, and then, of course, you

were excluded, and then you didn't

even exist.

Ross: You got "nuked," so to speak.

Some people in middle school were labeled nerds because of their academic prowess, others because of personal qualities such as shyness or awkwardness around others. The trendies tended to perceive them as academically oriented to the point of having no social life. Indeed, Kinney reports that the nerds tended not to date or go to parties in the middle years.

For many students (Kinney reports no numbers), high school offered a chance to rebound. For some of the middle school nerds, sudden growth spurts were sufficient to produce newfound confidence or perceived competence. For others, the diverse extracurricular options in high school -- yearbook, music, theater, various clubs, teams engaged in academic competition -- offered satisfying outlets. These activities, too, often put participants in contact with older students who provided coaching and encouragement.

Then, too, the trendies lost their monopoly on popularity as two new groups, punk rockers and headbangers, emerged. Not only did the headbangers compete with the trendies for popularity, but they also had the chutzpah to criticize trendies for being trendies. Ross and Ted reflect on how this diversity helped them:

Ross: We were goons in middle

School. We're not as shy [anymore] --

Ted: Exactly. I got the attitude when

I moved from middle school to high

school that I don't give a damn what

people are gonna think. Because in

middle school you're always afraid of

offending someone.

Ross: And there wasn't any way for

us to get out of it anyway --

Ted: And once you get to high

school, if you can find some crazier

upper-class people and hang around

with them, the possibilities are limitless.

I mean, we got here; we met some

crazier upper-class people [through

participating in a "minor" sport], who

just basically gave us the idea "Go

ahead. Go for it!"

Ross: Don't worry about it so much.

Stop being so self-conscious.

In general, many of the nerds in Kinney's study began to refer to themselves as normal in high school. Some of them did this by developing a "wider talent base" -- that is, by engaging in activities that the trendies valued. Others developed attitudes that let them become independent of the opinions of the trendies; they went their own way. Males made more use of the first path; females more frequently took the second.

While some critics of schools have also portrayed students as vacuous airheads, that is not the way Kinney views them:

What continually struck me while

listening to these teenagers talk with

friends in natural settings and group interviews

was the high level of intimacy

and intensity with which they expressed

themselves. Their conversations

clicked along at a rapid pace as

they openly shared stories and feelings

about their past and ongoing experiences.

They exuded emotion and reassured

one another through their verbal

and nonverbal expressions. They

finished each other's sentences, which

appeared as if they are reading each

other's minds.

Kinney thinks that the shared experience of ridicule may be part of the reason why these students become so supportive and understanding of one another.

It is hard to know whether the middle school environment Kinney describes is typical across the country. Eighty percent nerds to 20% trendies with no middle ground at all sounds extreme to me. Kinney conducted his study in an ethnically homogeneous small city of 60,000, and one wonders whether the results would hold in settings in which, early on, ethnic variety introduces a heterogeneity that Kinney's nerds found only when they got to high school. I invite any readers with testimony affirming or contradicting Kinney to write to me in care of the Kappan.

In some ways, it would be nice to combine the research techniques used in these two studies. Harter and her colleagues give us the standard research methodology, with its customary statistics and replicability. But Kinney's transcriptions contain a color and richness that is lacking in the Denver research.

GERALD W. BRACEY is aresearch psychologist and an education cosultant living in the Washington, D.C., area.
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Title Annotation:Research; middle school
Author:Bracey, Gerald W.
Publication:Phi Delta Kappan
Article Type:Column
Date:May 1, 1993
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