Engaging Middle Schoolers

Almost everyone has an embarrassing moment from middle school. All within good reason, since those three years are filled with awkward school dances, questionable fashion choices and trying to fit in. These negative feelings toward middle school manifest in the stereotypes adults place on middle school students, including that they are rude, self-centered and obnoxious. Middle school teachers are the most underrepresented in the field due to the perpetuation of these stereotypes. So why would we want them in museums? Rick Wormeli, a middle school teacher and author of several books, sums it up pretty well- middle schoolers show us the “raw ingredients”[1] of learning to function as an adult.

Raw ingredients? They aren’t baked goods…

            To truly grasp what Wormeli means when he says “raw ingredients”, a little context on middle schoolers is needed. At this point in their lives, these students are finally able to have some freedom. No longer are they completely under the thumb of parents or guardians. Popularity becomes a real issues and necessity in their lives as they struggle to fit in or stand out.  They are constantly conflicted with a need to think on their own, but also be accepted into a group. Because of this, self-esteem and self-worth issues also arise[2]. But the combination of these things is what Wormeli is referring to. As middle school students struggle with becoming popular or what freedom actually means, they are figuring out their own personal identity. They are able to look at the bigger picture for the first time and think outside themselves as to what THEY want to do.

According to a Smithsonian study on middle school students, they are at the prime age to be taking museum visits and learning on tours[3]. They are open to learning new things, but are better able to understand a wider context. This is also the age when personal interests really start to show. It’s because of this newfound personal identity that makes them the prime candidates for museum learning. They are more interested in learning outside themselves, and in a bigger picture. The same study outlined several ways to get middle school students engaged in a museum setting.

Engaging Middle Schoolers in a Museum Setting

As previously stated, the following information was taken from a study done by the Smithsonian focusing entirely on Middle School students. The study outlined four main strategies to help further engage middle school students.

Conceptualizing exhibitions and programing

            Middle School students want to see themselves as participants and not just as observers. A visit to a museum gives students a break from the lecture style they have in the classroom, and the students want to be a part of the museum visit and just not hear about it. It is also important to relate what they are seeing or experiencing to things that are in their everyday lives, which can further help with identity formation.

Incorporating Social interaction and fun

             Middle School students are well aware that a visit to a museum is a learning experience, but that doesn’t mean it can’t also be fun! Having a time for peer interaction or teaching others will let them socialize with their friends while also providing learning activities.

Allowing for choice and control

            It’s essential to balance the day with structure and free time. Students want to have some control over what they see or do. A schedule that would allow for both would be best for middle school students.

Interactions with adults

            Middle Schoolers need to have positive interactions with adults. When on field trips, some of the adults who interact with the visiting groups don’t always want to. This can lead to a strained experience for both parties. Adults shouldn’t “talk down” to middle school students but really discuss situations with them.


Middle School students might be smelly and hard to work with, but they are an important part of a museum’s audience. Middle school students can be a great audience to work with, since they are open to so many learning opportunities. They key to engaging students is to get on their level and do what is best for the students.

[1] http://www.educationworld.com/a_issues/chat/chat153.shtml

[2] http://www.adlit.org/article/27334/

[3] http://www.si.edu/content/opanda/docs/Rpts2007/07.01.MiddleSchoolGroups.Final.pdf

5 thoughts on “Engaging Middle Schoolers

  1. annastewartgwu

    I agree that this can be a challenging audience to engage. I think you laid out some really good tips for how facilitators can best develop exhibits or lead programs- all by validating the students themselves! Honestly, this age group is pretty special because, as you mentioned, personalities and interests are developing. What a cool time for museums to play a role in this stage by providing opportunities for exploration and growth. We as educators just need to step into this space without the negative stereotypes in mind and embrace these students as young learners.


  2. ewcook16

    I also wonder how museums might be able to engage middle schoolers in a family learning environment. Most museums have content for adults and content for young(er) children, but tween and teen programming seems for the most part to be reserved for school trips, thus making the museum a simple extension of the classroom, rather than an informal learning institution in its own right.


    1. megwilliams44

      This is a good point. I think a lot of times school field trips can unfortunately have a certain aura of nerdiness about them for some students, which is hard to get past, no matter how cool your museum is! Perhaps this is another place where partnerships with local community centers, recreation centers, etc. could be important. Reaching out and meeting the kids where they are can be a great way of establishing that truly informal learning space.


  3. joshamaxwell

    This is definitely a tricky group to work with, and these are definitely odd years for people. I wonder though, because this is such a tumultuous social time for many people, if we could offer museum environments as havens for those who normally do not do well academically or socially in a more formal setting.


  4. kitsa179

    I particularly liked your presentation on this audience because I’m currently working with middle school kids at my placement. I’m finding that they are a diverse group! How do you address all of their needs and interests when they don’t even quite know what they are from day to day?! At the same time, this age is so hungry to learn and curious to discover new things. If we can attract and engage this audience, I think we will ultimately be building our future museum visitors.



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