Adolescence is an exciting time, neurologically speaking. Young people go from only being able to think concretely to being able to think in the abstract. This happens around the age of 12. The adolescent brain also develops forward-thinking skills and this process is not complete until the mid-twenties.
Here are five ways to help support this development in your classroom:
1) Tell middle schoolers about how their brains are developing. They can get the idea that they are stupid (and will always be stupid), just because they cannot visualize the concepts you are describing. Let them know abstract thinking appears on its own schedule. At graduation, one of my students said how much of a difference it made to her and I had forgotten I had even told the class about it. I always make a point to do it now.
2) Give lots of puzzles and brain teasers. These are satisfying and give the brain a bit of a work out. Word play jokes and riddles can also work, even if they make your students groan. Anything that makes the brain think around corners and try different possibilities on for size.
3) Have them pose questions instead of quizzing them yourself. This could be in terms of a list of things they want to know or making their own quizzes to stump their classmates. Being able to ask questions that get to the heart of the matter is a major life skill.
4) Give opportunities for skepticism. If they are expected to find out information on the internet, they need to read it with a critical eye. Have activities where you deliberately give them links that are written by charlatans, and get them to work out if they trust the information they are reading and why.
5) Reward students for effort. Give them higher level thinking activities even if they are not quite ready for them. In a physical workout, in order to get stronger you must do something that is slightly too hard. It’s the same with thinking. Far too hard and students become demotivated, far too easy and they switch off. Slightly too hard is the sweet spot.
This can mean that they cannot do it. That’s the inherent risk in choosing something slightly out of their reach. This is why you reward them for trying. Even if they can do it, reward them for effort so that if next time it is actually too hard, they will still give it their best shot.