Makerspaces > Textbooks

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

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

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

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

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

Missing: A MakerSpace.

How do we fit in a MakerSpace? 

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

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

How can we incorporate this into our schools?

Missing: Coding.

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

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

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

Missing: documentaries.

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Animals and plants and toasters, oh my!

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

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



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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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