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November 17, 2022
ASCD Blog

Cultivating Wise Freedom in Middle Schools

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Building a culture of individuality and accountability in middle schools.
School Culture
Cultivating Wise Freedom in Middle Schools - Header
Credit: Ground Picture / Shutterstock
People say that, in a fish tank, a shark will grow to only 8 inches, but in the ocean, free and unconstrained, a shark can grow to 8 feet. A physically restrictive space will stunt a newborn shark’s growth—in spite of genetics, it cannot outgrow its environment.
This anecdote can serve as an illustration of the middle school experience. Middle school is a critical time in a child’s life. Middle schoolers have a surging capacity for self-awareness, self-expression, and self-reflection, but do not yet have the solidifying sense of self that secondary students often possess. Their receptivity to new experiences makes this time in their lives uniquely expansive and singularly formative—and schools should seek to make the most of that. Conversely, in a learning environment where students' spirited curiosities are circumscribed by inflexible and uniformly applied rules, their development, much like a shark’s, will be constrained.
At its best, middle school is a time for students to experiment, improvise, innovate, and create. Likewise, middle school should be a playground for imperfection, a menagerie of mistake-making, and a laboratory for learning. Middle schoolers flourish in a culture that embraces and celebrates the vicissitudes of change, the fascination of discovery, and the sublime puzzlement of reconciling the known with the yet-to-be-known. For the most part, it’s this chrysalis phase of development that draws many educators to middle school—the cognitive, emotional, and behavioral growth we see in our students is what makes our work so rewarding. Of course, working with students who are in the throes of such change can also be challenging.

Middle school is about helping young people gain the habit of seeing a balance between individuality and community responsibility.

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Establishing a culture predicated on and steeped in tween and adolescent autonomy can be both precarious and daunting. We want students to be intellectually curious and to ask questions, but we also don’t want our classrooms and hallways to devolve into utter chaos. We want students to exercise their burgeoning independence, but not at the expense of our community values. Middle school is about helping young people gain the habit of seeing the virtue and symbiosis in striking a balance between individuality and community responsibility, not only at school but in all the years that follow. At the school where I work, we’ve developed a guiding concept for this process we call “Wise Freedom.”

What Is Wise Freedom?

At Francis Parker School of Louisville, it is our belief that compliance isn’t the long-term goal of middle school. “Wise Freedom” is the pithy shorthand we use to encapsulate and convey this belief. A culture of Wise Freedom is premised on students being held accountable to high expectations while also receiving unconditional support and respect. In practice, Wise Freedom allows us to personalize and tailor our restorative approach to honor the dignity and experience of each student within the context of our community values and norms.
Wise Freedom is about individual responsibility set within the context of community. It’s about independence, trust, and self-expression existing in partnership with inclusivity, interdependence, and collaboration.

We want students to understand how their personal passions and the aims of their community can exist harmoniously.

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The meaning of Wise Freedom may be best summarized by sociologist Amitai Etzioni in his book, The Moral Dimension: "Social virtues are [about] bounded individual and subgroup autonomy, held in careful equilibrium." In other words, schools must have a collective culture, but one that does not subordinate the individual. We want students to discover that point of confluence where individuality and responsibility intersect, so that students can understand how their personal passions and the aims of their community can exist harmoniously. Building a culture that intentionally strives for such an equilibrium requires a great deal of patience and coaching from adult educators and leaders.
If our goal is to invest in the core character, values, and personhood of our students and raise young people who know themselves, live their convictions, and contribute positively to a democratic society, we’ll have to do more than rely on undemanding punitive or incentive-laden disciplinary structures. Those sorts of cudgel or carrot dichotomies can engender a competitive, capricious, and individualistic school culture. Accomplishing such a lofty aim isn’t simple or quick, but it is attainable through a commitment to Wise Freedom.

Creating a Culture of Wise Freedom

Whether you’re a classroom teacher or a school leader, every adult in the building has a role to play in facilitating a culture of Wise Freedom. So, what are some guiding principles that can help you found a culture of Wise Freedom?
  1. Restorative practices: Restorative practices are a natural outgrowth of, and integral component to, founding a culture of Wise Freedom. A restorative practices approach is a participatory learning and decision-making structure that achieves social discipline through an inclusive and collaborative process. This approach seeks to address the underlying reasons for students’ behaviors and leverage misbehavior as a learning opportunity. In a school that subscribes to a restorative approach, students and their behaviors are not conflated with one another. As such, there’s no such thing as bad kids, only bad choices. Furthermore, choices serve as springboards for better decision-making in the future. As middle school educators, we know that we can curb undesirable behaviors by the rules we impose, but such rules have only a temporary and cosmetic effect. As author Alfie Kohn reminds us, “Working with people to help them do a job better, learn more effectively, or acquire ‘good’ values takes time, thought, effort, and courage. Doing things to people…is relatively effortless, which may help to explain why carrots and sticks remain stubbornly popular despite decades of research demonstrating their failure.” In a culture of Wise Freedom, we anticipate that our students will make mistakes. Rather than try to prevent or eradicate mistake-making entirely, a culture committed to Wise Freedom seeks to spur growth from missteps. This is why the first step in founding a culture of Wise Freedom is committing to a restorative approach to student discipline.
  2. Accountability is a form of love: Wise Freedom is not a permission slip for students to behave however they would like. This is why holding students accountable to the shared norms and values of your school community is the bedrock on which Wise Freedom is founded. Middle school is at its best when students are encouraged to be inquisitive, independent, and spontaneous. The norms and values of our school then function as proverbial guardrails to help students develop these character and dispositional traits in a manner that is productive and contributive rather than disruptive and solipsistic. In a culture of Wise Freedom, we want our students to see that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and we can accomplish this through a culture of accountability.
  3. A 6th grader is not half a 12th grader: At many schools, there is a single document that contains disciplinary guidelines and procedures for the entire student body. Customarily, these are static and uniformly applied, irrespective of grade-level. Especially at independent schools, you might have an entire K-12 student body being made to adhere to the same honor code that was written and adopted more than a century ago. In paraphrasing author and educator Sir Ken Robinson, we are reminded that a 6th grader should be treated differently than a 12th grader. Wise Freedom enables schools to take a more fluid, responsive, and developmentally appropriate approach to discipline. Part of the definition for Wise Freedom at my school borrows from Maya Angelou’s famous words, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”
Swiss philosopher Erich Fromm probably best and most succinctly captured the essence of Wise Freedom when he wrote in Escape from Freedom: “Freedom is not the absence of structure, but rather a clear structure that enables people to work within established boundaries in an autonomous and creative way.” With the right framing, an ambitious and embracive middle school culture is possible.
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