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?



In my last few posts, I've been sketching out a rather picquant idea: that our new-kind-of schools have all students launch social entrepreneurships. Doing so, I've been suggesting, would get students to engage in more complex thinking and more profound personal growth than, perhaps, almost anything else we can have them do. What I'd like to suggest now is something a bit different — that having students launch social entrepreneurships could lead to a deeper, more exhilarating experience of well-being than, perhaps, anything else our schools can provide.

I've written lately about how one of the major ideas behind our schools is that we can cultivate an environment that's conducive to human flourishingmuch more conducive than most schools.

The conclusions of positive psychology — the scholarly study of human well-being — need to infuse absolutely every piece of the curriculum, from recess to music to math to cooking.

But I think that our entrepreneurship curriculum could have a special place in flourishing. I think launching a social entrepreneurship can give students a chance to experience an ecstacy that is otherwise shut to them. 

Why do I think so?

Our positive emotions are responses designed to promote activities that helped our distant ancestors thrive.

Why do people get pleasure from sugar? The sugars in fruits were cheap calories. Why do people get so warm about friendship? A friend was an ally — someone who could come to your aid.

Well, moreso than almost any other, humans are the team species — we're up there near ants and honeybees. (This, by the way, is the conclusion of the great biologist E. O. Wilson, who thinks that it's our 'team-ness' that helped us conquer the world.) As Hobbes (the cartoon tiger, not the English philosopher) put it:

Your fingernails are a joke, you've got no fangs, you can't see at night, your pink hides are ridiculous, your reflexes are nil, and you don't even have tails!

Since our species' inception, we've needed teams to survive. Needed 'em! If you couldn't work as part of a team, you were as good as dead.

And so: some of our strongest positive emotions are biologically cued for intensive teamwork. 

There may be no other way to reach these heights of human flourishing.

Schools don't provide so much in the way of this, especially not in class. There are exceptions, and I'd be interested to explore them — high school sports teams, and debate teams, and perhaps band and chorus. But little of this happens in class.

School isn't typically seriously enough. Not enough is on the line. Projects aren't big enough to require the struggle and expertise of multiple people. Real people aren't being affected by the outcome.

The Yale economist (and Nobel laureate) Edmund Phelps writes (in Mass Flourishing: How Grassroots Innovation Created Jobs, Challenge, and Change) that entrepreneurship and innovation are the core of human wellbeing:

Receiving income may lead to flourishing but is not itself a form of flourishing.

A person's flourishing comes from the experience of the new:
new situations, new problems, new insights, and new ideas to develop and share.

He's critiquing economies that put too much of a focus on being comfortable, but a similar charge could be leveled against classes that see student comfort as the ultimate goal. Phelps falls sees challenge, failure, and success as the deepest roots of our joy:

Flourishing is the heart of prospering — engagement, meeting challenges, self-expression, and personal growth.

By helping kids launch social entrepreneurships, we can help them experience a deeper flourishing than they may have ever felt before.

And this can change them: as Andrew Yang writes in his book Smart People Should Build Things: How to Restore Our Culture of Achievement, Build a Path for Entrepreneurs, and Create New Jobs in America:

Over time, solving problems and building an organization that does so become addictive and second nature.

We can make this sort of joy addictive, and routine.

(Thanks to for the featured image!)

A school for sleep


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

We'll begin at a reasonable time.

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

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

We'll explore naps.

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

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

We'll schedule well.

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

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

We'll make kids tired.

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

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

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

We'll teach sleep.

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

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

Now I'm not. I was taught sleep.

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

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

We care about all those things.

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

Sleep well, think well.

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

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