The Heart & Science of Deep Learning in Middle School

Posted by Allyson McCloud - 16 March, 2018

IMG_3968.jpgA 7th grader prepares for an upcoming science test. She is sitting amidst a mess of papers and a netbook while socializing with friends. 

At first glance, it looks like total chaos, but there is method to the madness.  When you look more closely, you see color-coded vocabulary lists, self-created online quizzes, and visual notes. When they study in a group you hear students answering questions verbally, quizzing each other on vocabulary words, and giving feedback on study strategies.

And if they're not trying out these multiple study methods, they're potentially missing out. 

So how does what we know about the adolescent brain inform us as educators to help develop these skills and cultivate deep thinking and learning in the middle school? 


During the middle school years, students move into what is known as the formal operational stage. Adolescents can create and test hypotheses and think about abstract issues that were previously inaccessible in earlier grades.




Middle school is a key time to incrementally develop the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain responsible for:

  • reasoning,
  • problem-solving,
  • regulating feelings,
  • thinking,
  • and higher-order thinking.

When we capitalize upon the neuroplasticity of the brain, we create many opportunities for deep learning.

Through experiences and exposures, learners create and strengthen the neural networks in their brains and essentially become more intelligent.

Neural pathways

When a student repeatedly recalls a memory during class activities or through effective homework assignments, the brain moves information from short-term memory to long-term memory, and learning is more permanent. During carefully crafted learning activities, multiple senses are invoked, and information is networked in multiple locations in the brain. Students then have multiple pathways to recall information when needed, making it easier to remember the material.

The Randolph Idea Path

At Randolph, we developed a model called the “Idea Path” used to frame thinking from Kindergarten through 12th grade.The Idea Path takes students through nonlinear stages of Ask, Imagine, Plan, Create, Improve, Share, and allows them to build strong connections to the concepts they work with. We provide numerous additional opportunities for “sticky,” memorable learning during the middle school years.

Six Ways Randolph Middle School Students Learn Experientially

Here are six (of many) ways that we incorporate effective learning strategies into our middle school program:

1. Academic Coursework Connections

Middle school students engage in numerous activities that connect their learning to the world around them through reading, writing, speaking, listening, and doing. We strive to move from rote memorization, which creates isolated pieces of information in the brain, to more effective strategies for memory retrieval and storage.

French fashion.jpgProjects and experiences provide opportunities for multi-sensory learning, thus building redundant, stronger pathways to a memory. When a student has activated prior knowledge in their brain and then has the occasion to apply the information in a novel way, the brain more effectively moves the acquired information into long-term memory. The projects and activities are enjoyable and engaging to our students, yet are highly effective for learning.

Our world languages students practice their target languages through projects and experiences. Our 5th graders recently took part in a fashion show, a culminating project to demonstrate their color and clothing vocabulary. Students dressed up in a costume of their choice and walked the red carpet while their partner described them in at least 10 sentences. Students were asked to retrieve prior knowledge (color and clothing vocabulary) and apply it in a new way, strengthening their memory. Multiple senses – sight, sound and vision - and thus multiple neural pathways, were activated.

Our 8th grade Spanish students recently experienced the art of teaching a lesson to their peers. In this project, students taught the vocabulary associated with an area of the body (head, torso, internal organs, arms and legs). They were responsible for the lesson from start to finish, including brainstorming the associated vocabulary, creating the vocabulary list, crafting a visual image, creating a digital learning tool and compiling a lesson plan.

Spanish project.jpgOn the day of the lesson, each student led a 15-minute lesson, directed two explicit practice activities that required students to read, write, speak, and listen in Spanish, and gave a self-created assessment based upon the material. Students have strong recall of this information because they have used multiple senses, and because they have activated neural pathways related to the facts learned and the activity itself.

The middle school English program is centered upon the Columbia University Reading and Writing Project. Students are provided with ample time to engage with books of appropriate length and challenge, and they are explicitly taught skills that proficient readers employ. Within writing workshop units, students work as professional writers as they craft a variety of writing pieces. Sixth graders recently constructed personal narratives, a unit that included mini-lessons on idea-generation techniques, elaboration, and depth. This unit is particularly effective because it's personal, heightening student attention and priming the brain to encode new information.

New writing strategies, linked to emotional memories, create long-lasting recall of information.

2. Foundations and Study Skills

Our 5th graders participate in a weekly Foundations class to learn and practice vital organization and work skills. They begin the year by examining their weekly schedules, learning to use a student planner, and technology skills like Microsoft Word and Google Drive. Once they have a set of tools to call upon in their coursework, students are asked to employ metacognitive tasks, such as reflecting upon their learning preferences, organizational methods, and student behaviors. When students respond to questions such as “What went well? What would you do differently?”, they tend to use the successful strategies again.

Strong metacognitive ability has been found to be a key indicator for academic success and is increasingly important in the workforce. Fifth graders are also introduced to effective multi-sensory study strategies, such as spaced practice, creating audio quiz recordings, and playing charades with vocabulary words or historical events (a very popular strategy at this age!)

Strong metacognitive ability is a key indicator for success. 

Our older students are invited to attend periodic study skills lunch sessions. Students have learned that within one day the average person will remember only about a third of what they learned if they do not engage with the information. It is ideal to utilize distributed practice: students summarize the information immediately following learning and then review within one day, at least once per week for a month, then monthly to continue to easily recall the information. Students also learn to interleave or mix up topics as they study, create their own study guides, and use metacognitive strategies to determine where misunderstandings lie.

Middle school is a time where students can experiment with study strategies to find what works best for them, and we encourage this type of self-reflection through discussions with advisors and teachers.

3. Interim and Non-Cycle Days

Our schedule allows us to include activities not typically found in a traditional school day. We have time built into our day for assemblies. Students can listen to the band perform, watch a school play, or hear a speaker. We also have the flexibility to schedule a day without regular classes to engage in meaningful activities, and choose these days based on grade-level activities.

7th Grade STEM Day - 5068596.jpgEach experience is personal, student-guided, and memorable.

In the fall, the 7th grade spent a Wednesday engaged in STEM activities, ranging from a team challenge to a water filtration activity to clips from "The Martian.”

Fifth and 6th graders will choose from a menu of experiences during InterimPast activities have included “Kid Knits”, where students learned about the NICU and impoverished areas and made hats for others, and “Top Chef,” a cooking skills class that included a trip to a restaurant to see how a kitchen operates. Each experience is personal, student-guided, and memorable.

4. Co-curricular Trips

The curriculum for each grade includes a class trip to experience first-hand what has been studied in the classroom. Our 7th grade students travel to the Heifer Ranch in Perryville, Ark. This experience connects to their history course with a goal of better understanding how others experience life and developing empathy. Teacher Whitney Andrews best describes the Global Studies classroom, where "students learn about current events with an emphasis on how to approach serious topics in a respectful and mature manner. Students study the refugee crisis both by looking at the large-scale numbers and by reading personal accounts of refugee experiences. Heifer allows the students to, if even for one night, experience the life of someone else in the world. The visit to Heifer makes their learning more real and tangible to each student, and they come back with questions and a different level of concern for others around the globe."

Seventh grade is an ideal year for this trip, as students better process emotional responses and understand another person’s perspective as the prefrontal cortex (the area of the brain responsible for executive function) develops.

Our students attend Space Camp in 5th grade, the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont in 6th grade, and Washington, D.C., in their 8th grade year. Each trip has a strong connection to the curriculum.

5. Flex Block

Our 7th and 8th graders have “Flex Block” once per week. They meet in their house groups to cover topics not included in the core curriculum. The 7th grade flex block, which includes Digital Citizenship, Changes and Choices, SPARK, Communication Skills, and Financial Literacy, is a collection of topics around issues of personal responsibility. Through this experience, students gain background knowledge necessary to make sound emotional, physical, and financial choices, and communicate clearly with others.

We know that stress, nutrition, sleep, and harmful choices can have great effects on learning outcomes so we educate students on these factors. The highly personal nature of these courses engages students and ensures a link from previous knowledge to newly acquired information, promoting strong learning.

In 8th grade, the flex block courses are designed for students to learn how they can impact change in the world around them. Courses include Leading and Succeeding, COPE (Challenging Outdoor Physical Experience), CPR, and our new Idea Lab course, where students have an opportunity to uncover their passions and write proposals for how they can use their strengths and ideas to connect positively with others.

6. Physical Education for a Healthy Life

Students in our physical education program learn about healthy living, physical fitness, personal responsibility, and collaboration. Students in the first two years participate in a grade-specific course, while 7th and 8th graders choose from lifelong activities such as Self-Defense, Tennis, Volleyball, Strength and Conditioning, and more.

Aerobics, a popular option in the 7th and 8th grades, teaches students about heart rate, rate of perceived exertion, biomechanics, and principles of exercise through a project-based learning format. Students are exposed to various group fitness class formats, along with the associated vocabulary. The course concludes with a student-designed and student-led fitness activity that includes original choreography and planned heart rate/intensity checks.

Across all areas of academic life, our Middle School students are consistently engaged in work that requires deep thinking and multiple learning modalities. This type of work improves recall of information and makes learning more permanent.

Want to learn more about learning? Check out this free online class, Learning How to Learn.  
Want to learn more about Randolph? Click below to schedule a tour and join us for a K-8 Open House, April 12, 2018.
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Topics: middle school, neuroscience, idea path, multi-sensory learning, brain development, metacognition

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