By the time I read all of Mason's volumes and really had a handle on the philosophy, my children were about 9 and 13. They were enrolled in a Christian school that incorporated some of Mason's methods, but in truth it was really more of a traditional model. By the time I founded Willow Tree, they were 11 and 15. My oldest decided he wanted to finish out his high school years in public school, and my youngest entered Willow Tree in the 7th grade.
The youngest students in the Willow Tree inaugural class were in 2nd grade and the oldest were in 8th. The following year we began accepting students in high school. Through this experience, I was able to observe how the ages and personalities of the student affected their adjustment to the Mason paradigm. Today I thought it might be helpful to share some of those observations, in case some readers with older children are making the switch to Mason. I think it will also be helpful to anyone who runs a co-op or is thinking about opening a Mason school. Mind you, there is nothing really scientific here. It is purely anecdotal. If you have had a different experience, I would love to hear about it.
First, I have to say that the younger children took to the methods like ducks to water. They loved the literature, the time outdoors, and the hands-on math. Here is a video of them heartily engaged in trying to work out for themselves on paper what we had only been doing with manipulatives until that point:
When we got new students in grades 1-3, there was never really a problem with them having to make a huge transition. Most of the students in grades 4-7 also had an easy transition. The only exceptions were when students had become heavily reliant on outside motivators like grades, competition, and rewards before coming to us. Sometimes, when a child's early school experiences stress these things and that child figures out how to be successful in that model, the transition can be a little difficult. When you take away the things that had made the child feel good about himself, as Alfie Kohn says, he can experience 'existential vertigo' as he tries to figure out, 'Who am I, if not a straight-A student?'
The opposite was true when we got students who had not been particularly successful in the high-stress, high-competition world of public school. Within a week or so, you could see visible changes come over them--a palpable sigh a relief as their shoulders worked their way down from their ears when they realized this school really was different and they would be valued for exactly who they were.
The age at which students began to have the most difficulty adjusting was in about 8th grade. It depended a lot on their backgrounds and personality types, but to me it just seemed that by this age something had solidified that made the paradigm shift more difficult. Some of the older students (8th grade and above) never lost the mindset that school is separate from life, and 'these are the things I need to check off to be considered educated.' Some never developed the love of nature or the diligent, reflective work ethic that the younger students had no difficulty with. Others did, particularly if they had been homeschooled before or if they came from homes where Mason's ideas were at least somewhat lived out. Again, the students who were used to being superstars because of grades had the most difficult time, and they rarely stayed long. They felt like they weren't doing anything, and their addiction to outside motivation had crippled their internal motivators. That is not to say that they would never have changed had they stayed. After all, most of us made the paradigm shift as adults after learning under a system that relied on external motivation. But at the time, they didn't want to stick it out, their parents lost confidence in the model, and they moved on.
So what advice would I give when thinking about introducing children to Mason's model?
- The earlier, the better.
- Figure out how important grades are to the child. If the child's identity and self-worth are wrapped up in achievement, I would say that is a child who needs the Mason approach desperately. As long as the parents understand the philosophy and that this will be a struggle, making the move will be great for the child in the long run. If the parents don't really get the philosophy, however, it is very likely that they will bolt when the child feels uncomfortable.
- Unless you are homeschooling, I would be very slow to take on students past about 8th grade. They need to still have that natural inquisitiveness of a young child and have strong internal motivators. The most successful students are also naturally reflective thinkers and readers who come from homes where the parents value and model this behavior.