Big Spiral History begins!


Big Spiral History starts today! New to Big Spiral History (BSH)? Oh, let us explain it to you!

BSH is the framework we're using for our social studies curriculum. It's also the beating heart of our schools.

As the great Susan Wise Bauer says, "History is not a subject; history is the subject." History is the viewpoint that knits together all the other ideas and stories learned in school. It gives color and substance to everything.

If describing history class as all those things sounds weird to you, keep reading'.

The trouble (or a least trouble) with the traditional social studies curriculum is that it's not big enough.

Big Spiral History comes from my master's project, which proposed a brand-spanking-new scope and sequence to the K–12 social studies curriculum. Basically:

  • We study the whole diversity of human culture — not just America and Western Europe.
  • We study the whole of universal history — not just the modern age.

And instead of forgetting what we learn soon after we learn it (!), we loop back through all of history every four years — repeating some of the major stories from a new vantage point, and exploring details in more depth!

Through Big Spiral History, we hope to help kids achieve an understanding of life, the Universe, and everything — a perspective not even attempted in the traditional social studies framework.

This year, we'll be tackling the ancient world — from the beginning of the Universe to the time of Alexander the Great.

And to start off, we're spending a few weeks on the idea of "beginnings". This means we'll be plunging headlong into one of the hottest controversies in America — evolution vs. creation — and t'morrow I'd like to lay out why we're doing something so foolish — and how we're doing so.

Stay tuned.

In the meantime, if you'd like to see our past writings on Big Spiral History, take a look at our earlier posts on the fatal flaw in traditional social studies, one thing a new social studies should aspire to, the glories of spiraling, our basic framework (warning: it's weird!), and how to teach the past to grade schoolers.

Epic stories (independent work)


A problem:

When stories are told well, they're often told from only a single viewpoint, and told only once. Even when they're beautifully performed, they're mostly forgotten not long after.

Each story is a micro-world that students can play in.

Our basic plan:

During students' independent work time each day, they'll be invited to come to the epic story station. There, younger students will have all the props, visuals, quotes, and basic storylines. They'll be able to choose between multiple mini-projects: re-telling the story straightforwardly, or tweaking it — telling it from a first-person perspective, turning the heroes into villains, and any number of other games.

Older students will have access to all of that, and also to everything in the curriculum kits which their teacher prepared their original lessons from: they'll have quotes, primary sources, visuals, and contradictory scholarly interpretations. They'll be able to choose between all the above projects, but also some more advanced ones: dissecting the story to identify the characters' goals, conflicts, and resolutions; imagining another resolution than could have been better than the one that historically took place; and many more besides.

Our goals:

Students will develop expertise at story-telling. They'll hone their ability to empathetically take on others' points of views. They'll also accumulate a library of stories challenges — and a critical reflection on how those challenges were overcome.

If you walk into our classrooms, you might see:

Small groups of students acting out the battle between Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla, or considering alternate explanations of what the Gautama Buddha figured out when he was sitting under the bodhi tree.

Some specific questions:

  • I'm collecting clever peoples' ideas for how kids can play with stories (the above is only a partial list). Any ideas?

Epic stories (group story-telling)


A problem:

At many schools, history class is shallow facts. It's frequently dull, and students (and teachers) often avoid deep engagement with it.

This means that students grow up disconnected from the wild diversity of real men and women whose experiences could expand their visions for what their lives could be. As a species, we crave to know what other people are really like: stripped of the chance to satisfy that need in school, students satisfy it in tabloid journalism and reality TV.

There's an alternate way to explore the lives of others, one employed in every culture that's ever managed to survive more than a single generation: stories. Through stories, we can experience how interesting other people really are. A story well told is as impossible to resist as sugar when you're hungry, or as a titillating bit of gossip.

Schools, however, don't make much use of professional storytelling.

Our basic plan:

Each week, teachers tell an epic story from history — one that's totally true, and totally captivating.

The story is broken up into four episodes, to be told Monday–Thursday. Each installment ends in a cliffhanger, and each begins in a recap of everything that's happened up 'til now.

These stories are told with the help of a curriculum that we'll be making. The stories will fit into our Big Spiral History progression — we'll spend a year in the ancient world, a year of the medieval world, a year of the modern world, and a year of the contemporary world. Then we'll go back to the beginning, and re-experience history from a more considered vantage point.

Each story will be planned with Kieran Egan's Imaginative Education framework — teachers will dive deep into the history, find what's most engaging, and tell the story with help of a cultural-cognitive tool.

(The curriculum we'll develop will give teachers guidance, suggesting certain research texts, and certain ways to unpack the story. Crucially, though, each teacher will breath life into the story with regards to their own struggles, hopes, and knowledge of the student.)

Our goals:

Virtually all kids in our schools will not only enjoy history, they'll care about it. They'll imaginatively enter the lives of other people far removed from them.

If you walk into our classrooms, you might see:

A whole class of kids leaning in as the teacher unfolds the latest episode in the life of Confucius, or the Empress Theodora, or Frederick Douglass, or Steve Jobs.

Some specific questions:

  • Is there a good general course in storytelling that our teachers could work through?
  • I'd love to have a team of professional historians, and a team of professional storytellers that we could occasionally get help from. Anyone know any of those whom we might approach?

A Taste of Big Spiral History: Grade School


Enough theorizing: let's explore what we could actually do with "Big Spiral History"!

Big Spiral History in Grade School

Our first graders might start puzzling over the idea of a beginning. They'd hear (and maybe illustrate, re-tell, and act out!) a number of creation myths: that of the Ojibwe, the Sumerians, the Koreans, and so on.

We'd follow that up with our scientific origin myth, the Big Bang, and then progress onto a miscellany of wonderful, kid-friendly stuff from the past: fierce-looking armored fish, dinosaurs, pterosaurs, mammoths, saber-toothed tigers, cave paintings, mummies, Aesop's fables, Arabian and Indian myths, and Alexander the Great.

(I'm embarrassed, once again, at how compact I'm making this. There are whole worlds to explore in the pre-300 BCE slice o' pie — more than enough for a wonder-filled first grade experience. If you're noticing gaping holes — why isn't he mentioning THIS! — please forgive me.)

Second graders, picking up the story at around 300 BCE, might continue with the tales of China and Rome, Scheherazade and the Arabian Nights, knights and castles, Marco Polo, and Norse myths. There is enough of delight in these 1,800 years for us to craft a vibrantly intellectual curriculum.

Third graders, continuing at around 1500 CE, could listen to and re-tell the stories of ninjas (ninjas!), the Indian invention of the number ‘0,’ Montezuma and Cortes, Marie Antoinette, the abolitionist movement, and World Wars 1 and 2.

Fourth graders, continuing at 1945 CE, could hear and reflect on the stories of Mohandas Gandhi, Rachel Carson, and Nelson Mandela. They could relive the first scaling of Everest, the exploration of the Marianas Trench, and the Moon landing.

Fourth-graders might also go on to imagine what the future will bring. Even if they don't get particularly thoughtful at this stage — if they, say, imagine nothing more realistic than robot butlers and flying cars! —  I think that this might still be a useful experience. Just broaching the question is important. What will life be like when they’re older? What will life be like for their children and grandchildren? A Big Spiral History curriculum puts these on students' radar.

In general, then, in this introductory cycle we should teach only history’s “greatest hits” — the brightest bits of human (and cosmic) experience. Our goal is to create the historical anchors we'll return to later, and most importantly, to get the students wanting more wanting to return to these topics to expand their understanding.

But how can we teach the past to grade schoolers?

As we've mentioned before, the now-dominant model of social studies has snipped genuine history out of the early grades. It's done this because of a pernicious idea suggested in the mid-20th century: that young children simply were not able to conceive of the long-ago and far-away.

That this is not only false but ridiculous has been demonstrated repeatedly by scholars of education. It's also demonstrated every time a child picks up a book about dinosaurs or gleefully describes how Egyptians removed the Pharaoh's brain through his nose (ick!). It's a dead idea. 

But it seems good to describe how we can help students learn about the world of long-ago and far away — particularly since the answer to this question is "the Cognitive Tools of Imaginative Education!" These will play a large role in every part of our school — and, bizarrely, I haven't written about yet.

The basic idea of these tools, once again, is that the basic problem of education is getting students to connect their full minds — their thinking, their feeling, their perceiving — to something in the environment (a math problem, say, or the Declaration of the Rights of Man).

And the genius move of Imaginative Education is that this is precisely the same problem as every culture has had to solve in order to pass itself along to the next generation. The basic problem of education has already been solved. It's been solved by every successful culture over the last ten thousand years (or more).

And it's been solved by employing specific cultural–cognitive tools. Certain of these tools are perfectly suited for our youngest children. Kieran Egan calls these tools, taken together, the "Mythic Toolkit." Among them are stories, abstract binary opposites, metaphors, rhymes, jokes, puzzles, and mysteries. Let's take these one at a time.

We can teach through stories.  Stories enchant; stories captivate. We can tell real stories, of course, using information that we have access to: the tale of Tutankhamen, the tale of the Roman Empress Theodora.

We can also tell hypothetical stories about events we lack direct information about: How was the cat domesticated? How was the alphabet invented?

We can also tell silly make-believe stories that allow us to get into the daily life of the past: we can invent a team of time-traveling grade schoolers who zip back and forth through the ages on wonderful adventures. How did the explorers who first crossed the Bering Strait survive? What was life like in the time of the Buddha?

We can also teach through (get ready for a wordy phrase) abstract binary opposites. Psychologists have long noted that young children bring order to their world by dividing their experiences into opposites: hot and cold, big and little, crooked and straight. This simplifies — it makes manageable what is otherwise impossibly complex.

Ironically, if we're on the lookout for abstract binary opposites to simplify reality, we can structure our lessons to be far more complex than any textbook-driven lesson can be. Kieran Egan writes that even a single opposition like "freedom/oppression" opens up a wealth of real historical material:

"Whether at home, in their neighborhood, in the classroom, or in the school yard, children already deal with matters of freedom and oppression. To use and elaborate those concepts while learning that their world has gone through great struggles and problems analogous to their own makes simple educational sense….

[Using this, students can learn about] Greeks and the Persian Empire, or West Africans and the slave trade, or the ancient dynasties of China, or the struggles, triumphs, and disasters of men and women and communities down the ages." (The Educated Mind, p. 42-3)

We can teach through metaphors. How can students understand how long it's been since the dinosaurs died? Well, by stretching out their arms: if the Big Bang started on the tippy-tip of their left middle finger, and if time ticks on as they move to the right, then the dinosaurs died out only one third of an inch from their right-most tip.

Whoa. The world is freakin' old. 

Metaphors can do that.

We can teach through rhymes. 

The Spanish Armada met its fate In fifteen hundred eighty eight.

Or the macabre —

In sixteen hundred sixty six London burnt like rotten sticks.

Or the provocative —

In fourteen hundred ninety two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.

In fourteen hundred ninety three, Columbus stole all he could see. 

Rhymes hijack the brain: they stick with you. We can make good use of them.

We can teach through jokes. Granted: to our adult ears, many kid jokes sound truly terrible, provoking groans, if not outright pain. (Q: Why were the Dark Ages so dark? A: Because there were so many knights!) But kids often find them zany and thrilling.

We can teach through puzzles. How many parts of a buffalo could you use? How could the Inuit survive in Greenland, while the "technologically advanced" Vikings could not? How did the Egyptians build the pyramid? Similarly, we can teach through mysteries. Mysteries are puzzles whose answer is still unknown. We don't need to be obsessed with steam-rolling the world with our own understandings: we can teach an appreciation of mystery.

Egan writes:

"Too often we represent the world to students as known, and we represent their task as to accumulate the knowledge that we already have.

This is, of course, a part of education, but when we forget that our small circle of secure knowledge is bounded by a vast ocean of mystery, we make the educational task rather dull.

When we make it clear that we are engaged in a journey of discovery, surrounded by mystery, we better represent what the educational task is really like, and open up possibilities and wonder." (Learning in Depth, p. 132)

History abounds in mystery. And we can use mystery to make kids hungry for the next Big Spiral History cycle to come.

In Sum:

As a systematic treatment of the world, this first cycle certainly leaves much to be desired — but full coverage isn't what we're trying for.

The goal in these beginning grades isn’t, again, to “cover” everything, but rather to “uncover” some of the most exciting parts of the story. Our hope is to instill in students’ minds an appreciation of the epic arc of cosmic and human history and a sense of the profusion of vibrant stories that are stuffed inside them. If students in the early grades miss or forget even some large parts of the story — Sumer, perhaps, or the advent of multicellular life — all will still be well.

Kieran Egan's Mythic toolkit affords us rich historical learning filled with emotions and meaning in even the earliest grades. Filled with a developing interest in history, our students, entering fifth grade, would now begin the tale anew.

Next: Big Spiral History in Middle School

A School for Big, Spiraling History (part 4 of 5)


In my last post, I limned out ("limned" is a delightful word that means "hastily sketched," originally from the word "illuminated") the big picture of our K-12 social studies curriculum: a Big History scope and sequence in which first graders engage ancient history, second graders medieval history, third graders modern history, and fourth graders recent history (and the future). After this grand tour of all human (and universal) history, fifth graders then start back at the beginning, and take another four-year trip. And then, after two such tours, our high school freshmen will journey out a third and final time.

But I was remiss: I didn't mention the actual things they might be studying. I'll jump into that tomorrow.

To lay the foundation — and clear up some possible misunderstandings — it might be helpful to lay out the specific scope of each year. To toss around phrases like "medieval history" only gets us so far: let's see some numbers!

Here's a chart I made when I presented this curriculum at the International Big History Association's conference:

("BYA" means "billion years ago." "BCE" and "CE" mean "before the Common Era" and "Common Era," respectively — both were devised by Jewish academics who didn't want to apostatize their religion by using Christian religious terminology: AD means Anno Domini, "in the year of our Lord.")

So, to be clear, according to this plan:

students in grades 1, 5, and 9 would be studying the Big Bang to 300 BCE; students in grades 2, 6, and 10 would be studying 300 BCE to 1500 CE; students in grades 3, 7, and 11 would be studying 1500 to 1945; and students in grades 4, 8, and 12 would be studying 1945 to the present — and imagining what the future might bring.

But enough of dates! What might they actually be learning about?

We on this school-launch team, happily, are smart enough to recognize that it would be folly to try to precisely answer this right now. The precise curriculum will emerge as a duet between us and our students — and the books we read.

(The schools we need are not ones that stamp out the precise curriculum years in advance.) (Of course, they're also not ones that simply make it all up as they go along.)

We'll follow a general rule: our students will learn only about the most important, and most wonderful, things in the world. We can't afford to waste our students' time.

As it turns out, finding content that follows our rule won't be a problem. History abounds — it overflows, it hemorrhages — with exciting, captivating material: catastrophes and liberations, villains and heroes. As Susan Wise Bauer writes in one of her wonderful history books for children,

"the hardest part of writing a world history is deciding what to leave out."

Imagine: of all the things that have happened to humanity, we can ignore all but the most important 1 percent — the sliver that has had the most impact on everything else. And then, from that sliver, we can focus on the most interesting 1 percent. We get to skim the best of the best!

And following this "big spiral" model allows us some great opportunities. There's a Calvin and Hobbes that's instructive here:

The dominant social studies scope and sequence, in an attempt to be "relevant," shuts out so much of what students actually want to learn about. We can give students more of what they want!

Enough hemming and hawing. Onto the substance — or at least one hasty sketch of it!

(The image at the top, in case you're wondering, is from the Big History Project — a wonderful bringing-in of Big History to the high school curriculum. We have much to learn from them.)

A School for Big, Spiraling History (part 3 of 5)


As I wrote in my last post, a new approach to the social studies curriculum...

will attempt to overcome the tragedy of conveyor-belt knowledge: information is learned, tested, and instantaneously forgotten…

A new model must attempt, rather, to layer and complicate knowledge so students can achieve a full, complex understanding.

Taking, as we do, a Big History scope (see the last post, if you missed it!), we're especially at risk for this "tragedy of conveyor-belt knowledge." We've got nearly 14 billion years to cover — more than five thousand years of modern, urbanized human history alone! A Big History scope, laid out foolishly, could actually deliver a more shallow understanding of the world than the unfit for the 21st century model currently being practiced around North America.

But we can steer clear of this disaster. How? By sequencing Big History in a sensible way over our students' twelve years of school.

First, let's imagine what an awful sequence might look like:

  • In grade 1, students would learn about the origins of the Universe.
  • In grade 2, students would learn about the origins of the planet.
  • In grade 3, students would learn about the origins (and development) of life — fish, dinosaurs, giant ground sloths, etc.
  • In grade 4, students would learn about early foraging societies.
  • In grade 5, students would learn about ancient civilization — in Mesopotamia, China, India, and the Americas. …

And so on, and so on. You get the idea. What would be so awful about this (entirely hypothetical) sequence?

With this sequence, students would only arrive at the contemporary world in grade 12. With this sequence, students would forget nearly everything that happened previously. With this sequence, students would never connect information across time.

With this sequence, the wonderful potential of Big History would be wasted: students wouldn't cultivate a unified vision of the world.

In order to have a unified, interconnected understanding, there must be repetition of scope — though not repetition of specific information. That is, students should revisit some of the same events, people, and themes — but not slavishly rehash what they've learned before.

How often should they revisit the topics?

Well, again, let's imagine another awful sequence of Big History, but this time in the other direction:

  • In grade 1, students would learn about all of Big History.
  • In grade 2, students would learn about all of Big History.
  • In grade 3, students would learn about all of Big History.
  • In grade 4, students would learn about all of Big History.
  • In grade 5, students would learn about all of Big History. ...

And so on. With this "sequence," students would never focus on particular periods, persons, or events. They'd always and forever be flying over, skimming the surface. They'd never have the pleasure of diving into the wonderful details. This sequence would be awful of a different shade.

So: we should strike a balance.

Between first grade and senior year, students go through the whole of Big History, not once, not twice: but thrice. Each cycle consists of four years.

We're talking spiraling through human (and universal) history in three cycles, each of four years.


What could this look like?

In grades 1–4, students learn about the whole history of the Universe (focusing, always, on the human story of the last 5,000 years). The goal in this cycle is to introduce and excite the students with some of the "greatest hits" of history.

In middle school (grades 5–8), students revisit the history of the Universe. Because they've developed quite a bit of knowledge over the last four years, and because they're older, they'll bring new question and insight to their learning. The goal in this cycle is to complicate student understanding by teasing out and challenging their earlier perspectives.

In high school (grades 9–12), students revisit the history of the Universe again. Because they've been through this twice before, they'll already know more about the grand story of humanity than (we expect) do most adults. They'll be overflowing with knowledge and (if we've done this right) hungry to learn more. What they'll be wanting is the big picture — ways to fit together what they've learned.

The goal in this cycle, then, is to connect. What is the story of life, the Universe, and everything? Is the world getting worse, or better? Why have Europeans ruled the world (rather than, say, the New Guineans)? What happened before the Big Bang? What forces drive history? What might the future hold?

The final cycle, then, will focus on the big questions, and their most interesting answers.

In sum:

In our Big Spiral History model, students will explore the history of humanity (and, to a lesser extent, the Universe) in three cycles, each of four years.

Throughout, complex knowledge will grow. The particular goal of the grade school cycle, however, will be to excite students — stir their emotions. The particular goal of the middle school cycle will be complicate their understandings. The particular goal of the high school cycle will be to connect the pieces of student knowledge through big visions of how the whole world hangs together.

Shout out to Susan Wise Bauer!

Note: I need to be transparent about how much of debt I am to the historian Susan Wise Bauer, author of the beautiful guide to classical homeschooling, The Well-Trained Mind. I fell in love with her work — particularly this approach to teaching history — some years ago, and am probably more shaped by her vision of education than by anyone else's, with the notable exception of Kieran Egan.

I take from Bauer the idea of a "spiraling" approach to history (though she doesn't use that term): 4 years × 3 cycles. I've modified her approach, I think, in only three ways. First, I've changed where the story begins. She suggests that instruction start at the earliest city-states; in our school, we'll spend substantial time on the whole story, from the Big Bang on up.

Second, I (and Lee) have changed the other divisions, which I'll post on in tomorrow's post. Third, I've changed the theory behind each cycle: Dr. Bauer advocates the classical schooling approach of the Trivium — teach the facts (the "grammar") in the first cycle, the connections (the "logic") in the second cycle, and the arguments (the "rhetoric") in the third cycle. In their place, I've put excite, complicate, and connect.

Why I've done so deserves a post or three of its own (!), but in short, I've striven to marry the classical education of Susan Wise Bauer's with the Imaginative Education of Kieran Egan. Of which, more anon — in a few posts, I'll suggest how an Imaginative Education approach to Big History might be especially wonderful!

For what it's worth, I see this marriage as preserving the genius of both thinkers — though others are free to disagree!

If you'd like to learn more about Dr. Bauer's classical approach, check out her succinct explanation of the Trivium — "What Is Classical Eduction?", and poke around the rest of her wonderful website!

A School for Big, Spiraling History (part 2 of 5)


I wrote in my last post about what seems to be an insuperable problem with the now-dominant model of K-12 social studies: students graduate with a disjointed, near-sighted vision of how the world hangs together. A better model, I think, needs to attempt to do a few things differently.

First, it will attempt to be an "über-lens," giving students a clear way of understanding everything in the world (and certainly everything in the K-12 curriculum) through stories. That is, it will ground students in the big picture of life, the universe, and everything. It shouldn't focus exclusively on the West. It should, rather, be a curriculum for encountering the whole human story: West and East, North and South, modern and ancient, espresso-sippers and hunter-hunter-gatherers.

Second, it will attempt to overcome the tragedy of conveyor-belt knowledge: information is learned, tested, and immediately forgotten. (Quick — what years was the Civil War fought? No cheating!) A new model must attempt, rather, to layer and complicate knowledge so students can achieve a full, complex understanding.

Third, it will attempt to tap into the richness — the vividness, the epic-ness, and sometimes the craziness — of the human experience. It should connect students viscerally with the most wonderful successes, the most horrible disasters, the most brilliant acts of courage, and the most heinous betrayals around the world.

So: what should it look like? How do you do that? For the last few years, Lee and I have been working on a model called "Big Spiral History." We've actually written something like 80 pages on it, if memory serves, but I'll sketch out the general vision today and tomorrow.

Big Spiral History brings together three ideas which (not coincidentally!) address the three problems above.

To provide an über-lens, Big Spiral History starts at the actual beginning — the birth of the Universe. (We will, of course, primarily tell the story of the Big Bang, but we'll also talk about other creation stories: the Hebrew, and Ojibwe, and Hindu, and so forth. How we'll navigate the rapids of American beliefs about the age of the Universe is something we've given thought to, and may post on later.)

(Note: we're stealing, quite shamelessly, the whole idea of Big History from people like David Christian, author of Maps of Time, and Cynthia Stokes Brown, author of Big History: From the Big Bang to the Present. There's an entire International Big History Association, of which I'm a member. It's pretty fantastic framework for thinking about the world. If you're unacquainted with the idea, this TED talk — "The History of the Universe in 18 Minutes" — provides an excellent introduction.)

Everything — everything! — fits inside this giant story. And starting at the birth of the Universe allows us to anchor everything the students will later learn in this narrative. Our math comes from the ancient Sumerians and Greeks — let's learn their stories, and put them on our timeline! Our periodic table comes from the Russian Mendeleev — let's put him on our timeline, too! Ditto our alphabet, music, sports, favorite stories...

Starting at the birth of the Universe allows us to engage all knowledge through story.

And then we'll progress through all of history, paying especial attention to the last few thousand (and then few dozen) years. That is, the focus will very much be on the human part of the last 13.7 billion years.

In grade 1, we'll excite students with the far-distant past: the Big Bang to Alexander the Great, up to (roughly) 300 BCE. That means dinosaurs and mammoths and cave men and Aesop and mummies and myths and legends the world over.

In grade 2, we'll excite students with the Greeks, Romans, and medieval world, up to (roughly) 1500 CE. Well, that's the traditional way of phrasing it — we'll focus, too, on the other major civilizations of the period: the empires of India and China and Africa and the Americas.

(Studying and teaching Big History myself these last few years, I've been shocked to find that during some periods the West, which I had focused on nearly exclusively in high school and college, is precisely the most boring place to be: the exciting ideas and ways of life are being developed in other parts of the world.)

In grade 3, we'll excite students with the Renaissance and modern worlds — Columbus and Luther and da Vinci all the way through the world wars. Again, this is a western way of framing things — Simon Bolivar and ninjas and Sitting Bull are at least as important as da Vinci, if not more. This will cover (roughly) 1500 to 1945.

And in grade 4, we'll excite students with the world of living memory — 1945 to the present. Here we'll get to tap into the memories of family members, and hear the often-conflicting accounts of what's going on. We'll also get to imagine what the next 100 or so years might bring: flying cars? Environmental collapse? Unprecedented prosperity?

(Thinking about the future, incidentally, is a crucial skill. When it's not explicitly taught, people will still do it — they'll just do it badly, latching onto a single vision of the future that particularly excites or terrifies them.

Our students will live in the future. We might as well help them imagine multiple ways it might come to pass — good ones as well as bad ones — so they can more sagely plan their own lives.)

How we'll overcome the tragedy of conveyor-belt knowledge, and the tendency to miss connecting with the deeply human in history, is a topic I'll cover in my next post!

Oh: why the above image? I grabbed it from a short essay David Christian did, in which he argues that people crave having a place in the wider cosmos. This Van Gogh work seems to speak to that longing.

The wonderful thing is that we do have a place in the cosmos — a quite wonderful place, I've come to believe. And we can ground students in that. What a wonderful task it is to teach children...

A School for Big, Spiraling History (part 1 of 5)


My last two posts (on practical and personally-meaningful history) laid out some major goals for our social studies curriculum. How will we achieve them? By re-approaching the subject, from a very different perspective.

Before we lay out this new approach, it will be useful to observe how social studies is typically organized — what's taught, when. (The technical term for this is "scope and sequence.")

In the traditional North American scope and sequence, the first few years are given to an "expanding horizons" model. Children in kindergarten learn about families; children in first grade learn about their neighborhood; children in second grade learn about their city. And so on out, through their local states (or regions) to their country and, finally, to the world.

This "expanding horizons," I should hasten to say, does make rather elegant superficial sense. But it leads students (and adults) to have a disjointed, short-sighted understanding of the world.

The "expanding horizons" model was forged in the early 1900s, a period when a global understanding was seen as a luxury — something only required by the very elite. (When it was created, China and India really were on the other side of the world, rather than in every room of the house.)

The "expanding horizons" model was forged in a period when the cutting-edge educational psychology held that children could only conceive of the world immediately around them, and lacked the ability to make sense of the long-ago or far-away. (That this is directly contradicted every time kids play-act as medieval knights or Shogunate ninjas — or pretend to be characters from "long ago, in a galaxy far, far away" — is usually ignored!)

This model denies young children the experience of the long-ago and far-away. It denies them the chance to experience stories of real people who are very different from them. It denies them the opportunity to develop a basic picture of where we come from, who we are, and where we're going.

And then, after squandering the first half of a K-12 education on "expanding horizons," the social studies curriculum devolves into a grab-bag of randomly assembled topics, most focused on the experience of the particular nation-state the child was born into.

Here's a picture of what the now-dominant scope and sequence looks like:


Your mileage may vary — each of the 13,000+ U.S. public school districts (and 33,000+ private schools!) has the authority to do things a bit differently. That said, there's remarkable similarity across them all. The above is a composite.

(Note, for a moment, that none of this came about from the scheming of some treacherous cabal. Conspiracy theories are presently rife in education, and they're typically make-believe. The dominant scope and sequence demonstrates the tragedy of smart-sounding ideas in education — a tragedy we who propose new ideas should be intimately aware of.)

What's needed is a new scope and sequence — one that makes it easy for a class to gain a coherent picture of the whole world, an appreciation of human diversity, and a complex, adult understanding of life.

I'll sketch out how we'll do this in my next post.

A School for the Love of History

20140714-121852-44332327.jpg I wrote, in my last post, about a practical use of history: we're living in history, and we'll be at a loss to say what's happening right now (and, to some extent, incapable of making good decisions) if we don't grasp the past.

Today I'd like to talk about something different: an existential use of history. Together, these two purposes of history will set the stage for how our school will actually teach history.

But more on that in a bit. First, one of my favorite quotes.

Some context: a few years ago, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, (the highest authority in the Anglican church, and a brilliant poet and thinker to boot) Rowan Williams, was having a public conversation with the author of the (controversial) children's book The Golden Compass, Philip Pullman. (Pullman is an atheist, and his books have been accused of being anti-religious. Determining whether or not that was true was one of of the goals of the conversation.)

Near the end of their dialogue, they took questions from the audience. One man asked what they thought education should look like. Pullman responded with one of my very favorite quotes (I've actually memorized it) —

“the true end and purpose of education… has to do with helping them see that they are the true heirs and inheritors of the riches — the philosophical, the artistic, the scientific, the literary riches — of the whole world.”

Oh I love that.

Our students can participate in the full experience of the human race. They can have the richest minds in history, because they can learn from the most diverse and wonderful sources.


An excursus:

Now, there's already an educational philosophy that focuses on this: classical schooling. I won't go into classical schooling here, except to say that I love it, and want to have its babies.

(I mean that! Metaphorically, though. Part of my hope for our school is to cross-pollinate the best aspects of many approaches to schooling. The classical approach is, I think, the best, and any fans of it will see their favorite ideas popping up on this blog.)


The sort of education that Pullman (and the former archbishop) advocate is not instrumental. It's goal is not to prepare students to compete for the global jobs of the 21st century.

It's about building a self. It's about life. It's about human flourishing.

This is what we need in a history curriculum:

History for self-making. History for life. History for human flourishing.

What we need are ways to help students see that the whole human event isn't something apart from them — human life is the ocean that they themselves are swimming in, are part of, and can contribute back to. How can we achieve such a history curriculum? We'll use a whole heap of methods (some which I've been writing about, some which I will type out soon).

There's one major trick we'll use, though: we'll understand history as the subject that integrates, rather than separates.


History as additive

As it's sometimes conceived, "history" is merely what's left after we tweezer out all the good bits of humanity.

I mean: the human experience over the last 10,000 years has been a veritable jambalaya of many realms of thinking: drawing and religion and math and ethnicity and botany and economics and sociology and physics and politics and architecture and gender and war and painting and zoology and literature and film and chemistry. (And some other things I'm forgetting.)

Schools, obviously, teach quite a few of these. It's standard practice, though, to slice the whole human experience apart — to divvy it up into individual subjects, and treat them systematically.

There's wisdom in this, of course, but there's also great danger: we lose track of the subject-matter as vivid and human and (metaphorically) alive. It's as if we've drawn and quartered the K-12 curriculum, and then are surprised it's dead.

So we need some way to hold them together — to see how they're all one big human thing.

That's hard.


A better way

There are a number of attempts to do just this — to connect. Most go under the heading "interdisciplinary learning." They differ, but tend to be pretty good. I'm in favor of most the interdisciplinary curricula I've seen.

I've noted, however, that the interdisciplinary curricula I've seen tend to be short on emotions. They tend to be short on understanding how we got to this knowledge in the first place.

They tend to be short, that is, on story.

This is a tragedy, as story (as I've suggested on this blog before) may be the most powerful tool for learning — particularly when students are young.


A still better way

There is, however, a natural way of connecting everything, one that brings out the emotions and origins and stories.


Each of the academic subjects stems from the human story.

Each of the academic subjects is imbued with particular human fears and hopes.

Chemistry, thus, is history. Economics is history. Painting is history.

And so are all the rest.

They're all history, not (most assuredly not) in the sense that they should be sliced and diced themselves, scribbled out in mind-numbing prose, and randomly peppered with pointless dates (c. 1711 – 1768†). (Ack!)

Rather, these subjects are history in the sense that they're shot through with human desires, defeats, and triumphs. Each of these academic disciplines was invented to give a truer view of the world's majesty — or to solve the problems that keep us down.

Learning with an eye to history — to the underlying stories — can make learning richer.

Learning the story of chemistry (insane experiments, bizarre discoveries, perplexing mysteries) can bring you into a much deeper understanding (and love) of it than starting with the periodic table.

Learning the story of economics (horrendous injustices, best-intentioned tragedies, brilliant insights) can bring you into a much deeper understanding (and love) of it than starting with the supply-demand curve.

Learning the story of painting (vexing limitations, grand competitions, controversial innovations) can bring you into a —

Well, actually, painting might best be initially encountered through an imaginative engagement with particular works of art. (More on this anon!) But the works themselves are but the tip of the iceberg, and oh, what a fascinating iceberg it is! A world-class art curriculum will have to incorporate the stories of the artists that produced it — and the grand story that those artists are a part of.


History über alles

There's a real sense in which, as classical schooling guru Susan Wise Bauer writes,

"History, in other words, is not a subject. History is the subject."

History is everything, seen through the perspective of time.

Now, that said: this "history above all" idea shouldn't be misunderstood as "our students will only take one course, of history." That'd be unwise. Our grade school will have separate class time set apart for science, and math, and art, and (specifically) history.

But "history" will hold a special place in our curriculum: it will lay out the huge universal story that everything else grows out of.

What could this look like? That I'll present in my next post.

A School for Understanding the News

(Answer: It's the purported 5-year goal of the current Islamic State.)

Ah yes: I'm dumb. I had forgotten!

The recent incursion of ISIS into Iraq made me, once again, recognize how blindingly uninformed I am about the fundamental stories that govern the world.

The central aim of ISIS — the acronym, if you didn't know, stood for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria — was to restore the caliphate, the leadership of the international Islamic community ruled in accordance with traditional interpretations of Shari'ah law. As of June 29th, they claim success, pronouncing Caliph Ibrahim (formerly Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, a Ph.D. in Islamic Studies) the successor to the Prophet Mohammed and the leader of all Muslims. (The group has since shortened its name to the Islamic State.)

Like the rest of us, I've been listening to the radio the last couple weeks, half in shock, frankly, that the entire idea of the caliphate has (suddenly, it's foolishly seemed!) been plucked out of history books and deposited smack dab at the start of the 21st century.

I've had to remind myself of a few things. Wait, is it the Sunnis or the Shia who supported the Caliphate? And [nervous cough] which particular Islamic countries are majority Sunni, and which are majority Shia?

What's, erm, going on, again?

I'm lost. And I shouldn't be. I'm a National Merit Scholar! I graduated from an Honor's College! (I have academic degrees in History and Religious Studies, for crying out loud!)

My world-class education hasn't prepared me to understand the 21st century. 

The biologist E.O. Wilson wrote, in his recent The Social Conquest of Earth —

We have created a Star Wars civilization, with Stone Age emotions, medieval institutions, and god-like technology.

We thrash about. We are terribly confused by the mere fact of our existence, and a danger to ourselves and to the rest of life.

We're confused, that is, because we don't even begin to comprehend ourselves — and the big story of which we're a part.

We Americans — we Western moderns — are prone to imagine that the past is over. We imagine ourselves as valiantly facing the future, with our backs turned indifferently to the past.

The Greeks, I'm told, imagined things differently. They pictured humanity as facing the past — the only era we have any knowledge of — and hurtling, backwards, into the future.

Or, as William Faulkner wrote:

"The past is never dead. It's not even past."

We live in the past. We're part and parcel of the whole span of human history. We see ourselves as actors in stories that are decades, centuries, and millennia old. 

And if you don't think that way, you need to recognize that the rest of the world does

The Russian government, for example, seems to be operating as if we're in the Great Powers era of the 1800s.

For Latin Americans, current politics are intimately tied up with the last few decades of often brutal repression (subsidized by Cold War Washington).

For many African Americans (full disclosure: I'm a White guy) the centuries of slavery (followed by a century of debt peonage, followed by a half century of residential red-lining…) still bear on the present.

And let's not even go into the Israeli-Palestinian situation. Well, actually, let's! To start with, it's not as simple as Judaism vs. Islam — it's more directly tied up in more recent history (specifically, the 1940s). But neither can it be separated from the deep history of Abrahamic religions — and specifically in the story of the temple that was built under the Persian King Darius the Great.

Example after example could be given — China and the Opium Wars (that the Chinese remember them vividly and we forget them utterly is not incidental to our current military situation), Japanese pride and humiliation, and the complex swirl of humanity that is India.

And Africa. Africa! Why sub-Saharan Africa is in its current state — 1/6th of the global population, but just 1/50th of global GDP — is controversial, and intimately bound up with not just the last few decades but the last few millennia. (See Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel as an excellent entry into the conversation.)

The past is even encoded in our domestic present in ways we don't fathom. Generations removed from entering the United States, Jewish- and Irish-American populations still have disparate rates of all sorts of social measures: alcoholism, poverty, child abuse… (Full disclosure: I'm part Irish. My tribe doesn't do particularly well in this comparison!)

The past imprints itself on us. It's written deep into our personal DNA. (That's a metaphor — except when it's not.)

We can't evade the past. It has a way of popping up.

And yet: most contemporary schools have de-emphasized learning history, particularly in the early grades. "What does it matter?" I've heard educators ask. "They can always Google it." 

It would have been nice, I suppose, if before opting to "liberate" Iraq, American voters would have Googled the Sunni-Shia split, and the subsequent millennia-plus of fighting, and the last few decades of brutal oppression by secular governments in the Middle East.

But of course "Googling" something doesn't typically give you a rich understanding of it — the sort of understanding that is actually useful for living in the 21st century. 

To understand the day's news, you need to have a multifaceted understanding of the crucial sagas of the last decades, centuries, and millennia. You need to understand the old stories from multiple perspectives — the winners and the losers, the oppressors and the oppressed, the secular and the religious, the liberals and the conservatives.

We don't need historical trivia. We need historical understanding. 

We need to help our kids see themselves — and the communities of which they're a part — as historical actors.

So: how can a school bring kids toward that lofty goal — and start bringing them there starting in the earliest grades?

Obviously, we won't talk much about ISIS in primary school. But how do we lay the groundwork for understanding what's currently in the news — and what is bound to be in the news in the coming decades — as soon as students enter our school?

That is an idea I'll start to lay out in a coming post.