What if schools can help most people become good at almost everything?


I'm launching an advanced academic reading course at the University of Washington Bothell campus this morning — but in lieu of a post, a quote! This comes again from Andrew Ng, whom the MIT Technology Review dubbed one of the top innovators in the world under age 35 —

But often, you first become good at something,  and then you become passionate about it.   And I think most people can become good at almost anything.

What if schools could help most people become good at almost everything? What if schools could help most people become passionate about almost everything?

Such is our quest.

Andrew Ng — and the magic of the human brain


A delicious, brief quote of the day — that's the foundation of a lot of what our new kind of school is trying to do:

I don't know how the human brain works but it's almost magical: when you read enough or talk to enough experts, when you have enough inputs, new ideas start appearing.

The quotee? Andrew Ng — the genius AI pioneer/entrepreneur profiled in Inside The Mind That Built Google Brain: On Life, Creativity, And Failure, from the Huffington Post.

Ng understands innovation — and that makes him go against conventional thinking about creativity.

Our society is obsessed with creativity. (Or, at least the society I spend my time in! Your mileage may differ.)

And, to nurture creativity, we constantly hear cries about how schooling should lay off information — "kids can Google that!" "They already have knowledge at their fingertips!"

But fingertips aren't brains.

Information that you can Google isn't knowledge that you can use, now. 

To innovate — to spin out new ideas — you need to have ideas inside you. And not just a few ideas: a thick, dense ecosystem of ideas. A Great Barrier Reef full of ideas!

We're creating schools of perpetual innovation — where kids are asked to do more original thinking than perhaps any school asks of kids now.

And we're going to do that through immersing kids in ideas, in stories, in theories and songs and artworks and films and ecosystems.

Our plan: to have a richer curriculum than any school has had before — and to leverage that into the world's most creativity-focused curriculum.


Schools for human flourishing?

Kids, it turns out, don't typically derive much happiness from school. Alert the media!

More seriously: can we reverse this? 

The evolutionary psychologist Peter Gray writes, in an article I linked to from yesterday's post:

A few years ago, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Jeremy Hunter conducted a study of happiness and unhappiness in public school students, in 6th through 12th grades.

Each of the 828 participants, from 33 different schools in 12 different communities across the country, wore a special wristwatch for a week, which was programmed to provide a signal at random times between 7:30 am and 10:30 pm.

Whenever the signal went off participants filled out a questionnaire indicating where they were, what they were doing, and how happy or unhappy they were at the moment.

The lowest levels of happiness by far (surprise, surprise) occurred when children were at school, and the highest levels occurred when they were out of school and conversing or playing with friends.

Time spent with parents fell in the middle of the happiness-unhappiness range.

Average happiness increased on weekends, but then plummeted from late Sunday afternoon through the evening, in anticipation of the coming school week.

It's nice to have what we've all suspected quantified: kids (at least in middle and high school) don't much like school.

Can we reverse this?

For years, I've been nigh-obsessed with the positive psychology movement — the group of researchers who've been trying to understand not just how people get sick, but how they get well. 

These researchers are working to mend the world.

I've been a fan of positive psychology for years, reading scores of books, and re-vamping all of my thinking along its lines.

And one of my goals — one of my mostly secret goals — has been that, as we re-invent every aspect of the curriculum to cultivate love, mastery, and meaning, we can create schools that cultivate well-being.

That we can take a major dent out of human suffering.

That we can create schools for human flourishing. 

I've written a little about that in the past, but I've been holding back on talking about it lately. To aim for well-being seemed too grand, too unachievable.

Well: nuts to that! 

I'm launching a class on human well-being this Friday, and so will be swimming in positive psychology for the next eight months. As we move on, I'll be incorporating more positive psychology into what I write here —

look for it!

Finally: The spacing effect gets its due!


Spaced repetition flashcards are my religion. Well: there's a problematically simple statement! (My actual religious views don't quite fit into a single, punchy sentence.) I'll put this a bit more straight-forwardly:

I have a collection of 5,972 flash cards. Each has been custom-made by me. Many of them are mind-changing quotes from various books and articles I've read:


That was the front — I've chosen two words to replace with [...]. When I see the card, I'm prompted to recall the crucial words that have been taken out:


I take the most exciting ideas from what I read, and put them into my personally-favorite spaced-repetition flashcard program  — Anki, which can be downloaded for free at ankiSRS.net.

There are lots of ordinary flashcard programs out there. Many of them are pretty flashy, and easy to use: I'm looking at you, Quizlet!

They're all terrible. Or at least they're all terrible when it comes to the core purpose of learning: integrating knowledge into your mind for the long-term. 

Spaced-repetition flashcard programs use the spacing effect (the link is to the Wikipedia page) to give you maximal memory with minimal reviews.

To simplify some complicated math: after the first time I see a flashcard, the program waits 10 minutes to show it to me again.

Then it waits 1 day. Then 3 days. Then 1 week. Then 3 weeks. Then 2 months. Then 6 months. Then 1.5 years. Then 4 years. Then 12 years.

With only a handful of reviews, I can secure anything I want to remember, forever.

And then (and here's the religion part!) each day, I review the cards that Anki tells me to review. Amazingly, this only takes 5–10 minutes — but that's enough for Anki to preserve every flashcard in my long-term memory.

I've been doing this nearly every day for six or seven years now.

It's part of my quest to cultivate genius in myself.

For years, I've been scratching my head as to why more people haven't heard of the spacing effect. And just this morning, the brilliant (and always-worth-reading) educational reporter Annie Murphy Paul, touched on the spacing effect in her newsletter, The Brilliant Report.

Now, sometimes when I tell people about this, they scrunch their foreheads: Why on Earth would you want to just memorize this information? they seem to be saying. (I know that, because sometimes they actually say that aloud!)

Well, I don't just want to "memorize" the stuff! That would be stupid. I use Anki to plant ideas in my mind. I use it to put every amazing idea I read into my long-term memory, where it can blend together with every other thing that I learn.

People sometimes refer to me as "creative". Well: this is one of the secrets to my creativity.

Justine Musk, author and former wife of entrepreneur Elon Musk, wrote that the secret to innovation is to combine different worlds of knowledge:

bring them together in a way that will introduce hot ideas to each other, so they can have idea sex and make idea babies that no one has seen before...

That's what Anki is for me: an orgy of ideas! (My apologies for, um, that metaphor.)

I have so much more to write about Anki, and about spaced repetition more generally. For now, I'll hold back, and just ask a few questions:

  • How could a spaced-repetition flashcard program infuse every aspect of the curriculum?
  • What would it mean if we could guarantee students that everything they want to remember, could be remembered forever (with minimal work)?
  • Is it possible for a new kind of school to regularly help students cultivate genius?

I've previously pursued a few of these ideas in a bit more depth on this blog — especially in my posts about planting ideas, and about using "Leitner boxes" (which are a sort of physical flashcard system that uses a rudimentary spacing effect — now in use at the Island Academy of Hilton Head!).

The secret to boiling an egg (and mastering EVERYTHING ELSE)


A remarkable fact about the world: how difficult it is to boil an egg. Perhaps you're thinking right now, "what, in the universe of cooking, could possibly be simpler? You plop the egg in the water, you set a timer, boil the water, and take out the egg! Violà! A hard-boiled egg!"

Oh, I too was once naïve!

For a few months now my daily breakfast has consisted of four hard-boiled eggs, and so I've had ample opportunity to get this right. And I do, sometimes — I cook the yolk to the perfect consistency, in a manner that leaves the shell uncracked yet easy to peel off the albumen.

Sometimes. But not always. 

It's surprisingly hard. Though: I'm getting better.

Making precisely the same food every day has made me recognize that there are so many factors, even in this, the world's simplest dish:

  • Do I bring the water to a boil first?
  • Should it be a low boil, or a high boil? Does it matter?
  • Should I do anything to the water? (Some swear by vinegar; others by salt.)
  • After I take it out, should I let the eggs cool in the air, or plunge them into cool water? Iced water?

Over the last few months I've varied each of these factors, experimenting around until I've found the nigh-perfect recipe. (Which is, in case you're interested, to place the eggs in the pot, fill it with hot tap water, shake in some salt, and set the stove on "medium/medium-high" for 11 minutes. Afterwards, I take the eggs out and juggle them into an old pickle jar filled with ice water. C'est magnifique!)

Why am I talking about this?

Because in my breakfast-hacking, there is a lesson that pertains to everything we do:

Mastery comes from cycles.

Try something, get feedback — make a small change. Repeat it, get feedback — make another small change. And again. And again. And again.

Philosopher Daniel Dennett writes about this eloquently in his answer to the question, "What scientific concept would improve everyone's cognitive toolkit?" I first read it in the book This Will Make You Smarter; it's also online here.

Dennett suggests that these cycles of repetition are at the heart of what makes the natural world complex and wonderful: the biochemical Krebs cycle, Darwinian evolution — even the gasoline engine.

And then Dennett goes to human skill:

At a completely different scale, our ancestors discovered the efficacy of cycles in one of the great advances of human prehistory: the role of repetition in manufacture. Take a stick and rub it with a stone and almost nothing happens — few scratches are the only visible sign of change. Rub it a hundred times and there is still nothing much to see. But rub it just so, for a few thousand times, and you can turn it into an uncannily straight arrow shaft. By the accumulation of imperceptible increments, the cyclical process creates something altogether new.

Dennett concludes his essay:

A good rule of thumb, then, when confronting the apparent magic of the world of life and mind is: look for the cycles that are doing all the hard work.

This is how skill is made: repetition with feedback.

As I've laid out earlier, one of the three major values of our type of school is mastery. A new kind of schooling needs to lay out for students the route to building expertise — in math, in writing, in thinking, in art, in everything. And we need to do more than lay it out — we need to help excite students to achieve it, and work to achieve it with them.

Every student, and every teacher, can make stirring advancement in a great number of fields.

Our schools can be talent workshops. 

And to do it, we need to set students at the task of lovingly crafting their work, seeking advice, and experimenting with small changes.

This is how to boil an egg, and master everything else.

The first School for Humans opens Monday!


Let it be official: the first School for Humans will open on Monday! The Island Academy of Hilton Head will start its classes next week off the coast of South Carolina, under the guidance of Lee Rottweiler, my friend and longtime collaborator. Huzzah! Hazooh! [tears up café napkins to throw confetti into the air]

Actually starting poses a whole bunch of puzzles. Practical puzzles.

I like practical puzzles. 

The ones I'd like to pose right now are about how a community of schools might work. (I'm working to open our second school in the Seattle area in Fall of 2017.)

Among these questions: What sort of regularity between schools should exist in our new kind of school? And how much diversity should we welcome (or even court)?

1. What sort of regularity between schools should exist in our new kind of school?

It's useful, I think, to define a core of shared beliefs, and to sketch out some wonderful disagreements.

One shared belief, I think, is what we see as the ultimate purpose of our schools. Lately, I've been using the phrase "to cultivate Renaissance people" to describe that. I've been adding onto that a rewording of our "big three" values: love, mastery, and meaning. Here's what I put those together in my last post:

a kind of school that cultivates Renaissance people: men and women who find the world interesting, develop mastery in many fields, and seek a meaningful life. 

So the first thing we should agree on are our purpose and values.

Beyond that, however, I think our kind of schools needs to define itself as consciously seeking a careful understanding of human nature, as it applies to students, and building on that.

All educational approaches have an understanding of human nature, though it's typically unstated, and simplistic. We want to make ours better.

Jonathan Haidt writes:

It is impossible to analyze “the meaning of life” in the abstract, or in general, or for some mythical and perfectly rational being. Only by knowing the kinds of beings that we actually are, with the complex mental and emotional architecture that we happen to possess, can anyone even begin to ask about what would count as a meaningful life. 

Or, I'd add, a meaningful education.

There is an emerging scientific consensus on what human nature looks like. (This, after a few decades of "human nature" being banned from academic discussion.) This work is fresh and exciting: it's linking disparate disciplines, and is helping us see the big picture of life, the Universe, and everything!

There is, however, a trouble in yoking our schools to the science of human nature: there's as of yet not agreement as to all the details of what human nature is (as it applies to students).

Tom Huntington, a reader of this blog, posted an excellent question a few days ago —

who are the experts on what are the “truths” of “human nature”?

I’d really love to hear a clear statement of your views/knowings about what is “human nature” — at least the most basic, fundamental aspects of “human nature” relevant to your mission for starting your school.

The study of human nature is not yet a mature field. In a decade or two or three it will be, but of course we're not going to wait that long.

In the meantime, we can commit to thinking consciously and carefully through how our schools can leverage the innate psychologies of students, and help them build on their deficiencies.

And we can think best by thinking with other — being part of communities that are chewing through the ways in which understanding human nature can help society, such as The Evolution Institute (founded by David Sloan Wilson, out of SUNY Binghamton).

So the second thing we should agree on is to commit to thinking through the science of human nature — something crucial to education, but which few educationalists are presently talking about.

Beyond that, I'd say we need to agree on some common curriculum elements. Imaginative Education, for example, and Big Spiral History — and perhaps a number of other things.

We already have a lot of these in place. This will, however, always be a bit looser. Some schools in our community, for example, may decide to go not use JUMP Math (which I'm personally incredibly excited about). Exactly what's central and not will have to be up for some discussion.

So, in sum:

  • Schools in our community should agree on a few big things — especially purposes and values. 
  • We should also agree to address a Big Thing that not that many others in education are thinking through — the science of human nature.
  • Finally, we'll find that schools in our community share much of the same curriculum.

2. How much diversity should we welcome (or even court)?

I think a good way to approach this question is through what I'll dub the David Geary / Peter Gray spectrum. Both are evolutionary psychologists, and both are very interested by how we can use the insights of evolution to improve schools.

A provocative (and productive!) debate between the two of them was chronicled in chapter 14 of The Neighborhood Project: Using Evolution to Improve My City, One Block at a Time (by David Sloan Wilson).

David Geary (whose face graced this blog a few days ago!) is something of an educational Traditionalist. He often emphasizes that there are things we want children to learn that are not pre-prepared by evolution: math, for example. (Geary is a national expert on math education, and was appointed to the National Board of Directors for the Institute for Education Sciences.)

Peter Gray is something of an educational Progressive. He often emphasizes that the school environment is a bad one for learning — made to imitate a factory, rather than any natural human environment. Let kids return to more natural ways of learning (such as practiced by Sudbury schools, which he's a proponent of), and they'll learn better.

Who's right? Well, they both are — and finding creative syntheses of their insights that work in reality is part of what I see us as doing. This is a wonderful debate to have.

Might I suggest ordering a copy of The Neighborhood Project right now? In the meantime, feel free to read a consensus piece they both contributed to (along with David Sloan Wilson): Learning from Mother Nature about Teaching Our Children: Ten Simple Truths.

A new kind of school, human nature, and a re-cap


Hello, Applied Evolutionary Psychology Society! This blog is the idea-generation machine for a small group o' people who are helping found a new kind of school — a kind of school that cultivates Renaissance people: men and women who find the world interesting, develop mastery in many fields, and seek a meaningful life. 

It's grounded in our understanding that yes, there is such thing as human nature, and most approaches to schooling run roughshod over it. 

We're opening The Island Academy of Hilton Head (off the coast of South Carolina) next week, and are looking to open a second school in the Seattle area in 2017.

If you've landed here from the Applied Evolutionary Psychology Society, might I invite you to peruse this blog? And, actually, why don't I give a "best of the best", at least from an evolutionary perspective?

Near the start of this blog, I thought it possible to ground our conception of schooling in an understanding that humans are powered more by unconscious motives than by conscious (drawing on the work of Daniel Kahneman) and that this means that we're not Vulcans — thus, a serious school needs to pay attention to student emotions (drawing on the work of Jonathan Haidt).

I moved into talking about how to end bullying, exploring how we're each born with particular psychologies, but that how those blossom is in part a factor of our surroundings (here drawing on the work of David Sloan Wilson).

In this post, I propose a metaphor: schools are bridges between our ancient human nature and the needs of the future. A new kind of school, I suggest, needs to (1) look to the deep past to see what kids are like, and then (2) look to (our best guesses about) the near future to see how we need to help kids shape themselves, and finally (3) look to the best approaches that currently exist to connect those.

Perhaps the best approach, I think, to connecting human nature to the needs of the near future is "Imaginative Education". Don't let the froofy name mislead you — this is hard-core education that grounds itself in cultural evolution. Imaginative Education (IE) comes from the work of Kieran Egan (Simon Fraser University). I've developed a nutshell explanation:

  1. We're not just abstract thinkers — we're feelers, designed to think about what we find interesting. 
  2. Almost everything in the K–12 curriculum is really, really interesting, once you break through the crust.
  3. Every human culture has had to create methods to "break through the crust". Instead of re-inventing the wheel, we can use those methods: stories, metaphors, opposites, riddles, songs, theories and counter-theories... and more.

I then turned that nutshell explanation into a YouTube video. (I'm working to turn it into a TEDx talk.)

I'll write more about this soon, but I think that IE is something the evolutionary community has been looking for.

Finally, our schools have a three-part focus. As I said before, we're interested in cultivating Renaissance people, who find the world interesting, develop mastery in multiple subjects, and seek a life of meaning. Or, even briefer: we're all about love, mastery (and this note), and meaning (though initially that was called "wisdom").

Oh — as to what being in the schools will actually entail (aka "WHAT OUR IDEAS ACTUALLY LOOK LIKE"), check out the flurry of short posts in June and July of this year (2015).

Anyhoo, browse! Enjoy! And if you're interested, like us on Facebook, to get updates.

Natural vs. unnatural (and why this is a smidgen too simple)


Is this whole natural/unnatural divide simplistic? Yeah. But it's a helpful place to begin — even if we need to move beyond it.

In my last post, I cited a distinction made by cognitive (and evolutionary) psychologist David C. Geary: humans are biologically prepared to do some things, but not others. Things that we're designed to do (walking, singing, telling stories) he calls primary abilities. Things that we're not designed to do (riding unicycles, juggling, Newtonian physics) he calls secondary activities.

This distinction isn't just academic: it lies at the heart of what our schools (any schools!) see as their purpose. In fact, this distinction neatly encapsulates a major divide between two major philosophies of education.

One type of school thinks that learning is unnatural. These schools (let's call them "teacher-centered" schools) think a school's job is to instruct. If schools don't do a good job of directly instructing students (they think), the students aren't apt to learn much.

The other type of school thinks that learning is natural. These schools (let's call them "child-centered" schools) think a school's job is to provide an environment for learning, and then get out of the way. If schools succeed in doing a good job of directly instructing students (they think), the students aren't apt to learn much — because students learn best on their own!

So what is it: is learning unnatural, or natural?

This is a question of human nature. And in my last post, I suggested that, well, human nature is complex. Some things are natural for us, and other things are unnatural. Success in schooling depends (I suggested) on figuring out which is which.

But that's not so simple.

It's not (for example) that art is a primary ability, and math is a secondary activity. Entire subjects don't fall neatly into one camp or the other.

Rather, each subject demands multiple skills. For example, in an English class, students read, write, discuss, reason, empathize, and so on. Each skill may be primary or secondary. 

In fact, it's more complicated than that. Each skill is made up of sub-skills. Writing, for example, is made up of spelling, handwriting/typing, syntax, idea generation, idea organization, and so on.) Each sub-skill may be primary or secondary. 

And in fact, it's even more complicated than that! Typically, a sub-skill isn't purely natural or unnatural. Human nature doesn't usually work like that. There are a few things that we do wholly naturally: breathing, for example. A person raised on a desert island would breathe just fine.

Wel, obviously, schools don't need to teach breathing.

But other primary skills seem designed to be activated and shaped by cultures: dancing, for example. All cultures dance — but it's not clear that a person raised on a desert island would dance by themselves.

So is dancing primary or secondary? Well, it contains elements of both. The urge to shake and jump and wiggle — all in tandem with other people — may be primary. But specific elements of motion (for example, pliés in ballet, promenades in square dancing, and arials in swing dancing) may be secondary.

Why does this matter? Because we need to tap into students' primary abilities, and be prepared to systematically teach secondary abilities.

In teaching dancing, for example (as will be an important aspect of our schools), we'll need to capitalize on young students' desire to shake and jump and wiggle, and on older students' desire to touch each other. (That schools typically ban touching seems a sure sign that they're evolutionarily off-kilter.)

But we won't assume that undirected wiggling will automatically bloom into beautiful dancing. Rather, we'll be prepared to teach elements of more formal dancing from a host of cultural styles — circle and line and ballet, salsa and swing and waltz, flamenco and mambo and Bollywood.

As I said before, we'll start with abandon, and move into structure.

If we don't tap into students' primary abilities, we'll be passing up our greatest resource. This is the mistake that teacher-centered education makes.

And if we don't systematically teach secondary abilities — if we expect them to just grow up naturally — we'll be denying our students the education they're ready for. This is the mistake that child-centered education makes.

Our job — as a new kind of school that takes human nature seriously — is to draw upon primary abilities, and systematically teach secondary abilities.

Next, I hope to explore how this can look in teaching writing.

(Props to David Geary: his categories of "primary" and "secondary" abilities are designed to reflect this messy reality. They're not "pure" categories. It took an earlier debate on this blog — about whether math instruction is "natural" or "unnatural" — for me to realize that. Props, too, to Catherine Lewis, who helped me see that.)

Natural vs. unnatural (and why many approaches to education fail)


Sometimes, when I describe our model of schooling to people, I get the sense that they're fighting to not roll their eyes: a lot of what we're planning sounds so touchy-feely, so romantic. Stories! Drawing! Emotions! Well, okay. But other elements of what we're doing — like our approach to writing and math — are the precise opposite: systematic and feedback-heavy.

Are we contradicting ourselves? No! What we're doing is recognizing something that should be obvious: human nature is complex.

There are certain skills that evolution has prepared us to develop quite naturally. Spoken language is one; walking is another. (Note that we still have a hard time teaching robots to talk and walk — something most two-year-olds excel at.) Educational psychologist David Geary dubs these "primary abilities".

Other examples of primary abilities include making sense of stories, empathy, role-playing, metaphors, puzzling, telling jokes, and spotting patterns. (Fans of Kieran Egan will note that these are all tools in his early-age tool kits.)

There are other skills that evolution has not prepared us to develop very easily. Writing is one; doing complex math is another. (Note that we've had little trouble teaching computers to kill at chess — something that most adults can't do without extensive, systematic training.) David Geary dubs these "secondary abilities".

A crucial point: we need to figure out which category (primary or secondary ability) each academic skill falls into. 

When we find a skill that evolution has prepared kids to do, schools need to get out of the way. And when we find a skill that evolution has not prepared kids to do, schools need to be prepared to teach them systematically.

One of the major troubles with educational debates, I think, is that various educational philosophies don't acknowledge this split. Some approaches to schooling seem to believe that all learning is natural. Put kids in a nurturing environment, this "child-centered" perspective holds, and they'll spontaneously develop the skills we want them to have. I used to hold to this philosophy, until I had the chance to observe it over a few years. It seems to be wrong.

Other approaches to schooling seem to believe that no learning is natural. Put kids in a nurturing environment, this "traditionalist" perspective holds, and they'll won't learn nuthin'. This philosophy also seems to be wrong.

Some things are natural, and other things ain't. One of our basic jobs is to figure out which is which. 

What if a school could destroy the thought/feeling divide?

Susan Sontag proclaimed, in an interview with Rolling Stone in 1978 —
One of my oldest crusades is against the distinction between thought and feeling, which is really the basis of all anti-intellectual views: the heart and the head, thinking and feeling, fantasy and judgment... and I don’t believe it’s true... I have the impression that thinking is a form of feeling and that feeling is a form of thinking.
I've gone over this quote a dozen or more times now (it's in my spaced repetition system), and think I've just now glimpsed its importance to our coming school.
Is this the mistake that elite schools (college-prep and hippie-dippie alike!) are making: drawing a distinction between thought and feeling?
And is this the first step toward creating a vibrantly intellectual school: saying that "thinking is a form of feeling and that feeling is a form of thinking"?
This is one of my hopes for our school — that we can encompass math and art, philosophy and music, science and dance — all these things which are usually thought of as opposite poles of experience. That we can explore how knowledge flows from stories, and how stories flow from physical reality. And that by incorporating these two extremes, we can show how joyous both can be.
We can be more STEM than a STEM school, and more artsy-fartsy than an arts academy.
Such, at least, is my notion.
(I'll be back from my vacation next week! The photo above is from the book-length compilation of those Rolling Stone interviews, from which the above quote is taken.)

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.

A school for ADHD


Cure ADHD? We want to harness it. An emerging view of ADHD has been slowly gaining traction — that ADHD, for all its real troubles, is a superpower. Yesterday the Times ran an opinion piece by Richard A. Friedman, "A Natural Fix for A.D.H.D." The gist:

Recent neuroscience research shows that people with A.D.H.D. are actually hard-wired for novelty-seeking — a trait that had, until relatively recently, a distinct evolutionary advantage. Compared with the rest of us, they have sluggish and underfed brain reward circuits, so much of everyday life feels routine and understimulating.

To compensate, they are drawn to new and exciting experiences and get famously impatient and restless with the regimented structure that characterizes our modern world. In short, people with A.D.H.D. may not have a disease, so much as a set of behavioral traits that don’t match the expectations of our contemporary culture.

Research psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman put it even better. He's the author of the quite-good book Ungifted, and was on NPR's The Takeaway a few days ago to talk about the innovative and creative powers of ADHD. Quoth Kaufman:

You could conceptualize people with the ADHD label as explorers—imagine being an explorer trapped in an educational classroom where the teacher is saying, ‘Pay attention to me and don’t explore.’ It drives them nuts.

A crucial twist: let's grant that being an explorer is a superpower. It also kind of sucks.

The need to keep moving? The disposition of experiencing the ordinary world as dull dull dull? Drah! Most gifts, of course, have their underside, and ADHD is no exception.

So I spoke a little too glibly when I suggested that we want to harness ADHD rather than fix it: what we want to do is make use of some traits of ADHD while reducing its destructive by-products.


A number of ways, actually — I'll be posting more on them by and by. Among our strategies:

    • Our curriculum will be wonder-filled, crammed with interesting stories and questions that pull students in. (This, for those keeping score at home, is the Imaginative Education component part of our school.)
    • Our school day will be scattered with physical activity. (Movement — certain sorts in particular — eases concentration.)
    • Our classrooms will give students choice and agency. (This is the Montessori component of our school.)
    • Our community will practice mindfulness meditation, sometimes in unusual ways.
    • Finally, our classes will (probably) offer targeted training of executive functioning, more as these activities are conclusively demonstrated to reduce some of the negative impacts of ADHD at the roots.

One final thing: we're not making this a school only for kids with ADHD. Goodness, that would be a terrible thing — we want a school of neurodiversity.

There are many ways to be human. ADHD is one of them.

And understanding that might be a good way for a "school of humans" to move forward.

Faith-based math


Our school shall have no faith-based math. Before I set off an Internet flame war (or is it too late already?!): I'm not talking about religion right now. Except maybe I am?

The Calvin & Hobbes strip above really nails the experience of many students in math class. Doing well in math amounts to taking things (formulas, for instance) on the authority of the textbook. Students who do well in math class are those who can best memorize these bits of dogma.

Obviously, this has nothing to do with actual mathematical understanding.

I know that this idea sounds incontestable — and, well, it is. Of course students should understand what they're doing in math!

Yet this principle is broken in nearly every textbook, in nearly every class.

I'm reminded of this today as I prepare my economics lesson for the afternoon. We're reading a popular book on economics — I won't mention the title — and are trying to understand how supply and demand curves shift when products are taxed.

The students are struggling to understand it. They're model students: reading carefully, testing their comprehension. But they're frustrated. I should be able to help them, because I should have a full understanding of the topic at hand.

The thing is: I don't. And the book is no help.

The book — at least this portion of the book — is, in effect, faith-based. It doesn't explain taxation the way it claims to. It doesn't matter how hard the reader works: they're stuck in faith-based math (or, in this case, faith-based economics). They're forced to kowtow to the author, and simply assume the theory makes sense.

Ack. Uck.

I'll see what I can do for the class — I may need to bring in an outside economist to help us make sense of this. I'll certainly own up to my own non-understanding, and help the students explicate the gaps in their understanding.

That is, I'll help them see what they don't see.

And that's useful, in the short-term. But here's a long-term promise we can make for our school:

When studying any analytical, reasoning-based subject, students will never be expected to take anything on faith. We'll inculcate them in the truth that, if some idea (a math formula, an economic concept, a chemistry… chemically-thing!) has been understood by someone else's mind, it can be understood by their mind.

And we'll rear them in the conviction that achieving this understanding — capturing its complexity in their own head — is one of the most beautiful experiences available to us humans.

Ban Tech? Embrace Tech? Thoughts toward technological sanity in our school


1. What we want, and how we'll get it.

What do we want in our school? Well, we want love — of learning, and of community. We want mastery — of skills, and of self. And we want wisdom — a understanding of big-picture complexity.

Computers can't bring us to these goals: only loving, skillful, and wise humans can. But they can help.

Our school needs to position itself between two extreme camps in educational reform: call them the "hi-tech" and "Waldorf" camps.

The "hi-tech" people talk as if computers in classrooms will bring the messianic age. In my estimation, this is sheer silliness. (Actually, I wonder if these people even believe their own rhetoric.) In fact, technology in classrooms poses real, often-ignored dangers: computers employed poorly can distract students.

On the other side, the Waldorf people talk as if banning computers is the only smart course. I'll admit that my basic prejudices are with this side, but it seems clear to me that computers (and screens more generally) can play a big role in helping us achieve the schools we dream of.

We need to synthesize the best insights of the pro-tech and Waldorf positions.

Alas: I have no idea what that brilliant synthesis is. Consider this post as my way to move, haltingly, toward it.


2. Age of Distractions

So, the question is: What place should screens have in our school? ("Screens" here means desktops, laptops, tablets, e-readers, smart phones, TVs, and projectors.)

Any attempt to answer this needs to start with a diagnosis of our modern situation:

We're surrounded by machines which can help us do things that were never before possible — and which are very distracting.

To put that in economic terms: we live in the middle of an arms race for our (and our students') attention. This battle is well-funded, and its major combatants don't hesitate to exploit our base instincts —

Bright, glowing things grab our attention. Bite-sized nuggets of information grab our attention. All things instant grab our attention.

The modern glowing rectangles that we surround ourselves with — now combined with social media — are brilliantly constructed to grab our (and our students'!) attention.

Distraction isn't necessarily bad. I'm no kill-joy. In fact, I hope that I'm the opposite of a kill-joy: the problem with schools is that they're too lifeless, too pointless, to unpleasurable.

It's no wonder that people turn to screens to bring happiness into their lives: distractions, obviously, can be wonderful! (Sci-fi novels are a personal favorite distraction. They're my self-medication for chasing away the occasional blues.)

Distractions are good when they whisk us away from situations that are both unpleasant and unhealthy.

Distractions become dangerous, though, when they take us out of situations that are healthy and hard.

If we succeed in our goals for this school, it will be healthy and hard: we'll be leading kids to train their minds and bodies, to explore the world that existed before them and imagine the world that will exist after them, to ask the big questions of human life.

These things will be pleasurable: we're striving to make a school for human flourishing. But that doesn't mean that every one of the things kids do will be pleasant in the short-term. Deep learning can be frustrating, even painful. And when it is, students (and faculty) will be prey to distractions — specifically, to other tasks that are more gratifying in the moment, but less wonderful long-term.

Call it the algebra / Angry Birds divide. Algebra: pleasant long-term (say, from the ability to grok abstract patterns, and be accepted to college), sometimes not so pleasant in the short-term (say, after running my head against multinomial division for the fourth time, and failed).

Angry Birds: pleasant in the short-term, but of less pleasure in the long-term.

In the short term, Angry Birds will win out every time. And we only live in the short term.

Pause for a brain science moment! This tendency to obey present whims more than future rewards, dubbed "temporal discounting" in the classy argot of researchers, is one of the better-attested facts of human psychology, and also (as Gary Marcus argues in his wonderful book Kluge) of vertebrate psychology more generally. It's a weakness built deep into the human brain. If ours is a school that takes human nature seriously, we need to take this seriously, and plan accordingly.

Which is all to say: we're surrounded by technology that takes advantage of some of our inbuilt weaknesses. We should be cautious about this.

 3. Personal Screens in the Upper Grades

Clay Shirky, bald celebrity theorist of social media (and professor at NYU), recently caused a stir in schooling circles by reporting that he's banned screens in his course on the Internet.

This is the sort of prattle you'd expect from an anti-tech curmudgeon. That it's coming from one of the Internet's major cheerleaders is the surprising bit.

Shirky reports that his decision came gradually, and grudgingly. (If you haven't already read his essay at medium.com — "Why I Just Asked My Students To Put Their Laptops Away" — you'll very much want to!)

He noted that the distraction seemed to be building, as more personal technology entered the classroom:

the practical effects of my decision to allow technology use in class grew worse over time. [all emphases mine] The level of distraction in my classes seemed to grow, even though it was the same professor and largely the same set of topics, taught to a group of students selected using roughly the same criteria every year. The change seemed to correlate more with the rising ubiquity and utility of the devices themselves, rather than any change in me, the students, or the rest of the classroom encounter.

He found, too, that his occasional requests to put the technology away for a time seemed to bring more relief than disgruntlement:

I’ve noticed that when I do have a specific reason to ask everyone to set aside their devices (‘Lids down’, in the parlance of my department), it’s as if someone has let fresh air into the room.  The conversation brightens, and more recently, there is a sense of relief from many of the students.

His decision to switch from a policy of "allowed unless by request" to one of "banned unless required" had two reasons.

First, he realized that the basic conflict isn't between students and teachers, but between students and themselves. His students typically want to pay attention, typically want to learn, but find doing that hard to do. Shirky explains:

Jonathan Haidt’s metaphor of the elephant and the rider is useful here. In Haidt’s telling, the mind is like an elephant (the emotions) with a rider (the intellect) on top. The rider can see and plan ahead, but the elephant is far more powerful. Sometimes the rider and the elephant work together (the ideal in classroom settings), but if they conflict, the elephant usually wins.

Haidt's metaphor, recall, is central to our conception of good schools. We want to be a school for elephants and for riders. Shirky continues:

After reading Haidt, I’ve stopped thinking of students as people who simply make choices about whether to pay attention, and started thinking of them as people trying to pay attention but having to compete with various influences, the largest of which is their own propensity towards involuntary and emotional reaction. (This is even harder for young people, the elephant so strong, the rider still a novice.)

Shirky's calling his college students young — and he's right. But we'll be working with six-year-olds! What's true for his students may be even more true for ours.

Regarding teaching as a shared struggle changes the nature of the classroom. It’s not me demanding that they focus — it’s me and them working together to help defend their precious focus against outside distractions.

That line might be one I commit to memory. We can't afford a romantic view of students — we need to be realistic about their cognitive limitations. We need to be willing to be somewhat paternalistic in order to help them live up to their ideals.

And while I [teach], who is whispering to the elephants? Facebook, Wechat, Twitter, Instagram, Weibo, Snapchat, Tumblr, Pinterest, the list goes on, abetted by the designers of the Mac, iOS, Windows, and Android. In the classroom, it’s me against a brilliant and well-funded army…. The industry has committed itself to an arms race for my students’ attention, and if it’s me against Facebook and Apple, I lose.

If it's our faculty versus an army of app designers, we'll lose. And the students can't help it — it's their basic psychology working against them. We need to help students help themselves.

This was the first insight Shirky had that made him adopt a less libertarian policy of in-class technology use. The second was that when one student uses a distracting technology, many other students may be distracted.

He cites a study with the alarming title "Laptop Multitasking Hinders Classroom Learning for Both Users and Nearby Peers":

We found that participants who multitasked on a laptop during a lecture scored lower on a test compared to those who did not multitask, and participants who were in direct view of a multitasking peer scored lower on a test compared to those who were not. The results demonstrate that multitasking on a laptop poses a significant distraction to both users and fellow students and can be detrimental to comprehension of lecture content.

Shirky summarizes:

There is no laissez-faire attitude to take when the degradation of focus is social. Allowing laptop use in class is like allowing boombox use in class  —  it lets each person choose whether to degrade the experience of those around them.

There's one thing that Shirky conspicuously doesn't mention in his essay: the effect of students' personal tech on their teachers. I assume he leaves this out because he's striving to come off as a likable guy. Or, I don't know, maybe it's because he's just crazy-unflappable.

I don't have either limitation, so I'll state this plainly: student tech can be horribly distracting for us teachers.

Maybe this is because I'm ADHD? (If so, that doesn't excuse the problem: we'll have other teachers who live on the ADHD side of humanity.) Maybe this is because I hate rudeness? (Well, ditto.)

Either way, if we want to hang onto our wonderful teachers, we need to be as kind to them as possible.

Teaching is a damned hard job.

And when a teacher has poured hours into researching a topic, has put their soul into making the topic clear and compelling, it's not kind to them to allow students to interrupt everything by getting pinged by Facebook.

4. Computers in the classroom.

Our school needs to, once again, position itself between the extremes of the pro-technology and anti-technology camps in education. But so far, I probably sound like some crazy person, rattling on (as I am) about the dangers of personal screen use among the kids these days.

Fair enough!

I sound, in other words, like a Waldorf teacher.

Waldorf schools, for those who don't know, grew out of the ideas of Austrian educator and philosopher Rudolf Steiner. They were launched in Europe after the close of the First World War as an attempt to create a wiser, more caring society that wouldn't destroy itself in an orgy of violence. (Would that they would have succeeded more fully in that…)

My love of Waldorf schools is qualified — I think they get some important things wrong — but I am zealous for some of their ideals: developing empathy, cultivating artistic skills, and promoting play — all without shucking aside the vision of an intellectual curriculum.

(For more on Waldorf schooling, positive and questionable, check out its Wikipedia page.)

And Waldorf schools shun technology. No computers, or screens of any kind, in the school.

Well, maybe that's not surprising: hippie schools, and all that. What might be surprising is that this anti-technological stand is popular in Silicon Valley, or at least so the New York Times reports.

In Matt Richtel's "A Silicon Valley School That Doesn't Compute" (clever pun there, Mr. Richtel), we learn:

The chief technology officer of eBay sends his children to a nine-classroom school here. So do employees of Silicon Valley giants like Google, Apple, Yahoo and Hewlett-Packard.

But the school’s chief teaching tools are anything but high-tech: pens and paper, knitting needles and, occasionally, mud. Not a computer to be found. No screens at all.

The counterintuitive shock of this is similar to the "tech prof bans tech" example above. If a school in, say, Gambia lacks computers, it's not news. If a school in Silicon Valley lacks computers, it's news.


While other schools in the region brag about their wired classrooms, the Waldorf school embraces a simple, retro look — blackboards with colorful chalk, bookshelves with encyclopedias, wooden desks filled with workbooks and No. 2 pencils.

Here's where the word I've been using — "technology" — becomes problematic: blackboards are technology. So are encyclopedias, desks, and pencils. (At one point, each of these was the leading, bleeding edge of technology — the innovation that was ballyhooed to transform the world!)

A school can't ban technology, because schooling itself (along with all the parts that make it up) is a technology.

But unlike glowing screens that transport a single individual away from the substance of learning, these technologies are the substance of learning.

Waldorf parents argue that real engagement comes from great teachers with interesting lesson plans.

'Engagement is about human contact, the contact with the teacher, the contact with their peers,' said Pierre Laurent, 50, who works at a high-tech start-up and formerly worked at Intel and Microsoft. He has three children in Waldorf schools, which so impressed the family that his wife, Monica, joined one as a teacher in 2006.

Education is a human-thing: obviously, an idea that's in harmony with our nascent school!

And yet, and yet: I suspect the Waldorf schools are going too far. Or let me reel that back, and only speak to our school: I think that we can achieve even better results by bringing in some modern technology with care.

Computers (and modern media more generally) let us do things that would be impossible otherwise. We'll use screens to accomplish what would otherwise be miraculous.

  • We'll watch the subtle flapping of a great white shark as it launches itself out the water to pursue a seal — in slow motion.
  • We'll hear the hooting, howling, and whooping of the central African Wodaabe tribe as they perform their competitive courtship dances.
  • We'll savor old films, entering the imaginations of some of humanity's greatest storytellers.
  • We'll luxuriate in beautiful music.
  • We'll immerse ourselves in paintings and photography.
  • And we'll Google questions, and learn coding, and create databases of our favorite ideas and quotes.

These are miracles. These go beyond anything schools could have done a century ago — or even a decade ago.


5. So:

We can create the best schools that the world has seen. We can have classrooms that bring students into delight, meaning, and long-term, collective flow states.

On the one hand, this will require being careful of what distractions that we let students bring in.

And on the other, this will be helped by using technology to disport us to places that we couldn't otherwise reach.

A new metaphor: plant knowledge


One of the things I struggle to explain to people — particularly to other educators — is the utter centrality of knowledge in thinking.

We think about things, but we also think with things. Brilliance, wisdom, creativity — all these come from having learned about the external world. When we learn, we internalize — we take what's outside us, and re-create them inside us. 

This is knowledge.

Knowledge is the re-creation of the external world inside our own cranial jelly.

This seems straightforward — and yet. The troublesome thing is that, for a hundred years or more, a crucial contingent of educational thinking has stood against teaching information.

As an unfortunate-but-typical example, take Maria Montessori. Montessori truly was an educational visionary; I'm still playing catch-up to her insights. And yet she displayed her own brand of anti-knowledge:

Education should no longer be mostly imparting knowledge, but must take a new path, seeking the release of human potentials.

Note that there's something true, beautiful, and good about this quote: education should be (must be!) about the development of human potential. 

The error comes when developing potential is seen as opposing imparting knowledge.

Gaining knowledge is the quintessential way of developing potential — at least, it is for humans. (Bears, maybe, would develop potential in other ways — eating more salmon and blackberries.)

If we move away from imparting knowledge, we'll move away from a more human education.


And yet — when educators speak against "knowledge acquisition" as the goal for an education, they really are saying something true and beautiful and good.

What they're worried about is a method of schooling that sees children as nothing more than computer hard disks to be filled up with data. This truly is an anti-human education. But moving toward the opposite extreme is little better.

Our idea for a new type of schooling is about knowledge — deep knowledge. That's implicit in our trinity of goals: love, mastery, and wisdom.

As St. Augustine noted, "You cannot love what you do not know; you cannot know what you do not love." As cognitive psychologists have demonstrated, expertise is a type of knowledge. And as philosophic traditions the world over have long understood, living rightly derives from a knowledge of what the world is like — the word "wisdom" even comes from the Proto-Indo European root meaning "to know."

There's long been an educational battle between the pro-knowledge and knowledge-skeptical camps. It's not going away. We don't need to identify with the pro-knowledge camp: it's been misunderstood by the other side for too long.

Rather, what we need to do is open up a third way between them. We need to work out how to talk about the glories of knowledge acquisition done rightly, and the evils of knowledge acquisition done wrongly. We need to figure out which metaphors and verbiage and stories show people how wonderful knowledge can be, and how essential it is to developing love, mastery, and wisdom.

This is an important task for our movement: schooling won't be able to lead kids toward genius, toward wisdom, toward creativity until someone figures out how to make knowledge attractive again.


I'm working on this, but here's my conception for now: use an organic metaphor. 

Instead of memorizing material, or acquiring information, we might talk about planting ideas. 

Planting stories. 

Planting knowledge.

This can take us into a nuanced understanding of the plusses and minuses of storing information internally, rather than externally. The splendid educational writer Annie Murphy Paul (whom everyone should be reading) writes about a recent division made by philosophers on the differences between "O-memory" (organic memory: your brain) and "E-memory" (electronic memory: your smart phone). 

Her brief article brilliantly takes us beyond the well-worn education turf battle. She writes:

With our computers, we can search, store, and check. With our minds, we can browse, elaborate and reflect.

Each memory system, that is, has its advantages. We should use both:

If we make note of an upcoming appointment in our smartphone, its digital calendar won’t misremember the date or time, as our all-too-fallible brains are apt to do. On the other hand, if we enter the germ of an idea in our phone’s note-taking app, we won’t return after a busy weekend or a good night’s sleep to find that the idea has grown new connections and layers of meaning, as an idea planted in our organic memory is likely to do.

(Thanks for the metaphor, Annie!) 


A shortcut to presenting Imaginative Education?

Shortcut We interrupt our regular broadcasting: on Thursday I was mulling over something one of the Imaginative Education Research Group (IERG) people mentioned to me some time ago: that Kieran Egan’s “cognitive toolkits” idea (which is to say, all his work) is difficult to explain to others even for the people in IERG.

And here I thought the problem had been mine!

Here’s an interesting (if slightly made-up) statistic: 80% of the attempts I’ve made to share Imaginative Education with others have failed.

I can’t count the times I’ve energetically tried to explain Egan’s idea (particularly the cognitive toolkits), only to be met with polite nods, or near-total misunderstanding. (“Ah, so you’re saying that teachers should jump up and down to rile up their students?”)

And in most of these cases, people have actually been nice enough to read a chapter or two of Egan. So the problem may be with the method that Egan himself — who, to be clear, is usually a joyously lucid and engaging writer — uses to introduce his thinking.

Yesterday, I think I came up with an exposition of IE (with an emphasis on the toolkits framework) that could have general appeal: a way of explaining the work of Kieran Egan to the world.

Here’s an excerpt of what I sent one of the IERG folk:

…I've had an idea I'd love your criticism of: a way of coming at IE that (1) just might make more sense to people upon hearing it for the first time, and (2) better emphasize the awesome aspects of IE (or at least those aspects I find awesome).

It's a four-step unveiling of what seem to be, when given in order, sensible arguments:

1. Human cognition is more than logic: it's complex and rich and shot through with emotions.  We are (per David Kresch) “perfinkers,” we are (per R.J. Snell) “lovers more than we are thinkers.”  

(Note: “perfinkers” is short for “perceivers, feelers, and thinkers” — it’s a funny term Egan has borrowed to get at this idea that our cognition is more than mere rational thinking.)

Most schooling, however, leans on rather simple, unemotional forms of cognition; it has a deficient view of human nature.

(Note: it’s since occurred to me that I’m not working with a real opponent here. “Schooling” subsumes ten thousand different theories. That said, I think this criticism is onto something.)

2. As Egan writes, “Everything in the world is wonderful,” which means that everything in the K-12 curriculum is full of the types of complexity that our minds are able to uncover and find deeply interesting.  Most schooling, however, treats the content as information to be covered.  (The implied question: but how do we engage that interest?)

3. To engage that wonder, let's not invent faddish and ephemeral teaching strategies: let's instead depend on what's been working for hundreds (and thousands) (and maybe millions) of years: the cultural–cognitive tools (stories, irony, binary opposites, abstract theories, metanarratives...) that have already demonstrated their ability to engage full human cognition simply by lasting this long. (Presumably there were myriad awful cognitive tools that we no longer know about, precisely because they didn't pass themselves down.)  (The implied question: but how do we decide when to use which tools?)

(Note: I think this point may be new to me, or at least I’m giving it a centrality that I don’t remember seeing in Egan’s writing. It brings the idea of cognitive tools into the framework of memetic evolution.)

4. To help us figure out when to use which tools, we invent a theoretical construct: “cognitive toolkits.”  We know, of course, that language & literacy has expanded cognition on the level of historical cultures (see, e.g., Walter Ong — cultures that write think differently); well, it doesn't seem like too much of a jump to imagine that they could change kids in similar ways.  Thus for kids who can speak but who can't read, we teach by borrowing tools from non-literate cultures.  For kids who can read, borrow tools from literate cultures. 

So here's what I'm thinking might be gained from this framework for presenting IE:

  • Step 1 starts by talking about brain science, which people like, and find easy to latch onto.  (“Oh, yes, of course — schools aren't engaging the whole child!”  “Kids are only using a fraction of their brains!” and so forth.)
  • Step 2 strikes a romantic note that resonates with people, too: “oh, yes, everything really is interesting, isn't it?  Why didn’t they tell us that in school?”
  • Step 3 holds a sort of commonsense conservationism — let's not throw out the stuff that works!  (It also has a multicultural tinge, which I should expand on more.)
  • Step 4 — the crucial idea of the toolkits, which tends to confuse the people I share Egan's work with (I think it sounds fanciful to them, sort of Waldorfian) — is saved for the end.  At that point, it answers the practical question of “so when do we use which tools?”

Overall, it also explains IE without recourse to the word “imagination.”  Now, Egan and the rest of the IE community

Note: it occurred to me here that I was critiquing the utility of the word “imagination” to one of the men who chose that word

…mean something very specific by it, but that meaning can only be understood after understanding the (#4) full toolkits idea, which can only be understood after understanding (#3) cultural–cognitive tools, which can only be understood after understanding (#1) that we need better ways of engaging specifically human cognition.

(And, after sitting through session after goddamned session in which conference presenters who didn't know IE from a hole in their head tossed around the word “imagination” without meaning anything at all by it, I think I've all but given up on using the word.  Maybe you can help me with that?)

Rather, it situates IE in a fuller conception of our humanity — relatively unclaimed ground in the terminology of educational philosophy.  (And one that lets us interface with the contemporary turn in cognitive science which is embracing emotions, linguistics, and narrative.)

So: I’m wondering if I’ve actually stumbled on a framework for explaining Egan’s conception of Imaginative Education that might better capture the excitement that we get from it.


You are not a Vulcan.

Star Trek (2009) DVD 240 In his college days, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt (he of The Happiness Hypothesis, perhaps the worst-titled and best-written book I’ve read) majored in philosophy. In his youthful zeal, his goal was to “discover the meaning of life.”

As you might expect, if you’re, say, over 20, he was in for something of a letdown. But curiously his disappointment was less that he didn’t find an answer and more because philosophers weren’t raising the question:

Modern philosophers specialize in analyzing the meaning of words, but, aside from the existentialists (who caused the problem for me in the first place), they had little to say about the meaning of life. (Happiness Hypothesis, p. 215)

Why? Haidt suggests that the field of philosophy, which had been birthed in such grand human questions, had taken an unprofitable turn when it parted ways with psychology:

It was only after I entered graduate school in psychology that I realized why modern philosophy seemed sterile: It lacked a deep understanding of human nature. (ibid)

Instead of paying close attention to the complex weirdos populating the world around them, contemporary philosophers retreated into abstractions. Alas:

The ancient philosophers were often good psychologists, as I have shown in this book, but when modern philosophy began to devote itself to the study of logic and rationality, it gradually lost interest in psychology and lost touch with the passionate, contextualized nature of human life. (ibid, emphasis mine)

Why is this a problem? Because:

It is impossible to analyze “the meaning of life” in the abstract, or in general, or for some mythical and perfectly rational being. Only by knowing the kinds of beings that we actually are, with the complex mental and emotional architecture that we happen to possess, can anyone even begin to ask about what would count as a meaningful life. (ibid, emphasis mine)


I’m wondering if the same illness might beset educational thinking, both academic and popular. As soon as we lose track of humans as ridiculously complex critters — shaped all at once by evolution and culture, social norms and individual eccentricities, emotion and logic, family and personal whims — as soon as we lose track of humans as all of that, we craft our schooling to fit simplistic people who don’t really exist.

Which is all to say: We need schools for humans, not for Vulcans.

I’m on something of a “let’s talk about complex cognition!” kick, so I hope you’ll excuse my foray into this. On Monday (if I get back from our weekend camp-out in the San Juans in time), I’d like to post on the opposite of all this — a case study in Getting Humans Wrong.

A School for Intuition?

Thinker 2 Schools, I’ve suggested, are designed on an outdated vision of human nature. We are, in fact, feelers more than we are thinkers — even the most unsentimental of us. This seems a crucial point for, frankly, everything that we want to do at this school of ours, so let me unpack this point, and sketch out the revolution in cognitive science that’s behind it.

Not too long ago, cognitive scientists treated reasoning as a conscious, logical thing. As Antonio Damasio writes in Descartes’ Error:

as the sciences of mind and brain flourished in the twentieth century, interests went elsewhere and the specialties which we loosely group today under neuroscience gave a resolute cold shoulder to emotion research. (page ix)

But, Damasio writes, this changed in the late 1990s — now, emotions are back with a vengeance! Damasio himself is leading this charge, arguing that

the reasoning system evolved as an extension of the automatic emotional system, with emotion playing diverse roles in the reasoning process.

Our rationality, that is, is an outgrowth of our emotions.

And, more practically: Our thinking is shot through with feeling.

One of the most exciting developments in cognitive psychology has been the “two system” model of reasoning. Daniel Kahneman’s excellent Thinking, Fast and Slow is the most complete book-length treatment of this idea.

Kahneman argues that our reasoning can be best thought of as composed of two quite separate systems: System 1, which is automatic and instinctive, and System 2, which is purposeful and deliberate.

Kahneman gives some examples of automatic activities that can be attributed to System 1 —

Detect hostility in a voice. Answer 2+2=? Find a strong move in chess (if you are a chess master) Understand simple sentences (p. 21)

He also gives examples of controlled, System 2 operations —

Focus attention. Search your memory. Fill out a tax form. Check the validity of a logical argument.  (p. 22)

Both are necessary (for humans — not so much for tarantulas), but System 1 comes first.

Western (and sometimes Eastern) intellectual culture has tended to heap praise on System 2, sometimes identifying it as the essential trait of humanity. (We are Homo sapiens — the wise thinker.)

The trouble with this is that it puts the cart before the horse:

When we think of ourselves, we identify with System 2, the conscious, reasoning self that has beliefs, makes choices, and decides what to think about and what to do. Although System 2 believes itself to be where the action is, the automatic System 1 is the hero of the book. I describe System 1 as effortlessly originating impressions and feelings that are the main sources of the explicit beliefs and deliberate choices of System 2. (p. 21)

We are deliberative, that is, precisely because we are instinctive.

Or, to focus on one particular side of that: we are rational because we are emotional.

System 2 can only work with the inputs given to it by System 1. And when System 1 doesn’t like something, it’s very difficult for System 2 to override it.

Though Kahneman repeatedly mentions feelings and emotions, his central research has been the non-emotional aspects of intuition. (I imagine that this has been because of the previously-cited skepticism in the psychology community toward emotion, but this is just a conjecture.)

To get to the heart of emotion, I’d like to turn to social psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s work. But I’ll save that for Friday.

For now, the question for us is: how can we build a school that takes full advantage of students’ instincts and intuitions? How can our school build thinkers out of perceivers and feelers?