A bridge between human nature... and the 22nd century?


I've been musing on this "a new kind of school" idea for a few years now, but I may have grasped the larger purpose of the idea just this week. (Finally!) It's this:

The job of schooling is to be a bridge between human nature and the needs of the future. School's purpose is to construct the traits we need out of the traits we're born with. The classroom turns our inherited attributes into the attributes we want.

To the extent to which this idea is right, it should seem obvious. Also, it should not only be true for our school, but for any school, past or present.

It might, in short, seem unhelpfully broad! But I've found it powerful, because it calls our attention to three separate concepts: human nature, the needs of the future, and the link between them.

Better yet, it suggests three fundamental tasks that anyone who seeks to create a new kind of schooling needs to accomplish.

The 22nd century?

1. We need to decide, explicitly, what kinds of goals we want our students to attain. Do we want them to exhibit stupendous creativity? Be brilliant at understanding themselves? Be able to think like economists? mathematicians? political theorists? mechanics? ecosystems biologists? Write lucidly, and reason rationally? Do we want them to give a damn? Have empathetic understandings of other cultures? Have gumption? Understand their own cognitive biases? Not fall prey to the host of cognitive biases human minds are prone to?

This requires philosophical reflection; it also (necessarily) requires future forecasting. What do we think the world will be like in twenty, and thirty, and eighty years? What skills and habits and dispositions will benefit society then?

Obviously, we've still got a ways to go before 2099 CE comes around. But I'm finding it useful to think about the job of "reinventing schooling for the 22nd century!" Maybe that's just because I'm so tired of hearing about "21st century skills." But it's also that I find it thrilling to go so big picture. And it's also because I find it humbling to recognize that, even if our schools take off as successfully as I dream, they'll still take a century to spread widely.

But most of all, it's a helpful reminder that the effects we have on our students will last a long time. A kid who's five now stands a reasonably good chance of peeking into the 22nd century. The students who join our school in its early years will (according to actuarial tables!) be almost certain to make it there.

What kind of society do we want to live in? In making a school, we're making the future — or at least implicitly trying to. Imagining our school as "a bridge to the 22nd century!" puts that on center stage.

Human nature: no, really.

But it's not enough to have goals!

2. We need to observe, with clear eyes, what traits our species comes pre-equipped with. What are we really good at? What are our limitations? What are our deep motivations? What are our cognitive oddities?

Human nature isn't simple. It's a klugey muddle, dependent on our quirky evolutionary history. Do we seek meaning? Status? Achievement? What are the things that limit us — our attention, our memory, our interests? Do we have a hard time connecting with more than 150 people? Are there aspects of our nature that we want to curtail — tribalism, self-aggrandizement? Are we natural-born procrastinators? Do we need exercise?

A good deal of educational thinking isn't grounded in a realistic appraisal of human nature. This is even true of some of the best educational thinking. The brilliant Kieran Egan, for example — and I hope he reads this, if only so my praise embarrasses him! — writes:

human beings don't have a nature. Well, that overstates it to underline a point. There are obviously regularities in human mental development, but they are so tied up with our social experience, our culture, and the kinds of intellectual tools we pick up that we can't tell whether the regularities are due to our nature, to our society, to our culture, to our intellectual tools, or what. (The Future of Education, p. 26)

This used to be the common wisdom. It's not anymore — the blooming of the sciences of human nature is one of the most exciting intellectual movements of our age. Jonathan Haidt exults:

nowadays cross-disciplinary work is flourishing, spreading out from the middle level (psychology) along bridges (or perhaps ladders) down to the physical level (for example, the field of cognitive neuroscience) and up to the sociocultural level (for example, cultural psychology). The sciences are linking up, generating cross-level coherence, and, like magic, big new ideas are beginning to emerge. (The Happiness Hypothesis, p. 227)

This new understanding is generating wonderful fruit: from how to reduce violence, to how to eat, to how to combat depression. And so many more things beside.

We can do the same with education. Our job, then, is to bring the question of school into the conversation about human nature. 

School is the bridge — or, many bridges.

Once we have a vision of what we want to get, and have an understanding of what millions of years of evolution have already given us, our task is surprisingly simple:

3. We need to find tools that help extend the traits of human nature to our goals. The beautiful thing is that many of these tools already exist: they've been in use in a diversity of schools for decades and centuries! And there's no reason we have to limit ourselves to tools created for schools, in particular — education is a grander task.

I'm writing "tools": what I mean is curriculum, practices, technology, theories, and frameworks. I mean harebrained notions. I mean tried-and-true best practices. We need to be as inclusive in our search as we can: we can survey all of human culture, and consider the tools that seem to have worked.

This step is some of what I've been doing on this blog already. We can consider Imaginative Education and JUMP Math, Anki and meditation. We can consider Socratic seminars, poetry memorization, and adventure playgrounds. We can consider art appreciation, play planning, and gamification. We can consider guided social entrepreneurship, Big History, and realistic drawing. We can consider dancing and singing.

We don't need to reinvent the wheel. We can recreate the best things that anyone has done in education, and bring them all into one place.

And this needn't be a mishmash of competing practices, because we have a framework: the human nature they already have, and the goals we want our students to attain. We just need to figure out what tools will best help them get from the one to the other.

I'll end this meditation here, and promise to pick up the topic again on Monday. There are some crucial aspects to this I haven't mentioned — who's already doing this, who's not doing this, who hates this, and who might love this.

I'll also suggest some unexpected advantages that might come from making this our big framework as to what goes into our new kind of school!

One thing I haven't done a good job of, though, is giving any sign that I recognize how controversial a lot of this is. Oh, I do and maybe love the framework even more for that! (A personal failing, I'll agree!)

Please do feel free to criticize (kindly, of course) in the comment boxes — in so doing, you'll be helping out our future school!

What do grades DO?


Monday's post on grades may have been the most popular post yet, and I'd like to follow it up with some questions and answers I've gotten about grades, and our future school's use of 'em!

Q: What do grades actually do?

A: The most challenging comment that anyone made on the last post's Facebook conversation was this, by Angie:

The objective of schooling is for the child to learn to the best of their individual ability. Grades are pointless and detrimental.

It was funny: I read this and sort of internally rolled my eyes (forgive me, Angie!). This was the sort of simplistic take on grades (I reckoned) that I thought I had already worked past. Obviously (I assumed) there is a purpose to grades. Obviously they're not purely detrimental. And that purpose was...

And then I plumbed my head for ideas. And then I drew a blank. (Like I said: it was funny!)

So thank you, Angie, for throwing down the gauntlet! But upon further reflection, I can see some purposes that grades at least thrust toward — sort of strike a glancing blow toward, even if they don't land a solid hit.

  • Grades pass along information to parents as to how their son or daughter is doing in various subjects. This strikes me as important, even if there are other ways (perhaps better) to pass along this information.
  • Grades pass along information to colleges as to how the student did. For high schoolers, this is crucial. I teach at a school that shuns grades in favor of narrative evaluations. That is, at year's end instead of slapping a 'B' on a student, I write a paragraph expressing concisely the strengths and weaknesses of their performance. The trouble is, we know that college admissions folk are going to skim the evaluations, and mentally convert them into letter grades. They have to: their job is to weigh kids against one another. Like it or hate it, we in K-12 schooling are stuck inside this system, and schools need to help high schoolers through it. Letter grades do this efficiently, if inelegantly.

I'm not, let me emphasize, saying that we should have letter grades, just that these are some purposes that they do seem to serve.

We should focus on one more purpose — the major purpose of grades — with especially care:

  • Grades motivate students.

Or maybe I should write: Grades "motivate" students. As I wrote on Monday, the motivation here is typically garbage motivation. The "better" students (an icky term, here meaning students who tend to get higher grades) really will be motivated, but only to achieve a grade. Grades don't draw people into being historians, or mathematicians, or philosophers, or physicists, or artists. Grades are goal displacement. 

For a school that will aim first and foremost for love, this is a serious threat. I've heard it said of homeschooling that if you ask a homeschooled student what their favorite subject is, they'll respond "I like math" or "I like chemistry" or whatever. But if you ask a public or private schooled student what their favorite subject is, they'll respond, "I'm good at math" or "I'm good at chemistry."

In that slight change of words is a world of difference. (I don't know if this is generally, statistically, true, but I've found that it nicely comports to my experiences of the homeschool community.)

Anyhow, that's the problem for high-achieving students. Perhaps just as many will be demotivated by grades. A student who starts slipping from 'A's to 'D's in math is likely to interpret this as a judgment not just on her recent performance but as a judgment on herself. (Grades, for many of us, feel that way.) Initially she may feel it as a slap across the face, but when she gathers her wits she may see, quite clearly, that she has two choices:

  1. She can keep valuing school. She can persist in seeing herself as an 'A' student, work very, very hard, and not only re-learn the math she's missed but excel at the new math coming up.
  2. Or, she can move school out of her value world. She can retain her self-esteem, but now get it as someone who rebels against school. (Our culture: we're suckers for rebels!)

Many students fall into the second camp. And no wonder — for short-sighted students (which is to say, almost all of us!) it's the rational move.

To sum up, then: when grades succeed in motivating, they do so by pulling students away from the actual content/skills they're measuring. And that's the best-case scenario: oftentimes, grades demotivate.

Personal aside: I'm thankful that grades have rarely had much of an effect on me. I still don't actually know what my GPA ended up being in graduate school. This is admittedly a privileged position: 'A's have come easily enough that I've never feared not passing, either a specific class or a more general program.

Hmm — I wonder how much of my love of learning is tied up in my having not cared about grades throughout my life. Hmm.

It will, I think, be a great service we provide our students if we can get them addicted to learning without getting them addicted to grades.

Q: So is the worst thing about grades that they tell students they're not doing so well?

A: I actually might suggest that this could be one of the best things about grades — so long as the grades then motivate students to improve, rather than to mentally check out of the program.

To explain this, I need to explain what I think might be one of the secret purposes (or at least benefits) of letter grades: It's no fun to tell a student they stink at something.

Teachers: mostly kind, compassionate folk. We want to be encouraging. We love telling kids they're doing just wonderfully — particularly when they are, but (and this is a personal confession) also sometimes when they're not.

And then the end of the quarter swings around, and it comes time to write up a formal evaluation of the student. It's relatively easy to give a kid a 'C'. It's relatively horrendous to write a paragraph informing a kid they're studying lazily, joking around in class, and, when actually working, don't really seem to... care.

This is a great difficulty with narrative evaluations: it's tempting to slough off the criticism. And so we can sneak away from saying hard truths, and make everything the child hears about himself just rosy.

This is disrespectful of a child.

I'll limn this out: It is not respectful of a child to hide their struggles from them. (Remember that we, as adults who have been through this school thing before, can oftentimes see their struggles more clearly than students can.) It's not respectful of a child to weave them into a cocoon of super-niceness which they'll acclimate to, and then upon leaving experience anxiety.

In fact, it may be cruel to a child.

The Atlantic article, "How to Land Your Kids in Therapy: Why the obsession with our kids’ happiness may be dooming them to unhappy adulthoods. A therapist and mother reports" is required reading for anyone interested in this question.

Schools have special access to students for 13 formative years. One goal, I'll suggest, of those years should be to help kids become used to honest criticism — to raise children and adolescents who actually seek out honest evaluations, warts and all, and who are dissatisfied with evaluations that pull punches.

If this sounds cruel, I'm failing at explaining it!

Yesterday I stated that I think both extremes of the internal/external motivation debate are silly. But if you call "internal" motivation your home, if your goal is to help students understand that they shouldn't judge their own worth by the evaluations of others, if your hope is to instill truly self-esteem, then you should see that this goal can be better met by guiding kids through difficulty than by avoiding it. 

It's only after kids experience the pangs of "oh, I didn't do well at this history project" that they can separate what they're doing externally from how they're doing internally.

I think our school can achieve this. And I think it might be one of the more life-transforming things we give kids. Can you imagine that — being okay with criticism? How much easier my own life would be...

But this goal is not particularly helped with letter grades, which (1) are typically interpreted as judgments of the person rather than of the performance, (2) come too seldom, (3) lack information on where the real problems lie, (4) lack advice on how to improve, and (5) are monologues, rather than dialogues.

We can forge a better way. But we'll only be able to do so if we understand what real purposes grades are attempting to fill.

Can a (new kind of) school change the world?


I'm obsessed with societal collapse. Economic inequality? Cultural dissolution? Systemic poverty? Environmental degradation? Substance abuse? The depression epidemic? Racial unrest? Ideological polarization? These are the topics that keep me up at night.

Though: I'm not despondent about these. Not only is there hope — I think our society is even making important progress on some of these fronts, progress that goes largely unrecognized in the media.

But a good outcome isn't a foregone conclusion. We live in the middle of a story whose ending is still up for grabs. From my vantage point, it's reasonable to expect that we'll screw the whole thing up (and take half the biosphere with us) and, at the same time, reasonable to expect that we'll get society right (and create a world truly worthy of Homo sapiens).

And I'm obsessed about figuring out how we can move away from the bad ending, and toward the good one.

I say this because lately I've realized that almost no one knows this about me. (Not my friends; not even my wife! That was an intriguing conversation.)

And I say it because, at some level, my goals for this school — this new kind of school — are bound up with these questions.

Can a school — a new kind of school — help mend the world?

Not save the world, mind you. Save is all-or-nothing. Mend is a more realistic goal. Mend allows us to count half-steps, allows us to take pride in making improvements at any scale, allows us to work with others.

So: can it?

Three possible routes

Obviously, this question of "can a school mend the world?" is an old one. It's what launched the common school movement in the mid 1800s, what launched Dewey's Progressive movement in the early 1900s, what launched Maria Montessori's and Rudolf Steiner's schools in the mid-1900s.

I can count (at least) three routes that people have pursued as to how a type of schooling can do this. The first — ideological indoctrination — I think misguided (and entirely inappropriate for our school). The second two — developing skills and cultivating understanding — I think promising (and entirely fitting).

Route #1: Ideological take-over of society? Nah.

There's a famous essay — well, famous among historians of American education! — that advocates that schools be ideologically-charged: that they communicate the true view of the world and radicalize the students, who will then go on to launch the revolution that will change society.

(It's funny: the author I'm thinking of was a Communist, but what I just wrote could equally well describe any number of Republican or Democratic writers currently writing about education.)

The author was George Counts, a previous partner of John Dewey who, in the midst of the Great Depression penned the pamphlet "Dare the School Build a New Social Order?"

I love the chutzpah of the pamphlet. Heck, I love the chutzpah of just the title! (I bet George Counts' wife knew where he stood on mending the world!)

It's a short piece. If you haven't read it before, and have yet to fulfill your doctor's daily recommended dosage of fiery midcentury call-to-revolution rhetoric, can I suggest you take a skim through it?

Counts argues that schools should help bring about the socialist revolution:

If Progressive Education is to be genuinely progressive, it must... face squarely and courageously every social issue, come to grips with life in all its stark reality, establish an organic relation with the community, develop a realistic and comprehensive theory of welfare, fashion a compelling and challenging vision of human destiny, and become less frightened than it is today at the bogies of imposition and indoctrination.

This is the moment I probably should make something clear: George Counts was a Communist, and I'm not. (Though, oddly, I'm wearing this Communist Party t-shirt right now! In my defense, it was still dark when I picked my clothes this morning.)

George Counts, of course, failed in his attempt to make the teaching profession an extension of the Communist Party. And in retrospect, it's almost impossible to imagine he could have succeeded. Politics follows Newton's Third Law of Motion:

For any action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

If well-meaning people on the Left try to bend schools to their will, then well-meaning people on the Right will step in to thwart them. And if well-meaning people on the Right try to do the same, then well-meaning people on the Left will step in.

George Counts' mistake was thinking that the schools could stand outside the rest of American society — that they could influence without being influenced (except by him!).

Mending the world by ideologically charging the schools: a losing game.

Route #2: Building skills? Yes.

But there are other routes to mending the world: one is by building crazy-mad skill.

I'm teaching a high school course in moral economics this year, and this week we've talked about human capital. "Human capital" is a term from economics, invented when economists started taking seriously that the resources that lead to economic well-being aren't just oil and machines and large stacks of bills: they include the grand sum of skill, natural talent, knowledge, experience, intelligence, judgement, and wisdom that reside inside people and contribute to their ability to make a living.

Human capital, to be clear, is a very expansive idea. Sci-fi author Robert Heinlein once wrote:

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

All of these, even, fit cheerfully within "human capital." (In fact, one of the primary criticisms of the concept is that it's too inclusive, but that's a different topic.)

Why do we care about this? Because human capital is one of answers to the question "why are some people more successful than others?"

Charles Wheelan, a professor of public policy at Dartmouth, writes in Naked Economics:

True, people are poor in America because they cannot find good jobs. But that is the symptom, not the illness. The underlying problem is a lack of skills, or human capital. The poverty rate for high school dropouts in America is 12 times the poverty rate for college graduates. Why is India one of the poorest countries in the world? Primarily because 35 percent of the population is illiterate.

Now: this isn't the whole story. Poverty is a complex beast, and it has more causes than a dearth of human capital: systematic racism, classism, sexism, and so on. But human capital explains a crucial part of what holds some people back (and allows others to leap ahead).

The wonderful thing, of course, is that schools do provide human capital: reading, writing, math, and so on. The terrible thing is that they seem to not do it particularly well.

Take reading. Diane McGuinness unpacks a research finding, in Why Our Children Can't Read (And What We Can Do about It)

about 17 percent of working adults, thirty-three million people, are both well educated and sufficiently literate to work effectively in a complex technological world. We are dooming the vast majority of Americans to be second-class citizens. 

And E.D. Hirsch writes, in The Knowledge Deficit:

Reading proficiency… is rightly called "the new civil rights frontier."

There's a defensiveness that can pop up when people criticize schools. To be clear, I'm not criticizing public schools in particular: it's been demonstrated that private schools don't do a much better job.

There's also a defensiveness that can pop up when people suggest that people in poverty lack skills — the idea can appear to people as "blaming the victim." But does anyone really want to argue that children born into intergenerational poverty wouldn't benefit from reading much better, from excelling at math and science and computer programming and everything else?

A new kind of schooling can deliver human capital. Heck, we can develop superpowers — recall that this is Big Goal Number Two of our school! And we can do so without stirring up the ire of the political Left and Right, the way ideologically-charge interventions do.

We can empower people — especially marginalized populations. We can help people read well, write well, and think well. And by doing so, we can help mend the world. 

Charles Wheelan again, citing Marvin Zonis:

Complexity will be the hallmark of our age. The demand everywhere will be for ever higher levels of human capital. The countries that get that right, the companies that understand how to mobilize and apply that human capital, and the schools that produce it… will be the big winners of our age.

I'm not concerned with our schools being "winners" of our age. I'm obsessed with cultivating children and adolescents who have the capacity to win for themselves, and for others.

And we can do this.

Route #3: Expanding understanding? Oh yes.

There's one more route, I think, that a new kind of school can take to helping mend the world: expanding comprehension about how the world really works.

On this blog, I've been concentrating on describing our vision for elementary school, because that's what we'll be opening with in 2016. Our high school program is a decade out — we'll be growing the school organically with our opening classes of kids.

But boy, am I excited to be starting a high school.

I'm a high school teacher, and I love my job precisely because I get to spend my days peeking into how the world hangs together. A stranger, looking over a list of the social science courses I teach, might be confused —

  • Moral Economics
  • Evil
  • Happiness
  • Philosophical Worldviews
  • World Religions
  • Political Ideologies
  • The Next 50 Years
  • Ancient History
  • Moral Controversies in American History

The thing that connects them is my obsession with how society works. Why can we explore space but still have poverty? Why do some people behave horrifically to others? What is the good life? How do ideas drive society? Where is technology taking us? Where do we come from? And so on.

Many students don't get the opportunity to deliberate on these compelling questions in school. Most schools aren't designed to reflect on issues like these every single day. Most schools aren't designed to help students ask probing questions, identify and overcome their biases, and develop hard-won wisdom.

Ours can be! (In fact, this is our school's Big Idea Number Three.)

The thing to keep in mind is that mending the world is possible. We know that, because we've seen it.

Steven Pinker's recent book on how some things (especially rates of violence) really have been getting better — The Better Angels of Our Nature — helped convince me of this. From that he wrote a short essay, "A Two-Minute Case for Optimism," that appeared on (and I love this) Chipolte bags. The essay concludes:

“Better” does not mean “perfect.” Too many people still live in misery and die prematurely, and new challenges, such as climate change, confront us. But measuring the progress we’ve made in the past emboldens us to strive for more in the future. Problems that look hopeless may not be; human ingenuity can chip away at them. We will never have a perfect world, but it’s not romantic or naïve to work toward a better one.

We can have a better world. To some degree, every school everywhere — every teacher who teaches — is already creating this world.

Our school can be part of that effort.

The true heirs and inheritors...


I'm traveling today — a wedding in the wilds of North Dakota! — but I've been saving this quote for just such an occasion. It's from controversial children's author Philip Pullman, and it came at the end of a long conversation about religion with the then-Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams. Pullman is an atheist, and Williams is — well, a one-time Archbishop of Canterbury! And someone from the audience asked Pullman how he would recommend children develop spirituality.

Again, Pullman is an atheist.

And he responded beautifully:

I don't use the word 'spiritual' myself, because I don't have a clear sense of what it means. But I think it depends on your view of education:

whether you think that the true end and purpose of education is to help children grow up, compete and face the economic challenges of a global environment that we're going to face in the 21st century, or whether you think it's 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.

If you believe in setting children's minds alive and ablaze with excitement and passion or whether it's a matter of filling them with facts and testing on them. It depends on your vision of education - and I know which one I'd go for.

To which Williams replied:

I think we're entirely at one on that, I must say.

"The true heirs and inheritors of the riches… of the whole world."

Yes: that. 

That's what this school is about.

Philosophy? For Children?


How can our school bring in the big questions — down into the very earliest grades?

I had an interesting experience yesterday. I had volunteered to teach Unitarian Sunday School for middle schoolers — all boys. When I walked into the room, the kids were running wild, and the assistant leader and I had an impossible time corralling them (though maybe you already knew that when I said "middle schoolers — all boys"!). There was rocking in chairs, there was loud talking, there was perambulating throughout the room...

And then I asked them when (if ever) it was okay to kill.

It was as if the boys' attentions were iron filings, and I had just held up a neodymium magnet. Everyone's eyes were on me. The side conversations continued — increased? — but now on the topic of murder.

I fake-apologized to them (again) for my ADHD, and told them that I simply couldn't make sense of out-of-turns talking. The side conversation snuffed out; hands were raised. Clay Shirky's wonderful line, discussed in an earlier post, rang more true than ever:

Regarding teaching as a shared struggle changes the nature of the classroom. It’s not me demanding that they focus — it’s me and them working together to help defend their precious focus against outside distractions.

And then, for the next hour or so, we carefully discussed when, if ever, it's okay to kill.

We didn't reach any conclusions (though I would have been happy to acknowledge if we did). But everyone's thinking was nudged along — often into uncomfortable places!

One student initially said it was okay to kill if you were part of the military.

What, I asked, made killing in the military right, but killing outside the military wrong?

Well (the student confabulated) it was because it's legal in the military. You're killing for a country.

If the dozen of us started our own country, right here, right now, I asked, and christened ourselves the military — would that make it okay for us to kill Canadians?

Um, he said. No.

Someone else chimed in: because we wouldn't be killing for a reason! And it can't just be your own reason: it has to be a reason that someone else gives you.

Another student pointed out that that would legalize all hit men everywhere.

Crap, the student responded.

And on and on we went. There's a name for this, of course — Socratic dialogue.

Teaching Socratic dialogue to kids — doing Socratic dialogue with kids — is, delightfully, a grassroots movement throughout the country. (Search for "Philosophy for Children" on Amazon if you're interested.) And everywhere it's performed, it seems to be performed differently.

A common way — one I learned from the good people at the University of Washington Center for Philosophy for Children — is to have kids read a book, and then ask their own questions.  They told the story of coming to a classroom (the group both trains teachers and does drop-in dialogues themselves) where the students had just finished reading Frog and Toad. They had been prepared for the kids to ask about friendship (a major theme in the book), but were surprised when the kids wanted to talk about, instead, courage.

Very well! they decided. Let's talk about courage!

And then they embarked on a short-but-thick conversation about what real courage is. Is courage necessarily good? Do we want to be courageous? 

Beautiful. Just wonderful.

A lot of the fun in making a new sort of schooling is the stealing. We steal ideas/practices from other schools, and we improve 'em.

I don't think we can do that here. Socratic dialogue was done pretty darn well by Socrates and Plato. Any kinks in it, I suspect, were worked out over the last twenty four centuries of its use. So we're not looking to improve Socratic dialogue.

What we can do, though, is give it a more central role than it usually gets in schools. One way to say that: you'll never see "Philosophy for Children" (or "Socratic Dialogue") on our daily schedule: it will just be how we deal with questions of all sorts, and history and literature and art of all kinds.

Oh, we'll do other things with books, too! We'll re-enact them, visualize them in detail… we'll feel them. But we'll also, regularly, use them as fodder for our own puzzling out about life.

It may seem… unmannerly?... to use classic books (like Frog and Toad!) as mere "fodder" for discussion. But that's precisely why people write books: to explore ideas like these. What is the good life? What is wrong, and how do we decide what's wrong? What kind of society do we want to live in? What kind of people do we want to become?

People sometimes go to college and major in philosophy to discuss questions like these. (I did! Well: religious studies. Not all that different.) But it's a stupid educational system that puts those questions off until college. (Stupid and anti-human, I'll suggest!)

We can lead kids into these conversations — starting when they're in grade school.

(For more on how we want to make this not just a school of hippy free-spiriting and test-prep, check out our post on wisdom — number three of our big three goals.)

On fires (metaphorical)

Novelist, playwright, philosopher, and MacArthur genius Rebecca Goldstein has just written one of the most insightful books on education you'll ever read — and almost no one in education is talking about it.

Probably that's because it's not "about" education — it's about Platonic philosophy.

Except that means it is about education.

Goldstein's Plato spends much of the book talking about the essence of learning, and teaching. His major metaphor: fire.

The fire for the subject and the fire for the teacher are intermingled in the receptive student. 

It’s only by proximity to the beloved teacher,
himself or herself on fire with love for the subject,
that the fire can leap over and be kindled in the student
in a self-generating blaze of understanding.

I love this. Goldstein hurls the twenty-four-hundred-year-old Plato into our modern educational wars, which idiotically insist we pick one: teacher-centered (Reformists) or student-centered (Constructivists) or subject-centered (Traditionalists).

Education, Goldstein's Plato tells us, is precisely the intermingling of all three: teacher and student and content.

And the thing that binds them together? Love.

Plato, in Goldstein's telling, puts love at the center of education.

The subject? Worthy of love. The teacher? In love with the subject — and with the students. The students? In love with the teacher — and hence with the subject.

The love is fire: it blazes, it leaps.

Can you imagine this — schools where more-or-less everyone is on fire for what they're studying? Can you imagine anything more likely to nurture the students who can mend the world? Can you imagine anything further from the schools we currently have?

I can't. But it's what I'm excited to devote the rest of my life toward cultivating.

Oh: the book is Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won't Go Away, and it can be found at most Barnes and Noble's. Read it — especially the fourth chapter. Happy holiday shopping!

(For an earlier post on love, check out "Our Trinity #1: Love".)

Blessed are the sense makers


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

Be a sense maker.

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

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

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

Blessed are the sense makers.

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

This is an ever-present danger.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

The universe makes sense. 

When you ask a question, you find an answer.

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

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

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

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

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

What if Zheng He had made it to America?

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

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

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

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

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

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

A new metaphor: plant knowledge


One of the things I struggle to explain to people — particularly to other educators — is the utter centrality of knowledge in thinking.

We think about things, but we also think with things. Brilliance, wisdom, creativity — all these come from having learned about the external world. When we learn, we internalize — we take what's outside us, and re-create them inside us. 

This is knowledge.

Knowledge is the re-creation of the external world inside our own cranial jelly.

This seems straightforward — and yet. The troublesome thing is that, for a hundred years or more, a crucial contingent of educational thinking has stood against teaching information.

As an unfortunate-but-typical example, take Maria Montessori. Montessori truly was an educational visionary; I'm still playing catch-up to her insights. And yet she displayed her own brand of anti-knowledge:

Education should no longer be mostly imparting knowledge, but must take a new path, seeking the release of human potentials.

Note that there's something true, beautiful, and good about this quote: education should be (must be!) about the development of human potential. 

The error comes when developing potential is seen as opposing imparting knowledge.

Gaining knowledge is the quintessential way of developing potential — at least, it is for humans. (Bears, maybe, would develop potential in other ways — eating more salmon and blackberries.)

If we move away from imparting knowledge, we'll move away from a more human education.


And yet — when educators speak against "knowledge acquisition" as the goal for an education, they really are saying something true and beautiful and good.

What they're worried about is a method of schooling that sees children as nothing more than computer hard disks to be filled up with data. This truly is an anti-human education. But moving toward the opposite extreme is little better.

Our idea for a new type of schooling is about knowledge — deep knowledge. That's implicit in our trinity of goals: love, mastery, and wisdom.

As St. Augustine noted, "You cannot love what you do not know; you cannot know what you do not love." As cognitive psychologists have demonstrated, expertise is a type of knowledge. And as philosophic traditions the world over have long understood, living rightly derives from a knowledge of what the world is like — the word "wisdom" even comes from the Proto-Indo European root meaning "to know."

There's long been an educational battle between the pro-knowledge and knowledge-skeptical camps. It's not going away. We don't need to identify with the pro-knowledge camp: it's been misunderstood by the other side for too long.

Rather, what we need to do is open up a third way between them. We need to work out how to talk about the glories of knowledge acquisition done rightly, and the evils of knowledge acquisition done wrongly. We need to figure out which metaphors and verbiage and stories show people how wonderful knowledge can be, and how essential it is to developing love, mastery, and wisdom.

This is an important task for our movement: schooling won't be able to lead kids toward genius, toward wisdom, toward creativity until someone figures out how to make knowledge attractive again.


I'm working on this, but here's my conception for now: use an organic metaphor. 

Instead of memorizing material, or acquiring information, we might talk about planting ideas. 

Planting stories. 

Planting knowledge.

This can take us into a nuanced understanding of the plusses and minuses of storing information internally, rather than externally. The splendid educational writer Annie Murphy Paul (whom everyone should be reading) writes about a recent division made by philosophers on the differences between "O-memory" (organic memory: your brain) and "E-memory" (electronic memory: your smart phone). 

Her brief article brilliantly takes us beyond the well-worn education turf battle. She writes:

With our computers, we can search, store, and check. With our minds, we can browse, elaborate and reflect.

Each memory system, that is, has its advantages. We should use both:

If we make note of an upcoming appointment in our smartphone, its digital calendar won’t misremember the date or time, as our all-too-fallible brains are apt to do. On the other hand, if we enter the germ of an idea in our phone’s note-taking app, we won’t return after a busy weekend or a good night’s sleep to find that the idea has grown new connections and layers of meaning, as an idea planted in our organic memory is likely to do.

(Thanks for the metaphor, Annie!) 


How to Talk "Imaginative Education" (to People Who Only Want to Hear "Brain Science")

This is you (no, really)
This is you (no, really)

I've lagged in posting because, for the last week, I've been consumed with preparing (and giving) a speech for the 2014 Imaginative Education Conference, held in beautiful Vancouver, British Columbia. Its title: How to Talk 'IE' to Someone Who Only Wants to Hear 'Brain Science.'

It tackled a fairly serious problem I've had: I know IE, I love IE — and yet it's been very difficult to talk about. The standard way of presenting it (starting with the concept of cultural–cognitive toolkits) tends to befuddle people from the get-go.

That's tragic, as IE is (I think) an unbelievably powerful idea — maybe the most powerful in education today. 

And, at its root, it's a rather simple idea, as well.

That, at least, is what I suggested in my conference talk. I've re-recorded the talk, and I'll be posting it (in chunks) over the next couple days.

Here's the first part:

Part two:

Part three:

And, finally, part four:


I'd love (love love LOVE) feedback on the talk.

Oh, hold up — if you don't know anything about IE (Imaginative Education, that is), don't worry. The video shall explain all.

I haven't written much about IE lately, which is, frankly, weird — I see IE as being the beating heart of our school, particularly in the early grades. (In the triad of love—mastery—insight, IE is the tool that enables us to nail love.)

One of my (myriad) hopes for our school is that it can be a sort of flag for the educational world on how powerful IE is in crafting a curriculum that matters — that draws in all aspects of a students cognition, particularly their emotions.

If you like this video, let me know — I'd be interested in tweaking it to explain IE to an audience who's never heard of it. And then maybe releasing it as a series of quite short videos.

Our Trinity, #3: Wisdom

wilsonwilson Our trinity of goals for our school begins with love and progresses, in middle school, to masteryOur third goal — reaching its apex in the high school curriculum, but present at all grades — is wisdom.

If, by the time our students are entering ninth grade, a majority of them (1) love science and history and literature and math and everything, and (2) are accustomed to pursuing mastery, then we have to ask ourselves: where the hell can we take them next?

One common answer (popular at both public and private schools) is "college prep."

I think this answer, though definitely well-intentioned, is positively daft. At best, this answer kicks the question down the road: what is it about college, specifically, that's worthy of prepping for? Job success? Social status? Philosophical insight? Happiness?

However we answer that, it makes more sense to pursue that goal in high school. (Why wait?)

At worst, though, the "college prep" approach runs the danger of degrading high school — turning the four years that could be a marvelous capstone to a rich K-8 education into a bureaucratic checking of boxes, in which the highest goal becomes obtaining a good GPA and amassing college credits.

Ack: anti-human nonsense. 

Tutoring college entrance tests, I see this attitude all the time, from students and families at even some of the best schools. It's disheartening. Which isn't to say that a lot of good learning doesn't happen along the way, just that the goal itself doesn't help ensure the good learning (and can even get in the way of it).

So what's our answer?

What should we do when working with these crazy-wonderful students, who love knowledge and pursue mastery?

I think the answer is easy: explore deeply how to increase human flourishing, both for themselves and for the world as a whole. I'll use the word wisdom to encapsulate this goal. Pursuing wisdom in this fashion will take us more fully into a vividly intellectual curriculum than any "college prep" ever could.

"Wisdom" has, historically, at least two divergent meanings, which are captured by two Greek words: sophia and phronesis (fro-NEE-sis). We want them both.

Sophia… is the ability to think well about the nature of the world, to discern why the world is the way it is (this is sometimes equated with science); sophia involves reason concerning universal truths.

Phronesis is the capability to consider the mode of action in order to deliver change, especially to enhance the quality of life.

(Borrowed from Viona.)

To re-state:

Sophia is book smarts, intellectual knowledge, an understanding of what the world really is and how it all hangs together.  Phronesis is street smarts, practical knowledge, an understanding of how to achieve the good life. 

We need both of these. The question about how to live well in the world (phronesis) requires understanding what the world is like (sophia).

Delving into both of these will take us into a full liberal arts curriculum in which divergent ideas on how society can work and on how life can be lived will take center stage. Our school can be an invitation — for teachers as well as students — to engage the most diverse, most exciting ideas of humanity: anarcho-Communism and Christian pietism and Theravada Buddhism and GOD KNOWS WHAT ELSE. Ours can be a vividly intellectual school, bringing in more cultural and philosophical perspectives than, perhaps, a single school ever has.

It will also take us into a full science and math curriculum in which the substrata and superstrata of human life are explored — what's "below" and "above" us. To understand human happiness, for example, necessitates comprehending psychology, biology, chemistry, and physics. To understand meaning requires apprehending the shape and history of the universe.

Chasing wisdom is thus an excuse to take part in the Big Questions that the brilliant minds in the humanities and sciences have been exploring for ages.

Some of these Big Questions are civilizational, and even cosmic: "Are we just conglomerations of atoms bumping around an empty void? And if so, what are the implications of that?" "What is evil (and is there evil)?" "Do all peoples share a common human nature?" "How do cultures shape people?" "Where is history going?" "Why is there inequality?" and so on.

Other Big Questions are personal: an invitation to puzzle over our own selves, our own struggles and potentials. They include questions like, "What is this thing called happiness, and how might one find it?" "How deeply should one sacrifice for friends and strangers?" "What does it mean to be 'deep,' and what does it mean to be 'shallow,' and is one really better than the other?" "How is my culture shaping me?" and so on.

There's a stereotype I need to war against here — that thinking about these Big Questions is unserious, the sort of thing 19-year-olds talk about in their dorm hallways late at night. The stereotype that these Big Questions are unserious, unacademic.

Well, yes: some college freshmen do have those conversations. But these are also the some of the academy's most serious questions. Significant work has been done on each of these topics. Pursuing wisdom means more than intellectual self-pleasuring: it means advancing our own answers even as we master the previously-formulated ones.

In sum, then, our high school curriculum will be rigorously academic — but the rigor should flow from the meaning and excitement of the questions we're investigating, and not from some sort of superficial severity.

In pursuing wisdom, we can acculturate students into the life of the mind as we pursue together wisdom.


Oh, a note on the photo — it's of the fictional character Wilson, from the 90's sitcom Home Improvement. I struggled to find an image that denoted "wisdom" without falling into the silly trope of the old man with a long white beard — or Yoda. I think those images actually connote fake wisdom: the sort expressed in statements that no one truly understands or which, when taken literally, are stupid. "Do or do not: there is no try." (Sorry, Yoda!)

The character Wilson (full name: Wilson Wilson, Jr.) is the opposite of that: someone who knows a jaw-dropping wealth of knowledge about the world, and who easily brings it to bear on the problems of daily life. Wilson has both sophia and phronesis. When I was growing up, he was my first vision of the sort of useful intellectual that I wanted to become.

Which is all to say: that's why this post doesn't have a picture of Gandalf!

a note on Mastery

davinci In my last post, I sketched out a vision: that our school become a place where mastery is venerated, and where it is pursued with the full toolkit that the modern academic field of expertise studies provides.

But I missed something obvious: an actual sense of the specific things we could help students master (and, before that, want to master).

Without that, I wonder if my last post could come across as so much empty theorizing. So! Let's fix that:

We can help virtually every student become excellent at reading. At spelling. At music. At physics. At chemistry. At history. At mental math. At algebra. At geometry. At calculus. At botany. At evolutionary biology. At zoology. At psychology. At anthropology. At sociology. At creative writing. At political science. At economics. At critical theory. At philosophy. At comparative religion. At cultural theory. At gender theory. At geology. At astronomy. At architectural criticism. At basic programming. At game theory. At cooking. At living together in community. At controlling oneself. At drawing. At painting. At grammar. At vocabulary.

(I'll stop here, but of course many more could be listed. Presumably I've missed some obvious ones.)

Two questions, and answers:

  1. Will we make anyone world-class at any of these things? Possibly not — to reach the global tip-top of talent, the going theory is in expertise studies, you need a combination of both practice and innate skill. Our goal isn't world-class performance — that's for extra-curricular programs (like Olympic training facilities). Our goal is for students to fall in love with, and experience growing mastery at, a multitude of disciplines.
  2. Will we make everyone excellent at every one of these things? Again, probably not — we have too little time in the school year. One of our major tasks, as we birth this school, will be to figure out what we will focus on. I'll say this, though: we can pack K-12 education with far more than most students get to. (For example, I think getting virtually every student to competence at all of the above fields is well within our purview.)

This is all to say: We can create a community of Renaissance people.

Such, at least, is part of the mission of the school.

Our Trinity, #2: Mastery

Ours can be a school of mastery.

Let's assume that we succeed in our crazy goal of helping students fall in love with many (or most) of the subjects they study — that by middle school our students are entering adolescence convinced that history, biology, math, astronomy, and so are are desperately interesting. What next?

I suggest: we can help them learn precisely how to excel at any task they set themselves to.

Here, we can get help from science. Psychologists have hacked talent, and the world is only beginning to wake up to it. Most classrooms, driven by a century of inertia, still work off the assumption that kids who lack native skill in a subject (math, for example, or writing) probably won't be able to get more than passable in it. (I've found this idea almost universally held, though only rarely expressed.)

Delightfully, this is wrong. False. Mis-conceived.

The higher realms of performance, the psychologists tell us, are open to us all.

That is: Anyone can excel at math. Anyone can draw realistically, and beautifully. Anyone can write lucidly. And so on, and so on.

What's needed isn't just practice — flashbacks to the "10,000-hours rule" — but a certain type of practice, done (yes) repeatedly over a long period of time. And psychologists have been uncovering what that type of practice (dubbed "deliberate practice") looks like.

To engage in deliberate practice is to target a specific goal, and to measure one's progress toward it. It's to constantly adjust the difficulty level of a challenge, so that one is always working at the full extent of one's abilities. It's to break down complex routines into simple tasks, perfect those simple tasks, and then re-assemble them into their (now perfected) complex routines.

(For a very helpful distillation of deliberate practice that expands on what I've just written, check out this blog post.)

Deliberate practice is painful. But it works wonders. And anyone — with certain commonsense limits — can use it to become impressively better in any domain.

No one has devised a school built on deliberate practice. No one (so far as I know) has done a from-the-roots-up rethinking of what schooling could look like if talent can be built by anyone.

We can do that.

And we can go further than deliberate practice — we can cultivate a culture that values excellence and self-overcoming. And we can do this in a number of different ways. In our history curricula, we can highlight brilliant inventors, crafty leaders, and ingenious artists. In our assemblies, we can laud students who have struggled the most. Perhaps we'll find it good to group students into different houses (I'm imagining Hogwarts here) based on how they best approach talent acquisition — those who benefit from competition in one house, and those who benefit from a non-competitive environment in another.

I've been speaking of the sub-set of cognitive psychology called "expertise studies," but we can also adopt some of the most helpful discoveries of cognitive psychology more generally. Cognitive psychologists, for example, have decisively answered the question of how we can remember what we learn forever. They've worked out useful insights into how creativity functions — how people generate new ideas and solutions. All of these, too, can be brought into our curriculum.

I've focused here on how we can do this all in middle school, but certain aspects of it should start in grade school — for example, we should craft our math curriculum with a full knowledge of deliberate practice, so kids at the very least aren't wasting their time on unchallenging problems, or forgetting what they've worked hard to learn. Before we teach them how to acquire expertise, we should build some aspects of it into everything they do.

A few provisos to what I've just written:

  1. None of this means, by the way, that we should take an intensive, Tiger-Mom / Korean-prep-school-esque approach to any aspect of our school. I'm allergic to these. I think they're (typically) bad places to raise humans. We should aim for a school culture that exalts excellence, and encourages students (and teachers!) to pursue it. But coerced practice is not (typically) useful practice. And such forcefulness can threaten to poison everything else.
  2. I've been speaking too blithely here — I understand (everyone understands, I think) that not literally everyone is able to, for example, excel at drawing, or writing, or math. People with significant neurological damage, for example — or people with a deep, learned aversion to a certain subject. (I'm reminded of the Jack Handy quip: “To me, clowns aren't funny. In fact, they're kind of scary. I've wondered where this started and I think it goes back to the time I went to the circus, and a clown killed my dad.” Such a person would have a very difficult time excelling at clown school.)
  3. I want to be sure that this "virtually anyone can develop mad skills" isn't confused with the "blank slate" hypothesis — the idea that everyone is born with a perfectly equal predisposition to develop talent. I once believed that, but psychologists tell us it's wrong. Some kids really are born with a higher or lower propensity to learning math (or writing, or art, or whatever). But the beautiful thing is that this isn't determinative: a student who doesn't have a predisposition toward learning to do math really can excel at it, with the right sort of practice.

Finally, I think there are some real-world implications to all of this. In my caffeine-fueled dreams, I nurture hopes that this could be a school to change the world. Well, if we really can hack talent in practice (the way that psychologists have hacked talent in theory), that is something the world needs.

Marvin Zonis, the University of Chicago professor of global economics, wrote:

The demand everywhere will be for ever higher levels of human capital [skills and talents]. The countries that get that right, the companies that understand how to mobilize and apply that human capital, and the schools that produce it...will be the big winners of our age.

Again, this is something the world needs. And it's something that we can provide.

A final question: I'm not sure about the word "mastery" to carry all this meaning. I've also been kicking around some other choices: excellence, expertise, genius, and talent. Any thoughts, y'all?

(Next up: wisdom.)

Our Trinity, #1: Love

Rublev And we're back!

After a long (and fruitful) hiatus, I think I've figured out the core vision of the school.

To catch everyone up: I've been finding that answering the question, "so, what kind of school will this be?" hopelessly impossible. We have three hundred ideas for the school, and they've all been jumbled together in importance: Expertise can be built! A school for human flourishing! Food! And have I told you about Big History?!

…and so on.

Some time ago I figured that interested listeners could probably hear three ideas before they just started nodding politely. Thus I began hunting for three overriding ideas — three words — that will capture what it is we're trying to do. I went looking for our Trinity.

I've found 'em, I think. They're below. Without any further ado:

Love. Mastery. Wisdom.

Now, in the eternal words of Ricky Ricardo, I have some 'splainin to do. I'll deal with love today, and walk through the rest in posts to come.


As Kieran Egan says, "everything in the world is wonderful, but... schools are designed almost to disguise this slightly shameful fact. 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."

Everything — perhaps with some trivial exceptions — is interesting. Wonderful, even: one of the glories of having a human mind (as, say, opposed to a hyena's) is that we're equipped with the cognitive aramentarium necessary to appreciate and unravel the deep complexity of everything around us. The primary pedagogical task is to capture the marvel inside every topic being studied (photosynthesis, the multiplication tables, what a mailman does…) and to bring students into contact with it.

To put that a different way: the primary educational task is for the teacher to fall in love with a topic, and then to help students fall in love with it, too.

I'm using somewhat simplified language here — "love" is too narrow to perfectly identify student feelings. (Sometimes students will hate a topic — and will be justified in that hatred. Studying the Roman Empire, for example, should bring about a symphony of human emotions.)

But love is a great place to start. And it's here that Imaginative Education (IE) really comes into play.

(For those who haven't yet heard of IE, it is a brilliant method of pedagogy that sees children as feelers as much as thinkers, and that holds that kids are bored in school not because they're learning too much, but because they're learning too little. The Corbett Charter School — which I've raved about in previous posts — is an IE school.)

There's more to love than the bonds connecting students (and teachers) to a topic. We also want to nurture the love of community — the thick ties between student and student, between student and teacher, and between teacher and teacher.

I'm imagining that elements of positive psychology (the emerging branch of psychology that tries to explain what makes humans happy and fulfilled and creative) can be thick in here, too.

The love of place will also be crucial. And so we'll be thinking carefully about the aesthetics of our rooms and (if we're so lucky as to eventually design our own site) the architecture of our buildings. (Looking at Reggio Emilia schools, which take their aesthetics seriously, might be fun for this.)

"We are lovers," James K.A. Smith reminds us, "before we are thinkers." I love that, and think it centers our school — though we shouldn't get too carried away with the word "before". We are lovers and we are thinkers; our thinking is (or at least can be) emotional connection. They form a complete set: as St. Augustine wrote, "You cannot love what you do not know; you cannot know what you do not love."

But I suspect that love as one of our Three Big Words may have some priority — particularly in the school's primary years.

Next, I'll explain what I mean by mastery.

Dodging the banality of modern fables

One of these things is not like the others. Luke Epplin at theatlantic.com argues, in "You Can Do Anything: Must Every Kids' Movie Reinforce the Cult of Self-Esteem?" —

For all the chatter about the formulaic sameness of Hollywood movies, no genre in recent years has been more thematically rigid than the computer-animated children's movie. These films have been infected with what might be called the magic-feather syndrome. As with the titular character in Walt Disney's 1943 animated feature Dumbo, these movies revolve around anthropomorphized outcasts who must overcome the restrictions of their societies or even species to realize their impossible dreams. Almost uniformly, the protagonists' primary liability, such as Dumbo's giant ears, eventually turns into their greatest strength.

But first the characters must relinquish the crutch of the magic feather--or, more generally, surmount their biggest fears--and believe that their greatness comes from within.

Epplin cites a profusion of current and recent offerings — Planes, TurboKung Fu PandaWreck-It RalphRatatouille — that follow the same formula. He takes the perspective that this message is naive: it's a patent falsehood that grandiose hopes can be achieved with minimal failure after a 90-minute quest.

Epplin suggests that Charlie Brown — whom Charles Shultz gives a home-run to after forty-three years — might serve as a useful counter-example.

I'm less concerned about the specific moral of contemporary kids' movies — though I agree that the anti-cult-of-self-esteem partisans have a point — than I am about the monotony of morals.

One of the things I'd love to see in our school — in the early grades, particularly — is a plurality of messages in the stories kids read. What glorious grist for their mental mills Aesop — even at his most brutally pessimistic — can be!

Any recommendations for heterodox children's stories?

Our Big, Fat Goals, part 1

list Nietzsche wrote:

the imagination of the good artist or thinker produces continuously good, mediocre or bad things, but his judgment, trained and sharpened to a fine point, rejects, selects, connects…

In the spirit of producing good, mediocre, and bad ideas, so we can winnow them down the best, let me kick off a long(ish) list of the potential Big Fat Goals for our school!

A. Genius/Brilliance

Should the aim of our school be to regularly pump out brilliant kids who can do amazing things with their minds?

I’m not talking IQ here — or at least not primarily. Though IQ seems to be quite elastic, it seems that how far it can be stretched does have some limits. (The largest contributions to IQ seem to be one’s experience in abstract thinking, and the amount of information one is able to hold in one’s working memory.)

(That said, if some trustworthy method does arise for radically expanding IQ — as seemed to be the case for a while with the double-n-back-tests, I’m not opposed to talking about whether our school would like to embrace it.)

More importantly, folk tend to fixate on IQ in a silly manner that makes more of the measure than seems justified. The correlation between IQ and any measure of success isn’t particularly strong. Having a ridiculously-high IQ doesn’t seem to guarantee that one will do impressive things with his or her brain, as the Terman Study famously showed.

Doing impressive things with your brain: that’s what I’m excited by. How can we help kids become adults who think smarter and harder than others do on problems that matter? Who bring together insights from diverse fields to make new breakthroughs? Who find all this fun?

Again, this is less a product of hardware than it is of software. Brilliance isn’t the product of just one factor (e.g. IQ, skull size), but rather a whole host of factors. (I’ll be spending much of the next year, in my “How to Become a Genius?” course — exploring those factors, and blogging about them here.)

Do we want to make meeting that “whole host of factors” one of the big goals of our school?

I’ll give the last word here to Jonah Lehrer, in his somewhat-overrated-and-much-maligned-but-I-think-eminently-useful-food-for-thought book Imagine: How Creativity Works:

In fact, we’ve already proven that it’s possible to create a period of excessive genius, a moment that’s overflowing with talent. The only problem is that the geniuses we’ve created are athletes.... The question now is whether our society can produce creative talent with the same efficiency that it has produced athletic talent. Our future depends on it. (p. 239)

I like this.

B. Flourishing/Well-being/Happiness

Living well is difficult, and it seems useful for our school to help kids (and faculty, and the community at large) reflect on and practice it.

Flourishing — my favorite synonym for this — can be tied into the academics of our school. The questions of the good life have strong ties to literature: some of our greatest novels, poems, and sugary-breakfast-cereal jingles make definite (and competing) claims to what will really make us happy. History is, in part, the story of groups and individuals seeking to flourish, according to their understandings of flourishing. Religions and philosophies (as I explore in my World Religions/Worldviews course) contain explicit theories as to what the good life entails, and how to achieve it. The arts have long contended that they provide a necessary role in ensuring human happiness.

All in all, a deliberate focus on well-being can bring us deeper into the liberal arts curriculum. By emphasizing flourishing, we can make our school more academic.

(Flourishing can also link to the social sciences, and the natural sciences. What is the cognitive psychology undergirding human happiness? What is the evolutionary psychology that has led Homo sapiens to a particular happiness formula? What are the economics of happiness? What is the sociology? More broadly, does it make sense to talk about “the good life” of other species? A chimpanzee? Can a duck flourish? Can an evergreen? Can fungi?)

But the deeper payoff of a focus on flourishing is the strong personal and community angle. It’s not enough to talk about the good life, at least in a K-12 school; we must also experiment with living it!

This would, I imagine, include a host of diverse practices. Anti-bullying programs would definitely fit under this. Meditation might, too. Communal eating, and group rituals, could come into this, as could nuanced discussions of the role that competition plays in our school. Should we bring plants and animals into the classroom? What should our architecture be? All these topics, and more, could appropriately come under a big goal of “flourishing.”

“A school for flourishing.” I like that.

More to come! In the meantime, please do post your thoughts, critical as well as supportive!

Can a school develop superpowers?

The Illustrious Omnibus of Superpowers Can our school develop superpowers in kids?

I once wrote an article for my college newspaper, titled “In Praise of Everyday Superpowers.” In it, I pointed out that most of the “superpowers” flaunted by the denizens of comic books would be of limited value (and maybe downright unhelpful) in the nonfiction world. The Tick can lift an I-beam, but we have machines to do that. The Flash can traverse continents in seconds, but so can Skype. And anyone who could really fly would make alluring target practice for anyone envious of their abilities.

So: comic book superpowers are silly. But real-world superpowers are most emphatically not.

The folk around us, I pointed out in the article, possess a host of “everyday superpowers”:

Muscle-bound superheroes are regularly described as possessing the strength of "100 men!," but how useful is that? I’d take organizational skills any day — the ability to accomplish three times as much as the ordinary slob, for example, before passing out in bed at nightfall.

What counts as an “everyday superpower”? Here are a few starters:

  • The art of story-telling: being able to enthrall with simple narratives, and to pluck out the delicious from what seems to be mundane.
  • Charisma: being compellingly attractive, whatever your physical appearance, and attracting people like a magnet.
  • World-class productivity: being able to get done all the things you set yourself to, with a minimum of stress.
  • The ability to negotiate shrewdly — to keep your own emotions out of the fight, and invite your opponent to a win-win compromise.
  • Public speaking: enough said.
  • Wry humor, and quick-wittedness — the ability to say precisely what needs to be said, in any situation.

(If you’ve got more, please suggest them in the comments section!)

But wait — aren’t these just “practical skills”?

Fundamentally yes — but crucially no. To say that (e.g.) organization is a “practical skill” is to imply that it’s useful in the “real” world. Good good. But the term “practical” also (at least for many of us) carries the note of the dull and mundane. It carries the sense of being lesser — here, beneath the implied glory of academic pursuits.

That’s a wrong connotation — damnably wrong. If anything, practical skills are more important than academic abilities, and I say that as a dyed-in-the-wool intellectual (who wants to build a school to make more intellectuals!).

To speak of these skills as “superpowers” brings out the real excitement that they possess.

Moreover, calling them “superpowers” might — I’ll venture, with no evidence whatsoever — encourage students to develop these skills to an extreme level. To talk of “superpowers” isn’t to talk about mild skills — Peter Parker doesn’t have pretty good agility; Batman doesn’t have a fairly sharp mind. As soon as the word “superpower” leaves our lips, we’re waist-deep in the world of romantic exaggeration. We’re giving kids a high ideal to aspire to.

I’ll end this question right here, and save the obvious next question — if we intend this school to develop superpowers, how can we do it?

Presumably it will involve radioactive spider bites.

Can we build a school for human flourishing?

So here’s a question  — can we put “flourishing” at the center of our school?  Can we have it be the criterion by we judge all other curricular decisions? Can we build a school for human flourishing?

The idea has, I think, some fairly obvious advantages.

First (and a bit boringly), it seems self-evident that folk who are mentally healthy (that is, who are flourishing) will do better academically: they'll stay with math problems longer, for example.  If they feel safe in the community, they'll feel more comfortable advocating contrary opinions in a literature class.

Second, flourishing is a goal that can rouse learners.  If we can help kids see that math is a way of, say, increasing their cognitive armamentarium, or if we can help them see that history is a way to borrow from others' hard-won wisdom, then (I'll bet) they'll want to do the hard work of learning.

Third, flourishing is a deliciously slippery concept; it invites intellectual engagement.  Asking "what does it take to flourish — what does it even mean to flourish?" plunges us very quickly in some of the deeper thinking of human history (I've recently taught a combined philosophy/psychology class on these question for high schoolers.)  But profound ethical/introspective thinking can be done on this question for anyone in kindergarten on up.

Finally, flourishing is just a fantastic human goal in itself.  Aristotle, actually, wrote that it is the ultimate goal, the very center of ethics.  As such, it has the possibility for uniting a broad community of supporters.  And a diverse one at that: Republicans and Democrats, atheists and evangelicals (and Muslims and Hindus), blue-collar workers and tech entrepreneurs.  Putting "flourishing" at the center of the school gives us faculty a reason to roll out of bed, too.

Okay — I'm probably overlooking some pretty obvious 'cons', right?  Help me out!  In what ways might putting flourishing as the central goal of our school be a bad idea?