As my daughter Natalie approached her middle school years, my husband Bill and I were increasingly troubled by the unhealthy demands being placed on students in public, charter and independent schools. The focus on testing, accelerated academics, and increased competition made us think that too many schools and parents emphasized short-term scholastic achievement versus lifelong learning. We ultimately decided that skipping middle school was the only way Natalie would have the chance to fall in love with learning.
But the story is bigger than our backyard.
Our schoolhouse experiment continues to influence our lives eight years later. Recently I became curious to see what changes have occurred since we made the decision to “skip middle school.” Have more schools started to help children feel unstressed enough to think thoughtfully, care deeply, and create passionately so that they can feel proud and effective in school and in the world?
As Bill pointed out one day early in our schoolhouse experiment, “What happens if you place a rock where a seed has been planted? The seed is going to have a much more difficult time growing. Children are no different from seeds in that way.” Isn’t it time to recognize the difference between healthy challenges that allow children to grow versus stressful obstacles that hinder their potential?
Natalie and I took notes during our two years about the fears we faced and overcame, the trust and tools we discovered, and the amazing encounters we had with people along the way. Our days in the schoolhouse changed the way we think about productivity and success, and how we pace ourselves at school and at work. Moreover, they strengthened our belief that the best learning environments prioritize safety, kindness, respect and reassurance, so that learning can happen. Bill, who was used to being called Professor McDonald at UCLA, gained a new honorary title of Professor Daddy. He would find that the schoolhouse experiment would even influence his teaching of college students.
Some people fear that making learning fun means that it will not demand the rigor or competiveness to qualify students for college. We want to reassure students and parents that a healthy environment does not hinder, and in fact, helps prepare students for higher levels of learning.
Whether your child attends a large school or small school, we hope our experiences and examples will help inspire others to create settings where children feel UNSTRESSED AND BALANCED enough to think, learn, create and be effective in the world.