A problem:

Human cultures have evolved an amazing tool for binding together groups of unrelated people. This tool creates trust among strangers, trains the body, and increases happiness. (It might even fight depression.)

It's dancing. And schools hardly use it!

Our basic plan:

Every day in our classrooms, we'll dance. When children are young, we'll capitalize on their desire to be wild — to wiggle, giggle, jump, and twirl. As they get older, we'll capitalize on their emerging desire to master precise movement. We'll engage a multitude of dancing styles from around the world.

Our goals:

Moving in synchrony has been shown to create trust, so we'll use dance to create bonds among students and teachers. Dancing is exercise, so we'll use dance to improve student (and teacher!) health. And dancing has been shown to increase happiness (and lower measures of depression), so a goal will be to cultivate happiness!

In addtion, dancing is deep cultural stuff: we hope that students will be able to engage with many diverse cultures (African, Asian, Polynesian, folk American…) through dance.

If you walk into our classrooms, you might see:

Once or twice a day, teachers will put on loud music, and everyone'll break into dance. That's right: it'll be like living in a Broadway musical!

You might see a video being projected that shows others engaging in the dance, to make it easier for our kids to learn the style.

Some specific questions:

  • I conceived of this first for our future-Seattle-area school, which will open only with little kids. Island Academy, however, will be opening with mixed ages (grade school through early high school). If the older students balk at dancing, should we abandon it?
  • Should we look to get community volunteers for this?
  • I'd love to lay out a progression of types of dance that we do, but I've absolutely no expertise here. Anyone interested in talking about this?

Games in the classroom


A problem:

Games teach, but they don't come that much into most classrooms.

Game-making is one of humanity's long-term projects — we've been at it for thousands of years. Along the way, we've invented games that teach numeracy, verbal dexterity, strategy, and socialization under stress. And games teach by tapping into deep human emotional reservoirs. Doing well in a game brings flow. A great win brings fiero — that rush of fiery joy that makes you want to throw your arms up in the air and scream in jubilation!

How often do you see that in a school?

A great loss, on the other hand, brings an opportunity to learn to lose gracefully. Games teach, but schools don't make that much of them.

Our basic plan:

On occasion, kids can elect to play games. Not dull, self-consciously "educational" games — real games, enjoyable games, especially ones that many kids don't get the chance to experience anymore: checkers, poker, Balderdash, charades, Yahtzee, solitaire, crossword puzzles; bocce ball and handball and heaven knows what else. (Forgive this entirely non-representative list!)

The goals:

Kids gain skill in verbal dexterity, numeracy, and strategy. They also gain interpersonal skills when tensions are high. Additionally, we hope to introduce kids to games that they can enliven their non-school hours with.

If you walk into our classrooms, you might see:

A small group of kids intensely focused on a group game.

Some specific questions:

  • Any especially good collections of old-fashioned games we should use?
  • How should we prepare the inevitable parent question: "Isn't this a waste of time?"
  • Are there any concerns about bringing games into the school day?
  • What's a favorite game that you'd love to see introduced in a school, and why?

Grades? NO grades? Notes toward a sane system


Grades are a little barbaric. There's a line of thinking that's common in some educational reform circles:

Grades are repressive. Grades wound children's spirits. Grades sap creativity. Grades only keep kids in line. 

I agree with this — well, I half-agree! But there's wisdom in grading, too. And forging a new kind of schooling — an education truly for humans — will require bringing these two perspectives together. It'll require a new take on grades.

Trouble is, we don't have that "new take" yet. Consider the following, then, a scattershot of ideas that we'll need to play with!

Grades don't give enough feedback

Our school will run with a radical idea from the academic study of expertise: talent can be made. A student's skill in math, or reading, or anything can be improved. (This is, of course, our second major goal: mastery.)

But the psychologists of expertise tell us that there's only one way to do that: deliberate practice. (If the concept of deliberate practice is new to you, here's a helpful breakdown.)

We need to weave deliberate practice into every part of our school. And one crucial element of deliberate practice is feedback. The feedback needs to come quickly (ideally immediately), needs to be honest, and needs to share specific advice (tweaks) the student can try out next time.

Grades don't do that. They can come quickly and be honest, but they don't (in and of themselves) share specific tweaks. 

Of course, teachers can share tweaks as well as give a grade. But the grade tends to obscure the tweaks. There aren't that many people who can shrug off a bad grade and focus on the tweaks they should make next time. In fact, there aren't that many people who can shrug off a good grade and focus on the tweaks they should make!

What our schools might, then, do:

  • Instead of stamping a grade on a small assignment — an essay, say, or a piece of artwork — our teachers might instead respond with one thing the student really excelled at, and one suggestion for future improvement.
  • Feedback would be given with knowledge of what the student's history. What has she succeeded at, and struggled with, before? The tweaks can be ultra-personalized. Teachers can become talent coaches, and schools can become talent factories.

Grades aim too low

An 'A' is not high enough. There are exceptions, of course: an 'A' that you slave for, that you suffer for, and that you finally achieve — a sweet joy indeed!

But these experiences aren't (for many of us) especially common. Some of us rarely get 'A's. Others of us too commonly get 'A's. I'm in the latter camp: throughout my — goodness — twenty or so years of formal schooling, I remember only a handful of 'A's that really satisfied me. The rest? Meh.

And even when an 'A' seems to satisfy, it's not (I think) the 'A', so much as the self-overcoming. The grade is merely the evidence that we've achieved the goal. (If it was the 'A' that satisfied, then wouldn't every 'A' satisfy just as well?)

Raising children to care about 'A's is — can I say this in public? — stupid, because an 'A' by itself is so paltry. We're each capable of so much more. Part of the goal of our school is to help students forge excitingly-high-yet-still-realistic goals for themselves, and to help them pursue those goals.

But we'll be working against ourselves (or rather, against our students) if we distract them with grades. We each have only so much motivation: sucking up part of it with grinding for grades seems guaranteed to subtract from the motivation they have to pursue important goals.

What our schools might, then, do:

  • Instead of distracting students with letter grades, we might help students identify high and exciting goals for themselves.
  • These goals would, ideally, be tied into what we're providing in school: art and story-telling and math and handwriting and science and everything else. (Otherwise we need to re-evaluate why the student is in our school!) But the goals would be individualized, allowing students to steer their own way through the curriculum.

Grades are monologues.

One of the common complaints against grades (at least in the hippie books on education that I read!) is that grades are external, and external = bad.

We don't (the argument goes) want to train kids to give a darn what others think about them — we want them to value themselves.

I think this goes against everything we know about human beings.

Well, I'm overstating that! But we know that humans are the most social apes. There is, in fact, a non-B.S. argument that this is precisely why humans evolved such big brains in the first place: just to keep track of who (in the community) thinks what about whom! Our brains may be built for social assessments. Living in community means constantly keeping track of what people think about you.

Now, there's another side to this. We can obsess over how others think about us. There is, of course, deep wisdom in shucking off concerns about status and popularity. But what's needed here is a balance. Throwing away grades in favor of some hippie nonsense doesn't strike that balance. But grades, as traditionally given, don't strike that balance, either.

What's needed is for evaluations to become dialogues. Students shouldn't just receive feedback, they should participate in it. They should be evaluating their own work, and on occasion quarreling with the teacher's evaluations.

What our schools might, then, do:

  • Ask students to evaluate each of their projects. (What are you proud of? What can be better? How might you get there?)
  • Ask students to respond to the teacher's critique. (Too harsh? Too easy? Do you think the teacher's suggested tweaks are good? Are you going to do it, or try something different?)
  • At regular intervals (say, each quarter) have students and teachers look back over their work, praising growth, and identifying new directions to explore.

Again: We're still thinking our way through this. But it does seem clear that we want to synthesize the best of letter-grading systems, and the best of non-letter-grading systems.

Evaluation is a core human concern. Is what I'm doing good? What do others think of it? What should I?

We need to get this right. If we do, we can get further to creating a new kind of schooling truly worthy of humans.

The class that dances together learns together


Schools don't dance. And what a loss! Dancing to music is one of humanity's oldest tools for cultivating trust, sharing culture, training the body, and achieving individual well-being. Dancing to music is a human biotechnology for group flourishing.

Yet contemporary schools don't make much use of it. Well, no wonder we find schools vexing! It's like we're trying to assemble an IKEA bookshelf, but have denied ourselves the use of Allen wrenches.

In our school, we'll bring back dancing. Yes, it will feel strange, sometimes — but oh, will it be worth it.

Dance early, dance often.

We'll start our kids dancing from a young age — and never stop! (Well, at least not through elementary school.)

I recall a bit of dancing when I was in kindergarten and first grade: a little song called "Sammy (I'm Glad I'm Me)." Our gym teacher put on an LP, and we zoomed around the gymnasium in a circle, pretending we were Sammy (who in turn pretended he was a bird, a fish, a bug, and so on).

It was pure bliss. I loved it — I think we all did. Kids crave movement and rhythm. And they crave the mixture of wildness and control that dancing to music affords. This was a wonderful part of schooling —

and then we dropped it. 

Gym class became about other things than dancing. And, by and by, our curriculum added on a music class, twice a week. There are things we all liked about that music class, but it was never as fun as wild kid dancing. We never danced again… until, inexplicably, fifth grade, when we were told to start square dancing.

I'm sure that, somewhere, there are kids who enjoy square dancing. But if any of them attended my school, they kept their mouths shut. Dancing felt weird to us, because we had put away dancing for too long. We had put away that sort of corporality, that comfort of making a fool of ourselves.

We had entered into that sad state of civilized adulthood, the state from which Seneca quipped:

No one dances sober, unless he is insane.

What a loss! Therefore, in our school, we'll want to start dancing early, and continue it (at least) until the end of grade school.

Start with abandon; grow into structure.

Dancing can be complicated. So you might think that teaching that teaching finely-tuned, precise dance steps (or hand motions, or body motions) to six- and seven-year-olds is a bad idea, the payoff not worth the effort. If you think that — you're right!

We won't emphasize precision at first. We'll emphasize fun. For little kids, some of the fun comes from imitating another's form — kids are designed to be wonderful imitators — but also from doing their own thing: their own prancing, kicking, spinning thing.

We'll give kids a sense of guided wild abandon. 

And as they get used to the music, they're bound to get bored with dancing the same ol' way. That's the perfect time for us to suggest more complex moves. If we approach precision slowly, we can get the best of spontaneity and of control.

The more diverse, the better!

I was walking through Seattle's University District a couple days ago, & passed a sidewalk sandwich board advertising African Dance Lessons. My immediate reaction was "ooh — exotic!"

Well, all right.

My reaction wasn't wrong, exactly — it just points out some limitations of mine. I'm a white North American middle classer, raised in the 'burbs and currently living in… another 'burb. Lots of music styles — lots of cultures — feel foreign and odd to me.

This is entirely natural; it's also a bit sad. I would rather agree with the Roman playwright Terence, who wrote:

I am human; therefore nothing human is alien to me.

I want my kids to have a fuller grasp of reality. One of the goals of our school is to bring as much of the grand experience of many human cultures into our lives. This is, in fact, part of what we mean when we say "school for humans."

So, we want to incorporate music as diverse as possible into our school day. We want to bring in classical and folk and Latin, reggae and opera and jazz, country and R&B and rock. And lots, lots more!

And, as we get more prescriptive with the actual dancing, we can bring in more diverse dance styles: circle and line and ballet, salsa and swing and waltz, flamenco and mambo and Bollywood. We can try out war dances. We can dance out stories. We can do so very much, because we can borrow from ten thousand years of human culture.

How exciting — our school can help bring kids into the madcap diversity of the twenty-first century!

What it could look like.

Once or twice in each school day, our teachers will put on some loud music, and everyone in our classes will break into dance. Yes, it will be a little like living inside a Broadway musical.

Beyond that, there'll be a lot of variety. The teacher may give some pointers, or not. The kids may dance in groups, or not. We may project video of professional (imitate-able) dancers, or not. We may sing along to the lyrics, or not.

But music will be thumping, people will be laughing, and at the end, we'll sit down, happy and refreshed.

Why are we doing this, again?

Four reasons, I think —

1. Trust.

Synchrony creates trust. Moving in time binds people together. It's odd how well this works, and odd how little our society makes use of it.

But trust is crucial for our school: unproductive classes are just collections of individuals; great classes are organisms. We need to perfect the art of helping people trust one another so they can work together, and help one another learn.

2. Experiencing human diversity.

Cultures express themselves through their music and dancing. To move your body to another culture's music is, even if in a very small way, to experience some of the culture. This is, again, a crucial piece of what we mean by "school for humans." And we'll be doing it in a number of ways — through stories, through food and drink. And we'll be doing it through song and dance, too!

3. Body-training.

Our school will train the brain — therefore, it has to train the body. And that's because (slow reveal!) the brain is part of the body.

I'll be writing more about our exercise curriculum in a future post. For now, I'll just say that daily dancing will be one (especially important) element of it.

4. Well-being.

Dancing — to state the obvious — makes people happy! (At least when it doesn't make them feel awkward and embarrassed — see the point about about dancing early and often.) Dancing may even be a potent treatment for depression.

This may go quite deep indeed. In her excellent Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective JoyBarbara Ehrenreich notes that the modern epidemic of depression — through which we are currently living — began in Europe just as as Europeans began to cease their millennia-old practices of ecstatic dancing. Depression became widespread in precisely those classes which began adopting a modern view of self as an autonomous, isolated, individual — first intellectuals, then aristocrats more broadly, and then Protestants in general.

That is, the epidemic of depression seems to have spread as people began experiencing themselves as isolated individuals, rather than as elements of a group.

This change happened in many ways — beliefs of salvation, single-person bedrooms, biographies, and even mirrors seem to have played a role. A crucial piece of it, however (maybe the crucial piece of Ehrenreich's argument), was the end of group dancing. Communal dancing may have been a cure for melancholy. Wild celebration may have cured depression.

And now our society thinks dancing weird. And there may be some bad effects of that.

This might be one small way for our school to help mend the world.

But even if Ehrenreich's diagnosis — and the recent research of dancing and depression — is off, dancing brings joy. And we want to bring more joy, not less, into our school.

A school for touching


I'm not particularly sentimental. I wouldn't — say — describe myself as "touchy-feely, warm-and-fuzzy" so much as "non-touchy, anti-feely, cold-and-clammy".

But: people need to be touched. Kids, especially.

Obviously you knew that — everyone does! But in most schools touching is dangerous. Encouraging, say, hugging seems to increase the danger of sexual abuse, and the chance of lawsuits.

And so schools discourage (and sometimes ban) touching: both the teacher–kid and kid–kid varieties.

And yet: kids need to be touched! We're evolved for it. Removing touch makes a community less human.

A team of fantastic evolutionary thinkers, led by David Sloan Wilson, David Geary, and Peter Gray, has written a brief and profound essay on how evolution can inform anyone looking to improve schools — "Learning from Mother Nature about Teaching Our Children: Ten Simple Truths about Childhood Education from an Evolutionary Perspective."

Simple truth #9 reads:

Departure from ancestral environments can create unanticipated problems.

Species are adapted to their long-term past environments, not necessarily to their present environments... examples include physical activity and touching. Schoolchildren are commonly required to sit still for extended periods, and touching is sometimes prohibited as a guard against sexual harassment.

These practices have a surface logic in today’s society, but they ignore the fact that physical movement and touching among trusted associates were always part of the human ancestral environment.

(The entire essay is so entirely worth your time I recommend you to pencil it in for the next time you need to jolt of exciting ideas into your life.)

Our bodies are hard-wired to experience touch — touch from someone we trust — as comforting. Touch lowers stress hormones. Touch strengthens social bonds.

More: touch fortifies love.

I think I've made a mistake on this blog. I've gone awry, I think, when I explain what we mean by love as the first of our three big principles. When I've talked about love, I've emphasized the love of content.

But as Rebecca Goldstein pointed out (in an excerpt from Plato at the Googleplex in yesterday's post), teachers are the conduits for love of content. Students learn to love content by loving (and being loved by) the teachers.

Interpersonal love is at the core of our school. And this isn't separate from loving the subjects: they support each other.

They even blur into each another. I'm reminded of how a charter school director described the most incredible math teacher he had met: "He loves students through math."

We need to make a bigger deal of this. We need to talk about how students will be loved at our school.

When Kristin and I married, we banned the word "love" from our ceremony. (Remember when I said I wasn't touchy-feely?) We wanted to make the focus the commitment we were making, rather than our ephemeral feelings. We could do that because, obviously, everyone knew we loved each other. It was a wedding, for crying out loud, held in modern West. Love could be safely assumed!

We don't have that luxury in starting a school. Love — of teachers, of students, of content — is not typically understood to be the core of education. The educational thinkers who do talk about love (of people, of content) tend to be the starry-eyed idealists. The serious thinkers, meanwhile, talk about things like subject-matter mastery.

We don't need to choose between these. In fact, we can't: to pick one is to guarantee you won't achieve either.

So we need to trumpet interpersonal love when we explain the school to interested parties. And we need to build interpersonal into the culture of our school. And so we come back to:

People need to be touched!

Our school of mastery, of thick content knowledge, of intellectual superpowers, will rest (in part) upon hugging.

I don't know how we do this, legally — but we won't adopt policies that work against human nature.

We can't afford to.

Blessed are the sense makers


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

Be a sense maker.

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

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

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

Blessed are the sense makers.

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

This is an ever-present danger.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

The universe makes sense. 

When you ask a question, you find an answer.

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

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

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

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

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

What if Zheng He had made it to America?

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

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

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

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

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

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

A school for sleep


BOY, did I get a lot of sleep last night! I'll admit it: I'm boasting. Also: lying.

But isn't it odd to hear someone boast about how much sleep they got?

Alaina (who's making plans to be one of our teachers) pointed out to me last night that hardly anyone — at least in the high school and college years — boasts about getting healthy amounts of sleep. Instead, they boast of the exact opposite:

Student 1: "Jeez, I was up 'til 2 a.m. studying for my Psych final." Student 2: "Yeah? Well, I only got four hours of sleep, writing my English term paper." Student 3: "You think that's bad? I haven't slept for 72 hours, have virtually murdered my working memory, and am experiencing numerous visual and auditory hallucinations! In fact, I doubt I'm actually having this conversation right now."

All right: I'm exaggerating. But only a little.

A high school student of mine, who gets good grades at a prestigious public school, told me:

High schoolers are in a constant state of sleep deprivation — like, intense sleep deprivation. I’ve had minor hallucianations in class before. I have a major headache right now.

From talking to others who attend his school, I'd wager that he's toward the extreme end of the spectrum. But that end of the spectrum shouldn't exist.

Our school will make it easier for students to sleep well.


I'm new to this thinking, and don't have an excess of ideas. I welcome yours! Some possibilities that I've been playing with:

We'll begin at a reasonable time.

Our middle and high school, particularly, should begin later — perhaps at 9 a.m. Teens are biologically wired to stay up (and wake up) later. (No, really. I thought this was hippie-dippie psuedo-science until I saw intercultural research on circadian rhythms.)

Our school is pro-human nature. That means not actively working against a student's biology.

We'll explore naps.

A number of other cultures — I'm looking at you, Spain! — do mid-day naps. Sometimes I'm able to take a rest (though not an actual nap) during my post-lunch crash time. It's wonderful. I'm reloaded for the day.

So we'll try out rest periods, and see what works well for our students (and faculty). Of a piece with this:

We'll schedule well.

We won't plunk nuanced analytic classes (math, chemistry) into the tired periods: e.g. the late afternoon. Typically, the hardest intellectual work will be done in the morning classes.

(Or, at least, that's my hunch on this. If you have experience about what times of day work best for what types of learning, please share in the comments!)

We'll make kids tired.

Some kids are wired when they come home from school: not our school's!

We'll make them think hard, yes. But we'll also make them physically tired — we'll be running, jumping, climbing, and so on throughout the day.

During the day, this'll wake them up. At the end of the day, this'll put them to sleep. Ah, the paradoxical pleasures of exercise. (More on this in a later post!)

We'll teach sleep.

How to sleep well isn't at all obvious when one lives in a culture that celebrates caffeine, bright lights, and long hours. I struggled with insomnia for a few years, spending maybe about a thousand dollars on doctor visits and various medications, before realizing that it was a caffeine problem, pure and simple. I just had to cut coffee past noon, and 90% of the insomnia disappeared.

I didn't know anyone could be that sensitive to it, but, I was pretty dumb then!

Now I'm not. I was taught sleep.

This may seem, well, nosy: like we're venturing outside our proper realm of Reading, Writing, 'Rithmetic. A little too paternalistic, maybe?

Maybe. I agree that there needs to be a balance. But it's clear to me that, at present, most schools sit at the opposite extreme. Students are under-rested, and it's having bad effects across the board: in learning, health, and psychological well-being.

We care about all those things.

But even if we just concerned ourselves with intellectual pursuit, we'd still need to take sleep seriously. As John Medina summarizes in Brain Rules:

Sleep well, think well.

We're going to be asking a lot of our students: to focus, to remember, to control themselves, to think carefully and expansively, to expand their picture of the world.

Sleeping well undergirds all of these things. If we can help our community get sleep right, we can move further toward all our goals.

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.

Bullying, human nature, and hope

bully I'm breaking my month o' silence (alas! aghast!) to make a brief note on something I very strongly want to see — need to see — in our school: an anti-bullying program.

I suppose I've never raised this in conversation before (either here on the blog, or in person with any of you) because I consider this such a "well, duh."

Bullying is so obviously one of the deep evils of American schooling that it had seemed pointless to decry it; and what appear to be some very good anti-bullying programs had begun spreading in America — an unexpected boon from the Columbine massacre. (An ironic one, if we take Dave Cullen's conclusion that, contrary to the media's consensus, bullying was not a factor that triggered the violence.) I suppose on some level I assumed that, by the time we have middle-schoolers, an anti-bullying program with have become de rigueur in schools everywhere.

This morning, though, I read a blog post by Rod Dreher — one of the most thoughtful conservative columnists writing today — which mulls over some recent teen suicides prompted by bullying.

These shocked me, though of course they shouldn't have — I (blithely) assumed we, as a civilization, had fixed this.

Part of the joys of taking human nature seriously is being freed from having to pretend a strictly rosy or a strictly gloomy picture of what children are. (Ick, ack.) Evolutionary psychology suggests that we contain a great diversity of impulses, some good (empathy, love) and some evil (cruelty, hatred).

David Sloan Wilson — whose Evolution for Everyone should be required reading for us — suggests that which impulses are triggered is largely a matter of the environment. We usually think of human nature as being inside us, but (as Wilson points out) most species evolve to live in a variety of environments. Evolution, thus, needs to prepare the same organisms for all of them. (Genes that figure out how to do this will, in strict Darwinian calculus, propagate themselves.)

My favorite example from his book is the minnow. Minnows that grow up in a pond free of predators will be curious and bold. Minnows that grow up in a pond with predators will be uncurious and cautious.

What's amazing is how sensitive these minnows are to their surroundings. If you raise these fish in a tank, giving them just one exposure to a "predator" (really a plastic trout on a wooden dowel) at the right time of development will trigger them to be skittish, and for the rest of their lives.

Their genes have molded them to be shaped by the environment.

We're minnows, too. We're like that, but much more so. Our genes may have molded us to be more sensitive to our surroundings (physical, social, emotional, intellectual...) than any other species.

This means that the old nature/nurture debate is over. It simply makes no sense to say our traits are determined by x% genes and y% experience: it's our genes that allow us to be shaped by experience. Whether a student is aggressive or peaceful is linked to genes, of course, but it is triggered by environment. If we know them, and plan our environment with them in mind, we can reduce even the drive toward bullying — genes notwithstanding.

This all raises the question: what are these contextual triggers, for humans?

Dreher, who has written about his own experience of being bullied, writes:

Honest to God, I hate middle school and high school so much. I'm sitting here thinking about this story, and my stomach is churning. I wouldn't relive eighth, ninth, and tenth grade again for anything.

Bullying's effects, for him, seem quite long-lasting effects.

So, some questions for us:

  • How should we consider doing this "no bullying, ever" ethos? Are there programs we should look into? Is it really just as simple as deciding, right now, that any bullying will be tolerated?
  • How deep do we need to go into relationships between kids? Do we draw a bright line around "bullying" (however we define it), or do we demand that kids are actually civil and (more extremely) kind to one another?

And, maybe most interestingly for me —

  • Are there any dangers in pursuing an anti-bullying program? I'm thinking of how seemingly-sensible "no weapons" policies have been inhumanly applied in schools — suspending 8-year-olds for bringing in a butter knife to cut a birthday cake, and whatnot.

So — your thoughts!

Who doesn't love a good marathon?

marathon I came across this quote last night while reading the chapter titled “Rice Paddies and Math Tests” in Gladwell’s Outliers. My experience teaching Algebra last year, to a group of students who began the year many years below grade level and were faced with the reality of needing to pass the state math exam in order to graduate, would have fit nicely into his chapter. He argues: “We sometimes think of being good at mathematics as innate ability. You either have “it” or you don’t. But…it’s not so much about ability as attitude. You master mathematics if you are willing to try…success is a function of persistence and doggedness and the willingness to work hard for twenty-two minutes to make sense of something that most people would give up on after only thirty seconds.” My question here is this: How does our school best teach these ways of being? How, from the very earliest ages, do we inculcate persistence, doggedness, grit, and a determination to do whatever is necessary to learn?

Or better yet, how can we, over the course of twelve years, build students who enjoy and thrive in situations that require intense effort over long periods of time? And, how do we develop students who know, deep down, that they will be able to understand any concept they choose to master…students who believe that learning and mastery is a choice rather than a gift or the result of fate or happenstance?

This conversation can go in many directions…I am imagining an elementary curriculum that intentionally includes the development and celebration of extended focus. A curriculum that consistently includes activities that require students to stick with complex puzzles over long periods of time. Perhaps, for instance, a curriculum that consistently includes time when students return to the same “impossible puzzle”, many days in a row, until they are finally able to enjoy the sweet reward of success after days and weeks of concerted effort and thought.

I am fascinated, right now, with the potential power of including periodic “focused learning marathons” in the curriculum, as a consistent, expected, and cherished part of what makes our school different. These periods of intense, focused effort could take many forms. One possibility would be the adoption of monthly math, reading, or writing marathons – an expectation at our school could be that, once per month, students, faculty, and parents would engage in a 10-18 hour event that is entirely focused on mastery or making significant progress in one specific area or project.

These could take place all day Saturday, or perhaps sometimes they would take the form of an overnighter, or a series of after-school events. Perhaps during these events, instead of a five-day week, our school calendar is adjusted so that the community participates in a regular schedule Monday-Wednesday, a 12-18 hour marathon on Thursday, and then a day off on Friday?

Or, perhaps once per semester, an entire week of classes is devoted to one skill area – what would happen if our community celebrated the joy of reading with a reading week, where everyone (parents, teachers, and students) focused on nothing but reading? Workshops on speed reading, slow reading, analytic reading; book groups; EXTENDED periods of independent reading; out loud reading…Or if mathematics was the focus of our entire school for one week?

Or, optional full-day marathons during summer, winter, or spring break?

We took this approach last year when preparing students for the state math exam. 13 1/2 hours was our longest math marathon (the students participated in many 8-10 hour marathons as well). Certainly, mathematics learning grew in leaps and bounds during these sessions, but by far the greatest growth was in students’ characters – in their abilities to push themselves beyond the point they thought possible; in the breadth of experience they viewed as enjoyable; in the closeness and cohesion of the learning community to which they belonged (community through shared struggle and conquest!). It is certainly not too much to claim that our math marathons, for those students who chose to participate consistently, were personally transformative.

Gladwell seems to measure “meaningful learning” by the extent to which the connection between effort and results is obvious to students. He argues that students find academic work meaningful for much the same reason that an independent garment worker or wet rice farmer finds her work meaningful – when they are able to see a clear connection between their effort and the results of their work…when the intensity of their work is directly reflected in the “payoff” they receive. In this sense, learning marathons have an advantage over the more traditional learning schedule: Students who take part in a 10+ hour learning marathon, whether they be math, reading, writing, etc., are able to clearly see significant and immediate improvement in their understanding and skill level. Rather than plodding through a subject and experiencing often imperceivable growth, they are able to witness and celebrate their obvious leaps in understanding and achievement. One reason learning marathons are empowering is because they clearly tie work to results.

It is not a surprise, then, that quite quickly, students began to enjoy and look forward to our evening and weekend math marathons. Significantly, students did not fit the marathons into their previously existing constructs of “fun”. The marathons were certainly not enjoyable like a party is enjoyable (though we did have food, snacks, and the occasional fit of sometimes delirious group laughter). It seems clear that taking part in multiple sessions of intense and extended focus expanded our students’ spectrum of what an enjoyable human experience can be. They learned, perhaps most importantly, that extraordinarily hard work, over a long period of time, particularly when others are engaged alongside you, can be one of the most fulfilling and enjoyable of human experiences.

I wonder about a school that deliberately mixes “low-intensity” learning (the classic 60-90 minutes per day for each skill or content area) with consistent periods of intense, long-term focus on one skill, idea, or concept. I think the benefits could be extraordinary…if nothing else, our kids would not be intimidated when faced with a college term paper or with the need to read an entire college text in one weekend…they might even see such tasks as an enjoyable challenge.

A School for Ants?

school-for-ants Can we build a school for ants?

By which I mean: can we build a community in which people (both students and faculty) are deeply and meaningfully connected with one another, even to the extent of functioning together as a single organism?

This topic of eusociality (sometimes spelled “ultrasociality”) is in vogue in the evolutionary wing of the social sciences. Thinkers like E.O. Wilson and Jonathan Haidt have noted that scientists have gone down a bit of a dead end. Traditionally, they’ve tried to explain the success of Homo sapiens in terms of the features of individuals — opposable thumbs, say, or freakishly large brains.

But, suggest Wilson and Haidt, if we take a big-picture look at our species as it compares to the rest of the animal kingdom, one obvious difference is that we’re ultrasocial: unlike all but a handful of critters, we’re able to live in enormous communities which divide labor. We’re built to be social.

Our “groupishness,” these thinkers suggest, is at the core of our human nature. We are (as Russell Genet has puckishly put it) “the chimpanzees who would be ants.” (Ants, of course, have taken this path to the nth degree, so much so that entomologists kick around the notion that the community of ants itself might be itself considered a single “superorganism.”)

So, if we’re set on building a “school for humans,” trying to leverage human nature for all it’s worth, how can we capitalize on this deep aspect of human nature?

Obviously, we can’t command this into existence: community arises organically when the right people are in the right spaces doing the right things. Let’s leave the question of the “right people” (what sorts of students are we imagining when we talk about our school, anyway?) for a future discussion.

Right now, what are the right spaces? That is, how can the built environment (room design, campus design) contribute to cohesiveness? And what are the right actions? What activities can we have students and faculty doing that will encourage close-knittedness?

A few other questions —

  • Where can we look to for examples of this — what groups already do this well? (The military, for example? Sports teams? Benedictine monasteries? Prison gangs?)
  • What would be the advantages to doing this — of having a school be more than just a place folk show up to, chat with friends at, and leave? (And would there be any disadvantages?)
  • Is this sort of community good for all students?  Are there some personality types, for example, that wouldn’t benefit from being enmeshed in a close-knit community?
  • And, provided we think it good to move toward this, how will we know when we’ve achieved it? That is, how does one measure sociality?