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?

A Wall of Talking Dead People


Last week I suggested that we can fill our classrooms with more than decorations — we can make them into places that help students feel better and think more brilliantly. This is "classroom as brain extender": a student working inside it, to put it oddly-but-truthfully, might have a higher EQ and IQ than she would have working outside it. 

There are lots of elements to this — today I'd like to paint a picture of just one of them (in truth, my favorite) — a Wall of Talking Dead People.

A Wall of Talking Dead People.

In brief, a Wall of Talking Dead People is (1) a collection of portraits of historical folk with (2) speech bubbles coming out of their mouths.

As the year begins, one whole wall is empty. Then, as we learn about people, we can hang a small portrait of them on the wall. Each portrait will have a speech bubble: a quote that encapsulates what the person did, or thought.

The purpose is to make ideas and stories immediately accessible to students, so the kids can do stuff with them.

As with the other tools, the Wall of Talking Dead People will be populated piece-by-piece. Portraits will be hung up only after we learn the stories of the people. This means that students will at all times have a basic knowledge of everything that's up on the wall. A source of pride: I know all this!

And the students can be in charge of some of this. They play the role of historians, in two ways:

First, who should go up on the wall? This'll spark a conversation about the relative importance of each person: there's not enough space for everyone. ("Who makes the cut?" is a contentious historical question, as any "100 Most Important" list makes clear!)

Second, which quote should we attach to the person? This'll spark a conversation about what the meaning of each person is: how should we remember them? Take Napoleon: do we celebrate his audacity by remembering that he declared, "The word impossible is not French!" or his tyranny by remembering that he confessed "I have come to realize that men are not born to be free"?

School is about remembering — and the Wall of Talking Dead People helps with that. But it's also about interpreting, and valuing — and the Wall provides opportunities for that, too.

"Here's to the crazy ones."

Where will we get these people from?

History, for starters. It'll be made easy by the fact that biographies will play a fairly large role in our big spiral history curriculum (especially in the early years). The typical human brain is designed to learn about other people — their backstories, their personalities, their hopes. For most of us, biographies are easy to latch onto. They're almost addictive. A school for humans can play to that.

But not just history! Math is filled with brilliant creators, as is science, literature, the visual arts, music, the culinary arts...

Steve Jobs said it best:

Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact: Everything around you that you call 'life' was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use. 

Once you learn that, you'll never be the same again.

So often in schools we pretend "knowledge" comes from textbooks — assembled by some drone working in a dark Satanic mill.

It doesn't. Knowledge comes from people. And, more often than not, fascinating people — people who pushed boundaries, people who refused to accept the status quo.

Steve Jobs, again, said it best, in the famous 1997 Apple commercial marking his return to the company and re-launching the brand —

Here's to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The trouble-makers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They're not fond of rules, and they have no respect for the status-quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify, or vilify them. About the only thing you can't do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.

Jobs was right, and we need to reframe all of education to catch up to him. Most everything students learn in the K-12 curriculum comes from these amazing humans: they're what the curriculum is already about. But schooling hides this.

What we can do — what a Wall of Talking Dead People can help us do — is to reframe learning as a conversation with the crazy ones. 

Music is a conversation with Beethoven and Duke Ellington; science is a discussion with Darwin and Galileo. Geometry is kibbitzing with Euclid. Algebra is deliberating with al-Khwarizmi; literature is debating with W.B. Yeats and Chinua Achebe and every other author we read.

Of course, math is still math, and science is still science. Connecting knowledge to its sources doesn't mean turning it into story — just exposing the story that's already there.

If we bring the creators back into their creations, I suspect that we can help students live more fully in the world. They'll see that they're surrounded not by abstract, inhuman facts, but by the beloved handiwork of people — people they even like, people they even are like.

In short, in our classrooms we can surround ourselves with the greatest doers and thinkers the world has known — which will help them see that we already are.

A Wall of Talking Dead People, in short, can help re-humanize the curriculum — and students' conceptions of the world.

Classrooms for brilliant innovation


How can we create a generation of brilliantly innovative kids?    And let's be clear: this is the purpose of our school. We're going to spend a lot of time learning about the past, and recapitulating its greatest accomplishments, but this is all toward the goal of doing new things in the future.

As the Renaissance reader, writer, and thinker Salutati wrote:

I have always believed that I must imitate antiquity not simply to reproduce it, but in order to produce something new.

So how do we create this generation of brilliantly innovative kids?

First, we have to understand the nature of creativity. Then, we need to build it into every piece of our school.


It's a professional nuisance, I suppose, that I end up hearing so much nonsense about creativity. Most educational innovators drivel on about "creativity", rarely defining the word (often it seems to mean anything to do with art) and trusting that creativity is natural.

The assumption seems to be that if you just "let out" the native forces of a child, creativity will result.

Well, sometimes. But not frequently.

At least, new, good ideas don't just spill out all by themselves. (Unless the kid is some kind of creative genius, in which case, why do we have them in a school at all?)


That's not to say that you force creativity. Typically, you don't — forcing doesn't get you innovation. Rather, new, good ideas take cultivation — they pop up in certain contexts, and not others. Get the environment right, and you'll get innovation.

What environment is that? 

Steven Johnson wrote the book on this: Where Good Ideas Come From: A Natural History of Innovation. His major idea:

Don't think of creativity as forging new ideas by yourself. Think of creativity, rather, as piecing together others' ideas to make something new.


We have a natural tendency to romanticize breakthrough innovations, imagining momentous ideas transcending their surroundings, a gifted mind somehow seeing over the detritus of old ideas and ossified tradition. 

But ideas are works of bricolage; they're built out of that detritus. We take the ideas we've inherited or that we've stumbled across, and we jigger them together into some new shape. (pp. 28–28, emphasis mine)

(Ooh — there's an RSA Animates for the book! Enjoy the next four minutes and six seconds of your life.) Johnson continues:

The trick to having good ideas is not to sit around in glorious isolation and try to think big thoughts. The trick is to get more parts on the tableA good idea is a network. (p. 42 & 45)

Creative students are network-builders. They take scads of other data, and combine them together in new ways. A limiting factor, then, is how many ideas they can stumble across! We need our school to be as idea-thick as possible. 

I hope it's apparent that we're planning to do just that — crowd our school with stories and thoughts and questions and images and facts and plenty of other abstract nouns I'm forgetting.

And those from as many disciplines as possible — chemistry and religion and art and math and music and biology and everything. Narrow disciplinary boundaries are the death of innovation (at least in K-12 classrooms).

Immerse our kids with wonderful and diverse content — one of the keys to prompting creativity.

But — if only ensuring creativity were so simple! Because here we run smack into a big problem; in fact, a fundamental cognitive limit.

Creativity is connecting, and the easiest place to connect ideas is inside your own head. We pull information — ideas, stories, facts, questions, images, whatever — out of our long-term memory, and connect it with whatever new thing we're looking at.

The trouble is that it's easy — scandalously easy! — to misplace the memories in your long-term memory.

We all know this, of course. You've learned far, far more about (say) the Civil War than you're aware of right now. Much of that knowledge is still inside your skull, somewhere. If you heard it again, you'd recall that, yes, you'd heard it before. But you couldn't have said what it was. The knowledge was more or less useless to you.

This is the Tragedy of Long-Term Memory. (Well, it's one of the tragedies. The other is that you just plum forget things. More on that, and how to overcome it, in a later post.)

And some people fall prey to this tragedy more than others. Some people are simply worse at making these connections — they can't access their long-term memories as quickly, can't hold as much data in their working memories (more on this later) to juggle the ideas around.

So we're in danger of privileging some of our students over others. To some extent, this is unavoidable — but we should look for tools that will equalize the playing field.

Delightfully, there's a fix! And this fix revolutionized human society: write ideas down. 

Paper is the original creativity-extender. (Well, clay tablets, but nuts to the Sumerians!) Writing things down offloads the memory. We can think just by leafing through a notebook. Of course, there is the occasional glitch:

Professor Henry Jones: Well, he who finds the Grail must face the final challenge. Indiana Jones: What final challenge? Professor Henry Jones: Three devices of such lethal cunning. Indiana Jones: Booby traps? Professor Henry Jones: Oh, yes. But I found the clues that will safely take us through them in the Chronicles of St. Anselm. Indiana Jones: [pleased] Well, what are they? Indiana Jones: [annoyed] Can't you remember? Professor Henry Jones: I wrote them down in my diary so that I wouldn't have to remember.

But that trouble seems more limited to international adventurers than to K-12 students.

Except maybe it's not. 


I want to point out that I'm not just blasting conventional schools, here. I'm rather tickled that schools make use of one of humanity's most time-tested cognitive tools! But why don't school notebooks, as they're popularly used, increase creativity?

Three reasons, I think.

First, creativity isn't part of the curriculum. Many classes don't ask students to think new thoughts — and when they do (English essays, for example), they don't train students in how to cobble together old ideas to make new ones.

Second, the notebooks aren't used for creativity. Notebooks are seen as places to dump data, and maybe review it before a test — not places to access again and again to get new insight.

Third, when was the last time you looked through your school notebooks? You can cheat for this one, and include your college notebook. Did you leaf through them in the last month? Less than a year ago? I didn't think so. (And neither did I — and I kept mine!) We dump data in, and then let it moulder there.


There's a solution to this. Well, actually there are a number of solutions to this — but I want to outline just one today:

Externalize knowledge. Splay it on the walls.

One major purpose of classroom walls is to store information. Interesting information. Beautiful information. Information that students value, and which can help them think new thoughts in the future.

The walls can take on some of the role of long-term memory.

Information on the walls can be casually referenced in class. Students can browse the walls when they're stuck for an idea.

Of course, we can't fit all of the information students learn on the walls — only the most meager sliver of it. But that's all we need: we can fill the walls with triggers for what the class has already learned.

Triggers for what they've already learned: that seems a crucial piece. It's not that we'll put new information on the walls. That'd be stupid. New knowledge is best learned through other people (and experience, and books, and any number of other things). It's not best learned through truncated bits of information hung on a wall.

But the walls can display bits of information that students have already learned — bits that trigger complex recollections.

At the beginning of the year, much of the wall-space of a classroom, therefore, will be empty. As the classes move on, we'll gradually fill the walls until the room becomes an index of what's their heads.

I say "index" — but it can be thought of as a sort of machine, with students the moving parts. They'll walk around, connecting an idea here (next to the wind0w) with a question there (above the sink), comparing it all to a story there (behind the plants).

Students must play a hand in construction of this — they can deliberate as to what to put on the wall. It's an externalization of their knowledge, after all.


But I have to apologize: this probably seems entirely abstract. Next, I'll hope to give an example of one type of information we can put up — a "wall of talking dead people" — and what we can do with it — practice moral creativity.

Classrooms that help you feel

There's a debate — a stupid one! — about what should be on the walls of a classroom. If you'll permit me to simplify for the sake of mockery:

Side #1: Crap! Trash! Smother the walls with garbage! Garish colors! COMIC SANS! Side #2: Sparse! Austere! Think monastic cells! Think SUPERMAX chic!

This is over-simplification, but as educational über-psychologist Daniel Willingham points out, some actual research on the effects of classroom decoration is stuck on stupid (my words, not his). A recent study compared more-or-less the above extremes. (Supermax chic won.)

Sigh. Maybe someday our society will actually have some useful debates on educational matters. For now, we'll just shake our heads (and the dust off our feet) and strike out in a sensible direction.

Built environment matters.

As Churchill told the House of Commons in 1943, addressing the rebuilding of the debate chamber which had been destroyed by German bombs two years earlier:

We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us.

What our school physically looks like matters, because it will affect how we feel, and how we think

Today: feeling.

Feeling, & Beauty

Beauty matters. Aesthetics make us feel by tapping into the most primal modules of our psychology. A sense of beauty isn't some recent cultural add-on — it's deeply evolved into our minds. It's something we share with other animals.

As Steven Pinker writes, in How the Mind Works:

The expression "a fish out of water" reminds us that every animal is adapted to a habitat. Humans are no exception. We tend to think that animals just go where they belong, like heat-seeking missiles, but the animals must experience these drives as emotions not unlike ours. Some places are inviting, calming, or beautiful; others are depressing or scary. The topic in biology called "habitat selection" is, in the case of Homo sapiens, the same as the topic in geography and architecture called "environmental aesthetics": what kinds of places we enjoy being in.

A feeling of beauty is evolution's carrot to get us to move toward a certain place. A feeling of ugliness is evolution's stick to get us out of a place.

Beauty pulls us; ugliness pushes us. Aesthetics move us. It was true on the savannah, and it's true today.

Pinker again:

Environmental aesthetics is a major factor in our lives. Mood depends on surroundings: think of being in a bus terminal waiting room or a lakeside cottage.

Ugly classrooms are bus terminals; beautiful classrooms are lakeside cottages. Beauty can be Zoloft.

For all the romantic things we can say about our school — a place of love! and wonder! and flourishing! — it will, by necessity, also sometimes be a place of discomfort. We need all the mood-enhancers we can get.

But what do we mean by "beauty"? In what ways should our classes be beautiful? I'll explore the specifics in later posts, but today I'll suggest two attributes: we should seek to make our classrooms calming, and interesting.


The Reggio Emilia people are really onto something:


And, come to think of it, so are the Montessori people:


And those Waldorf people? Nailed it!


Compare any of those to this photo of a more typical classroom:


Not especially heinous — I found much more egregious photos online! — but (for our purposes) "helpfully unbeautiful". We've got harsh florescent lights, white walls, cheap surfaces and floors, and stuff (pedagogical stuff) cluttering the walls.

This is not a place that makes it easy to fall in love. This is, if anything, a place that makes it easy to fall in hate.

Or maybe that's too strong — maybe I react to aesthetics more strongly than do most people. (Well: I do.) At the very least this isn't a place that invites a student to feel safe and comfortable and cared for.

Some points for us to take: 

Our school won't have harsh, florescent lights, uniformly white walls, cheap surfaces, linoleum floors, or stuff cluttering the walls.

We'll attempt, instead, to achieve some degree of serenity. We'll be riling the kids up with everything we teach them — it'll be nice to have a calm, restful baseline to bring them down to between lessons.


Calm doesn't mean boring: our classrooms (and the other rooms in our school) will be filled with things that are worthy of students' attention during their free time. (Again, we'll be starting the early grades with a Montessori-esque model: there will be large swaths of the day when students will choose among various educational activities to do themselves.)

Again, the Reggio Emilia schools do this quite well —

Reggio Emilia2

Note the mirror-tripod, the aloe plant, the photos on the back wall.

The Montessori people excel at making interesting classrooms —


Note the books, the plants, and the planets. And the easel. And the playsets!

And it's not unheard of for Waldorf classrooms to have tree houses. Tree houses!



We can borrow from all of these — and many more beside.

We have to: making a school for humans means making classrooms that fit our deeply evolved needs. 

Coming soon — classrooms that help us think better.