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Literature Review

Middle School to High School Transition

The change from Middle School to High School is a well-researched area of student’s educational development. Literature discusses two broad areas; the effect of a change of teaching style, and the difficulties of altering school and peer groups. The general consensus is that the second feeds into reactions of the first. Since Opening Minds students are continuing at the same school, some of the factors associated with the second area can be expected to be absent.

Much of the discussion of curriculum change will be discussed below; the focus of this section will be the transition itself from one section of schooling to another. The transition from one stage of school to another can generally be traumatic. Academic standards and expectations of behaviour are raised. Many students decline in academic performance and attendance. Their self-view becomes more negative and they miss disrupted friendships [Akos and Galassi, 2004. pp. 102].  

Parts of the problems experienced by students are not caused by the school system itself. Adolescents at the stage of research are experiencing physical growth and change as puberty begins to occur. Physical growth comes with a desire for more independence from family. Peer disruption occurs as school changes, often becoming larger as well. A combination of the stress of academic changes and physical changes can overwhelm coping mechanisms no longer supported by familiar peer groups [Letrello and Miles, 2003. pp. 212] Problems of peer disruption are likely to be less acute at Tipton Academy, as students remain at the same school. Nevertheless, setting and new classes will still disrupt peer groups to a certain extent. Personal problems should be investigated, as well as to the degree that students feel connected and assisted by school staff.

The recommendations of Letrello and Miles are also typical of the literature. Letrello and Miles recommend that numerous activities take place to enable students to transition; including visits to high school, explanations of the curriculum and fears being addressed in the eighth grade [Letrello and Miles, 2003. pp.214]. Students at Tipton have been questioned about their fears, and a report has been compiled, but how such responses have been acted upon should be investigated further. The literature emphasises the need for open days, and information for parents and students in making choices [Mizelle and Irvin, 2000. pp. 3-4]. Yet the fact that students are remaining at the same school might mean that other transition strategies are overlooked; such as peer support and encouraging extracurricular engagement as a means to reduce stress.

General Concerns

Students at the age this report covers have numerous sources of worries and concerns. Some of these are caused by the change of how school functions as they make transitions. Others, though, are caused by external factors. It is important that schools deal with these worries despite their lack of culpability in creating them, as they can impact learning. These concerns should be borne in mind when investigating student transition; these are unlikely to be caused by any problems developing from the Opening Minds curriculum.

The individual lives of the students at Tipton cannot be generalised or properly compared to the experiences of other students in other studies, but some of the findings of the literature can be used as guidance. Reed and Rossi investigated the hopes and concerns of Middle School students in America. These were classified in Urban, Suburban and Rural groups. Tipton students are most closely linked to Urban and Suburban issues. The concerns expressed for Eighth graders included desires for wealth, possessions and good careers. Social issues were also raised, including violence in their community, job opportunities, school resources and more abstract issues such as the environment. Furthermore, many students had concerns about the health of both themselves and loved ones, especially linked with urban violent crime [Reed and Rossi, 2000. pp 143]. These concerns are part of a wider desire by students to determine their identity in their family and social groups. Such concerns and their effects should not be considered causally created by the Opening Minds programme. However, they should be noted as important, as they feed into how students deal with academic issues. How staff assist children with these issues, and the degree to which staff create teams to identify and resolve such issues, will in part determine how students transition.


The literature is in general agreement that differences amongst students affect how they react to transitions. Gender and Disabilities are the most obvious differences in students at Tipton. Letrello and Miles argue that in transitions, students with disabilities tend to find them most difficult, “because of the heavy load of academic requirements.” The level of support for students also often decreased in the transition from middle school to high school, leading to more failing classes. Disabled students rely on assistance from peers, parents and special educators even more so than other students [Letrello and Miles, 2003. pp. 212]. It is reasonable to assume that Tipton provides the best assistance that it can to disabled students, so the content of the curriculum itself becomes more important. The literature has relatively little of direct relevance to this report, so this is an area which our active investigation will have to probe more deeply.

Akos argues that girls suffer more during transitions at this age than boys do. This is due to their peer support networks being more important to their needs than those of boys. Such issues may be less acute at Tipton, because students are remaining at the same school. Furthermore, girls mature earlier than boys, and the physical transition of puberty is more acute for them at this stage. These two factors in general lead to more stress for girls [Akos and Galassi, 2004. pp. 102]. These concerns are not intrinsic to the curriculum of the school, though it might be found that stricter lessons and less opportunity for group work might leave them feeling more isolated.  Mizelle and Irvin argue that girls benefit especially from socialization, academic and self-esteem programs for the next level of school. Furthermore, Mizelle and Irvin argue that it is especially important for middle schools and high schools to work together to create transition programmes, and for different staff from each school to understand the work that others are doing [Mizelle and Irvin, 2003. pp. 4].

Change in curriculum

There is relatively little literature about the coping mechanisms of students as they move between different curriculums except when they transition from schools; since schools do not generally change curriculums for students internally from year to year. The research of the Opening Minds transition that this report is researching will break new ground; yet there are still some limited experiences in the literature which are worth considering.

A common issue cited in literature, especially in the United States, is the lack of Middle School (or the age-equivalent in different education systems) curriculums not adequately preparing students for higher school.  Bandlow cites the limitations of US middle schools in encouraging student growth and development, which has lead to the problem that students were academically unprepared. They had been taught many topics, but not deeply and thus struggled in higher years with more specific courses. [Bandlow, 2001. pp. 70].

The solution proposed was twofold; firstly that the students learning should be interactive and research focused in order for them to develop depth of understanding. The Opening Minds curriculum seems to follow this approach, and this should not be a problem for students. The other recommendation is a more pertinent area to investigate; those non-specialist teachers teaching a broad curriculum tend to develop a pedagogy based on the process of teaching, rather than content, since process is more commonly identifiable to them. [Bandlow, 2001. pp. 72] Whether students’ ability to deal with the more specific courses of Key Stage 4 is made more difficult through a lack of deep understanding of principles expected to have been learnt at Key Stage 3 is a key area to investigate. Concerns of Key Stage 4 staff with the teaching style of Opening Minds may also reflect this potential issue.

The literature also has a significant discussion of how students respond to the change in curriculum. A recurring theme is the necessity of making curriculums seem relevant to students, engaging their lives rather than discounting the importance of their social ties and fear, relegating them to the world outside the classroom [Smyth, McInerney and Hattam, 2003, pp. 179]. Such an approach tends to create more positive learning environments for students and enhancing their independence and self-confidence [Smyth, McInerney and Hattam, 2003, pp. 182]. When students are “taught-at,” and have little control over their own learning, and “become invisible in the institutional decision-making processes, there is a lack of authenticity in the nature student-teacher relationships- a situation students put simply as a ‘lack of respect” [Smyth, McInerney and Hattam, 2003, pp. 186]. Connecting with the social lives of students and allowing them to influence the pedagogy increases engagement with learning, as it reduces barriers between teacher and student. Yet, teachers are often concerned that students lack appropriate knowledge to effectively negotiate the curriculum. “Defensive” teaching of a curriculum leads to very institutionalized relationships where teachers are perceived as distant and uncaring, Opening Minds interactive teaching procedure was designed to address some of these issues, and to encourage the integration of the curriculum with students lives. Once this emphasis is lessened with the transition to Key Stage 4, it should be investigated whether the problems that the literature identifies with student disengagement begin to come to the fore. The reactions and pedagogy of staff which are concerned about students’ lack of “depth” are especially important; the literature suggests that returning to a pedagogy where students are passive learners can exacerbate the problem. 

Phelan, Davidson, and Cao conducted research into how students deal with multiple worldviews; often when their home life is discordant with the values and expectations of school life. Much of the research focused on ethnic minorities, but the findings are also of note for general student performance. The overall results emphasised the need for pedagogies which engage students in the manner which fits with their other identities (i.e. therefore needing multiple pedagogies) and which facilitate students of different backgrounds/worlds interacting with each other [P. Phelan, A.L. Davidson, H. T. Cao, 1991. pp. 227].  The interactive curriculum of Opening Minds, alongside its emphasis with connecting to students’ lives, may have masked some of the problems that students faced dealing with multiple worldviews. Interviewing the backgrounds of students will illuminate where different worldviews exist, and how these interact with their academic success.

The most successful students typified by the study which connected with academic success; parents emphasising the importance of academic success, the expectation of it from teachers and peers who share the same values. These students do not have to deal with differing boundaries, where their identity remains the same regardless of whether with school, parents or peers, and these three groups can, and frequently do, peacefully interact. These were described as “Type I: Congruent Worlds/ Smooth Transitions’ [P. Phelan, A.L. Davidson, H. T. Cao, 1991. pp. 230]. This type also includes students which do not excel academically, but follow socially acceptable norms; parents and teachers do not expect academic success, but the student is felt to be trying as hard as they can. They still have long term goals and might expect to go into vocational work.

The next group are called “Type II: Different Worlds/ Boundary Crossing Managed.” In this case, the student has a different peer/home culture, socioeconomic states, ethnicity or religion. These students find it hard to fit in with other peers at school, and compensate with academic success. As such, teachers do not notice the effort expended to bridge these multiple worlds in order to succeed at school.  Such students feel forced to hide a part of their personality in order to fit in, and are rarely well understood by teachers except on a purely academic basis [P. Phelan, A.L. Davidson, H. T. Cao, 1991. pp. 233-236].

“Type III: Different Worlds/ Boundary Crossings Hazardous” are more vulnerable to academic difficulties. They require specific conditions which they can identify with to excel, rather than a rigid pedagogy. For example, the study found some Latino students had a high value placed upon group interaction and helping others; classes favouring discussion and group work benefited them greatly, whereas passive lecture style learning made them struggle. Part of this issue revolves around communication, staff branded some students as lacking self-discipline, not realising that they excelled in other classes [P. Phelan, A.L. Davidson, H. T. Cao, 1991. pp. 240].

“Type IV: Borders impenetrable/ boundary crossings insurmountable,” are students which find that school has such different beliefs and expectations that boundary crossing is so hard and traumatic that they created rationales for not attempting it at all. This can lead to these students immersing themselves in the world of their peers, often worsening the situation, as their peers behaviour and values are opposed to those that are required for success in school and wider society (e.g. skip classes, ignore homework, have “fun”). In the instance of ethnic minorities, it is often felt that there is open hostility or dismissing of their culture. Students have little incentive to engage with school, which lacks the security and acceptance of peer groups, which would be lost if engagement was attempted [P. Phelan, A.L. Davidson, H. T. Cao, 1991. pp. 241-245].

Phelan, Davidson and Cao suggest several issues of note from these findings. For Type I and Type II, A argues that limited pedagogies mean that these students find it hard to interact with those who inhabit different “worlds” to them, and that staff often fail to appreciate the stress that they exist under. For Type III and Type IV, it is argued that lack of success is often blamed on personal character, rather than pedagogy which seems insensitive or hostile to those students backgrounds. Ultimately, it is argued that “ we need to identity institutional structures that operate to facilitate boundary crossing strategies and that do not require students to give up or hide important features of their lives” [P. Phelan, A.L. Davidson, H. T. Cao, 1991. pp. 245]. The Opening Minds curriculum seems designed to produce this response; the research of this report should examine the personal circumstances of students and how they are affected by boundary crossing, and whether a more general curriculum fulfils their needs, or indeed, if Opening Minds did.



  • R.J. Bandlow. 2001  The Clearing House, Vol.75, No.2 (Nov-Dec) ‘The Misdirection of Middle School Reform: Is a Child-Centered Approach Incompatible with Achievement in Math and Science?’ pp. 69-73
  • P. Akos and J.P. Galassi. 2004 The Journal of Educational Research,  Vol.98, No.2 (Nov- Dec) ‘Gender and Race as Variables in Psychosocial Adjustment to Middle and High School Author(s)’ pp. 102-108
  • T. Letrello, D. Miles. 2003 The Clearing House Vol. 76, No. 4 (Mar.- Apr) ‘The Transition from Middle School to High School: Students with and without Learning Disabilities Share Their Perceptions.’ pp. 212-214
  • N.B. Mizelle and J.L. Irvin, 2000. Middle School , Vol. 31, No. 5 (May) ‘Transition from Middle School into High School.’ pp. 1-8
  • P. Phelan, A.L. Davidson, H. T. Cao, 1991. Anthropology and Education Quarterly, Vol. 22, No. 3 (Sept) pp. 224-250
  • D.F. Reed and J.A. Rossi, 2000. The Clearing House, Vol. 73, No. 3 (Jan-Feb), ‘”My Three Wishes”: Hopes, Aspirations, and Concerns of Middle School Students,’ pp. 141-144
  • J. Smyth, P. McInerney and R. Hattam. 2003 British Journal of Sociology, Vol. 24, No.2 (Apr) ‘Tackling School Leaving at its Source: A Case of Reform in the Middle Years of Schooling’ pp. 177-193