on Imagining/Building a School (or: What on Earth are we doing here?)

School, we suggest, is due for a from-the-ground-up re-imagining.  This sort of language isn’t particularly controversial — if anything, the 21st century is a Wild West of educational reform.  But when we listen to many would-be educational innovators, we hear oodles of reasonable-sounding tweaks (make class more relevant! less rote! more individualized!) and a real lack of compelling ideas.  Listening to the rhetoric, one might come away with the notion that solving the problems of schooling is simply a matter of rejiggering the ideas we already have.

Mind you, there is some practical wisdom in careful rejiggering.  Typically one should avoid sudden, sweeping jolts to complex systems.  And, of course, we should be careful not to throw out the baby with the proverbial bathwater.  Our schools aren't “broken”: many wonderful things happen in them on a daily basis.  And perhaps we should take pride in even some of their more mundane achievements.  A few centuries ago, only a sliver of the population learned how to read and write; now virtually everybody does. Hooray!

And yet... when we reflect on our own educational experiences, it seems like a waste to move through thirteen years of compulsory schooling and have so little to show for it.  The world teems with stories to learn, insights to achieve, and potential selves to consider, and yet kids are routinely bored and mentally checked out.  Wonder, wisdom, expertise, and passion are the exception, not the norm.

Schools, we'll be suggesting on these pages, can do better. 

So what are we doing here?  It’s our goal to found a better way of schooling — to peel away the assumptions that have built up about what a community of learning can be.  We want to start afresh with a single question:

How can we design a school for human beings, with all our species’ quirks and eccentricities?

Conducting this conversation (and building a school) will force us to bring together insights from disparate academic disciplines.  What can we learn from religions about how to knit a community together?  What can evolutionary and cultural psychology teach us about what really motivates people?  How might architecture suggest we construct external environments that develop human excellence?  What does cognitive psychology suggest about our intellectual potential — and our limitations?  How can anthropology and sociology inform our understanding of how cultures transmit information and inculcate values?

Moreover, envisioning a new way of “doing school” will require that we steal shamelessly from divergent (even furiously opposing) practices of education.  What can we learn from Montessori and Waldorf schools?  What can we glean from John Dewey?  What does the renascent classical school movement have to teach us?  We’ll look, too, at instruction that happens entirely outside of brick-and-mortar schools — art academies and football camps, vocational apprenticeships and video games.

Maybe most importantly, pursuing a new form of school will require that we move past our own idiotic theories and ideological blinders.  We (Lee and Brandon) have spent the last few years kicking around our own ideas, but here we want to open them up to scrutiny — our own, and that of a community of thoughtful educational thinkers from many philosophies of education.

In line with all of that, we’ll be spending the first two months — from late June through August — confined to formulating the questions we think most need answering.  This summer, expect posts exploring what the goals of a school could be, and the roles expertise, joy, self-exploration, and everything else might play.

If any of this interests you, it’s a pleasure to have you here — read on!

- Brandon (&, in spirit, Lee)

Brandon Hendrickson

Seattle, WA