Gap Year

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Sometime over the past 20 years, education became a relentless race.

A vogue developed for having one's very bright pre-schooler jump ahead to start school early. It became a mark of distinction: "My child's so bright, he's a prodigy. He should leap ahead!" I'll say it very clearly: what a mistake that is most of the time.

By middle school, teachers often see the dismal outcome of such well-intentioned yet ill-conceived efforts to rush children towards "success." Teachers see 8th graders, especially boys, who can't keep track of their assignments or their sweatshirts. Their manners are bad, their hygiene often worse. They're brainy, but still dependent on adults.

So here's a new idea: a year off for these precocious but awkward 8th graders --- a gap year --- the gift of time to grow up, learn to manage their own lives, before they hit the whirlwind of high school.

As kids mature, there are moments of soaring, but they are accompanied by moments of crawling. We can't predict which skills children will develop, while others languish for months. Star-struck parents of a four-year-old who can read may not realize he hasn't mastered sharing the ball on the playground. The nine-year-old who has memorized the state capitals may not be able to write legible ABCs. The 13-year-old math prodigy lacks a social conscience.


Humans need many skills to function well. The narrow competence covered by academics is just that --- very narrow, limited. When we hurry children along by observing solely their intellectual strengths, we are blinded to the full range of what they need to grow straight and true.

The root of the word 'education' means "to lead forth, to bring up." Racing through learning, young people are denied deep knowledge.

Let's not be in such a hurry to have our children spewed out into the world. A gap year offers the gift of extra time to mature, expand, blossom. Nature can't be hurried. Education is not a race.

With a Perspective, this is Marilyn Englander.

Marilyn Englander is a teacher and head of school at REAL School Marin in Larkspur.