big spiral history

What does a school for humans ACTUALLY LOOK LIKE?


For years, we've been talking about schools for humans in the "subjunctive mood":If a school did this, then... We suggest that schools do this, because...

But as of three weeks ago, we're in business! We've helped launch the Island Academy of Hilton Head, a K–8 school off the coast of South Carolina. It's headed by Lee Rottweilor, the brave, daring, and bold onetime contributor to this blog.

So what can a school for humans actually look like? Now we get to find out!

Lee's been sending out regular e-mails to students' families to keep them abreast of the wonderful things their kids are up to. The letters give a taste of what life can be like in a school for humans.

Wednesday's e-mail, I think, is worth quoting here in its entirety!

From Lee Rottweilor 8 September 2015

Hi, all!

Today was filled with writing life stories and analytical book reviews; math explorations; discovery, collection, and release into our aquarium of some tadpoles; Greek Gods!, and dis-assembly of a vacuum.
A moment of reflection and explanation about the vacuum dis-assembly:
First, we posed a simple question: how does a vacuum suck dirt off the floor? Then, we discussed what a hypothesis is, and the kids wrote their own hypotheses explaining how vacuums suck.
I shared my hypothesis: there is a small gerbil inside the vacuum, and that small gerbil inhales air REALLY hard through a straw... his inhaling pulls dirt from the floor.
We then discussed something very critical about hypotheses... that they must be testable and that we must be able to describe test results that would, if present, disprove our hypothesis.
Then, the kids shared their ideas, and with their powers combined, decided that vacuums have motors that turn a fan that does the "opposite of pushing" air.
We decided that if we did not find a tiny gerbil inside the vacuum, Lee's hypothesis would not hold water. We also decided that we would need to find a motor and a fan inside the vacuum for the kids' hypothesis to survive our test.
We talked a bit about why none of them believed they would find a gerbil and why all of them believed they would find a motor...
Then, the kids went to work taking the vacuum apart!
First, the kids found their fan. Then, after more tinkering, they found what they think is the motor. They did not find a tiny gerbil :(
So, naturally, we asked more questions... how does the motor work? What powers it? Oh, electricity.... does electricity from the wall turn this copper and metal and plastic?
Perhaps that mystery will be uncovered next!

And that's just what they did on Wednesday.
Regular readers may note the presence here of a few curriculum elements first proposed on this blog: dissecting technology, personal math puzzles, animals in the classroom, and Big Spiral History. And woven throughout is serious question-posing and answer-hunting.
And this is just where they are, three weeks in!
Stay tuned for the sweet delights — and inevitable challenges — in store!

Religion, meet science. Science, religion!


Last week, I wrote about how we're starting our first year of Big Spiral History. And boy, did I hear criticism from some of y'all on it! Yesterday, to explain the weirdness of our decision to open the history curriculum by telling multiple cultures' creation stories (the Norse, the Ojibwe, the Greek, the Hebrew, the Chinese, the West African, the Aboriginal, and the Mayan) right alongside the Big Bang account, I laid out our vision of our science curriculum.

To quote from yesterday:

We live in a society that has been built up by millennia of brilliant human discoveries. We’re in the midst of accelerating innovation, and are plunging into a future in which this innovation stands to harm us and to help us.

We can help children understand these discoveries, as if they were uncovering them for the first time. We can do so by tapping into our lust for vividly-told stories, and for solving riddles. 

But that doesn't address why we're putting religious stories next to scientific stories. And that, specifically, was what vexed many of you. I got more than one beautifully-written e-mail that ended up arguing, basically, this:

Science describes the world. Religion does something else. Don't mix them.

Or, as one friend put it:

Religion needs to stay out of science's living room, man. And science needs to stay out of religion's!

This, of course, sounds so wonderfully sensible!  I think it's also dangerous — one of the modern assumptions that we need to challenge, if we're going to cultivate Renaissance men and women in our schools.

We need to poke holes in all the disciplinary boundaries: religion, science, and everything else.

I recognize I may be wandering into treacherous waters, but I think I can convince you that this is the only way to go.

Let me explain.

In most schools, we ask students to swap out their brains every time the bell rings.

Going from math to literature? Forget all about those puzzles and algorithms you were toying with, and start thinking about novels!

Going from science to history? Banish all thoughts of observations and hypotheses, and get reading this first-person account of the Black Plague!

We tell kids: Don't think about now: think about y. Scoop out your brain, and plop in your one.

To many of us, this seems wrong, wrong, wrong. (And not just because of the "brain-scooping" metaphor!)

We understand that the world doesn't come in neat, pre-made categories. We want to find some way to connect the disciplines because, well, the world is a seamless whole. Chopping it up into "disciplines" (especially in grade school) seems to destroy what we want to study!

To quote the great educator and mathematician Alfred North Whitehead:

[We must] eradicate the fatal disconnection of subjects which kills the vitality of the modern curriculum.

Chopping up the world kills the excitement it can arouse. It's as if we've dismemebered the world, and are surprised to discover that something seems to be missing. Yes: it's dead!

We need to find a way to bring all the world together — math, the sciences, philosophy, literature, and so on.

Only by doing so will we get the meaningful education we want.

But: how can we bring the world together? Three steps, I think.

1. We put kids in contact with as many pieces of the world as possible.

This, in a nutshell, is why our new kind of school has so many hands-on, knowledge-rich curricula: our curriculum of making lunch together, of Learning in Depth, of animals and plants, of dissecting technology, of drawing realistically, of considering a song a day, of watching a movie a week, of tackling really confusing math puzzles, and of interviewing adults.

As Andrew Ng — brilliant founder of Google Brain and creator of the AI that can recognize cat photos — said in a recent interview:

I don't know how the human brain works, but it's almost magical: ...when you have enough inputs, new ideas start appearing.

2. We develop a culture of geeking out.

If we just put kids in contact with pieces of the world, we'd be in danger of just loading up kids with inert facts. It's not enough for them to know stuff: they have to find joy in knowing, and to make meaning out of what they learn.

Kids in our schools need to take pleasure in finding things out, in asking questions, and in searching for answers. We need to find opportunities to puzzle, to argue, and to celebrate breakthroughs!

Or, to put it simply: we need to develop a culture of geeking out.

(Sidenote: wouldn't it be amazing to have a feast in honor of one student's breakthrough?)

For more on how we're accomplishing this, see our Philosophy for Children approach, as well as our practices of book-eating, question-posing, and answer-hunting.

3. We find a way of seeing everything together — an über-lens. 

It would be great to develop a culture of geeks — people who knit the pieces of the world together in their own heads. If we just do that, however, we'll not be living up to our ultimate calling: to help kids see how the world is already knit together.

There's an old joke: guy goes to college to study psychology, and discovers that psychology is really biology. No problem, he says — and switches his major. But then he discovers that, alas, biology is really chemistry.  But he can take it! Again, he switches his major — only to discover that chemistry is really math.

(At this point, he just says nuts to it all, and majors in business.)

The Universe began as a single point, and the diversity of things we see (atoms, molecules, cells, minds, societies) blossomed out of it. Hence why our Big Spiral History curriculum begins at the beginning of the cosmos, rather than at, say, the dawn of human civilization.

This blossoming outward in the physical world is mirrored by a blossoming in the intellectual world. Human understanding began as myth. The people who first attempted to systematically understand the world (by most accounts, the ancient Greeks) didn't draw up lines dividing the pieces of the world — they dubbed themselves philosophers: "lovers of wisdom".

That is: academic understanding began as a single discipline — "philosophy" — and the diversity of academic fields (physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, sociology) blossomed out of it. 

This point is crucial: all of the academic disciplines grew out of philosophy. The first people who wrote about physics were philosophers; so were the first people who did chemistry. Biologists were called "natural philosophers" until the 1800s. Psychology and sociology didn't split off as their own disciplines until the late 1800s.

In our schools, we're repeating this blossoming.

Our species was born hearing stories of what the world is like. Likewise, each of us is born in stories.

Are those stories true? Perhaps, but perhaps not — it depends on which ones we hear!

Like the species as a whole, we each move from uncritically accepting the stories told by the people around us to a careful, systematic understanding.

As I wrote about yesterday, we can guide students to freshly experience humanity's the greatest breakthroughs. This is an opportunity — it's a gift!

But to do it, we need to be willing to help our kids think carefully about any idea that they bring into the classroom. We can't dismiss ideas simply because they've been dubbed "religious".

As the psychologist (and philosopher!) William James emphasized to his pupil Gertrude Stein:

never reject anything. Nothing has been proved. If you reject anything, that is the beginning of the end as an intellectual.

We want our schools to be vibrantly intellectual communities: we can't afford to exclude religious beliefs at the get-go.

My friend wrote:

Religion and science are baseball and tennis. Don't ask them to play on the same field.

Maybe! Or maybe not.

Maybe the world really is 6,000 years old. I want to be open to that possibility. Maybe the world is 13.7 billion years old! I want to be open to that, too. Maybe it's something else — maybe it's not "real" at all, but is just a projection inside a computer mainframe, created 15 minutes ago by a kid in an advanced civilization as a science fair project.

Maybe we're poised on the back of a turtle! Maybe we're in the midst of a cosmic tree, and Ragnorak is coming. Maybe a thousand other possibilities.

The point isn't to ignore evidence and reasons and remain open to all of these — not at all! (That would be intellectual death of another sort.)

The point is to begin open to anything, and then to feel the sheer joy of finding things out. 

To quote (again) my favorite line from educational theorist Kieran Egan, on whose thinking so much of our schools are based:

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.


As we start our curriculum, we're less concerned with disciplinary boundaries than with the joy of finding things out. All knowledge — science, religion, math, and so on — begins in philosophy.

Which is to say, in this situation, at least:

Religion, meet science. Science, religion. It's been a while. We're going to have some fun together.

What can a science education be? (How stories and riddles can save the world.)


Reactions to our last post fell squarely into two camps:

  1. Oh what a beautiful idea! I wish I could have gone to a school like this.

Dialoguing with friends in Camp #2 about our "creation of the world" curriculum has made me realize that I haven't done a good job explaining why we're approaching history, science, and religion in this unusual way.

And to be clear: what we're doing really is unusual! I'm not sure I know of any other school that's setting its goals for student understanding so high.

It's to the folk of Camp #2 that I dedicate this imaginary Q & A.

Question: Plopping creation stories next to the Big Bang narrative makes me uncomfortable! What are you guys even trying to do with this history curriculum of yours?

Three things, I think!

First, we're telling the history of science.

Why? Well, scientific understanding is an odd beast: in theory, it's timeless — Gregor Mendel's idea of genetic inheritance (to take one example) could have been figured out by anyone in the ancient world.

But in practice, scientific understanding is often bound up in politics, social realities, religion, economics, and a host of other things. And oftentimes scientific discoveries depend on earlier scientific discoveries.

Science has a history, an arc — one that intersects with everything. Science is part of the grand human story — something that can get lost in the traditional curriculum! Our Big Spiral History curriculum brings us back to the humanity of science.

(Lest you think that Big Spiral History is the only way we're approach science, remember that our schools are also cultivating a scientific mindset with a host of other practices — among them question-posing & answer-hunting, dissecting technology, cooking lunch together, bringing animals & plants into the classroom, realistic drawing, Learning in Depth, and location study.)

Second, not only are we teaching the history of scientific ideas — we're emerging ourselves in the epic, personal stories of scientific discovery. 

This, I think, is something that got completely left out of my previous post.

Archimedes' "bath" method of measuring volume? Yes. William Harvey's realization that the heart was a pump? Yes! Anton van Leeuwenhoek's discovery of the "wee beasties" in pond water? Ho yeah!

And dozens and dozens of other science stories, besides. Using the Imaginative Education methodology, we can teach these stories with more intellectual respectibility and more emotional heft than is hardly ever done. We can have one of the most vivid history of science curriculums of any school.

It’s easy for students to fall into the feeling that "science" is a series of immutable truths that spring, fully-formed, from the head of Zeus. And, in reality, "science" (in one sense of the word) is exactly that — it's the real world! What's true would be true, even if no humans were around to talk about it.

But "science" in the sense of "scientific understanding" is human-hatched notions — notions that compete and prevail based on how well they are able to make sense of evidence. Notions that sprang from the heads of often quite interesting men and women, whose back stories are fascinating.

So we're not just teaching history of scientific ideas — we're teaching the history of science through personal stories. Actually, this is currently quite a hot subject! Think Bill Bryson's bestselling A Short History of Nearly Everything, which chronicles the scientific breakthroughs of the last three hundred years. Think Neil DeGrasse Tyson's Cosmos TV series, which flips back and forth between CGI representations of scientific ideas, and animated narrations of the people who first cooked them up.

We can match the wonder and excitement and intellectual heft of those works. We can even surpass them — because of the third thing we're trying to do.

We're not just telling the history of scientific ideas, and we're not just telling that history through personal stories. We're using both of those as an opportunity to puzzle alongside. 

When you watch Cosmos, you're mostly along for the ride. Neil DeGrasse Tyson frequently asks questions of the audience, but I can't remember him waiting more than 15 seconds before giving us the answer. This isn't anything against Neil — it's a limitation of the medium of television.

But we're teachers, working with kids over the long term: we have access to all sorts of tools that television (and Khan Academy) don't. We can re-create experiments. We can prompt kids to explain phenomena that don't seem to make sense. And we don't have to tell them the answer after 15 seconds — we can sit in puzzlement with kids for minutes, hours, weeks! We can prompt them to expose their confusion, to ask questions, and to imagine what a resolution might look like.

A great teacher can do this — can make kids more confused than they'd ever be on their own!

And a great teacher can be a guide, too — giving clues, assigning students to ask their adults for their ideas.

This is part of what we're aiming for with our Philosophy for Children approach to literature, history, and everything. It's also part of why we're making question-posing and answer-hunting a staple of the week.

Here, in brief, is our vision for what a science education can be:

We live in a society that has been built up by millennia of brilliant human discoveries. We're in the midst of accelerating innovation, and are plunging into a future in which this innovation stands to harm us and to help us.

We can help children understand these discoveries, as if they were uncovering them for the first time. We can do so by tapping into our lust for vividly-told stories, and for solving riddles. 

Or, at least, that's part of our vision of what a science education can be.

Stay tuned for more.

How to teach evolution, creation, & the giant cow that licked the world into being


Where does everything come from? This is how our new kind of school has started off our year of Big Spiral History: by telling stories about the creation of the world.

That's stories, plural. Whose stories, you ask? As many peoples' as possible!

In order: we're teaching the Norse story, the Greek story, the Hebrew story, and the Ojibwe story. That's our first week.

Norse cow

(This is, of course, the cow that emerged from the primordial ice to nourish the first of the frost giants. Y'know, the bad guys in Thor? It's a pretty generous cow.)

Then, we're telling the creation stories of the Chinese, the West Africans, the Maya, and the Aborigines. That's the second week!

And the third week, we're slowing down to tell just one creation story: that of the Big Bang, and the evolution of multicellular life, up through us humans.

Go ahead: ask why!

First off, we're beginning at the beginning: the dawn of Life, the Universe, and everything.

The way that history is typically begun in schools, we think, is foolish. I've criticized this before, but the long and short of it is this: in grade school, kids don't begin with the beginning. Rather, they begin with the close at hand: their own selves, their own neighborhoods, their own cities. They're plopped in the middle of reality, and are held back from looking at the big picture.

This approach is designed around an outmoded theory of children's reasoning — that they can only understand things that they've actually experienced. (How these old theorists would have explained children's lust for a certain movie series that begins A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away... — well, that I'd love to know!)

By the time the curriculum gets around to talking about any beginnings, it's already middle school. And the beginnings don't go back far at all — mine went back only to the Fertile Crescent. Fail! The Fertile Crescent was one particular origin of "civilization" — that is, city-centered state-level society — but not of humanity, in general.

And the origin of humanity? And of life? And of anything? Those are thought to be scientific questions, not historical ones. They're not part of the story of humanity — they're held apart in another class.

Which, of course, is ridiculous. Drawing a sharp delineation between "questions of history" and "questions of science" might have made sense two centuries ago, but at the start of the 21st century it's just foolishness.

The humanities and sciences have linked up, and we now possess an all-but-seamless narrative of all of cosmic history. This is the result of decades of daring acts of research — it's one of the great successes of human intellectual life!

Your atoms were forged in a supernova. The oxygen you just sucked in was breathed by Triceratops and Velociraptors. Life blooms, proliferates, and adapts. And you're part of it: your amazing qualities are the inheritance of millions and billions of years of biological experimentation.

But we don't let this paradigm shine in the curriculum. We don't use it to orient kids, and invite them to ask the big questions.

Instead, we bury it.

So the first reason we're doing this mad-rush through creation stories, is to follow the advice the King in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland:

Begin at the beginning, and go on.

It's only sensible.

We're beginning at the beginning: the Big Bang, and all that.

But why all the other creation narratives? 

(Note: this is contentious. Political, even! We Americans love to hate each other's views on this. And, according to various polls, we're about equally split — 50% think the universe is about 6,000 years old, and 50% think it's about two million times older. I'll be treading boldly into this fray — but I hope, also, politely and kindly.)

So why are we starting the year with multiple creation narratives? Well, a host of reasons, actually!

  • We want to introduce kids to the awesome mystery of where the Universe comes from. (Approaching this question from a multitude of previous attempts helps kids appreciate the mystery.)
  • We want to expose kids to a multiplicity of human cultures and their stories. (Think of each story as a hand-shake to a culture they'll be hearing more about later.)
  • We want to help kids see that stories matter — that where we think the world comes from can inform how we think about ourselves. (Stories — origin stories in particular — shape worldviews, and worldviews shape lives.)
  • We want to get kids used to the idea that differences of opinion are the norm, and that they can be fertile grounds for great conversations. (A disagreement is a great opportunity.)

In my mind, though, there's one great reason that we're starting by luxuriating in a multiplicity of creation stories: to make kids question our authority when we tell them something is true.

In our schools, truth is rarely — if ever — handed down on authority.

If people in the real world disagree about something, then it's not our job to pick a side and tell the kids to swallow it. Rather, our job is to expose kids to multiple viewpoints, and help them reason through them.

Perhaps I'm speaking too blithely here — perhaps I'm coming across as if I think our schools should champion every idea equally.

No — quite the contrary! What I'm saying is that our teaching shouldn't champion specific ideas at all.

What I'm saying is: science.

There is a world outside our heads. We can approach it through observing carefully, interpreting carefully, and concluding humbly — and then inviting criticism of our conclusions.

A shorthand for this: the scientific method.

We're starting our school by putting all creation stories on an equal footing. We're not ending there!

All of the above, I think, would be a bad approach if it were performed in a school that simply Delivered Answers. But ours is not — we pose questions, we hunt for answers, we practice science and philosophy continuously. We splay ideas on the wall; we sit in mysteries and slowly unravel them.

I'm not advocating this curriculum for most schools: I'm announcing it for ours.

Allowing the world's true diversity of hypotheses to be considered honestly sets an important standard: we are a kind of schooling that is willing to ask the big questions, and to help children form their answers thoughtfully. 

And it's hard to do this with just one story. Differences spawn productive thinking! But setting up just two stories leads to tribal warring — "you're either with us or against us!" What we need is a plurality of stories.

I'll pause here to acknowledge something obvious:

Some of our parents will be evolutionists who fear (quite legitimately) that the scientific narrative will be lost amidst the flush of other origin stories.

And others of our parents will be creationists who fear (quite legitimately) that the Genesis account will be lost, too.

I owe answers to both groups of parents. And here it might be useful to disclose my own origin story. I'm convinced the story of Darwinian evolution is true — but I didn't used to be — and the story of how I got from there to here is a bit unusual.

I grew up in an evangelical home, but my childhood intellectual life was shaped more by dinosaur books than it was by Sunday school. (I was a dinosaur fanatic. Still am, sorta!)

I only became a creationist in 8th grade, when my (public school) science teacher decided to transform our classroom into a courtroom, and to put the theory of evolution on trial.

He himself, I believe, supported evolution. And I think he thought the evolution side would come out as the obviously true one.

He picked me to lead the prosecution: to argue against Darwinian theory.

And, as a result of that, I became a creationist: not because I was indoctrinated into it, but because I became convinced of the evidence.

(Note: looking back on this, the evidence against evolution that I was looking at was really terrible stuff — since then, I've seen many creationists criticize it, and criticize fellow creationists who use it. The much-mocked "teach the controversy" idea, I think, really is fantastic — but only in an environment in which kids are helped to develop a B.S. detector. Our schools can do this — and, I think, are!)

After we finished the debate, I kept reading. (It really was interesting stuff!) And, slowly, my conviction that the world was made six thousand years ago faded. The arguments (even the better ones) really weren't that strong. When I looked deeply into them, they were convoluted and riddled with holes, and seemed to depend on giving lots of weight to oddball discoveries — for example, what might be a Mesozoic-era human footprint, if you squint just right.

The arguments for evolution, meanwhile, seemed straightforward and robust. Given what we knew of DNA (and math), it seemed impossible that evolution wouldn't happen. And the evidence was everywhere. I realized, at some point in my freshman year of high school, that the earth almost certainly was very, very, very old, and that natural selection was the best way of explaining the evidence — maybe the only way.

And so I became an evolutionist. 

I came to my conviction the old-fashioned way: through personal exploration, helped along by a community of people. (Though, in my case, the community was mostly people who wrote books, and who posted online.)

I think this is a much better way to become convinced of evolution. Why? What does it matter how one becomes convinced of some truth of the world?

One reason is that approaching truth through doubt and exploration made me humble in my beliefs. I recognize that I've changed my beliefs before; I'm likely to do so again!

I said a minute ago that I'm an "evolutionist". I hate that word: the -ist suffix makes it sound like evolution is something I "believe" in. I suppose I do, under certain definitions of "belief" — but what's wonderful is that I'd upend these "beliefs" in a heartbeat if I found good evidence to the contrary.

This is a better way to hold a "belief": humbly, and carefully. The strange thing is that such beliefs aren't weak: they're actually very strong and resilient. 

A second reason I think it's better to come to true beliefs through doubt and exploration: doing so allows you to see beliefs from the inside. And when you do, you see why people love them.

I don't think the Genesis story is true — but boy, do I love aspects of it!

Genesis paints a picture of original harmony — humans didn't slaughter animals; animals didn't even slaughter other animals! Pain and suffering weren't originally part of humanity — a state we can perhaps strive to reach again. And humans were designed to be careful stewards of the natural environment, not exploiters.

So often, in online debates, evolutionists portray creationists as stupid. What they fail to see is that creationism is a beautiful poem — one that can have wonderful implications for how we structure our society.

Our schools don't only seek to immerse kids in good scientific reasoning — they seek to make kids better at understanding all humanity.

Here's another reason I think it better to come to true beliefs through doubt and exploration: by doing this, I became acquainted with what in-depth understanding feels like.

Exploring creationism and evolution meant learning a lot of science — paleontology, biology, geology, and some chemistry and physics.

Even better, it meant appreciating what really is good evidence and good reasoning — and what only seems to be.

I'm a deeper knower now — a much more careful knower — than I would have been without this.

Sometimes, when I feel really passionately convinced of something else (say, some political idea), I'm able to reflect on how that feels different. It feels ungrounded.

I'm not saying, of course, that our schools should lead kids through false beliefs before they get to true ones. (What an effort that would take!)

And I'm not saying that in-depth understanding can only come from leading kids through wrong theories. (Our Learning in Depth curriculum in particular will also aim to develop this sort of understanding.)

I'm only saying that, when a student believes anything to be true without good reason, we should be delighted for the opportunity to patiently lead them through thinking about it. Because on the other side of that patient reasoning lies actual, hard-won wisdom.

This is part of what good teaching is. We should look for more opportunities to cultivate it in our curriculum.

So what can I say to parents who fear the scientific narrative will get crowded out? Just this: that it's only when the scientific narrative is placed amidst the earlier narratives that we can really appreciate what makes it wonderful.

And what can I say to parents who fear the Genesis narrative will be crowded out? Just this: that in most public and private schools, the Genesis narrative is entirely ignored. And in evangelical schools, it is believed woodenly and thoughtlessly (something many evangelical thinkers are critical of). Both of these approaches are tragedies. The Genesis narrative deserves to be taken seriously, both scientifically and poetically. And the role of teachers in our school is not to direct students to this or that belief, but to help them think carefully about all beliefs.

There are, maybe, two other reasons I'm happy to not only tell just the Big Bang story of creation by itself.

First, this doesn't result in accurate belief.

Last summer I went to a presentation by evolutionary scientist Steven Pinker. He talked about how about half of Americans don't believe in evolution. That's bad, he said. But there's something that's worse: that most of the people who say they believe in evolution don't actually understand what evolution is.

"Believers" in evolution tend to think it's goal-directed, Pinker said. That organisms are trying to evolve "upward".

What they actually believe in isn't natural selection — it's something that more closely resembles the medieval "Great Chain of Being".

If you want people to understand evolution, I suggest, help them try to attack it. Help them be skeptical. Help them construct their own understanding of it — and point out where things don't make sense.

Second, telling the Big Bang story by itself — in a culture that believes lots of things (from young-earth creationism to alien intervention) — sets up a very stupid sort of rebellion.

As a teacher, there's something that terrifies me about many of my high school students:

They're so prone to conspiracy theories. 

Aliens, Bigfoot, evil government cabals that encourage vaccinations to murder people and keep the population down — you name it, I've seen kids believe it — worse, zealously adhere to it, even in the face of obvious, overwhelming evidence to the contrary!

And why are they so difficult to convince otherwise? Well, many reasons, no doubt:

Conspiracy theories

But one big reason seems to be that they see themselves as the rebels. They're stuck in a framework that sees common sense as "dominant, corrupt opinion" and see anyone who departs from it as a freedom fighter.

"Hey, I'm just being skeptical", it seems like they're saying.

No, they're not. They're being the opposite of skeptical: they've picked an opinion, and are zealously clinging to it against evidence.

They haven't realized that being skeptical means, among other things, being skeptical of yourself. As physicist, samba-player, and all-around-amazing-human-being Richard Feynman said in a commencement address:

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool.

The way to teach evolution is to start by teaching it along with other stories, and to keep coming back to the question, "How would we know if any of these is true?"

And this turns out to also be a great way to get kids interested in many human cultures.

And to enjoy telling some awesome stories.

That's not it for our first few weeks of Big Spiral History — and it's certainly not it for teaching about the creation of the Universe (no, seriously — where does the Universe come from? what happened before the Big Bang?), nor about Darwinian evolution.

But this is a great place to pause, and seek out clarifying questions. Obviously, certain online communities can get pretty red in the face when it comes to talking about origins — I'm hoping that we can use a bit of that to help us fine-tune how we engage students in these questions.

One question on my mind: Is there a danger in our schools becoming too relativistic? What else would need to come later in the curriculum in order to avoid this?

A second question: does any of this run afoul of the church/state divide? Though we're starting this new kind of schooling with two private schools, we have our eye on eventually starting some charter schools. The church/state question isn't relevant for now, but it might be, later.

So, if you've got questions as to how, exactly, we're going to pull this off, please ask them! Join the conversation on our Facebook page. (And like us, to get updates!)

We're creating a civil community, and any posts that smell of dissing "the other side" will be deleted (ah, I'm sorry I even have to say that, but: the Internet!).

But every other piece of commentary will be appreciated, and considered!

Big Spiral History begins!


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stay tuned.

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

Conference feedback — Big Spiral History Stories


Continuing to share and comment on the feedback I received at the delightful IERG 2015 conference! For the original posts I've made on our Big Spiral History (BSH) curriculum see these posts on the scope and sequence of BSH, and these on the actual story-telling.

Big Spiral History Stories

Kids need these, because they long for heroes.

Huh — I actually hadn't brought "heroes" into my thinking of the BSH stories. Which is funny, because I've thought a lot about the need for heroes (and the dangers of heroes) in the curriculum.

All right, I'll think about this as I actually begin to make these!

History from whose perspective? Perhaps you should do a change in context — e.g. the colonial vs. the aboriginal perspective.

Yes yes yes! Brilliant, beautiful. I had already been thinking of things like this, but hadn't quite landed on this so neatly. I'll generalize this idea:

When we're telling a story of a struggle between peoples, tell the story first from one side, then from the other. 

I've done something like this when teaching American history — I've had my high school classes read a very liberal book (Howard Zinn's People's History) at the same time as a very conservative book (Paul Johnson's History of the American People). For each historical period — slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, etc. — they've gotten both perspectives.

This is good — great, really — but it's not the same thing as what this commenter suggests: I had my classes engage different ideological perspectives, but not different participant perspectives.

I suspect engaging different ideological perspectives may be better done with older kids (though now that I say that I'm not so sure). Engaging different participant perspectives can be done when kids are quite small.

Why do we teach history?

My usual stump speech:

History isn't a subject, it's the subject. All the subjects are history, to some extent: math and science are the guided re-discovery of ideas that were first mastered by the ancients; art and literature and music are guided encounters with what past people created.

So everything we learn in school in some way comes from history. The difficulty is to understand them all together: to get the big story.

That is: history allows us to understand how all our studies fit together.

Of course, it's not just that we study things that come from the past: we live in a world shaped by the past. Faulkner (I believe) wrote, "The past isn't dead — it's not even past." The things that bedevil us — the craziness of modern parenting, religious conflict, environmental destruction — are just slivers of much bigger story.

That is: history allows us to make sense of everything we encounter.

Also — crucially! — history can be fun. It's fun to enter the heads of other people, especially ones whose minds were shaped in contexts so different than our own.

Who is telling the story?

Initially, the teacher (with help from me, who'll be crafting a "here's some material to tell this story from" kit for each story). Then, after the story has been told, the students take it on themselves, as an activity in their independent work time.

We are storied into existence, our sense of meaning derives from the narratives our forebearers laid out for us. Consider the ethical dimensions of the stories to tell & re-tell. They are the foundations of reality.

Focus on ethical choices — will do! I love it.

Whose story is important?

An epic question!

I suppose the answer is something like "everyone's, but some stories are more important than others." That might sound fighty, but I just mean it to state the obvious. To pick an easy example, my story is not as important as, say, Mohandas Gandhi's. (And if you disagree, well, thanks!)

Gandhi's story is more important because it changed so many other people's stories. So there's one metric for how important a story is: how many other stories did it change?

That's helpful, but educationally it's not enough. One goal for our history curriculum is to understand how the world has been shaped, but another is to understand something of the wild diversity of humanity. So another criteria of inclusion will be whether a story gives insight into minds different from our own.

"Diversity" has become a flashpoint in the culture wars, which it's sometimes (tragically) been flattened into "ethnic diversity".

Ethnic diversity is important, but it's not the only important diversity. Our history stories should also include religious diversity (Christians and Muslims and Buddhists and seculars and Zoroastrians…), ideological diversity (conservatives and liberals and socialists and fascists…), personality (extroverts and introverts and sociopaths and altruists…), economic (rich and poor and middle class…), social (rulers and outcasts and serfs…) and a flurry of other considerations. (I wrote up a list of all of these at some point, but I'm not sure I can locate it again!)

The following are from the same commenter:

Love this idea because I've seen from experience how much more students remember from stories. Things to think about:

  • How will you train teachers so they are comfortable doing this?

I don't know. (Great question.) I'm currently looking into curricula that train people to become storytellers. (I assume that virtually anyone can become a great storyteller.) I think this will be a large part of our teacher training.

How wlil you ensure there is enough of a debrief that students know it was more than just a fictional story (historical empathy)?

Wow — hadn't thought of this at all! I'm not sure — Lee, let's be on the lookout for opportunities to talk about the truth value of these stories (which will get complicated).

How will you ensure the "stories" are historically accurate (not embellishing for dramatic effect — which is what students end up remembering)?

Hmm — I know how do this, but I haven't thought about how to pass along my convictions to other teachers. A very helpful question!

This is all made more complicated by the next question.

Some clarity on history vs. story?

You might expect that, in telling history stories, we'll hew to the facts. No make-believe! We'll only tell things that we have good reason to believe actually happened.

I, too, once assumed we'd do that.

We're not going to.

At present, I'm planning to include a number of mythic stories in Big Spiral History: for example, the Iliad and the Mahabarata.

I'm doing this in part because it's hard to find historically accurate stories from the ancient period: so much of the best stories are fictional.

But a larger reason I'm willing to mix historically accurate and non-historically accurate stories is because it allows us to neatly avoid some impossible-to-navigate choices when teaching religions. Did Abraham exist? Scholars disagree. If we limited ourselves to teaching accurate historical stories, we'd have to have an opinion on the existence of Abraham. No thanks.

Saying "this is a story that people have told for thousands of years, opinions vary" allows us to duck out of a debate that can only hurt us.

And there is, also, a pedagogical reason I'm wiling to mix historically-accurate and non-historically-accurate stories: it gets students wondering what's true, and what's not.

To some important extent, it's not my job as an educator to settle these issues, because that rips a crucial task away from the students.

I'm very open to persuasion the other way on this topic, by the way. What are y'all's thoughts?

Are we losing contextual recitation and a sense of "time" by swapping characters, etc.?

This refers to my statement that, when students re-tell stories, one of the fun things they can do is swap out characters (for example, Gilgamesh for Pericles).

Short answer: yes! By swapping out characters, students will be losing the sense of how a specific character fits in their historical story.

Long answer: no! Switching characters (I suspect) can call attention to how different characters do fit inside their contexts.

For example, swapping out Aristotle (who asserted that some were naturally born as slaves) for Gandhi (who fought to end the caste system) could — at least I hope — get students to recognize how dependent our beliefs are on history.

Or maybe I'm wrong? Maybe a student wouldn't naturally see this? Hmm — I suspect that's right. There really is a danger to lose the sense of history by doing this.

So I propose that, when we have students do this work, we prompt them to consider exactly this question, and give them lots of guidance in answering it!

Thanks, commenter!

Some stories can be very brief — just give a hook!

Thanks! Because of this, I won't insist on four-day stories for everyone — I'll be more bold in spending those four days on a sequence of related characters.

Tomorrow, I'll share the feedback I got on Cooking lunch together.

Epic stories (independent work)


A problem:

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

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

Our basic plan:

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

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

Our goals:

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

If you walk into our classrooms, you might see:

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

Some specific questions:

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

Epic stories (group story-telling)


A problem:

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

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

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

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

Our basic plan:

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

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

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

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

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

Our goals:

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

If you walk into our classrooms, you might see:

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

Some specific questions:

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

Map drawing

A problem:

A lot of us don't have a feel for how the world fits together — and so we have a hard time understanding what's going on. After 13 years of American involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, I, for example, still can't remember whether Iraq and Afghanistan touch each other. (I think they don't. Maybe Iran is in the middle?) Nor can I draw a rough map of my hometown, or the city in which I currently live. This is ridiculous!

Sometimes, when schools want to focus on geography, they have students label the names of places, on pre-drawn maps. But this doesn't guide kids to think about the shapes — rather, it's just a trivia/memory contest. We need to understand names and shapes.

If we don't understand the stage, we won't understand the story.

Our basic plan:

Students, from kindergarten on, regularly draw maps. They do so calmly, almost meditatively — to silence, or to music.

They begin as simply as possible, just learning where the six vague continental blobs (Africa, North America, South America, Eurasia, Australia, Antarctica) go on the map. Later, students focus on one particular blob, and see if they can get begin to get the details right — its rough shape, its specific outline, its rivers, its mountains, its deserts and forests and reefs, then its cities and capitals. Over many years, the kids cycle through all the continents, and the major island chains.

Students will also make maps of their local areas — their blocks, their towns, their states.

Because we move so gradually, there's little pressure on the kids to get it right — and the actual act of drawing a map can be pleasant, a healthy counterpoint to the rest of the day.

Each time they draw a map on paper, students are drawing the information in the memories. After a few years, students will have an intuitive understanding of the geography of the whole world.

The goal:

Our main goal is for students to be less limited by the particulars of where they were born, and feel more at home in the whole world. People and events that happen far away should feel less "exotic" to them, because they're familiar with the areas.

On the other side, drawing local maps should root the students more to their local geographies. They should feel more at home in their communities than they would otherwise.

Also, students get regular practice at drawing: getting a pencil to go where their mind tells it to. (This is, for most people, quite hard.)

Finally, students get a daily break from analytic thinking and social concerns, and just be able to focus on the perceptual exercise of re-drawing a map.

If you walk into our classrooms, you might see:

You might see kids, sitting at tables, intensely concentrating on the paper in front of them, while music plays wordlessly in the background. You also might see students' most beautiful (and accurate) maps hanging on the walls.

Some specific questions:

  • How often should we engage in this — every day? every other day?
  • In what ways might this be a hard sell to parents?

A Wall of Talking Dead People


Last week I suggested that we can fill our classrooms with more than decorations — we can make them into places that help students feel better and think more brilliantly. This is "classroom as brain extender": a student working inside it, to put it oddly-but-truthfully, might have a higher EQ and IQ than she would have working outside it. 

There are lots of elements to this — today I'd like to paint a picture of just one of them (in truth, my favorite) — a Wall of Talking Dead People.

A Wall of Talking Dead People.

In brief, a Wall of Talking Dead People is (1) a collection of portraits of historical folk with (2) speech bubbles coming out of their mouths.

As the year begins, one whole wall is empty. Then, as we learn about people, we can hang a small portrait of them on the wall. Each portrait will have a speech bubble: a quote that encapsulates what the person did, or thought.

The purpose is to make ideas and stories immediately accessible to students, so the kids can do stuff with them.

As with the other tools, the Wall of Talking Dead People will be populated piece-by-piece. Portraits will be hung up only after we learn the stories of the people. This means that students will at all times have a basic knowledge of everything that's up on the wall. A source of pride: I know all this!

And the students can be in charge of some of this. They play the role of historians, in two ways:

First, who should go up on the wall? This'll spark a conversation about the relative importance of each person: there's not enough space for everyone. ("Who makes the cut?" is a contentious historical question, as any "100 Most Important" list makes clear!)

Second, which quote should we attach to the person? This'll spark a conversation about what the meaning of each person is: how should we remember them? Take Napoleon: do we celebrate his audacity by remembering that he declared, "The word impossible is not French!" or his tyranny by remembering that he confessed "I have come to realize that men are not born to be free"?

School is about remembering — and the Wall of Talking Dead People helps with that. But it's also about interpreting, and valuing — and the Wall provides opportunities for that, too.

"Here's to the crazy ones."

Where will we get these people from?

History, for starters. It'll be made easy by the fact that biographies will play a fairly large role in our big spiral history curriculum (especially in the early years). The typical human brain is designed to learn about other people — their backstories, their personalities, their hopes. For most of us, biographies are easy to latch onto. They're almost addictive. A school for humans can play to that.

But not just history! Math is filled with brilliant creators, as is science, literature, the visual arts, music, the culinary arts...

Steve Jobs said it best:

Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact: Everything around you that you call 'life' was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use. 

Once you learn that, you'll never be the same again.

So often in schools we pretend "knowledge" comes from textbooks — assembled by some drone working in a dark Satanic mill.

It doesn't. Knowledge comes from people. And, more often than not, fascinating people — people who pushed boundaries, people who refused to accept the status quo.

Steve Jobs, again, said it best, in the famous 1997 Apple commercial marking his return to the company and re-launching the brand —

Here's to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The trouble-makers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They're not fond of rules, and they have no respect for the status-quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify, or vilify them. About the only thing you can't do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.

Jobs was right, and we need to reframe all of education to catch up to him. Most everything students learn in the K-12 curriculum comes from these amazing humans: they're what the curriculum is already about. But schooling hides this.

What we can do — what a Wall of Talking Dead People can help us do — is to reframe learning as a conversation with the crazy ones. 

Music is a conversation with Beethoven and Duke Ellington; science is a discussion with Darwin and Galileo. Geometry is kibbitzing with Euclid. Algebra is deliberating with al-Khwarizmi; literature is debating with W.B. Yeats and Chinua Achebe and every other author we read.

Of course, math is still math, and science is still science. Connecting knowledge to its sources doesn't mean turning it into story — just exposing the story that's already there.

If we bring the creators back into their creations, I suspect that we can help students live more fully in the world. They'll see that they're surrounded not by abstract, inhuman facts, but by the beloved handiwork of people — people they even like, people they even are like.

In short, in our classrooms we can surround ourselves with the greatest doers and thinkers the world has known — which will help them see that we already are.

A Wall of Talking Dead People, in short, can help re-humanize the curriculum — and students' conceptions of the world.

A Taste of Big Spiral History: Grade School


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

Big Spiral History in Grade School

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But how can we teach the past to grade schoolers?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whoa. The world is freakin' old. 

Metaphors can do that.

We can teach through rhymes. 

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

Or the macabre —

In sixteen hundred sixty six London burnt like rotten sticks.

Or the provocative —

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

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

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

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

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

Egan writes:

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

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

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

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

In Sum:

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

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

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

Next: Big Spiral History in Middle School

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


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

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

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

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

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

So, to be clear, according to this plan:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

A School for Understanding the News

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

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

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

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

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

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

What's, erm, going on, again?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or, as William Faulkner wrote:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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