We've all seen it - the triumphantly "too cool for school" middle schooler. Where did our passionate learner go, who was so determined to learn how to walk, who loved elementary school? It's easy to conclude, or even to assume in advance, that they've entered the moody pre-teen years and that this is all normal. And indeed, all the research shows this is what usually happens - in middle school, most students nationally begin to report dramatically less engagement with and interest in school than at any time prior.
This is "normal" because we're used to it, but it's not "normal" developmentally. In fact, middle schoolers don't lose their curiosity. They just focus it, intensely, on a few areas. First, they are deeply curious and motivated to learn about the social world, and their identity within it. Who is a friend? What does it mean to be a girlfriend or boyfriend? Who am I in relation to others? How do I act when there are conflicts? How do I feel good around others? With the profound motivation of an infant learning to walk, they are determined to learn these rules.
Second, they are deeply curious about the real world. What do people do all day? Could I actually do that / build that / see this place [Tesla / City Hall / the Fire Department / a fashion designer / you name it] in action? If school feels too abstract, too disconnected from what real people do every day, then many students come to the conclusion that it's not relevant, and they lose interest. In my prior work running an organization that creates apprenticeships for middle schoolers, I've seen literally thousands of examples of middle schoolers who appear checked out at school, yet when placed in a real-world workplace after-school, they become effectively a different person - respectful, interested, listening carefully, motivated to learn.
So let's debunk the myth of middle schoolers losing their curiosity. They have it, in spades. We just have to look where it's focused. Middle school is an optimal time to teach social and emotional intelligence - developmentally they are particularly ready to learn how to relate to others, collaborate across differences, develop conflict resolution skills, and reflect on their emotions and how to manage them. Middle school is also the optimal time to open the school doors and connect to the city around us, to workplaces, to people applying and generating new knowledge and innovation. In these environments, middle schoolers will reveal that they are every bit as motivated as they were in younger years.
Our job then, as parents and educators, is to see this curiosity as their most important growth edge, the place where their attention is naturally drawn, where challenges naturally occur and lessons are most memorable. When we work with their social drive, their questioning of identity, and their interest in the real world, we get the full force of their curiosity and motivation. They may be too cool for traditional schooling, but they are very ready for this kind of learning.