A year-long update

I haven't written a blog post in more than a year! It hasn't been for lack of taking action, though — quite the opposite!

So, what have you guys done in this last year?


We're launched Young Philosophers, a two-hour, once-a-week program that gets young kids deep into biochemistry, evolutionary biology, ancient history, world religions, philosophical argument... and cooking. (Foods cooked so far: crêpes, quiche, scones, 

I've given a TEDx talk (which should be online soon), titled "Why Doesn't Test Prep Work?". It's geared for a high school audience, but it captures some of our plans to help young kids become mathematicians. 

We're about to launch Leonardo, our 2-day-a-week homeschooling supplement, which we're using to pioneer the curriculum we'll use in our school. (Our plan is to evolve the program into a full school.) We're proud to partner with Camp Roots to provide an excellent (and affordable) 3rd day (Fridays) for outdoor school.

I've given a 15-minute talk on some of the powerful ideas of Imaginative Education. It's geared for Toastmasters (a public speaking organization), but it's comprehensible for a larger audience.

...and some other stuff.

What's up next?!

I'll be giving another talk in May, about deliberate practice (and how it offers a new way forward in skill-building). It'll be a sequel, of sorts, to the TEDx talk that I gave, but'll explore deliberate practice in more detail.

We'll also be leading two workshops at the Washington Homeschool Organization (WHO)'s annual convention, in June —

  • "How can I use history to talk about the questions that really matter?"

  • "Everything is interesting, but how do I help my kids see it?"

The huge thing, though, is launching Leonardo. We're terribly, terribly excited about it — it's a seed crystal of what we want to offer in a school. 

Will you be writing more on this blog?

I haven't made up my mind, yet — I'm trying to balance the easy fun of blog-writing with the hard fun of building. 

If you have any notions of how I might productively use the blog to help build our offerings, I'd actually love to hear that! Shoot me an email at brandon.hendrickson@gmail.com. 

And thanks for reading!

How to cultivate your own mathematical genius

It's obvious, but let's say it anyway: American schools don't teach math with the brain in mind. 

The way we teach math doesn't match much of what we know about engagement, creativity, understanding, or memory.

In our last few posts, we've described two radically different methods of teaching math: the JUMP Math approach, and the "Japanese method".

Both are really quite different from each other — JUMP is super-guided, while the Japanese approach is quite unguided.

But both methods put each student in the driver's seat, forcing them to make sense of mathematical ideas themselves, rather than blindly following a textbook's method.

The trick: use them both.

But even when combined, these two methods are still (we think) not enough. Neither method helps students truly master problems: digesting them fully, ruminating on them until the mathematical ideas contained in each problem become encoded in a student's long-term memory.

For that, we have a third piece of our math curriculum: Deep Practice Books.

Deep Practice Books are a curricular invention that we've been pioneering over the last eight years, using ourselves as guinea pigs, and refining with the help of hundreds of students. 

Like the Japanese teaching method, Deep Practice Books involve parachuting students into math problems they don't know how to solve, and helping them develop, on their own, the tools to solve them.

But unlike the Japanese method, a Deep Practice Book is highly personalized. It's a tool for students to develop their own mathematical brilliance.

I (Brandon) created the Deep Practice Book out of my own struggle to study for the GRE, a story I've never told in print. 

So, here goes. I believe a suitably grand title is in order:

The Deep Practice Book:

A deceptively simple method anyone can follow to impressively raise a math test score and ho boy cultivate actual mathematical genius

Mostly, I avoided math in school.

I was always pretty good at math — enough that I didn’t need to particularly worry about it. But never great — and I never particularly loved it.

In fact, when I found myself bored in high school, and decided to spend a year homeschooling myself, I fell behind in math. (I did, however, learn a bit of ancient Greek, which probably has proven more useful as an adult!)

And in college, I got my one required math class out of the way as quickly as possible. I didn’t even do that well in it, earning a C+, which the instructor was merciful enough to raise to a B–.

I even avoided classes that smelled like math: physics, of course, and chemistry.

(By the way: huge mistake! Since graduating college, I’ve fallen deeply, desperately in love with science — but because I never took the time to systematically understand the periodic table, it’s difficult for me to pass beyond the scientific comprehension of someone living in the 18th century.)

So when I decided to apply to graduate schools, and needed to tackle the GRE, I knew had a challenge in store for me.

The GRE is the test to get into academic graduate school — where you can get a master’s or Ph.D. The GRE is made by the same people who make the SAT, but they make the GRE on the days when they’re feeling mad.

The math problems on the GRE deal with simple math — there’s almost nothing on it beyond basic geometry — but the questions can be devilishly complex. Take, for example, this basic-looking problem:



And here was me, who had been running away from mathematical thinking for more than five years.

My one advantage was that I was already a test-prep coach for the SAT and ACT. I loved helping other people through their math pains — so maybe I could find some fun in working through my own.

I had started off working at a tutoring center, and had gotten good enough to start working privately. I had seen some initial success — my first student had improved his SAT score 290 points and gotten into Harvard. But I had also seen some darker episodes. I had lately worked with two young women for more than half a year when something troubling happened.

We worked our way through the entire SAT book, doing more than 400 math questions.

They studied diligently!
I tutored competently!

And then, with the real test less than two months away, I bought them new copies of the same book. They re-took the first test…

and got nearly all the same questions wrong.

We were aghast. We were forlorn.

I want to call attention, at this point in the story, to how weird this is. We seemed to be doing everything right — they were studying hard enough, and I was teaching clearly enough. And yet there was almost no change, even on precisely the same problems.

It was right around then that I decided to study for my GRE.

I took my first test, and got a 670 out of 800 in the math. Now, for the SAT, that’d be a fantastic score — somewhere around the 87th percentile. But on the GRE, it was the 48th percentile.

That means, if you randomly grabbed a hundred GRE-takers and put them in a line, with low-scorers on the left and high-scorers on the right, I’d be the 48th guy. Basically, average.

Ooch. I was a test-prep coach — this was my professional image on the line. I decided to use the blow to my pride as a motivator to study hard. I wrote up a study schedule for myself: I decided to take a half-test every Monday morning for the three months before the real deal.

And it didn’t want to repeat the tragedy that had befallen my two hard-working students.

It was at this point that I did something rather random, without understanding why I was doing it: I re-copied all the math questions I had gotten wrong on that diagnostic test into a binder. And on the cover, I wrote (in big, cocky letters) “HOW WE BEAT THE MATH.”



And I obsessed over the problems. Since they were in a special binder, it seemed natural to do so — this was my binder of Impossible Problems, my binder of pain. 

Gradually, it became my binder of math love.

I didn’t just learn to solve them, I learned to explain them to myself. I made sure I didn’t write down my work or the answers in the binder (because then I wouldn’t really have been able to re-solve the problems), but  whenever I had a question, I made sure to write it down:

Wait, how do you add fractions, again?
Why does the area for a trapezoid use the average of the top & bottom?
How the heck does that ugly permutation formula work?

By filling the binder with questions, and by obsessing about the answers, I learned the math so deeply I think I could have explained it to a fourth-grader.

And then, as Monday approached, I prepared to take a new half-test.

The night before the new test, I did my second oddball, I-didn’t-really-grasp-the-profundity-of-what-I-was-doing thing: I re-solved all the problems in the binder.

And was horrified when I got half of them wrong.

Remember: I had been obsessing over these problems the whole week. I had these problems down: I thought I understood them perfectly clearly.

And I got half of them wrong.

This was my first hint that human brains didn’t evolve to do GRE math. Nor did they evolve to do SAT math, or ACT math.

If I wanted to do really, really well on this test, I realized I needed to study in a fundamentally different way than twelve-plus years of schooling had prepared me to study. I needed to identify every mathematical idea I found confusing, and put it into a foolproof system that would allow me to understand it — and engrave it into my long-term memory.

Over the course of the next three months, I added problems to my binder almost religiously. And I did whatever it took to understand them — read answer explanations, pose questions, ask friends.

But all of this wouldn’t have amounted to much had I not re-solved all of them from scratch at least once each week — each and every problem I had previously entered in.

As I re-solved those problems on fresh paper, something delightful happened: I began to get them right, every time. And quickly, too! Initially I struggled with the problems, weaving back and forth inside my brain to figure out what the next step might be. But now the next steps came easily.

Before, I could only see a single step at a time — now, after re-solving the problem three or four times, I could see the whole thing at once. I could chop the problem up into tiny moves, and deal with each of those moves quickly.

And that wasn’t even the best part! About once or twice a week I would be re-solving a problem for maybe the fifth or sixth time when I’d realize that I had been an idiot. I had been solving a problem by doing a long series of steps — but if I just reconceived the problem, looked at it from a different perspective, the entire thing would be easy, could be solved in one or two moves.

Math, I realized, was simple. It was elegant. These insights were glorious — when I had them it felt like the sky was opening, and a beam of light was shining down directly on me. I could almost imagine I could hear angels singing.

And I recognized that this was why mathematicians did it — modern mathematicians, and the great mathematicians of history who had originally discovered the methods I was now uncovering myself. They were chasing the sublime high of mathematical insight.

How often, I asked myself, did I experience this in all of high school?

Maybe once or twice.

But now, studying for a standardized test — engaging in perhaps the least glamorous math learning task Western civilization has devised! — I was experiencing these epiphanies once or twice a week.

I had stumbled upon, I realized, a way of dependably building math expertise. And I was seeing it pay off: almost each week, my GRE practice test score rose. In fact, it rose quite predictably — going up about as many points as problems I had mastered in the previous week.

When I entered in 10 problems, my score went up 10–20 points.
When I entered in 20 problems, my score went up 20–40 points.

The week before I took my real test, I counted the problems I had copied into my binder — 104. And on my practice tests that week (full ones) I scored an 800 and a 790.

When I took the real GRE, I scored an 800 — a perfect score. Not bad for someone who avoided math in school.

But much better than the score was my newfound sense of myself as a mathematician. I realized that no mathematical concept was beyond me — I could understand anything, given enough time and effort. And I could enter it into a foolproof system, and, by repeatedly re-solving it, comprehend the ideas even more fully as time went by.

And I could even like it. Because to really understand something — to make sense of it inside and out, forwards and backwards — is sweet, and worth the struggle to achieve it.

Over the years since then, I’ve helped hundreds of students build their own collections of impossible problems — “magical math binders”, as one of my students has dubbed them, or “deep practice books”, as I call them.

And in a few posts to follow, I’d like to help you build and maintain your own — if you've the hankering to fall in love with math, too.

Math = Structured Problem-Solving

Can you solve this?

Can you solve this?

Sketching out our liberal-arts-major thoughts on what math in a new-kind-of-STEM school could look like, we mentioned something we dubbed "The Japanese Method" of teaching math — structured group problem-solving. 

Pics or it didn't happen!

That, at least, was the response of one reader. What does "structured group problem-solving" actually look like?

Today: one of the most glorious ideas alive today in math instruction. (Note: all this is stolen shamelessly from the book The Teaching Gap: Best Ideas from the World's Teachers for Improving Education in the Classroom, by James W. Stigler & James Hiebert. If you haven't a copy, buy one — it's that eye-opening! 

In short: great mathematics is a culture, not just a method — but methods can help carry cultures. 

The gist: before showing students how to do a type of problem, just present them the problem, and let them struggle with it. 

Start by letting them struggle by themselves. Then (often, though not always) let them struggle in small groups.

As they struggle, stroll around the classroom, noting how different groups have solved the problem in different ways. Make notes of a few different methods, and invite the creators of those methods to present them on the board.

Start with confusion. Spin understanding out of chaos. 

An example, you say? Let's!

Try this problem on your own. Find x:

This problem, by the way, comes from  The Teaching Gap .

This problem, by the way, comes from The Teaching Gap.

If you're bamboozled, good! I'm a math teacher, and I was stumped when I saw this.

If it helps, here are a few basic geometry rules the kids would be familiar with:

  • There are 180º in a half turn (or "in a line") — so the fat angle above 'B' would be 150º, and the fat angle below 'A' would be 130º.
  • There are also 180º in a triangle (or "three-pointed-three-liney-thing").

Let's pretend we gave this problem to a class of students.

First, we'd let them puzzle it over on their own. A minute or two might suffice.

Then, we might ask them to form small groups, and share what happened. What did they try? What did they find? What questions do they have?

As they chat, we (the teacher) would stroll about the room, noting different methods kids have come up with.

Let's assume we witness three different methods. After a few minutes, we ask a few students (let's call them Josh, Dana, and Sanket) to come to the board and share what they figured out.

Josh's Method

Structure Problem Solving, Method 1.jpg

What did Josh do? He stretched out a line, and made a triangle — yay, triangles! Triangles are simple, and as previously mentioned, we know stuff about them — like that their inside angles add up to 180º. 

Josh has labelled that top-left angle "30º", because it matches the 30º angle in the bottom right. (This is a cool previous pattern that they kids would come into this class already knowing.)

How big is that remaining angle? Well, we have the two other angles in that upper-triangle: 50º and 30º. And 50 + 30 = 80. So the remaining angle has to be 100º.

And our blessed x is smack up against that 100º angle, so it has to be 80º.

Well, done, Josh.

Now, much American math instruction would stop here: we've figured out x, after all! But is Josh's method the only way to solve the problem? Heck no!

A standard Japanese math lesson would progress to Dana's explanation. 

Dana's Method

What did Dana do? She decided to drop a line straight down, and make two triangles — right triangles. If triangles are magic, then right triangles are even... magicaler? 

Dana can quickly figure out the missing angles in these new triangles, because she recalls that the angles inside a triangle always add to 180º. 

Using this, she finds that one angle is 40º, and the other is 60º.

Now she has a half turn (aka a "line") — 40º, xº, and 60º. Together, they have to equal 180º — so x must be 80.

Well done, Dana!

Even a quite progressive American-style math teacher might stop here. They've done their job: they've demonstrated to their students that math is creative, and that there isn't just one solution method.

Not our Japanese math teacher. Demonstrating a plurality of methods — student-originated methods — is the norm. So let's move onto Sanket.

Sanket's Method

Whoa: weird.

What's Sanket up to here? Well, like Dana, he decided to just drop a line down from the top to the bottom. But unlike Dana, he didn't make two triangles — he made one four-sided shape. 

It's an interesting move. Four-sided shapes ("quadrilaterals", but aren't our lives already complicated enough?) are more complex then triangles. On the other hand, he just has one of them, rather than Dana's two triangles.

Then he gets to labeling: one angle is 130º, and another is 90º. A third angle is 60º. And the final angle is, of course, x.

Sanket recalls one thing about four-sided shapes: their angles add up to 360º. And so he adds 130 + 90 + 60 + x = 360, and finds (drumroll!) that x = 80!

Well done, Sanket!

To sum up:

This "structured group problem-solving method" starts with hard questions. (American math classes, by contrast, typically start by explaining "what to do".) 

This method forces students to think for themselves, and then to think with peers. (American math classes typically start by forcing students to follow the teacher and book.)

And this method demonstrates that math is a creative, flexible pursuit — an art as well as a science. (American math classes typically demonstrate that math is about following set procedures — like filling out taxes.)

Is this method dangerous?

There is, I think, a very sensible apprehension that many of us might have to this method — that while students may learn the creative possibilities of math, they won't learn what works best.

There may be, for example, three different ways to solve the problem above, but students will benefit from learning the most efficient way. 

This is an even more potent objection when we're teaching foundational processes — like adding, subtracting, multiplying, or dividing.

In our next post, I'd like to address this concern head on.

How to move beyond the Math Wars? Make Math Easy; Make it Hard.

We live in the shadow of the 1990's "Math Wars", and crafting a new approach to the K-12 math curriculum is fraught with problems — and hate! 

On one side: the math traditionalists. They point out, quite sensibly, that learning one particular method for thinking about, say, division makes math much easier to do. They also point out that repetition is required to develop fluency. 

On the other side: the math reformers. They point out, equally sensibly, that learning one particular method for doing math doesn't provide actual conceptual understanding of the math at play: a student can learn how to "do" long division without having any glimpse of what's going on. They also point out that mindless repetition is typically at odds with any sort of enjoyment: doing problems 1–30 (odds!) rarely stirs our curiosity.

What follows: a sketch of how a new kind of STEM school could structure its math curriculum, especially in grades K–4. 

In brief: embrace extremes. We can recognize that both the traditionalists & the reformers recognize crucial aspects of math, and of the human mind. 

Our job isn't to "balance" them into some sort of middling practice. ("Balance" is typically doomed from the start.) Rather, our job is to hold the extremes together. 

Math math as easy as possible

Math is hard, and to help students value it we need to help them see that they can understand it. 

And no mathematical idea — at least, none in the K–12 curriculum — is beyond students. Virtually all students can perfectly understand everything in the math curriculum.

It's easy to say that, of course, harder to do it! To make math as easy as possible, a new kind of STEM school could use two tools:

  1. The JUMP Math curriculum. We've explained our love of JUMP in an earlier post, but to distill it: the K-8 JUMP curriculum breaks every math idea into an armful of tiny ideas, which all students can zip through. JUMP works for advanced students, for struggling students, and for everyone in between. 
  2. Deep Practice Books. We've written a little about this before, too, but to distill: students can keep collections of problems they find frustrating. They revisit these problems, asking questions of them, seeking deeper explanations, and re-solving them in diverse ways. After a few days or weeks, each problem becomes easy — and students tend to enjoy them!

Make math as hard as possible

Math is hard, and to help students value it we need to (wait for it) let them struggle. 

JUMP's brilliance comes from the fact that it carefully guides students to full understanding. But to cultivate real mathematical thinking, we need to also give students unguided experiences with math: we need to toss them into problems, and let them fend for themselves. 

Well, that's an exaggeration: it's not that we should offer no guidance, but that we should offer minimal guidance. Students need to learn how to problem-solve on their own. 

Yes, this is the opposite of the above! And both are important.

How should we do it? We know of two tried-and-true methods:

  1. Host math circles. What's a math circle? A sports team for math.
    Math circles can vary profoundly: some are all about preparing for math competitions, others are anti-competitive. Some look like traditional teacher-led courses, others are inquiry based. What they share in common is that they're led by real mathematicians, and lead children into the depths of mathematical ideas through conversation. 
  2. Attempt mathematical puzzles through the "Japanese Method". In The Teaching GapJames Stigler and James Hiebert lay out how Japanese schools put unstructured problem-solving before guided explanations. A teacher in Japan will post a challenging problem — one which students do not have the tools to easily solve. Working in small groups, students will tackle it, crafting their own tools to do so. And then the groups share their methods, and the teacher leads a conversation comparing them. Which method is easiest? Which is most elegant? Which is the most complex? By puzzling through how (superficially) diverse methods can lead to the same answer, students see into the heart of mathematics. (We've written about this idea before here.)

If there's one thing that everyone in American education can agree about, it's that math is currently taught abysmally. By reconceiving math teaching (and learning) with the insights of all sides of the math wars, a new kind of STEM school can forge a way forward.

Makerspaces > Textbooks

Yesterday, we shared our "what a new kind of STEM school could look like" proposal. But you may have noticed that some important things were missing. 

(Well, first off, math! But stay tuned for that t'morrow.)

We left out three important things — MakerSpaces, coding, and documentaries — because Kristin and I don't know how to integrate them with the rest of the curriculum. 

And that's bad. Everything connects to everything; disconnected subjects are (in our vision) verboten. Got any thoughts about how these can fit into a school? Please let us know!

Oh, and there's one other thing that's missing — but that's quite on purpose! (Hint: IT'S TEXTBOOKS.)

Missing: A MakerSpace.

How do we fit in a MakerSpace? 

Right now, we're planning to invest good time into having kids puzzle out how stuff works. But they should also be making stuff themselves. 

Enter the MakerSpace movement: throwing people into rooms full of tools to actually construct stuff. 

How can we incorporate this into our schools?

Missing: Coding.

You hear a lot about how coding is the next basic skill — and, actually, I'm prone to believe that. 

Even for students who don't end up choosing to pursue any adult-level coding skills, having dipped one's toes into the art of coding does two important things:

  1. Logic. I remember my surprise when I asked my college logic instructor about which classes I should take if I wanted to pursue the subject further. "Coding", she replied. But I shouldn't have been shocked: at its heart, coding is applied logic.
  2. Problem-solving. Programming is hard. Practicing it means getting really good at solving problems: breaking them down into sub-problems, and holding up all the connections in your head. We want to cultivate this skill across the board; programming can help.
  3. End alienation. As I've written about technology, those of us who feel like machines are magical are divorced from the actual wonder of the world. "The magic", to quote Steven Stevinus again, "is not magical". That's why it's magic. Learning to code connects us to the world around us. 

Missing: documentaries.

There are, of course, wonderful documentaries that have been made on science — both the old and new versions of Cosmos come to mind.  These can take people into imaginative experiences that they could never otherwise get — at least, not without access to an electron microscope or particle collider.  

We think a new kind of school should be unapologetic in showing and re-showing these videos, and should help kids do something with them (take notes?)… but we’re still not sure exactly what, and how to integrate these into the curriculum.


No textbooks are mentioned here — this is quite intentional!  We’ve rarely seen a science textbook that did a good job of communicating scientific ideas to the reader.  Sometimes it’s because the “science” is faulty; more often, it’s because the books are utterly and truly boring, written to pass the review of a curriculum board, rather than to keep the attention of an 8-year-old.

Historically, one of the main purposes of textbooks has been to compensate for the untrainedness of the teacher. As we'll start by hiring teachers who are serious learners — an idea at the heart of Imaginative Education — we won't need textbooks to fulfill this role. 

Textbooks — even very good ones! — cannot inculcate students in scientific thinking.  At best, they can help with that.  Typically, they substitute for scientific thinking: kids think “science” is merely a bunch of facts to be learned, when the ethos and method are equally important.  (A PhD science friend complains about how Chinese students, especially, come in unprepared to do science, though their book learning is excellent.)  If we want to prepare kids to enter STEM fields, we should be careful about how we use textbooks.

So does that mean no science books? Perish the thought! Engagingly-written science books are a wonderful idea.  (There are so, so many of these — Randall Munroe's Thing Explainer is an example.) 

Books externalize and “glue down” information in a way that allows students to focus on it for an extended time.  They also allow a much greater bandwidth of scientific knowledge into the classroom.  The classroom ought be filled with these, and students ought be given chances throughout the day to peruse them.  

Tomorrow: what a math curriculum for a new kind of STEM school could look like!

Animals and plants and toasters, oh my!

So what could a K-12 STEM school look like, if one were devoted to maximizing love, mastery, and purpose — and could draw upon the weapons of Imaginative Education?

Below is what Kristin and I wrote up when asked this question. Advanced warning: there are some pretty exciting things in here. 



  • Bring in plants to the classroom, and animals, and mechanical objects Bring in food, too, and cook it together daily.  
  • This means having hermit crabs, birds, and fish in the classroom.  It also means bringing in incandescent lightbulbs, vacuum cleaners, paint, old telephones & microphones, pumps, and small gasoline engines.  
  • Some of these would stay in the classroom long-term; others could migrate from classroom to classroom at regular intervals.  (The mechanical objects, for example, would move every two weeks.) 
  • Also, get the kids out of the classroom — repeatedly visit a specific site to get a sense of how the various elements of an ecosystem work together.
  • The class’s goal is to understand these objects as well as possible.  
  • Kids would poke, prod, and take apart these things.  They’d feed them, nurture them, and clean up after them.  They might even shake, sniff, and lick them!  Bring in as many senses as possible.
  • These would get kids into physics, chemistry, biology, geology, and ecology.  (At present, we're struggling to incorporate astronomy into this.  If you’ve any thoughts, we’d love to hear them!)


  • Ordinary physical engagement isn’t enough — kids need to develop specialized techniques that will help them notice in more detail. 
  • One of these techniques is a game of just listing out everything they notice.  (We’ve adapted this from a famous story told of the scientist Louis Agassiz, which is well worth reading.)  It’s incredible how doing this pushes us far beyond our initial interpretation of things, which we had foolishly assumed to be more-or-less all there was to see.
  • Another of these techniques is to teach children to draw realistically: drawing being a way to externalize observation (and to make obvious what we’re not seeing).  There are a few outfits in Seattle that do this, and some DVDs and books that teach it as well.
  • Another of these is to use physical tools — especially magnifying glasses and microscopes — to uncover worlds we’d otherwise not have access to.  (The secret is to provide these things as tools for students to use to explore objects they’ve chosen, rather than assigning the objects.) 


  • Fill the classroom with engaging popular books of science — both for children and for adults.
  • Allow kids to have a limited number of web searches per day.  (This creates scarcity and value, and forces students to be more discerning in their browsing.)
  • Prompt kids to ask parents and community members what they know about these topics.


  • Give kids blank books (“commonplace books”) in which to make their observations, draw pictures, and pose questions.
  • Once each week, students submit one question they’d most like to get the class’s help pondering (e.g. “Why doesn’t the filament burn up?”).  These questions get written onto the chalkboard wall. 
  • Each day, time is set aside for offering up possible answers to those questions — along with new sub-questions that the original question spawns.  Those are also written down on the board, which becomes a giant thought map.
  • Have students ask parents and community members what they think the answers to these specific questions might be.
  • The immediate job of the teacher isn’t to answer these questions directly, but rather to facilitate thinking well — challenging the kids’ theories, and praising effort.  (This is Socratic dialogue, and though I think I can teach it in person, I’d need to look into how to teach it remotely.  There are some good books on this, published by people associated with the Philosophy for Children movement, which has a center in Seattle.)


  • The longer-term job of the teacher is to steer children toward the correct answer.  To do that, the teacher needs to, of course, herself understand the scientific phenomenon deeply.  To help relatively untrained teachers do this, we could put together informational materials — scans of relevant books, PDFs of relevant webpages, and YouTube video explanations, for example.  We’d also want to make it easy for teachers to ask each other questions — teachers, in a way, take on the role that the students are doing.  We’d perhaps also want to pay some scientists (or PhD students) to directly answer questions online, and preserve those answers for future teachers.
  • And we can go beyond just providing information for teachers — we can help pre-prepare lesson plans on the Imaginative Education framework.  The goal here is to show students how this physical phenomena is really, really interesting — in addition to showing how it works.  (Some students are born with a love for scientific phenomena — for the rest of it, it needs to be cultivated.  This starts with the teacher falling a little in love with the topic.)  I’d be thrilled to put you guys in touch with some of the leading science-teaching experts in the Imaginative Education community. 


  • At the end of the project, students demonstrate their understanding by making something that teaches the science to others.
  • Most frequently, this should be a written report, which we can use to hone writing abilities.  These would be authentic projects, written for specific audiences — parents, and perhaps younger students.
  • These demonstrations can also be done in other media: students can draw diagrams, shoot photos, make movies, write songs, and draw comics to explain the science. 


  • Tell the stories of the things we’re studying: the stories of the scientific and mathematical insights, and of the technological breakthroughs.  
  • Focus particularly on wrong ideas and inventions that didn’t work (for example, aether, classical elemental theory, phlogiston, and abiogenesis — or one of the planes before the Wright Brothers, one of the lightbulbs before Edison).  We need to make this kind of “failure” okay.  We also want to appreciate how clever the correct ideas really are!
  • We can tell those stories alongside the objects we’re studying, and tell them as part of the Big Spiral History framework (14 billion years in 4 years, encountered not once, not twice, but thrice!).
  • Use these stories as “think-alongs”: as excuses to help kids do their own thinking.  We can tell the stories slowly, asking kids to interpret the evidence that e.g. Newton is observing, and seeing if we can figure out how Newton made the intuitive leaps that he did.  
  • Start with the Big Bang, and quickly give the whole narrative of the universe.  This gives us a foundation to tell the stories of where all material things (grass, dirt, rocks, carbon atoms, nuclei…) came from in the first place.  

Stay tuned t'morrow for the math component of our plans — as well as what all of this leaves out!

Don't raise standards — raise a standard

I often hear discussions about education reform be conducted on the principle of the "well let's at least get them to x" principle. 

"Maybe some kids will be Einsteins," the discussion seems to be assuming, "and that'd be great. But right now, we at least want to ensure that all our students will have the basic skills." 

This position tries to be loving and caring and kind. It recognizes that, without a basic grasp of math, reading, cultural knowledge, and so on, kids struggle. 

But it's wrong.

This approach rests on the assumption that it's easier to do something easy than to do something hard. But, intriguingly, that's not always the case. 

To do anything (large or small), a human being needs to be motivated. They need to want to do it. As John Taylor Gatto has written,

Common sense should tell you it isn't "difficult" to teach children who don't want to learn. It's impossible.

What we need to do (as a school, as a society) is define stirring goals for students to quest toward. 

Want penmanship? Hook kids up with calligraphy.
Want multiplication facts? Set kids on learning the secrets of mental math.
Want literacy? Cultivate voracious readers.

As Antoine de Saint-Exupery wrote:

If you want to build a ship, don't drum up people to collect wood and don't assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.

Which is to say: We have to aim higher. Aim greater. Aim bolder. 

To start with, we should wipe from our cultural vocabulary that horrible phrase "raise standards". It connotes bureaucracy, a dehumanized environment in which children are viewed as the sum of their test scores.

Replace it with the image of "raising a standard" — lifting a flag on a battlefield for soldiers to fight towards. 

A friend challenged me last year to define what we mean by "mastery". He was, I think, concerned that we were buying into the mainstream "LET'S RAISE STANDARDIZED TEST SCORES OH YEAH!" ethos.

Well, rest assured, we aren't.

But I've found it challenging to elucidate precisely what it is that we mean when we say "mastery". It's so big — it's our image of the educated man or woman. "Renaissance man" comes close to it, as does "maker", as does "creator". I'll continue to work on that. 

For the moment, I'll say this: that sometimes, it's easier to aim for the hard things. 

My thanks to masteroflore.wordpress.com for the Gondor standard image above!

What Seth Godin doesn't understand about science education

Seth Godin — entrepreneurial guru and all around clever doer — recently shared his thoughts on how science should be taught.

Now, Godin is typically brilliant — his On Being interview, "The Art of Noticing, Then Creating" is an especially great meditation on the process of innovation, and is entirely worth your time! 

But these thoughts? I'd say they're good, but also problematic, and in a very interesting way. Showing how might, I think, point us beyond the simplistic science reform movement that's currently ascendant, and toward a genuinely new sort of science education, one that regularly cultivates adults who think like scientists.

Read his whole post — it's super short. To keep this short, I'll just excerpt the part I disagree with. (How terribly unfair of me!)

Godin writes:

Start with the method. Unlike just about everything else we teach, science is not based on human culture or history. If one wants to study literature or geography or the Kings and Queens of England, it begins with knowing all that came before, the work, the names, the lists, the battles. Science, on the other hand, is above culture. Gravity would have existed even if Isaac Newton hadn't invented it. After two weeks of science class, students should know how to think like a scientist.

Much of this is gold. Kids absolutely should learn to think like scientists. And science really is above culture — getting at the world outside our heads is much of the fun of science! (Aliens civilizations, if they exist, can puzzle out the exact same laws of chemistry that we've discovered.) 

There are, however, two important problems with what Godin writes.

Problem number one: though Godin is entirely correct when he says that "science is above culture", he forgets that hearing the stories of great discoveries can spark interest, and help us think for ourselves.

Stories are brain candy. They can help us enter into the romance of the real world.

Isaac Newton, actually, is a great example! Hearing about the nutty professor who, on his own time, derived the laws undergirding the motion of the planets, then losing his notes, then re-deriving them and as a byproduct discovering the mathematics of all gravity — this can be an easy way to catch the interest of science.

And, indeed, we do catch interest. There are a few people for whom a lust of physics springs naturally. But for most of us, it needs to be cultivated. And the stories of discovery are a great way to do that.

Stories shouldn't, by the way, take the place of scientific thinking — rather, they can help us get deeply into scientific thinking. 

For example, it's famously difficult to think about natural selection — evolution is a deeply counterintuitive notion. It practically breaks all the rules of our folk physics. But hearing the story of Charlie Darwin, and really getting behind him — feeling his loneliness aboard the Beagle, feeling his bamboozlement at the odd patterns of finch variation in the Galapagos — can launch us into struggling for the answers ourselves.

Stories — that is, "culture" — can scaffold our thinking.

The physicist Michael Polanyi argued that science is not really a method — it's a detailed culture that we get inducted into by other scientists. (He wrote in the 1940s, when America was throwing money at science, but was unable to produce much without importing scientists from Eastern Europe, who were schooled in a long tradition of careful lab work.) 

Well, we can (in part) get inducted into the community of science by learning great scientists of the past.

It's important to not push this too far — kids need hands-on and brains-on experience with the real world (see below) — but culture can help cultivate real scientists.

Problem number two: "method" is bunk. Or, at best, it's an unhelpful characterization.

At least, most methods are. Let's overstate this a bit: there is no “scientific method”.  

It’s now generally considered foolishness in science education circles to insist strongly that kids follow the “HYPOTHESIS—PREDICTION—ETC.” cycle.

Real thinking — and here I know Godin agrees! — is messy. It emerges on its own haphazardly. You engage something in nature. You get your hands dirty, your shirt stained. And then you ponder, and try stuff out.

Well, perhaps you could say that what I'm describing is a method. I could roll with that, I suppose. But the word "method" is still unhelpful: it brings to mind an emotionless, Vulcan-like, "System 2" process. Real pondering is a much hotter, human, intuitive thing. 

So what's needed for a real science education — an education that cultivates real scientists?

1. Regular engagement with real stuff, not (God help us!) assigned textbook reading. Kids should dissect toasters. They should observe the actions of animals and plants. Cook food daily. Visit, and re-visit, a single ecosystem. Peer at a particular square foot of ground under a microscope

This takes time. It also takes tools, like being taught to draw what's in front of your face.

2. A culture that prizes asking questions, and hunting for answers. A tribe of people committed to thinking together, challenging each other's notions

3. Teachers — aka Learners in Chief! — who fall in love with what they're studying, and help connect the kids to their love. (Say, by using Imaginative Education.)

4. A curriculum that doesn't, at the end of the day, differentiate between "science" and "philosophy" and "math" and "history" and "literature" and "religion" and "spelling" and anything else. 

There's one world, and our subjects are lenses for viewing it. (I've most controversially argued that in a series of posts about teaching creation and evolution.)

If we do these things, I'll suggest, we can create schools that cultivate real scientists — adults who think expansively and cautiously, who look for evidence before belief, who remain open to opposing explanations, who are willing to play with crazy notions — whatever profession the kids end up in. 

At the end of the day, I don't think Godin and I are far apart on this. Certainly our ultimate goals are exactly the same!

And when Godin writes this —

Science makes sense, it's not magic. One of the challenges of teaching science in high school is that there seems to be so much to cover, it's tempting to cram all the formulas, names and theories in front of students. Just as there's no room to argue about when they fought the War of 1812, we often present science as a bag of magical facts, not the result of a method, a method students can implement.

I can only respond, yes, yes, YES! 

But: I'll take his "not magic" and raise it — it's magical, too! As the Flemish physicist Simon Stevin wrote: 

The magic is not magical.

This, in a nutshell, is the promise of science — and of all learning: things make sense.

When we get beyond our usual boredom of the world around us, we realize that we're surrounded by mystery. Everything — clouds, vacuum cleaners, cats — appears to be miraculous. 

And then we launch ourselves into understanding it, and discover, bit by bit, that it consists of parts, and those parts fit together perfectly, gaplessly.

But this doesn't reduce its wonder — rather, it increases it!

I used to say things like "the goal of education is to re-enchant the Universe". I still think there's something right about that. But now I say this: the goal of schools isn't so much to re-enchant the universe as to show that it already is enchanted.

Any science education that can help do that is something that I — and, I think, all of us — can get behind.

New pattern: Understand Evil

Understand Evil.jpg

When it comes to evil, we're stuck on stupid — our knee-jerk reaction is to imagine that violence is caused by mustache-twirling villains who delight in making the world a worse place.

Most evil, of course, is caused by people just like you and me, who do terrible things for perfectly explicable reasons.

And yet we don't WANT to understand those reasons — we want to keep living in the myth. (Our politics often depends that we do!)

What if a new kind of school could take kids into understanding what actually motivates people — so they could help actually mend the world?

Check out the blog post!

"A Pattern Language" for education! (Our Signature Curriculum.)

schoolsforhumans.org is back up — in fact, it's totally re-done!

No longer is it merely a blog, but a whole website. At its gooey, caramel-y core: our "signature curriculum". This is where we're posting the individual ideas that make up our approach to education.

Why the big change? We've realized that we're bougainvillea thinkers, rather than sunflower thinkers. 

Writing in The New Yorker, Nathan Heller suggests that some ideas can stand alone nicely by themselves. To get the awesomeness of these ideas, you don't need to understand much context. These ideas make nice TED talks. Heller calls these "sunflower" ideas — ideas that, when plucked, maintain their structure, and look nice on their own.

Heller suggests that other ideas need context. To recognize their awesomeness, you need to understand the ecosystem into which these ideas fit. These ideas don't make nice TED talks! Heller calls these "bougainvillea" ideas.

Our educational ideas are of this latter type. Each (we think) is exciting, but its power comes from how it strengthens all the other ideas. 

It's proven difficult to communicate the full power of our ideas through one blog post at a time. So what we've decided to do is write A Pattern Language for our practices of education. Some of them we're already using, in homeschooling our son and teaching classes around Seattle; others will need to wait until we grow our first school a bit bigger.

What's A Pattern Language, you ask? Short answer: one of the greatest books ever written, an expansive, organically-grown vision of good ideas in designing spaces for humans. (For a great, short introduction, see this Slate article.) 

A Pattern Language is made up of hundreds of small, brilliant ideas, at different levels of design — from how to arrange cities (e.g. Connected Play, Pools and Streams) to how to arrange buildings (e.g. Stair Seats, Farmhouse Kitchen) to how to arrange rooms (e.g. Floor–Ceiling Vaults, Soft Inside Walls).

Each idea (or "pattern") comes as the solution to a problem. Each pattern is also linked up to grander, broader patterns, and down to smaller, more specific ones. 

That's how we're writing our Signature Curriculum.

Each of our patterns comes with a problem that it's responding to. It then gives our basic plan, and a set of goals its trying to achieve (most of our goals begin with "Adults who..."). To help folk envision this, we then sketch out what you might see if you visit the classroom while the pattern is being enacted. There's then a space for us to ask y'all questions about how to pull this off, and a place for us to link to other relevant patterns. Finally, there's a quick section of links to books and articles that inspired the pattern.

Our plan is to, over the course of 2016, post a lot of these — something on the order of 6 per week.

Will this end up as a jumbled mess? Oh yes.

But will this allow us a way to externalize the ideas that have so far only lived in our heads and in late-night conversations? Oh yes.

Such, we think, is a good route toward explaining to our coalescing team what we're up to, in our humble attempt to reinvent education. 

Look for our first new patterns starting t'morrow — and feel free to kick around the site! We look forward to your feedback.

What should a school SMELL like?


I walked into my son's kindergarten on Thursday for maybe the twentieth time, and it finally clicked: This whole place smells like a horrible cafeteria. Smells evoke a mood in a way that sights and sounds rarely do. Just this morning, walking down to my local coffee house, I strolled past an area clearly inhabited only minutes earlier by a smoker. The lingering scent of cigarette smoke triggered a half-dozen memories: smoking at a best friend's bachelor party, hanging around my now-deceased grandfather who was rarely far from a Camel. Good memories, all — which obviously isn't to say anything in favor of smoking! Rather, it's to note that even one of our great health scourges has survived in part by taking smell seriously.

It's so easy to overlook the olfactory sense — but specific smells set the stage for the rest of life.

So: what should a school smell like?

Hunch #1: not like a crappy cafeteria. 

It's surprising to me that the administration of my son's school hasn't identified "our school reeks" as A Sensible Problem to be Addressed. Maybe the administration has acclimated to the smell?

(Note: the school is a public, district-run homeschooling outreach school. Most of the time, we're homeschooling our son, or sending him to an outdoor kindergarten. Our lives are complex, if wonderful.)

But of course it might take real work to rid a school of the "Tuesday Mystery Meat" odor. Those odorants are powerful, and in a building lacking both (1) excellent ventilation and (2) counterbalancing smells, they may be impossible to clear out.

But let me suggest a helpful hint to fellow school-founders: ask an outsider to tell you if your school literally stinks. 

Hunch #2: at lunch, like fresh bread.

One of the distinctives of our new-kind-of schooling is that our kids will make lunch together each day. Part of that will be regularly making various kinds of bread — because (1) culture, (2) science, and (3) deliciousness.

I've argued all those before. Now add to that: scent. Because what better way could we communicate to visitors that these schools are good places for human beings than by having them smell fresh bread?

Hunch #3: I have no more hunches.

It's weird, this "smell" thing. I've literally spent 33 years swimming in a sea of smells. They've influenced the way that I feel and behave. And yet I'm an idiot about what a school should smell like. So I'll turn the question over to y'all — what might a new kind of school aim to smell like?

Start as a tiny school?


Matt Candler, CEO of the educational innovation program 4.0 Schools, is building a machine that builds schools. He calls it "The Tiny Schools Project", and oh, oh, oh is it exciting.

Candler suggests we think about restaurants.

Once upon a time, he writes, if you wanted to open a restaurant, well, you opened a restaurant! You raised gobs of money, hired a staff, picked a location, and jumped into it!

What a great way to fail. There are so many balls to juggle in starting a restaurant, many of which have nothing to do with food or ambiance — in fact, you can perfect the essentials, and still fail!

And so it goes with schools. Founding a regular-sized school involves juggling at least as many balls as a restaurant does. Candler cites a study which found that 86% of charter schools that fail do so because of reasons unrelated to academics.

Enter food trucks. 

Nowadays, if you want to start a restaurant, there's a straighter path: get a food truck.

The food truck revolution has created a middle space for starting a restaurant: something more complex than your kitchen, but something less complex than a bricks-and-mortar site.

There are even companies that will rent you the truck, and help you develop the nonessentials — and leave the creative cooking up to you.

What 4.0 Schools is doing is making a food truck model for new kinds of schools. This is the Tiny Schools Project. And it seems to be built on the Lean Startup framework (which I've lauded previously on this blog).

Our question, right now, is: what we should take from this? Should we join a cohort? Should we borrow loosely from their model? (In some ways, we've been planning a tiny school all along — starting with 1-2 small classes, and iterating/growing from there.)

Whatever we decide: how exciting! How wonderful to see the wonderful become the new normal.

If you're interested in starting with some brief articles about 4.0 Schools Tiny Schools, you might enjoy What if we tested schools the way chefs test new restaurants?, 4 ways to make Tiny Schools, and The Tiny Schools Project.

Massive thanks to reader Tom Huntington, who pointed me toward the Tiny Schools Project website!

Should schools be comfy... or the opposite?


Our power went out on Tuesday. 'Twas a wind storm — a nice, big one! — and it knocked out the powergrid for most of our town. We were reduced to the technology of a century ago.

We had to make our own light (candles), our own heat (a fire), and our own music (carols, hymns, and classic Americana sung from the ol' songbook). We cooked hamburgers on a kerosene stove that Kristin had coincidentally purchased the day before. We fell asleep in our sleeping bags, curled up around the hearth.

The kids loved it. We sorta did, too.

There's something wonderful about being uncomfortable. Flourishing and austerity are at least occasionally in cahoots.

And it's making me wonder what the role of discomfort might be in a school that prizes human well-being.

I've been noting how much our children crave extreme variation. They seem to hate perpetual moderate light — they need moments of bright light, and moments of darkness. Ditto loud sound and silence, hot and cold, and rough and smooth.

And I feel this way, too. I'm puzzling over whether how much of this is a random genetic fluke of our family, and how much it's a general human trait.

We design our buildings for comfort, and surely there's much wisdom in that. But are we missing anything? Should the physical design of a school — and the design of a school day — include discomfort?

If so, of what kinds?

How can we build in discomfort to a school for humans?

What do children (and teachers) CRAVE?


Undergirding our approach to schooling is a new understanding of what people are "New", that is, for schooling. We're not pretending to promulgate some hidden secret of humanity — rather, we're drawing directly from social science (especially positive psychology and evolutionary psychology) and the humanities (especially literature, philosophy, and history).

But compared with the assumptions of human beings that modern schooling is built on, our understanding might come as a radical re-imagining of what it means to be a human.

We're grounding our school in the beautiful basics of human nature — the things we all know to be true, but which aren't presently brought into school much.

So, our question: what do people crave?

Below is a loose draft of what I see as the innate human drives that are most useful for a learning community.

Here's the promise: if we tap into what people (students and teachers alike) crave, we'll create an education that's unstoppable.


We crave mission, purpose. We want to align our efforts with some lofty goal. We want to be inspired by others who have already done.


We crave to accomplish hard things, to grow, to progress toward our goals. We want to be challenged. We want the pride of knowing we've attained something.

Real relationships.

We want to know and be known — we want to exult with others, and suffer with others.


We want to lose ourselves in our work, immersing ourselves in activities that require our total attention.


We want to marvel at the hugeness, ancientness, and complexity of the world. We want to be overwhelmed by reality.


We want to crack up, chortle, guffaw, and giggle. We want to titter, twitter, snigger, and snicker. We want to smile broadly, and dissolve into laughter.


When we descend into the dark corners of reality, we want to believe that it gets better. We want to have reasons to aspire that bad situations can be turned around.


We want (some of us less than others!) to be calm, to achieve tranquility. We want to, at times, be mellow.


We want to be thanked, and to thank others. We want to be bowled over by another's compassion, to be indebted to all those who have built up the foundation of our flourishing.


We want to, every once in a while, be avalanched by delight — to be buried in glee.


We want to feel affection and warmth toward other people — especially with our family and friends — and know that others feel the same way about us. We also want to feel fond of the things around us.


We want to affect the world that we don't "log out" of at the end of the day. We want to know we're making a difference in the world we all share.

Status & safety.

We want to be respected for our accomplishments — and to be safe and accepted even when we fail.


We want to become really good at something, and exercise control in a domain.

Body joy.

We want to tap into all our senses, press our bodies to their limits, and be exhausted.


We want to feel the moral upwelling of jaw-dropping acts of compassion, forgiveness, or excellence. We want our pictures of human potential to be stretched, and admire those who have stretched them.


We want to live in the knowledge that there's more to be explored.


We're drawn to fights, disputes, and quarrels, and want to see them reconciled.

Beauty and order.

We want to observe, and embody, aesthetic excellence.


We want to know things — not just shallowly, but deeply and richly. We even want to understand things when that understanding might cause us pain.

Our epic quest, at Schools for Humans: how can we build a school on these? How can (literally) every piece of a curriculum tie in to one or more of these desires? How can thirteen years of schooling fulfill these cravings? And how can we make this a reality not just for students, but also for teachers?

Again, these are an initial, loose list. Can you think of any other desires that ought maybe be on here? Would you suggest we nix any of these?

If so, we'd love your feedback! Please post your suggestions below, or send them to me at brandon.hendrickson@gmail.com.

The promise: schools for sanity?


Here's what I'm wondering: should our schools' bedrock promise to parents be that we'll cultivate sanity? A stray thought stuck in my mind yesterday, while driving to meet a friend: the problem of the 21st century life is staying sane. So many of us struggle with being overbooked, overcommitted, overwhelmed. And we feel like much of the work we do — and especially, what our kids do in school — borders on meaningless.

What if a new kind of school could design itself around providing the opposite?

This is a fresh thought, and I'd like your help in fleshing it out — and deciding whether how useful it is.

Here are a few consequences I'd imagine coming from our schools dedicating themselves to sanity:

  • Minimal homework in grade school and middle school. There seems to be ample evidence suggesting that homework in grade school isn't useful, and in fact may be counterproductive for students' academic achievement. I'm wondering if the harm goes further: I hear stories of my parents-of-middle-schoolers friends who talk about having to walk their kids through literal reams of homework past 11pm most nights. This amount of homework is not good for families: not for the middle-and-upper-class families who can (sometimes) achieve it, and not good for the lower-class families who cannot. School shouldn't be easy, but it should be simple — at least, simpler than this.
  • Meaningful homework throughoutWhen we give homework in the early and middle grades, it better damned well be meaningful! For example, we could encourage families to let their child help make a big family dinner once a week. (Eating dinner together, not incidentally, correlates more strongly with academic achievement than does doing homework. But it's also delicious, and a great ingredient for sane living!) Or, for a different example, we could have students pose some of their weekly questions (posed and hunted in our question-posing and answer-hunting curricula!) to their parents, siblings, and extended family, as well as to other community members (e.g. the mailcarrier, the Starbucks barista). Homework can be a vehicle for intergenerational connection — it can make us more sane. 
  • No AP classes. I took two AP classes in high school, and both were excellent. (Quick shout-out to Rudy Mueller and Mary Ann Penglase!) But I've observed that these are the exceptions: through my SAT coaching business, I work with so many smart, hard-working high schoolers who torture themselves through AP textbooks, understanding almost nothing and hating every evening of it. I heard a friend who started a Froebelian kindergarten once say that her school aims to be "intellectual, but not academic". There's something wonderful in that. I've noticed that one of the most prestigious local Seattle high schools (Lakeside Academy) flaunts how it doesn't have AP classes — I wonder if we should want to do the same.

Thoughts? And how else could the experience of schooling be less maddening?

(Thanks to theinbetweenbloggers.com for the image!)

Our manifesto


What are we trying to do here at schoolsforhumans.org? This. 


Our schools aim to cultivate adults who can help mend the world:

  • Renaissance men and women asking what sort of society they want to live in (and then shaping it), asking what sort of people they want to be (and then becoming them), and understanding how the world hangs together.
  • They develop superpowers: mad-crazy skills in domains like writing, speaking, thinking, reading, computation, drawing, seeing, entrepreneurship, cooking, empathy, self-knowledge, creativity, rationality, and aesthetics.
  • Finally, they fall in love with the world: developing relationships with all the things they study and with the people in their community.


The heart of our schools' mission is to develop the world's greatest curriculum: intellectually vibrant, content rich, cognitively exacting, emotionally compelling. This curriculum spans kindergarten through high school, and encompasses history, math, science, cooking, writing, drawing, philosophy, physical education, literature, music, foreign language, biology, chemistry, physics, ecology, anthropology, sociology, psychology, geography, world religions, economics, political science, coding, design, spelling, and much, much more.

We'll be developing this curriculum, refining it together, and offering it for free online to anyone who wishes to borrow from it, or to see what education can aspire to in the 21st century.


We envision our community as a tribe pursuing a common mission. It will be a place for teachers and students to be full human beings — exploring, struggling, bonding, exulting, and creating as they're given autonomy and support.

Teachers will be prepared through an intensive two-year training program in which they begin to master the skills they will be cultivating in students.


Our lofty goal is for the school to be free for all families and to pay teachers well through a combination of crowdfunding and institutional grants. We hope to offer enough to attract some of the most brilliant innovators from local K–12 schools as well as from other industries.

We are planning to incorporate as a nonprofit 501(c)(3).


Obviously, we're not the first people to try to do these things! We're bringing together the work of many creators, especially the work of Kieran Egan and the Imaginative Education Research Group, Montessori schools, Waldorf schools, classical schools, and outdoor schools. We're also bringing in theoretical approaches of cognitive, evolutionary, and positive psychology.

We're building especially on a few particular insights developed by these groups:

  • Kieran Egan and the Imaginative Education Research Group: Thinking flows from feeling, and everything in the world is interesting. Good teaching means falling a little in love with a topic, and then helping students catch that love.
  • Montessori schools: Students should be given freedom to choose between a prescribed range of options, and to be given the space to work diligently in them. Students learn best in a mixed-age community.
  • Waldorf schools: The arts are essential to a good education, and with the proper instruction everyone can become adept at them. The school environment should be visually elegant and emotionally supportive.
  • Classical schools: Students should digest the most profound insights, stories, and mysteries — from around the world and across the millennia — so as to become creators of new insights, tellers of new stories, and explorers of new mysteries. A good education is intrinsically moral — filled with visions of what sort of life is worth living, and the quest for how to achieve it.
  • Outdoor schools: Children are not designed to spend all of their days in sterile, comfortable, and well-lit environments. We learn more and are happier when we're put into contact with the messy, risky real world of plants and animals.
  • Cognitive psychology: There are basic rules for how minds work. When we reimagine schooling around these rules, all students can regularly build skill, preserve memories, and generate new ideas.
  • Evolutionary psychology and positive psychology: Traditional schools were built on a factory model that doesn't match what humans are. By paying attention to human nature and to human well-being, we can remake schools into gardens for human flourishing.


In September 2017 we'll be opening a K–2 school on the Eastside of Seattle, which we will grow into a K–12 over the next decade. We won't stop there: growth will be part of our DNA. Our plan is to splinter off new schools to form a network, sharing philosophy and administration, swapping curriculum and teachers, and meeting together to dream bigger and problem solve.

This, at least, is draft one-point-oh! Kristin and I would love your feedback — send it to me at brandon.hendrickson@gmail.com. With it, we'll be maturing the above into something even better.

Some specific questions, if you'd like:

  • What of the above particularly excites you?
  • Anything that hits you the wrong way?
  • What doesn't make perfect sense?
  • What grammar and orthographical errors do you spy?
  • What would you like to see spelled out?
  • What questions do you have about our schools that aren't answered on here?

Abandon perfection... or embrace it? (How to raise an adult, task #4)


How can our new-kind-of schools help cultivate adults? Step four: abandon perfection. 

Or, at least, that's what Julie Lythcott-Haims says. Today marks the fourth installment in a series on the question of how to raise an adult, drawing extensively from her book of that name!

Lythcott-Haims writes:

one of the hardest aspects of letting our kids do the stuff of life for themselves is giving up on an ideal of perfection that we can most likely achieve but our kids most likely can't.

I'd like to question this, but first: oh, do I feel it!

Me, I like a clean floor. Clean floors in the evening make me feel calm, and in control of my thoughts and life. My two kids (ages three and nearly-six) don't yet seem to share my obsession!

Now, we're making progress toward having a clean floor. (Deciding that all toys still on the floor at night would be confiscated for a week has made a big difference.) But we're still not there — small cars are still stuck beneath chairs, ponies are still wedged under the refrigerator.

For the last few years Kristin and I have been doing the cleaning ourselves, leading to two outcomes: (1) The floor has occasionally been perfectly clean. (2) Our kids have hardly even begun to learn to clean.

Dumb, dumb!

We've been holding on to the ideal of "perfect" — and not demanding as much of our kids as we ought. In the words of developmental psychologists, we've been indulgent.

We've only recently started letting go of perfect — and about time!

Lythcott-Haims writes:

Perfectionism... is the enemy of adulthood.

I entirely agree with this... except.

It seems to me that this ideal (abandon perfection) is in tension with another ideal: pursue perfectionApproching perfection is what motivates gymnasts, and artists, and pitchers. It's what motivates poets, and mathematicians, and scientists, and activists.

Now, that's (obviously) not to say that actual perfection is possible. But setting a very high standard, and working diligently toward it, is one of the marks of an adult — at least, the sort that we're trying to cultivate.

"The goodness and badness of perfection" is a much larger topic than I'm able to limn out this morning — but I want to identify a possible tension here. And so I'll leave us with a question:

How can we balance "abandon perfectionism" and "set high ideals" in a school?

Slowly get out of the way! (How to raise an adult, task #3)


How can our new-kind-of schools help cultivate adults? Step three: slowly get out of the way.

(Today's the third installment in a series on the question of how to raise an adult; the most recent post was about providing unstructured time. I'm drawing extensively from Julie Lythcott-Haims book of that name — my thanks to Prof. Lythcott-Haims for her work!)

Two fundamental choices are at the root of most parenting dilemmas:

Should we demand more of our kids, or give them more help? 

A few decades of developmental psychology has come up with a definitive answer: both. Psychologists have even come up with titles for each of the four possible styles of parenting:

Parents who help a lot, but who don't demand much: indulgent. Parents who demand a lot, but who don't help: authoritarian. Parents who neither demand nor help: neglectful. Parents who both demand much, and help their kids do it: authoritative.

The best style, developmental psychologists tell us, is the final one — authoritative.

Two small notes:

  1. These are dumb names — "authoritative" and "authoritarian" sound alike. This seems a comprehension error on par with J. R. R. Tolkien's decision to call one of his villains Sauron, and the other Sauruman. C'mon, developmental psychologists!
  2. I'm really, really suspicious of any claims about "this is what good parenting is, end of story". And, also, I love dishing out vitriol against developmental psychologists. The trouble is, I strongly agree with this idea — that the best sort of parenting both demands a lot, and helps kids achieve it. If anyone knows any evidence that challenges this conclusion, please share it!

But don't "demand much" and "help much" cancel each other out? How can we do both?

The answer: slowly get out of the way. The same answer, put shorter: scaffolding. 

A scaffold (here's the Wikipedia link) is a short-term structure that's built first, to aid in constructing something grander and longer-term.

As parents, our job is to put ourselves out of work. We teach kids what we know, help them do what we can do, and then send them on their way! This is incredibly joyous, and incredibly bittersweet. This is scaffolding. This is good parenting.

In How to Raise an Adult, Julie Lythcott-Haims draws upon a framework that a friend of hers created for building skills in her own kids:

  1. We do it for you.
  2. We do it with you.
  3. We watch you do it.
  4. You do it completely independently.

I think I have two questions from this.

First, how can we bring this process into every part of our schools? Do we want to structure student evaluations (previously known as "grades") on this framework? Are there any aspects of our curricula in which this scaffolding would be inappropriate? 

Second, to what extent should we work with parents to help this happen at home? How much do we see "schooling" as separate from home life? In order to cultivate adults who can help mend the world, do we need to help parents shape their kids' lives at home, too? To what extent is starting a school like starting a tribe? 

If you've any thoughts on this, please do share 'em in the comments section!

(The beautiful image above courtesy of liggettlawgroup.com — thanks, lawyers!)

Give kids unstructured time! (How to raise an adult, task #1)


How can our new-kind-of schools help cultivate adults? Step one: give kids unstructured time. 

(Today's the first installment in a series on the question of how to raise an adult. I'm drawing extensively from Julie Lythcott-Haims book of that name — my thanks to Prof. Lythcott-Haims for her work!)

As evolutionary psychologist Peter Gray has persuasively argued, the urge to play is the primary evolutionary adaptation to prepare juveniles for adulthood. Indeed, other mammals play, too — but perhaps none more than our species.

And parts of our society are squeezing out play. In the last few decades of U.S. history, play has morphed from an unstructured activity to a formal, structure, supervised enterprise.

This is bad for kids.

How can our schools bring back unstructured play?

In school, we can make time for it: give students perhaps an hour a day of outdoor time (regardless of the weather) in which to run, skip, jump, dash, and make merry. Climb in trees! Splash through puddles! Wrestle, play games, make-believe! (For more on this, see our plans for an adventure playground on school grounds, and the series of posts on the book How to Raise a Wild Child.)

Children's lives are (in the middle-class population I work with) overscheduled. Free play is dying in part because there's no time for it. This we can definitely fix.

In school, we can prompt kids to do it — and maybe even give them a little instruction. I know what you're thinking: if an adult is participating in it, it's not unstructured play. I, too, once thought this, and was horrified to hear there was a company — Playworks — that was teaching kids how to play at recess.

Ridiculous! Preposterous!

And then I read that Lenore Skenazy, the progenitor of the "free-range kids" movement, was a convert. Her brief article describing her support for Playworks — Even ‘free-range kids’ could use help with recess — is excellent reading.

Play is a natural, spontaneous human activity. Forms of play, however, are also cultural activities passed from kid to kid through the ages. A single group of kids, by themselves, may not invent the rich diversity of play ideas that is available to them.

Quote Skenazy:

We may like to think of play as innate, but what’s innate is the desire to play. It isn’t innate to come up with the rules of four square, or a rhyme about a wardrobe malfunction. Those are things handed down from generation to generation.

When they’re not, it is like a lost language. If a parent speaks Spanish, but not to her kids, the kids don’t automatically learn it. Likewise, just because we all knew how to organize a game of “Mother May I?” doesn’t mean today’s kids will, if they haven’t been taught by the older kids, or even just watched them play it.

So we might teach delightful games to play, provide costumes for imaginative play, and encourage them to do it. Kids can be lazy, and just want to lay around — and part of our job is prompting them to get over their short-term wants, and into things that will bring them lasting joy.

After school, we can limit homework. Grade schoolers should have next-to-no homework — and I'm not convinced that middle and high schoolers ought to have much more.

We have names for adult jobs that demand more of our time than the 40 hours spent at the work site — we call them stressful jobs, jobs that'll burn you out. They are, frequently, bad jobs.

Going to school should not be a bad job. Long slogs of homework should be an exception, not a norm.

This may necessitate lengthening the school day. But I wonder if parents, at least, would be happy to make this trade, if it means that their time with their kids can be less tense and drillmaster-y. It's not fun to have to, night after night, force your kid to do worksheets.

Finally, throughout a child's K–12 education, we can help work with parents to cultivate a culture of free play. I wonder if, to this end, the book How to Raise an Adult might be good mandatory reading. We can teach the principles in this book, and conduct the sort of Socratic seminars with parents that we do with their kids.

And we can be even more helpful: help parents organize to get kids together to play at the park, have cookouts, have campouts.

And we can invites parents to share their struggles with bucking the trend: a squeaky wheel gets the grease, but the nail that sticks out will be hammered. Parental peer culture can be intense, and rejecting the norm of helicopter parenting might invite antagonism from other parents. We, perhaps, can help create a tribe of like-minded parents who support one another through difficult choices.

If a new kind of school can succeed at doing some of these things, I wonder if we can bring back the culture of unstructured play time that nurtures healthy kids, and healthy adults.

(Image courtesy of appetiteforeducation.com — thanks, guys!)