Dissecting technology


A problem:

We're surrounded by machines made by human brilliance, but we don't experience them as brilliant — we experience them as alien and inhuman and infuriating.

But machinery is wonderful. It can be understood perfectly, and exploring machinery can be exhiliarating, and wonder-provoking.

Outside of shop class, schools don't do much of this.

Our basic plan:

  1. Once a month, each of our classes will pick a technology — toasters, for example.
  2. They'll make a prediction as to how the device works, and write those down (perhaps publicly, on our chalk wall.)
  3. The students will try to figure out how it works: they'll shake it, draw it, bang on it, dissect it, and probe it with questions.
  4. Those questions that elude even the class's best attempts to answer, the teacher may prepare a lesson on.
  5. They'll try to re-assemble it. They might even try to build another one, from spare parts.

Our goals:

We hope to...

  • Help students understand how the world around them works.
  • Develop a habit of thinking: how do things work?
  • Nurture a (true) conviction that our students can understand anything technical they put their minds to.

If you walk into our classrooms, you might see:

If you enter one of our classrooms, you might spy a student pressing gently on a toaster's exposed spring coils with a pencil, to see how they work. You might also stumble upon students arguing over how something works.

Some specific questions:

  • How do we, erm, prevent kids from wounding themselves? Machines can hurt. How do we want to handle safey?

A movie a week


We'll be enacting a lot of oddball ideas at our school. One of the simpler ones — and yet one I'm most excited about! — is to watch a movie together each week. What, you ask? With droves of subjects to be explored, with scads of skills to be mastered, why would we frivol away precious class time passively staring at a (gulp) screen? Can't kids do that at home? Isn't this too easy? Doesn't this go against the whole idea of the school?!

Nope! Let's explore this.

When I was in school, I often saw teachers use movies foolishly: as "treats" (they rarely were), as history lessons (they're typically terrible history!), and as (it seemed) excuses for the teachers to take breaks.

We'll use 'em much better.

Movies provoke moral questions.

Should we root against King Kong, or for him? Are the Greeks adventurers in the 1963 Jason and the Argonauts actually heroes, or are they villains? What's up with the weird xenophobia of the sheep in 1995's Babe? Should Charlie really have refused to give the Everlasting Gobstopper to Mr. Slugworth? (I mean, come on! Wonka was being a jerk!) When Indiana Jones shoots that amazing swordsman in Raiders of the Lost Ark, and you laughed, were you being a horrible human being?

Movies make it natural to probe the questions that matter.

Not that we can't do the same thing for books: we will! (Later I'll post on our reading curriculum.) But movies are wonderful fodder for this, too.

Movies allow for intergenerational conversations.

Modern media profits from splitting up the generations: making new movies and new games for each age cohort. This can make it hard to find common cultural touchstones. By bringing classic movies into the school, we can make it easier for kids to have meaningful discussions with their parents and grandparents — who have seen Mary Poppins, and Snow White, and so on.

Maybe we could even invite parents and grandparents in to join us!

Movies saturate us in foreign cultures.

French films aren't American films. Japanese films aren't French films. And Indian films are different still!

Without actually living in another country, it's hard to get a taste of a different national culture. We'll be trying to do just that in a few ways: books, food, music, art…

But film might be the most useful of these. No other media combines stories with visuals with sounds so well — no other media offers up such quantities of sheer information in such a short time.

Movies support reading comprehension.

As Daniel Willingham — the greatest educational psychologist on the scene today — writes:

You need to know more than vocabulary to read with understanding: you need knowledge of the world.

(That comes from a YouTube video he posted about reading comprehension. It's good — if you want more, check out his wondrous book, Why Don't Students Like School?)

Well: movies give knowledge of the world!

Good movies (like good books) are revelatory: they give us a peek inside the heads of other people. They show us what other lives are like — around the world, or in the past, or in our own towns.

Willingham, again from the video:

So who are "good readers"? People who know a little bit of everything, so they know something about whatever comes up on a reading test! General cultural knowledge correlates about .50 with reading comprehension test scores!!!!

(Those excessive exclamation points, incidentally, are from the distinguished professor himself. I only would've used three.)

Films give general cultural knowledge.

Movies beg for criticism.

Was a movie enjoyable, or not? Believable, or not? Biased, or not?

How did it depict men? Women? Rich people? The poor? Blacks, and Whites, and Asians, and so on? Urbanites, and country life? Religiosity? Traditional values?

What's the tacit worldview of the movie? What sort of person does the filmmaker want you to become?

We don't want our students to be mere consumers of culture: we want to help cultivate wise users. They need to get smart about the values (explicit and implicit) that they're being fed.


Movies are terribly enjoyable.

I've been sneaking around this point so far. I've talked about how movie-watching can help develop wisdom (they can communicate other cultures, and be fodder for critical reflection). And I've talked about how movie-watching can help develop mastery (in reading).

But at their heart good movies bring love. Movies — and I say this as a person who reads more books than he watches films — are some of our civilization's best story-telling. They tap into our emotions so perfectly to communicate a different vision of reality. They can help students (and faculty) fall more deeply in love with the world.

It's a crying shame that schools don't make greater use of film.

Well: ours will!

A School for Engineering (part 2 of 2)

Behold the simple lightbulb

How Our School Might Do This

1. We go slow; we go deep.

Slow learning is key here. Here's what I'll propose — I invite comments to make this better!

Every 2 weeks, we pick a single, human-made object — a computer mouse, a refrigerator, a coffee maker, a lightbulb. (Students might propose these objects, and the teacher might pick which one is most appropriate for the class.)

These should be things that kids can get their hands on (think "camera," not "septic systems").

The kids begins by asking honest questions, which the teacher writes down in a public place. If the kids were exploring a toaster, their questions might include:

Why does the inside glow red? How does the toaster know to push the bread up at the right time?

The teacher resists the urge to give answers at first. She (or he) lets the kids spend time asking these questions, and mulling over answers themselves.

She recognizes that the simple answers that come to most adult's minds — "electricity!" "a timer!" aren't likely to really be answers, but merely labels for the complex, fascinating real answers.

To answer that "electricity" makes the coils glow red isn't saying anything. It's just pasting a label on our ignorance. To answer that "a timer" makes the bread push up at the right time isn't really saying anything. It's just pasting a label on our ignorance.

We want to achieve real understanding in our school — not just the memorization of names.

After the students sit in their questions for a while...


2. The teacher dives into research.

She (or he) reads books. She visits web pages. She contacts clever people in the community. She keeps track of what she understands, and notes the things she doesn't understand.

She falls a little in love with the mechanical object, and the human ingenuity it took to devise it.

She becomes a somewhat-expert on this topic — at least insofar as her students are concerned.


3. The class has an (extended) conversation.

The learning isn't a lecture, it's a conversation. The teacher shares some of the things she's learned, in that wonderful way that doesn't shut down more questions, but rather invites them.

She uses metaphors. She tells stories. She gets them to imagine what the inside of the toaster would look like if the students were 1 millimeter tall — or if they were as small as a speck of dust.

This happens a little every day, over the course of two weeks.

As they talk, and as everyone gets more deeply into the subject, the students ask more questions. For example:

What don't the coils burn? Why don't they glow white, like a lightbulb? What is "electricity," anyway? Where does it come from? Where did electricity come from in the first place?

Formulating these questions will take kids into thinking about photons and electrons, into thinking about the whole power grid, about the conservation of energy and about the Sun's energy, and perhaps about the origin of energy in the Big Bang.

Asking these questions will take kids miles further into real scientific understanding than most schools give grade schoolers — and maybe high schoolers.

From these questions come real scientific interest and understanding — and for all kids, not just a select few.


4. We learn with our minds — and our hands.

Whenever possible, students should be able to hold, prod, and shake the objects they're learning about. If a class is talking about toasters, it should have a couple in class (preferably bought cheap, at rummage sales).

Kids should learn to handle them — safely. Ideally, we should have some that are sliced open, exposing the guts for the students to examine.


5. We expose our ignorance.

It's not just fine to admit to kids that we don't understand some of these things — it's crucial.

Epistemic humility — acknowledging when we don't know the answer — is the beginning of wisdom. It may also be the beginning of genius.

As physicist Brian Greene writes in The Elegant Universe:

Sometimes attaining the deepest familiarity with a question is our best substitute for actually having the answer.

6. Revisit the topics.

Most schools hold back on teaching the real story of things like electricity until the kids are "ready" for it. (Usually, this'll come in high school physics.)

But this is silly — and educationally disastrous. When we try to teach complex things (like electricity) all at once, we create mere poser-knowledge. We get students who can get A's on tests, but who don't know how electricity actually works — and who don't know that they don't know.

A much better route is to start exploring these phenomena when children are young, and let them rest in the mysteries of their non-understanding — learning, meanwhile, something real. As educational psychologist Jerome Bruner famously (and infamously) wrote:

any subject can be taught effectively in some intellectually honest form to any child at any stage of development.

The core topics — mass, electricity, heat, momentum, chemical transformations and so one — will pop up again and again. Reality is a natural "spiral" curriculum. 

And rich, complex understanding will come. Through the subsequent months and years, periodic insights will come, unforced. Through conversations, kids will make breakthroughs — mostly small, and sometimes big.


7. We weave engineering into the rest of the curriculum.

Mechanics is, of course, science. It's also history: what are the stories behind these inventions? how did these inventions change the world?

If technology is history, then it's also reading. And it can be art, too — drawing can be a means of understanding. One has to pay attention — pay exquisite attention — to draw.

And, by and by, our engineering curriculum will also intersect with math. Math explains reality in the most precise way.

Even before students actually use math formulas to make sense of mechanics, they'll be honing the mental habits that are all-important in deep mathematics: question-asking, seeking full understanding, considering competing explanations. Really, this can all be summed up by puzzle-unraveling. "Here is something you don't understand," we can tell students. "How might you try to get a grasp on it?"


8. We start early.

Earlier is better  — kindergarten, hopefully, and first grade at the latest. 

We need to start early, because what we're trying to form is a habit of thinking — a way of being in the world.

Lee, who sparked all this thinking in my mind, wrote:

Can you imagine what kinds of adults a civilization might have if they had spent 13 years looking at their world, thinking about it, and then actually inventing something to make it a little better?

(Lee, I'm paraphrasing you a bit here. Let me know if you'd like to change that quote.)


(A Note)

Students will differ. We shouldn't expect all students to fall in love with mechanics equally quickly, or equally deeply. People aren't blank slates, and some come into the world interested in technical things more than others.

I was pretty bored by technology as a kid, for example. I got the impression somewhere that smart kids were supposed to be fascinated in taking apart old TVs, and in putting together radios. I never was, and always felt a bit guilty. How foolish!

My four-year-old, in contrast, is obsessed by all things mechanical. He'll see a thicket of plants and ants and snakes, and comment on the rusting wrench that someone left lying there. I anticipate that when he watches the famous scene in Jurassic Park where the T-rex chases the Ford Explorer, he'll be more interested in the truck than the dinosaur. This is, frankly, weird to me, but so it goes.

That said, I'm confident that all kids — even technological innocents like me — can come to enjoy the imaginative unpacking of the technological world around them.


In brief:

We're surrounded by human creations we don't understand, and it hurts us. But schools can help all students come to comprehend, and enjoy, the world of mechanics/technology/engineering.

In our school, we'll go slowly, taking on only 2 mechanical object a month. Students will ask questions, and teachers will dive deep into learning, so as to engage in a rich conversation with the kids. Kids will actually touch, smell, and taste the things they're learning about. We'll identify the things we understand, and the things we don't — and seek to go deeper. We'll tie this into the rest of the curriculum, and start early, letting understanding build and become more complicated as kids move through school.

So now that this idea has been hatched — let's improve it. If you have an idea for how we could make this engineering curriculum better — a book we should read, or a website, or someone we should talk to — let us know. If you know of anyone who's doing something like this already — or who is doing a totally different (but excellent) early-grades mechanics curriculum — please let us know!

A School for Engineering (part 1 of 2)

Behold, the humble toaster

The problem:

We are surrounded — and confused — by technology. Those who will flourish in the 21st century are people who can understand, and revel in, machinery.

At present, few of our schools connect students to the wonder of technology.

Our schools can lead all kids into the joy of technology — even without being special "technology" schools. If they pursue this right, they also build abilities in other subjects — science, history, math, reading, writing, and thinking.

Putting engineering near the core of a school can help the entire curriculum become more vividly intellectual.


 The Possibility

Unless you're reading this off the grid in the wilds of Alaska, you're surrounded by technology.

We often complain about this: we grumble that mechanical things feel other and alien, that they feel unnatural. We want to return to simplicity, to nature. (Well, at least feel this way!)

But this is stupid. 

Technology is the creation of human minds. It's not alien to us: mechanical objects are human thoughts given form. A gasoline engine is as much a part of Homo Sapiens as a snail's shell is part of it.

Steve Jobs captured this perfectly — as usual!

Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact. And that is that everything around you that you call 'life' was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it. You can build your own things that other people can use…. Once you learn that, you'll never be the same again.

To understand the technology around you is to try on other people's minds. It's to expand yourself. Understanding technology makes us into different people: We become fuller. We sit in the driver's seat. We understand that we're not chess pieces pushed around by machinery — we can take charge of the technology.

A proper engineering curriculum, that is, brings human transformation. 

Kids should understand how toasters work. Kids should understand how computers work. Kids should understand how gasoline engines work. And so on.

Understanding the "made environment" can help students live more fully in the real world.

Engineering: The Magic Is Not Magical

If we don't understand technology, the external world looks like magic. We have no idea how things work. I discovered this recently when I asked some of my high school students how computers work.

"Hard drives," I was told. "Processors. Graphics cards." Blah, blah, blah.

No, I said, these were only the parts of a computer. What about the essentials? What makes a computer think?

They didn't understand what I was talking about. I decided to try another path.

Okay, I said. Does a computer need electricity? Could we build a computer out of, say, Legos, or wood blocks? How about even a simple computer — like a Nintendo, from the 1980s? Could you play Super Mario Brothers on a Nintendo made out of wood and metal?

The answer is yes. In fact, the first computers were entirely mechanical — made of wood and brass, and powered by hand-crank. (Side note: it's really fun to imagine how you could make a Nintendo out of such materials.)

This answer blew my students minds. They saw that they'd never understood computers before — they had thought electricity was, somehow, "magical," that it had the power to "think." In reality, the "thinking" that a Nintendo (or any computer) does comes from the organization of its pieces.

The Renaissance engineer Simon Stevin was enraptured by the ability of scientific understanding to make wondrous things. The secret, he said, was realizing that the wonder came from simple sources which could be perfectly understood. "The magic," he wrote, "is not magical."

Mechanics can be magical. The deepest wonder, though, comes from seeing magic as flowing from mechanical laws.

We need schools that use engineering as a way to encounter wonder. 


Next up: How this could actually look in our school.