Blessed are the sense makers


Yesterday found me in the classroom of one of the greatest math teachers I've ever met, and was surprised to find a hand-made poster she had put on the wall:

Be a sense maker.

Yes — yes! I love this. I love how levelheaded it sounds (who wouldn't want to make sense of what they're studying?) — and how revolutionary it actually is. It reminded me, actually, of a rather more famous snippet of levelheaded/revolutionary rhetoric:

Blessed are the poor… for theirs is the kingdom of God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.

On Tuesday, I railed against what I dubbed "faith-based learning." I'm still a little spooked that someone in the tubes will misunderstand me as speaking against, y'know, religious faith, so let me switch metaphors for a minute:

Blessed are the sense makers.

Making sense of what you're learning — probing it, fitting it into everything else you know, challenging it — isn't typically easy. Less work, perhaps, to just swallow the thing the teacher (or the book) is spouting, and move on.

This is an ever-present danger.

Learning isn't just storing data (though it is that, in part). Students aren't mere receptacles for information. Learning is probing and fitting and challenging. Students are sense-making agents.

But it's not enough to just offer this to students in theory: "IF anyone, by chance, wants to challenge me or the book, please feel free to do so after class!"

No: we need to position students as co-puzzlers, unravelling the world along with their teachers. They should feel (dare I use the word?) entitled to full explanations — we owe it to them, because that's what we're there for.

This demands a whole new ethos of learning. This can't be achieved quickly. It needs to be cultivated over the long-term.

To cultivate this curiosity — this relentless curiosity! — we'll be employing specific tools to help the kids judge how well they understand things, note questions, and mull over those questions long-term. More on these later.


This will take work, but, ho, is the outcome ever worth it!

A friend of mine who holds a PhD in economics told me once that she wasn't necessarily smarter than her classmates who dropped out after their master's. She did, however, have one skill they lacked: she understood when she didn't understand things.

The habit of sense-making is, indeed, a useful one. (I wonder how many IQ points it corresponds to, in measures of student success.)

But it's not just pragmatically useful — it's also deeply soul-satisfying.

The universe makes sense. 

When you ask a question, you find an answer.

This is easier to see in the analytical subjects than in the human ones. Easier to see in math, say...

7 + 3 = 10, because
7 = 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1, and
3 = 1 + 1 + 1, so
1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 = 10, because

…and harder to see in history. Things in math need to be the way they are. Once you understand what 3 means, and what 7 means, and what 10 means, you can see that 7 + 3 must equal 10.

In history, there's a lot of room for human muddling.

What would have happened if Zheng He — the 7-foot-tall Chinese Muslim eunuch who navigated a three-hundred ship fleet on a shock-and-awe trip around the Indian Ocean in the early 1400shadn't been called back to China? What if he had continued around the tip of Africa, docking his armada in, say, Venice?

What if Zheng He had made it to America?

Could he have kicked-off a half-century period of Chinese (rather than European) global supremacy?

Well, maybe. Or maybe not. History isn't like math; it's not amenable to neat proofs.

But, that said, there are deep reasons in history. There are reasons that it's Europe who conquered the world, rather than Greenland. And the longer students study history, the more they'll want to move from the small stories to the big riddles — one impetus behind our big spiral history approach.

Again, more or less everything turns out to be reasonable. The universe makes sense!

Growing into that conviction isn't just pragmatically useful; it's personally enriching. It is the heart and soul of philosophy.

Learning is a wonder. And it's our joy to help students enter it.

Brandon Hendrickson

Seattle, WA