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In Rethinking Middle Years: Early Adolescents, Schooling, and Digital Culture, Victoria Carrington argues that the current model of teaching tweens and young teenagers is outmoded and needs significant revision. Through an examination of school systems in Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, Carrington provides a clear picture of how life for young people has changed dramatically in the past twenty years. She notes the ease with which young people use digital technology and the dis-ease with which schools use that same technology, she analyzes the supposed expert literature on adolescent behavior with a critical eye, and she, finally, proposes various alternate ways to educate young adolescents more effectively than they are being taught today.
Carrington begins by examining the notion that teenagers are both risk-takers and at significant risk for danger. She sees this notion as poorly articulated, on the one hand, and, on the other, as important for western culture. She illustrates the latter point delightfully through a fascinating deconstruction of werewolf movies and iconography popular in the last fifty years (I must admit that any serious academic book that discusses "I Was a Teenage Werewolf" will please me!). As she analyzes the idea of risk and teenagers, Carrington concludes (correctly) that risky adolescence is more a reflection of society’s uneasiness with teenagers than it is an accurate portrayal of real behavior.
Furthermore, Carrington discusses various educational and pedagogical theory trends in the last few decades quite nicely. It should be noted, however, that these discussions seem to presuppose some prior knowledge of the theories on the part of the reader. Anyone who has been involved in theory reading or building, though, will probably be able to slog through the sections glossing Piagetian and Vgotskian learning theories. Carrington does make some excellent points as she looks at trends in learning theories and ideas about adolescent development. Most notably, she asserts that the evidence marking out adolescence as a clearly different neurological, biological, or emotional development period than adulthood is flimsy at best. Disappointingly, while Carrington briefly analyzes historical trends shaping the view of adolescence as a distinct developmental period, she leaves out a critical analysis of cultural dynamics in the west that help sustain this unsupportable idea.
For instance, Carrington could have looked at the growing literature in psychological anthropology regarding childhood, and more particularly the critical analyses of different forms of individualism (e.g., Rutgers University in the U.S. has a Center for Children and Childhood Studies [http://children.camden.rutgers.edu/research.htm]) for a critique of the psychologization of human behavior. That adolescence--and, perhaps, even childhood itself--is a significantly different psychological stage than adulthood is not a new idea. Historians (Coontz), sociologists (Postman), and anthropologists (Small, among others) of the family have been saying so for years. Carrington’s arguments could have been bolstered by a more thorough review of the literature on the cultural, social, and historical construction of childhood. That being said, though, Carrington does a nice job of taking apart the literature she does present, and she demonstrates the culturally contingent nature of adolescence to some extent.
Carrington uses her analysis to thoroughly examine middle schooling systems in Australia, the UK, and the US, concluding that much work remains to be done. She asserts, finally, that "...(t)here is, I believe, a striking need to make the middle years curriculum something that recognizes and addresses engagement with risk and the notion of self as individual project" (p. 171) as the school tries to provide "a conduit for a greater engagement with the world" (p. 171) for the young person. Carrington says that middle schools ought to be led by those who wish to ground the middle school firmly within the community rather than providing a haven from that community, and that the middle school should be relevant to all ethnicities. Carrington sees the current model as based in a family form (middle-class, "white," nuclear, with stay at home mother) that is no longer common; schools, she says, must understand cultural diversity with much greater depth than they do now, and they must accommodate many family forms, many learning styles, and different intelligences. Her call is passionate and timely.
There are a few nits to pick. Carrington’s discussion of digital technology is brief at best, and her attempts to figure out how to provide classroom adjustments for the apparent fact that young people are technologically savvy are limited. Indeed, though young people believe that their cell phones, their iPods, their laptops, and the other digital detritus with which they surround themselves are important, this isn’t necessarily so. Students regularly assert that they can multi-task, but as many of us in the academy can attest, simply being able to do many tasks at once does not mean those tasks are being done well. I would argue that middle schools may be better off showing young people that digital technology is a tool, not a lifestyle. Carrington seems to think that the fact that the technology exists means that it must be used at every turn. I am not so sure.
Other nits, and, granted, these are minor, include the use of jargon. Please, Dr. Carrington, do not ever use the term "up-skill" (p. 171) again! There is also a quite unfortunate tendency to permeate almost every paragraph with the word "impact" as a verb. This is particularly annoying; Carrington’s extreme overuse of "impact" as a verb caused significant negative effects in this reader. Carrington also mistakenly attributes "survival of the fittest" to Darwin (p. 34) when it was coined by Spenser. But, as noted above, these are minor points.
Overall, Carrington has written an engaging, largely accessible book analyzing early adolescents and schooling. Those involved in studies of education pedagogy, human development, parenting, and teaching will find the book interesting, as will parents and general readers.
© 2008 Elizabeth A. Throop
Dr. Elizabeth A. Throop is a psychological anthropologist who also holds a MSW and has practiced systemic family therapy with abusive, neglectful, and eating-disordered families (among others). She is the chair of the Department of Anthropology, Sociology, and Social Work at Eastern Kentucky University. She has conducted ethnographic fieldwork on family life in Ireland and published a book on the subject. She also has researched mental illness in cross-cultural context as well as issues of family life, marriage, and child-rearing cross-culturally. Her forthcoming book, Psychotherapy, American Culture, and Social Policy: Immoral Individualism, will be published by Palgrave Macmillan in early 2009.