Should schools be comfy... or the opposite?


Our power went out on Tuesday. 'Twas a wind storm — a nice, big one! — and it knocked out the powergrid for most of our town. We were reduced to the technology of a century ago.

We had to make our own light (candles), our own heat (a fire), and our own music (carols, hymns, and classic Americana sung from the ol' songbook). We cooked hamburgers on a kerosene stove that Kristin had coincidentally purchased the day before. We fell asleep in our sleeping bags, curled up around the hearth.

The kids loved it. We sorta did, too.

There's something wonderful about being uncomfortable. Flourishing and austerity are at least occasionally in cahoots.

And it's making me wonder what the role of discomfort might be in a school that prizes human well-being.

I've been noting how much our children crave extreme variation. They seem to hate perpetual moderate light — they need moments of bright light, and moments of darkness. Ditto loud sound and silence, hot and cold, and rough and smooth.

And I feel this way, too. I'm puzzling over whether how much of this is a random genetic fluke of our family, and how much it's a general human trait.

We design our buildings for comfort, and surely there's much wisdom in that. But are we missing anything? Should the physical design of a school — and the design of a school day — include discomfort?

If so, of what kinds?

How can we build in discomfort to a school for humans?

The antidote to Nature Deficit Disorder?


Scott D. Sampson believes we can cure Nature Deficit Disorder in a single generation. His plan? E.M.U.: Provide kids ample experiences in nature, come alongside them as a mentor, and help them develop understanding of how nature is knit together. Sampson quotes Jon Young, author of What the Robin Knows and founder of the Wilderness Awareness School located in — holy crum just a few miles away from my apartment! (a sure sign I'll be writing more about them in the future!) —

The antidote to Nature Deficit Disorder may be this simple: get people to spend time in nature, and when they return, be there to ask good questions and catch their stories.

That is, experience: getting kids outside, actively encountering what's around them. And mentoring: ask them to describe what they've smelled, heard, felt, and seen. And understanding: pepper them with questions that tease out their experiences into knowledge about the external world.

Helpfully, Sampson shares specific practices to flesh this out.

How can we give kids experiences in nature?

First, Sampson suggests, by giving them regular time outside. "Daily outings," he says, "are best." It's best for some of these outings to be entirely unguided wanders — let kids go where they will.

Sometimes, however, it's good to give kids suggestions as to how to pay attention. Here Sampson recommends sit spot: kids find a particular place (it needn't be picturesque), make themselves comfortable, and then... just sit!

While they're sitting, they should watch, and listen, quietly. Silence will encourage animals to come out of hiding. It'll also allow kids to pay attention to what's really going on around them: bird songs and winds and geographic features and everything else.

How can we give kids nature mentoring?

Most basically, by coming alongside them in their experiences outside. Our main job in this isn't, as adults, to tell them answers — it's to model how we ourselves value nature. Marvel about the changing leaves. Show your curiousness about the weird shapes of trees. Even gross out about spider webs!

Take the kids mapping. Tracking. Journaling. Help them learn bird language (something I've begun!).

Our job, as adult nature mentors, is also to pay attention to the kids. What are they reacting to? How are they learning best? Where are the edges of their understanding?

Finally, how can we help kids develop understanding?

Sampson has much more to say about this — look for a post on that t'morrow! — but he emphasizes that asking kids to tell about what they've experience is core.

We can help that along, too, by having them draw what they're experiencing, so they can tell about it later. Or take pictures. Or take video (although Sampson cautions that kids can become more excited by the process of taking videos than by the subject they're videoing, so be on guard here).

Reading this portion of How to Raise a Wild Child was so exciting, as someone who's obsession is helping launch a new kind of school, because we can do this — and we can help make it the norm for a large number of people!

We can do this.

What a treat.

A school for humans?

Our schools seem stuck in an odd place. Our society has the fullest understanding of Life, the Universe, and Everything that any society has ever had. And we have the best understanding of learning!

But our practices of education are trapped in the past: mired in the educational wars of a century ago.

Our problem is even stranger than that. We have curriculum in abundance: our world spills over with compelling theories, intriguing mysteries, captivating discoveries, and profound art. We live amidst epic stories, and are confronted by pulse-quickening crises.

It seems as if it should be a cinch for our schools to regularly help form the greatest naturalists, philosophers, storytellers, mathematicians, musicians, chefs, theologians, poets, artists, and anthropologists that the world has seen.

It really seems, in short, that school should be experienced as a place that's interesting.

As the educational philosopher Kieran Egan has written:

We represent the world to children as mostly known and rather dull. The opposite is the case: we are surrounded by mystery, and what we know is fascinating.

It really seems like we ought to be able to do better — to make the best schools ever.

How might that be done?

This blog brings together ideas from some far-flung places —

  • A host of competing visions for school: Montessori and Waldorf schools, classical homeschooling, radical unschooling, progressive schools, and (perhaps most of all) Imaginative Education.
  • A plethora of extra-curricular learning: outdoor education, test-prep coaching, religious formation, and music lessons.
  • A miscellany of intellectual perspectives: evolutionary psychology, behavioral economics, the history of science and math, and oh so many other things!

We're looking at how we might re-invent every aspect of schooling —

  • Subjects like history, science, math, philosophy, art, foreign language, physical education, music, engineering, and economics.
  • All ages of education, from kindergarten to high school — and beyond.
  • The physical design of classrooms, the preparation of teachers, and the basic goals of education.
  • Our fundamental beliefs about what a child is, and how they learn.

Through all this, we're attempting to start schools that cultivate Renaissance men and women — students who are fascinated with all aspects of reality, who pursue mastery in diverse realms, and who build meaningful lives.

Can a school eradicate ideological polarization?

The Problem: The Internet, you may agree, is a horrible place to learn to argue. (If you disagree, feel free to troll about in the comments section!)

The Internet has led to the proliferation of ideological tribalism. It's made it easy to demonize those whose faces we don't see, to mistrust those whose ideas are foreign (and wrong!), and to shame those who slightly differ.

In short, the Internet seems to have marked a return to some of the worst aspects of our hunter-gatherer heritage.

Of course, many corners of the Internet aren't like this at all. But adolescents, eager to believe in something (and to experience the thrill of argument), are often drawn into the worst the Net has to offer.

It's in this setting that they develop their personal beliefs. And they take some of the techniques of the Net back to offline life.

This isn't unique to any one group — it happens across the political spectrum.

What we'll try to do:

We'll aim to inculcate students in meaningful and healthy discussion of things that matter from a young age.


First, by internalizing the practices of fantastic communication — speaking honestly and kindly, interrogating ideas but not people, and seeking understanding before trying to win. We'll do this throughout the school day — in science, math, cooking, and play.

And second, by exposing kids to a wealth of intellectual diversity from a very early age. By the time they're adolescents, they'll have understood something about Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, secularism, Buddhism — and more. They'll see that there are good people in all of these, and that these religions carry helpful insights, whatever students believe about their truth value.

They'll also have understood something about political philosophies: liberalism and conservatism, socialism and fascism, libertarianism and liberation movements. They'll see that there are, again, good people in each of these, and that these ideologies carry helpful insights.

They'll be accustomed, that is, to a diversity of beliefs. And they'll see that forming their own beliefs isn't a matter of clutching to purity of opinion than of drawing from the wisdom of many people, and many ways of thinking.

Can we raise a group of kids to reason across intellectual lines? We think we can.

If you like this, you might also be interested in our practice of nonviolent communication, and our curriculum of diverse cultures.

Open questions:

Who's already doing this? Is formal debate a good tool — or a bad one — for helping children reason across ideological lines?

Physical education in our school

Our bodies are designed to move — we're African animals, built for the savannas. We now live, however, lifestyles that allow us to avoid movement. This has horrible effects for our health, our focus, and our happiness. In our school, kids will move. Our faculty will, too!

We won't segregate physical education to a class separate from the others. Rather, we'll frequently pause our lessons to move: we'll skip and run and dance, sing and yell and swing on ropes. We'll play games. We'll kick balls and throw balls. We'll leap. We'll crawl.

Kids should come home tired (a little).

We'll do this because it's good for health. (A host of childhood diseases are linked to inactivity.) We'll do this because it's good for our brains. (Thinking, it's been suggested, is the evolutionary internalization of movement: animals that don't move, don't have brains. Phy Ed builds the brain; the other classes make use of it.)

We'll do this most of all, however, because it's joyous! It feels good to use a body for the purposes it was made for.

If this strikes your fancy, you might also be interested in our school's adventures in meditation (which also build the brain), and our singing/dancing curriculum.

Our food curriculum

Food — making it, sharing it, experimenting with it — is at the heart of what humans do. Cooking defines us as a species. And yet, culturally, we've lost the need to cook: we live in a Candy Land where food is provided to us for cheap! But food is one of our richest links to the world. Food is chemistry, biology, culture, history, and community. By reclaiming food creation, and by putting it into the center of every school day, we can make our curriculum more vibrantly intellectual, and knit together a more healthy community.

What we'll do Every day, and beginning in the earliest grades, our community will make lunch together. We'll make delicious, healthy food.

We'll begin simply, slicing vegetables for fresh soups and kneading dough for fresh breads. As students master basic skills (slicing, browning, straining, waiting), we can move gradually to more complex dishes: chilis, chowders, stews, pastas, stir-frys, and so on. Gradually, we hope, all of our fifth graders will be able to cook more creatively than most college students.

As kids get older than that, we can start doing some really fun things!

Paradigm-changing chef Alice Waters wrote: Teaching kids how to feed themselves and how to live in a community responsibly is the center of an education.

Why are we doing this?

If we were just making food to eat, and to strengthen community, that might be enough.

But we won't just be making food to eat — we'll be making it to learn! At the center of our school will be a general practice of posing questions: students, bamboozled by the complexity of the world, pose and debate honest questions. There may be no better launching pad for these questions than food.

Students can ask questions about the science of food:

Why do vegetables soften when you steam them? Why does tofu brown when you fry it? Why does milk clot into butter when you shake it? Why does dough rise? Why do cucumbers pickle? Why does dough rise?

They can ask questions about food's human connection:

What is this? Who invented this? Where does this come from?

We'll be embracing culinary diversity. We'll make bisque, egg drop soup, goulash, lentil stews, miso, and pho. We'll make challah, injera, baguettes, naan, and tortillas!

Every dish has a story, and a crucial place in the big history of humanity.

Food, then, is at the heart of what our new kind of school hopes to do.

You might also be interested in: Our question-posing curriculum, our science curriculum, our human cultures curriculum.

Genius: cultivated, or unleashed?


I just stumbled upon this quote of John Taylor Gatto's:

Genius is an exceedingly common human quality, probably natural to most of us.

I love this quote, of course. Also, I hate it.

Let me give a little background.

What do the following people have in common?

Michael Faraday, Frederick Douglass, Thomas Edison, Srinivasan Ramanuja, Samuel Clemens, Abraham Lincoln, Malcolm X, Ben Franklin, George Eliot, Charles Dickens, William Herschel.

Answer: all were largely, or entirely, self-educated.

This is a trope, right? You're listening to a documentary about this-or-that brilliant thinker, and at some point the narratorial voice jumps up half a register and pronounces in this tone of mock-incredulity: "And they had little in the way of formal schooling!"

The implication being, I suppose, if only he had hung in there and completed eighth grade, the person would have discovered another planet, or won another Noble Prize, or whatever.

And we all think: yeah, sure. It's obvious that this level of world-changing brilliance didn't come from school.

But you start to read enough of these biographies, and you start to wonder whether genius comes in spite of school.

Orson Scott Card put it succinctly:

Self-education is, ultimately, the only kind that exists.

As someone starting a school, this bugs me, because I think it's to some degree right.

I've been pursuing this school idea largely with the notion that genius is something to be carefully cultivated, that schools can (as our frenemies in economics say) add value.

Again, I don't think this is wrong — but I do think there's another aspect to this.

To what extent is genius cultivated through school, and to what extent is genius unleashed on one's own?

Or, to strip the problem down: When should our school get out of the way?

Is it possible for a school — a new kind of school — to give maximum guidance and maximum freedom?

On word geekery (& vocab acquisition)


Can we make all kids into word geeks? And if can, should we? I'm a card-carrying word geek. Or I would be if we had cards for such things — as it is, the ten or so vocabulary books on my shelf probably suffice.

I'm the sort of person who exults to learn obscure terms (your acnestis, for example, is the part of your back that, when it itches, you can't reach!) and oddball word origins (to disembowel and eviscerate literally mean the same thing — bowels and viscera are both words for 'intestines', and dis- and e- both mean 'out'!).

Never trust a geek. We'll swear up and down that our particular corner of geekdom-ery is crucial — pivotal! — for every man, woman, and child. So you hear music geeks declaring that music is the core of an education, engineering geeks declaring that, no, it's engineering, and so on. Somewhere a My Little Pony geek is probably saying that American kids need to close the Twilight Sparkle gap with the Koreans.

And let me emphasize: Never trust a geek.

But: vocabulary knowledge is reading skill.

There's a hard-to-squelch belief that kids don't need to learn vocabulary — that they can just learn to use "contextual clues." The trouble with this is that it oftentimes doesn't work. Take the following sentence, from yesterday's New York Times:

In New York, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, a Democrat, who last week called for obligatorisk karantæne for health care workers returning from West Africa, sounded a more forsonende note, joining Mayor Bill de Blasio to announce financial incitamenter to encourage health professionals to go to West Africa to treat Ebola patients.

Above, I've taken a real world sentence, and translated into Danish the words that many of my high school students wouldn't know. (Thanks, Google translate!)

Can you figure out what obligatorisk, karantæne, forsonende, and incitamenter mean?

Very possibly you might be able to: my students, however, would not. (To figure it out, you might draw on your knowledge of the world — specifically, your knowledge of "the sorts of things governors are demanding of health care workers when they return from areas rife in scary, infectious diseases." Many high school students lack this knowledge. That's why they're reading this article, actually: to gain it.)

Here, by the way, is the sentence in all its Technicolor glory:

In New York, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, a Democrat, who last week called for mandatory quarantines for health care workers returning from West Africa, sounded a more conciliatory note, joining Mayor Bill de Blasio to announce financial incentives to encourage health professionals to go to West Africa to treat Ebola patients.

If the kids don't know enough words, they won't be able to understand the text. 

Foreign language learners, of course, know this. Polyglot Anthony Lauder asks what percentage of a text's words do you need to comprehend it, and cites the following:

  • 98% pleasant, free reading
  • 95% comprehensible
  • 90% serious study
  • 85% heroes only
  • 80% gibberish

(This is from his wonderful speech PolyNot. The actual quote is about 5 minutes in.)

English professor extraordinaire E.D. Hirsch suggests there's a troubling Matthew Effect at play here: a young student who knows most of the words in a text will understand the text better, and that understanding will help her make sense of the few words she doesn't know. She'll then be able to take on books with more unfamiliar vocabulary, and so on, and so on, edging upwards and forwards in linguistic complexity.

A student who doesn't start by knowing most of the words, won't. He'll be stuck.

The (verbally) rich get richer, and the (verbally) poor get poorer.


So it will benefit our students a great deal to make sure that they start with understanding a great deal of vocabulary. Much of that, of course, is in the parents court. But how can our school help students acquire vocabulary? How can we make it relatively painless — and even enjoyable?

This I'll take up in Monday's post!

A school–to–college connection?

Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going? I supped this morning with a friend, former student, and sometime reader of this blog (all delightfully wrapped into one person), so I’ll keep today’s rumination brief —

What role might college students play in our school?

There’s a lot of human capital lost in sending kids off to college. In The Nurture Assumption, Judith Rich Harris notes that traditional societies are made up of an unbroken chain of ages, and argues that each age cohort learns much from the cohort slightly older than it.

But in modern middle-class America, she notes, we break that chain, removing the 18-22 year olds from the community by packing them away to university.

As a result, the natural teachers of teens are hundreds of miles removed, and taken up with tasks that don’t relate to what teenagers are struggling with.

Might our school attempt to have some meaningful role for college kids?

I pose this riddle because I’ve lately been hatching a plan to potentially do some community-building with undergraduates.

The idea, in brief:

College is perhaps the best chance most Americans get to expand their boundaries. In college, people are supposed to put their beliefs to the test, to imagine living inside other worldviews, and to try out this whole “life of the mind” business.

I won’t say that colleges are doing a bad job of that (though some others do). Instead, I’ll just suggest (from my own experience) that they could be doing a better job.

Anti-intellectualism of various forms is present on campuses (sometimes in classrooms). Some do honestly explore neighboring ideologies and religions; many only engage them as opposing philosophies to be refuted.

A shame! Because of this, some of the best years of possible intellectual expansion are diminished.

Professors such as Gerald Graff (author of Beyond the Culture Wars: How Teaching the Conflicts Can Revitalize American Education) and Mark Edmundson (Why Read?) have argued that a more richly intellectual atmosphere can be sparked in college classrooms. May Allah bless them and keep them!

But I wonderful if the easiest route to improving this doesn’t from the classroom, but from campus student groups.

What I have in mind is a sort of “Campus Crusade for Christ” for humanists — a category I’ll here define by borrowing the first sentence in this moment’s Wikipedia entry on humanism:

Humanism is a group of philosophies and ethical perspectives which emphasize the value and agency of human beings, individually and collectively, and generally prefers individual thought and evidence (rationalism, empiricism) over established doctrine or faith (fideism).

Humanists think that human life matters, that there are pressing problems in need of solutions, and that the big questions are open for discussion.

Notably, this definition does not exclude religious believers. (In fact, the first “humanists” were Renaissance Christians — e.g. Erasmus — who rebelled against the medieval synthesis and sought to bring the Greek and Roman classics into discussion.)

Some personal history might be helpful:

I grew up an evangelical Christian, and was very active in a few campus ministry groups.

I’m no longer a Christian — another story entirely — but I still think that these groups often (though certainly not always) did an amazing job providing holistic community for students. By “holistic” I mean practical and intellectual, emotional and theoretical.

They draw together students around the existential questions of where we come from, what we are, and where we’re going.

Of course, these groups also gather people around the answers that their specific brand of religion provided. (Although I think a better way of stating this is that they gathered people around the frameworks that their denominations provided for talking through the questions. In practice, there was often much leeway in actual beliefs. In my dozen-odd-years in Christian groups of all kinds, Protestant fundamentalism included, I can attest that there was always much greater intellectual variety than detractors of religion typically assume.)

Religions shouldn’t get to keep such fun to themselves!

What I’m suggesting is a safe space for talking through these important personal and societal questions, open to people of any (and every) persuasion willing to have an open mind.

I’m suggesting a middle space between the caffeine-fueled bull sessions of dorm hallways and formal academic classes.

The group could make personal and vital what college courses treat as objective and quizzable.

While an intro to astronomy course might talk about the origin of the Universe, a campus humanist group might discuss the lingering riddles of the Big Bang, and what seemingly-mindless cosmic evolution entails for our vexing questions of meaning.

While an Anthropology 101 course might talk about the shocking array of cultural diversity (in, e.g., sexual customs) and the professional practice of cultural relativism (judging actions in another’s culture only by the culture’s own rules), a humanist student group could consider whether there are universal norms to ground our own ethics in.

While entire disciplines are wedded (sometimes implicitly, sometimes explicitly) to political worldviews — this is why economics majors and literature majors don’t often get along at parties — a campus humanist group might note all these ways of conceiving of the world, and sift carefully through them.

This group could even, in my blurred imaginings, be a safe space for crucial discussions on impossible topics — religion, philosophy, politics, culture, gender, race, and so on.

This may be a problem I work on as the years progress, and is the reason I raise the question of whether college students might play a role in our school.

Any potential connections spring to mind?