classical education

End this educational war!


In a previous post, I sketched out what may be the biggest brawl in education: the century-old Traditionalist/Progressivist war. I then promised that our schools will fix this.

How ridiculous of me!

But I'll stick to my guns, and show part of how our new kind of school can end this divide.

First, I'd like to distill everything I wrote before into two sentences:

Traditionalist education values getting old ideas into heads. Progressivist education values getting new ideas out of heads.

(Please forgive my oversimplification.)

Now, I've heard both Traditionalists and Progressivists deny that the other side has any legitimacy. I've heard partisans of each side argue that, don't worry, our way of doing school will accomplish both of these.

I've heard Traditionalists boast that students who stock up on knowledge will be capable of doing new things later in life. And I've heard Progressivists boast that students who get hands-on experience will become interested in old ideas later in life.

May I suggest that we be skeptical of all such boasts, and look at the real-world results?

If I were unafraid of being rude, I'd perhaps point out that some people educated in the Traditionalist manner end up being, well, bores! Bores well-stocked with trivia, perhaps, but not the sort of people who is able to take on exciting new projects, think critically, and help mend a world riven by complex, changing problems.

And if I were, well, drunk, I'd perhaps point out that some people educated in the Progressivist manner end up being fools! Fools who have a strong sense of self, perhaps, but not the sort of person able to take on exciting new projects, think critically, and help mend a world riven by complex, changing problems.

This isn't to say that Traditionalist and Progressivist education doesn't work — just that it doesn't always work, and that its proponents (quite understandably) don't seem willing to point this out.

But if we're going to forge a path beyond the Traditionalist/Progressivist wars, and give kids the sort of education that can help mend the world, then I think we need to look squarely at what's really going on.

So, having cast a plague on both these houses, how do I think our schools can move forward, and heal this divide?

How can we bring together the best of Traditionalist and Progressivist education?

One way: closely align receiving and doing. Join "taking in old ideas" and "pushing out new ideas" snugly together.

I'll write more about how we're already doing this in an upcoming post — and ask how we can do it better!

Why I'm in love with both a werewolf and a vampire (or: "Beyond the Traditionalist–Progressivist Divide")


Like Twilight’s Bella Swan, I am desperately in love with a werewolf and a vampire. Well, metaphorically. Less metaphorically, I’m desperately in love with two totally opposing visions of schooling.

I’ve found this to be a problem, as:

  1. the people who champion each vision more or less hate each other, and
  2. when people try to combine these visions, everything explodes.

Let me explain.

A word of warning: It’s always hazardous to split a messy reality into two neat categories.

Hazardous: but irresistible!

I won’t make any hard-and-fast claims that the division I’m about to make perfectly describes reality. It does describe, however, how I’ve experienced school reform movements.


‘Nuff said.

There are two basic visions for schooling.

On the one hand, there’s the traditionalist vision. Traditionalist-minded schools strive to get students to re-think the amazing things other people have thought before. These schools tend to focus on the liberal arts: students devour literature, memorize poetry, debate philosophy, and recap scientific discoveries.

On the other hand, there’s the progressive vision. Progressively-minded schools strive for something quite different: to help students have their own thoughts, ideas that no one has ever had before!

Let me illustrate!

On the wall of an traditionalist school, you might see a famous quote by the English poet and cultural critic Matthew Arnold. In person, Arnold was widely described as a frivolous and foppish, but his writings were full of icy seriousness. Arnold wrote that to mend society, schools must instruct students in:

the best which has been thought and said.

Walking into a progressive school, on the other hand, you might see a famous quote by the Swiss psychologist and philosopher Jean Piaget. Piaget wrote that to mend society, schools must unchain students from the past, and help them discover new things:

the principle goal of education in the schools should be creating men and women who are capable of doing new things, not simply repeating what other generations have done; men and women who are creative, inventive and discoverers, who can be critical and verify, and not accept, everything they are offered.

(Thanks to Bob Hagin for reminding me of this quote at his blog!)

Examples, you say?

If you’ve seen The Dead Poets Society, The Emperor’s Club, or the Harry Potter films, you’ve seen Hollywood images of traditionalist schools.

And, come to think of it, if you’ve seen Dead Poet’s Society, you’ve also seen an image of the opposite: a progressively-minded classroom. (I don’t think I’m giving anything away when I say that the conflict of educational visions fuels the plot.)

Curiously, I couldn’t find any examples of full-on progressive schools in film — if you know of any, point me toward them, and I’ll update this post!

But of course this divide isn’t just a Hollywood phenomenon. In real life, classical schools (especially, I find, of the Christian variety) and great books colleges go to the nth degree to achieve the traditionalist vision. In a less extreme manner, the Common Core Standards and E.D. Hirsch’s Core Knowledge curriculum attempt to achieve the traditionalist vision.

On the other hand, the current anti-testing movement is animated by a progressive ideal. And at the extremes of the progressive ideal are free schools (such as Sudbury schools) and the unschooling movement.

These visions don’t play well together.

I’ve found that advocates of both visions tend to react to the other vision with horror and disgust. They’re befuddled that anyone would want to “do that” to children, and they malign each other:

“Traditionalist schools are just drill-and-kill.”

“Those hippie-dippie progressive schools don’t really teach anything.”

Now, there really are problems in each type of schooling. Sometimes traditionalist-minded schools really just amount to drill-and-kill! Sometimes progressively-minded teachers really don’t teach much of anything!

Well, you might be thinking, the solution is obvious: just combine the two. Let each bring its own genius to bear!

Take the best of both worlds!

Easier said than done.

At the end of the day, we’ve got to make choices as to what to put in a school day. Will we allocate time and resources to helping kids master old knowledge, or into helping them make new knowledge?

Kieran Egan has argued (in the second chapter of his thrilling The Future of Education: Reimagining Our Schools from the Ground Up) that these two ideals, in fact, pull against each other: that an attempt to pursue both tends to torpedo both.

His approach to schools — Imaginative Education — is an attempt to reframe the task of teaching so as to make this traditionalist–progressive war obsolete.

Our schools are attempting to do the same thing.

How are we pulling it off?

Stay tuned.

Natural vs. unnatural (and why this is a smidgen too simple)


Is this whole natural/unnatural divide simplistic? Yeah. But it's a helpful place to begin — even if we need to move beyond it.

In my last post, I cited a distinction made by cognitive (and evolutionary) psychologist David C. Geary: humans are biologically prepared to do some things, but not others. Things that we're designed to do (walking, singing, telling stories) he calls primary abilities. Things that we're not designed to do (riding unicycles, juggling, Newtonian physics) he calls secondary activities.

This distinction isn't just academic: it lies at the heart of what our schools (any schools!) see as their purpose. In fact, this distinction neatly encapsulates a major divide between two major philosophies of education.

One type of school thinks that learning is unnatural. These schools (let's call them "teacher-centered" schools) think a school's job is to instruct. If schools don't do a good job of directly instructing students (they think), the students aren't apt to learn much.

The other type of school thinks that learning is natural. These schools (let's call them "child-centered" schools) think a school's job is to provide an environment for learning, and then get out of the way. If schools succeed in doing a good job of directly instructing students (they think), the students aren't apt to learn much — because students learn best on their own!

So what is it: is learning unnatural, or natural?

This is a question of human nature. And in my last post, I suggested that, well, human nature is complex. Some things are natural for us, and other things are unnatural. Success in schooling depends (I suggested) on figuring out which is which.

But that's not so simple.

It's not (for example) that art is a primary ability, and math is a secondary activity. Entire subjects don't fall neatly into one camp or the other.

Rather, each subject demands multiple skills. For example, in an English class, students read, write, discuss, reason, empathize, and so on. Each skill may be primary or secondary. 

In fact, it's more complicated than that. Each skill is made up of sub-skills. Writing, for example, is made up of spelling, handwriting/typing, syntax, idea generation, idea organization, and so on.) Each sub-skill may be primary or secondary. 

And in fact, it's even more complicated than that! Typically, a sub-skill isn't purely natural or unnatural. Human nature doesn't usually work like that. There are a few things that we do wholly naturally: breathing, for example. A person raised on a desert island would breathe just fine.

Wel, obviously, schools don't need to teach breathing.

But other primary skills seem designed to be activated and shaped by cultures: dancing, for example. All cultures dance — but it's not clear that a person raised on a desert island would dance by themselves.

So is dancing primary or secondary? Well, it contains elements of both. The urge to shake and jump and wiggle — all in tandem with other people — may be primary. But specific elements of motion (for example, pliés in ballet, promenades in square dancing, and arials in swing dancing) may be secondary.

Why does this matter? Because we need to tap into students' primary abilities, and be prepared to systematically teach secondary abilities.

In teaching dancing, for example (as will be an important aspect of our schools), we'll need to capitalize on young students' desire to shake and jump and wiggle, and on older students' desire to touch each other. (That schools typically ban touching seems a sure sign that they're evolutionarily off-kilter.)

But we won't assume that undirected wiggling will automatically bloom into beautiful dancing. Rather, we'll be prepared to teach elements of more formal dancing from a host of cultural styles — circle and line and ballet, salsa and swing and waltz, flamenco and mambo and Bollywood.

As I said before, we'll start with abandon, and move into structure.

If we don't tap into students' primary abilities, we'll be passing up our greatest resource. This is the mistake that teacher-centered education makes.

And if we don't systematically teach secondary abilities — if we expect them to just grow up naturally — we'll be denying our students the education they're ready for. This is the mistake that child-centered education makes.

Our job — as a new kind of school that takes human nature seriously — is to draw upon primary abilities, and systematically teach secondary abilities.

Next, I hope to explore how this can look in teaching writing.

(Props to David Geary: his categories of "primary" and "secondary" abilities are designed to reflect this messy reality. They're not "pure" categories. It took an earlier debate on this blog — about whether math instruction is "natural" or "unnatural" — for me to realize that. Props, too, to Catherine Lewis, who helped me see that.)

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 School for Big, Spiraling History (part 3 of 5)


As I wrote in my last post, a new approach to the social studies curriculum...

will attempt to overcome the tragedy of conveyor-belt knowledge: information is learned, tested, and instantaneously forgotten…

A new model must attempt, rather, to layer and complicate knowledge so students can achieve a full, complex understanding.

Taking, as we do, a Big History scope (see the last post, if you missed it!), we're especially at risk for this "tragedy of conveyor-belt knowledge." We've got nearly 14 billion years to cover — more than five thousand years of modern, urbanized human history alone! A Big History scope, laid out foolishly, could actually deliver a more shallow understanding of the world than the unfit for the 21st century model currently being practiced around North America.

But we can steer clear of this disaster. How? By sequencing Big History in a sensible way over our students' twelve years of school.

First, let's imagine what an awful sequence might look like:

  • In grade 1, students would learn about the origins of the Universe.
  • In grade 2, students would learn about the origins of the planet.
  • In grade 3, students would learn about the origins (and development) of life — fish, dinosaurs, giant ground sloths, etc.
  • In grade 4, students would learn about early foraging societies.
  • In grade 5, students would learn about ancient civilization — in Mesopotamia, China, India, and the Americas. …

And so on, and so on. You get the idea. What would be so awful about this (entirely hypothetical) sequence?

With this sequence, students would only arrive at the contemporary world in grade 12. With this sequence, students would forget nearly everything that happened previously. With this sequence, students would never connect information across time.

With this sequence, the wonderful potential of Big History would be wasted: students wouldn't cultivate a unified vision of the world.

In order to have a unified, interconnected understanding, there must be repetition of scope — though not repetition of specific information. That is, students should revisit some of the same events, people, and themes — but not slavishly rehash what they've learned before.

How often should they revisit the topics?

Well, again, let's imagine another awful sequence of Big History, but this time in the other direction:

  • In grade 1, students would learn about all of Big History.
  • In grade 2, students would learn about all of Big History.
  • In grade 3, students would learn about all of Big History.
  • In grade 4, students would learn about all of Big History.
  • In grade 5, students would learn about all of Big History. ...

And so on. With this "sequence," students would never focus on particular periods, persons, or events. They'd always and forever be flying over, skimming the surface. They'd never have the pleasure of diving into the wonderful details. This sequence would be awful of a different shade.

So: we should strike a balance.

Between first grade and senior year, students go through the whole of Big History, not once, not twice: but thrice. Each cycle consists of four years.

We're talking spiraling through human (and universal) history in three cycles, each of four years.


What could this look like?

In grades 1–4, students learn about the whole history of the Universe (focusing, always, on the human story of the last 5,000 years). The goal in this cycle is to introduce and excite the students with some of the "greatest hits" of history.

In middle school (grades 5–8), students revisit the history of the Universe. Because they've developed quite a bit of knowledge over the last four years, and because they're older, they'll bring new question and insight to their learning. The goal in this cycle is to complicate student understanding by teasing out and challenging their earlier perspectives.

In high school (grades 9–12), students revisit the history of the Universe again. Because they've been through this twice before, they'll already know more about the grand story of humanity than (we expect) do most adults. They'll be overflowing with knowledge and (if we've done this right) hungry to learn more. What they'll be wanting is the big picture — ways to fit together what they've learned.

The goal in this cycle, then, is to connect. What is the story of life, the Universe, and everything? Is the world getting worse, or better? Why have Europeans ruled the world (rather than, say, the New Guineans)? What happened before the Big Bang? What forces drive history? What might the future hold?

The final cycle, then, will focus on the big questions, and their most interesting answers.

In sum:

In our Big Spiral History model, students will explore the history of humanity (and, to a lesser extent, the Universe) in three cycles, each of four years.

Throughout, complex knowledge will grow. The particular goal of the grade school cycle, however, will be to excite students — stir their emotions. The particular goal of the middle school cycle will be complicate their understandings. The particular goal of the high school cycle will be to connect the pieces of student knowledge through big visions of how the whole world hangs together.

Shout out to Susan Wise Bauer!

Note: I need to be transparent about how much of debt I am to the historian Susan Wise Bauer, author of the beautiful guide to classical homeschooling, The Well-Trained Mind. I fell in love with her work — particularly this approach to teaching history — some years ago, and am probably more shaped by her vision of education than by anyone else's, with the notable exception of Kieran Egan.

I take from Bauer the idea of a "spiraling" approach to history (though she doesn't use that term): 4 years × 3 cycles. I've modified her approach, I think, in only three ways. First, I've changed where the story begins. She suggests that instruction start at the earliest city-states; in our school, we'll spend substantial time on the whole story, from the Big Bang on up.

Second, I (and Lee) have changed the other divisions, which I'll post on in tomorrow's post. Third, I've changed the theory behind each cycle: Dr. Bauer advocates the classical schooling approach of the Trivium — teach the facts (the "grammar") in the first cycle, the connections (the "logic") in the second cycle, and the arguments (the "rhetoric") in the third cycle. In their place, I've put excite, complicate, and connect.

Why I've done so deserves a post or three of its own (!), but in short, I've striven to marry the classical education of Susan Wise Bauer's with the Imaginative Education of Kieran Egan. Of which, more anon — in a few posts, I'll suggest how an Imaginative Education approach to Big History might be especially wonderful!

For what it's worth, I see this marriage as preserving the genius of both thinkers — though others are free to disagree!

If you'd like to learn more about Dr. Bauer's classical approach, check out her succinct explanation of the Trivium — "What Is Classical Eduction?", and poke around the rest of her wonderful website!