Why: Our Academic Philosophy

Middle school is a time of immense potential, when students have the opportunity to discover their gifts, develop social and emotional intelligence, evolve intellectually and physically, and form an authentic sense of self. To tap into this potential, we believe the academic program must be based in developmental science – understanding what middle schoolers are ready for psychologically and neurologically – then working with those motivations.

This developmental approach points to three core motivators for middle school students. Students at this age engage with learning when it is personal – teaching them about themselves, challenging them where they are – social – offering interaction with peers and building social intelligence – and relevant – connected to real-life problems and applications where the value of their work is clear. When learning is presented in this way, middle school students are ready for advanced academic study, and will often surprise adults with their depth of engagement in projects, seminars, and other courses. 

What does this look like in practice?

Imagine a project where students address a real-life issue: the historic drought in California. They could explore what this means in terms of their own lifestyle and preferences – how much water do they use, how much do they really need? A team of students designs a project to investigate why California uses so much water, the science of the drought, and the way it affects people differently. This group of students interviews Bay Area farmers one day, and adults in downtown San Francisco the next, learning how to connect with adults from many backgrounds, asking them about their experience of the drought. They then craft science-based recommendations for how to reduce water usage, and draft letters explaining them in ways that each group will find compelling. 

In forming our curriculum, we believe in three pillars of progressive education: academics that are interdisciplinary, emergent, and focused on deeper learning.

Interdisciplinary Learning
At the heart of our curriculum is a commitment to interdisciplinary learning. Traditional academics often creates “silos” in which students experience content in a way that does not reflect reality: math only in this period, communication skills only in this period, etc. At Millennium, our measure of academic success is not only an excellent set of skills and content knowledge, but the ability to apply those skills in complex, real-world situations. To do that, learning must be interdisciplinary. A project might focus on earthquakes, for example – students read stories of real-life experiences in earthquakes, developing empathy and insight, and then use their math and science skills to design seismically resilient buildings. 

Emergent
The more “choice and voice” students have in their projects, the greater their motivation and engagement. During middle school in particular, if learning is overly controlled by a detailed, purely adult-set agenda, many students will disengage and lose their intellectual curiosity and inner motivation to learn. Instead, we believe in the principle of emergent learning, in which our faculty watch closely for emerging interests from students, designing projects and courses as much as possible around these interests, and providing ample opportunity for students to propose projects. This work depends on real mastery in teaching, as faculty balance meeting our academic goals while offering learning pathways that draw upon students’ personal interests. 

Deeper Learning
Deeper Learning refers to the skills, habits of mind, and development of multiple types of intelligence – social, emotional, creative, and others – which together form our capacity to learn, grow, and succeed in the world. This includes areas ranging from mindfulness and social-emotional intelligence to concentration skills and time management. These skills and capacities are the most important learning we can offer our students, and correlate far more with long-term success and happiness in life than traditional academic content knowledge alone. 

To read more about the specifics of our curriculum in each subject area, visit our Curriculum page here.