Animals and plants and toasters, oh my!

So what could a K-12 STEM school look like, if one were devoted to maximizing love, mastery, and purpose — and could draw upon the weapons of Imaginative Education?

Below is what Kristin and I wrote up when asked this question. Advanced warning: there are some pretty exciting things in here. 



  • Bring in plants to the classroom, and animals, and mechanical objects Bring in food, too, and cook it together daily.  
  • This means having hermit crabs, birds, and fish in the classroom.  It also means bringing in incandescent lightbulbs, vacuum cleaners, paint, old telephones & microphones, pumps, and small gasoline engines.  
  • Some of these would stay in the classroom long-term; others could migrate from classroom to classroom at regular intervals.  (The mechanical objects, for example, would move every two weeks.) 
  • Also, get the kids out of the classroom — repeatedly visit a specific site to get a sense of how the various elements of an ecosystem work together.
  • The class’s goal is to understand these objects as well as possible.  
  • Kids would poke, prod, and take apart these things.  They’d feed them, nurture them, and clean up after them.  They might even shake, sniff, and lick them!  Bring in as many senses as possible.
  • These would get kids into physics, chemistry, biology, geology, and ecology.  (At present, we're struggling to incorporate astronomy into this.  If you’ve any thoughts, we’d love to hear them!)


  • Ordinary physical engagement isn’t enough — kids need to develop specialized techniques that will help them notice in more detail. 
  • One of these techniques is a game of just listing out everything they notice.  (We’ve adapted this from a famous story told of the scientist Louis Agassiz, which is well worth reading.)  It’s incredible how doing this pushes us far beyond our initial interpretation of things, which we had foolishly assumed to be more-or-less all there was to see.
  • Another of these techniques is to teach children to draw realistically: drawing being a way to externalize observation (and to make obvious what we’re not seeing).  There are a few outfits in Seattle that do this, and some DVDs and books that teach it as well.
  • Another of these is to use physical tools — especially magnifying glasses and microscopes — to uncover worlds we’d otherwise not have access to.  (The secret is to provide these things as tools for students to use to explore objects they’ve chosen, rather than assigning the objects.) 


  • Fill the classroom with engaging popular books of science — both for children and for adults.
  • Allow kids to have a limited number of web searches per day.  (This creates scarcity and value, and forces students to be more discerning in their browsing.)
  • Prompt kids to ask parents and community members what they know about these topics.


  • Give kids blank books (“commonplace books”) in which to make their observations, draw pictures, and pose questions.
  • Once each week, students submit one question they’d most like to get the class’s help pondering (e.g. “Why doesn’t the filament burn up?”).  These questions get written onto the chalkboard wall. 
  • Each day, time is set aside for offering up possible answers to those questions — along with new sub-questions that the original question spawns.  Those are also written down on the board, which becomes a giant thought map.
  • Have students ask parents and community members what they think the answers to these specific questions might be.
  • The immediate job of the teacher isn’t to answer these questions directly, but rather to facilitate thinking well — challenging the kids’ theories, and praising effort.  (This is Socratic dialogue, and though I think I can teach it in person, I’d need to look into how to teach it remotely.  There are some good books on this, published by people associated with the Philosophy for Children movement, which has a center in Seattle.)


  • The longer-term job of the teacher is to steer children toward the correct answer.  To do that, the teacher needs to, of course, herself understand the scientific phenomenon deeply.  To help relatively untrained teachers do this, we could put together informational materials — scans of relevant books, PDFs of relevant webpages, and YouTube video explanations, for example.  We’d also want to make it easy for teachers to ask each other questions — teachers, in a way, take on the role that the students are doing.  We’d perhaps also want to pay some scientists (or PhD students) to directly answer questions online, and preserve those answers for future teachers.
  • And we can go beyond just providing information for teachers — we can help pre-prepare lesson plans on the Imaginative Education framework.  The goal here is to show students how this physical phenomena is really, really interesting — in addition to showing how it works.  (Some students are born with a love for scientific phenomena — for the rest of it, it needs to be cultivated.  This starts with the teacher falling a little in love with the topic.)  I’d be thrilled to put you guys in touch with some of the leading science-teaching experts in the Imaginative Education community. 


  • At the end of the project, students demonstrate their understanding by making something that teaches the science to others.
  • Most frequently, this should be a written report, which we can use to hone writing abilities.  These would be authentic projects, written for specific audiences — parents, and perhaps younger students.
  • These demonstrations can also be done in other media: students can draw diagrams, shoot photos, make movies, write songs, and draw comics to explain the science. 


  • Tell the stories of the things we’re studying: the stories of the scientific and mathematical insights, and of the technological breakthroughs.  
  • Focus particularly on wrong ideas and inventions that didn’t work (for example, aether, classical elemental theory, phlogiston, and abiogenesis — or one of the planes before the Wright Brothers, one of the lightbulbs before Edison).  We need to make this kind of “failure” okay.  We also want to appreciate how clever the correct ideas really are!
  • We can tell those stories alongside the objects we’re studying, and tell them as part of the Big Spiral History framework (14 billion years in 4 years, encountered not once, not twice, but thrice!).
  • Use these stories as “think-alongs”: as excuses to help kids do their own thinking.  We can tell the stories slowly, asking kids to interpret the evidence that e.g. Newton is observing, and seeing if we can figure out how Newton made the intuitive leaps that he did.  
  • Start with the Big Bang, and quickly give the whole narrative of the universe.  This gives us a foundation to tell the stories of where all material things (grass, dirt, rocks, carbon atoms, nuclei…) came from in the first place.  

Stay tuned t'morrow for the math component of our plans — as well as what all of this leaves out!

Conference feedback: A song a day


More commentary on the commentary! (We're getting Talmudic, here...) All quotes were given at the IERG conference a week and a half ago. To refresh you memory, you might re-read the original post on a song-a-day — or either of our two posts on dancing!

A song a day

Music is so fundamental to our experience, so I love this idea!

Yeah! Since presenting on this idea, I've been noting how much use I make of music to keep myself engaged, upbeat, serious (or frivolous)...

Music is medication. Perhaps that's why we've developed it, as a species. It's unfortunate most schools make so little of it.

Slowing down a bit. Maybe a song a day is too much too fast.

Maybe! Lee, thoughts?

I like the simplicity of saying that some things are daily, and other things weekly — even if we don't always meet that goal.

Choreography to song

Love it! The more we could integrate it with the dancing curriculum, the better (I assume).

Though I'll admit that I have no idea how to do that. I have some leads on dance instructors in Seattle — Lee, do you have any connections to dance instructors on Hilton Head?

Watch Ben Zander TED talk (very IE).

Zander's talk is "The Transformative Power of Classical Music", and it's quite worth watching!

Near the beginning, Zander says, "In the classical music world... there are some people who think that classical music is dying. And there are some of us who think you ain't seen nothing yet."

I have to admit — this is going to be something that makes me sound very snobbish — I keep returning to the question of whether our schools can have some primacy on classical music.

Classical feels so different to me — relaxing, restorative. I recall once refilling at a gas station that was playing classical — it was an ecstatic experience; purifying, almost. No other form of music (and I enjoy many different genres) makes me feel that way. And I think I'm not alone.

And this ability of classic to calm seems to be helpful, in a school.

So I'll ask (though I feel nervous about sounding like a snob) — any thoughts on whether classical music could have an outsized role in schools?

Listening. Listen to sounds of nature. Listen to the voices of many people. In particular, listen to the voices of trained classical singers!

I'm moving toward (I've mentioned this on this blog, I think) an observation-first model of creativity. If you want to cultivate creativity, cultivate observation. I've grounded our realistic drawing curriculum in this, but that's just visual observation. We should develop a parallel track for auditory observation, through music and otherwise. I've got to think about that.

Individual experience then public, instead of the reverse?

Interesting. This doesn't seem compelling to me right now, but I'll think about this.

Part of my "meh"-ness, I think, stems from the fact that I imagine public listening to be, in large part, private.

I'm thinking that each new song should ideally be played three times. Familiarity brings affection (something advertisers have long known). Each time, though, the classroom should be otherwise absolutely silent, so everyone (even the most ADHD of us) can feel safe in focusing entirely on the music.

With the song the only thing that anyone can hear, listening corporately seems a lot like listening privately.

(Lee, some notes: if we want to make auditory experience so crucial to our schools, we'll need to invest in sound-dampening technologies. If we can ever design our own buildings, that'll mean soundproofing, and classrooms that aren't just separated by folding walls. In the short-term, however, that might mean white-noise generators, of either the electronic or waterfall-y varieties.)

Did this with The Outsiders. The students chose characters and developed albums with song lyrics and visuals. Works very well.

Oh, jeez — there are probably loads of great ways to go deeper into the literature or history curriculum through music! How'd I not think of this? Thanks, anonymous commenter! I'll be on the lookout for more of these.

Oh, by the way!

I've been pondering how we should choose songs. Again, we want to bring in songs that (1) are super-diverse and super-high-quality, and (2) songs that are personally meaningful to teachers. Obviously, there'll be a good amount of overlap between those two categories — but!

I think I have an idea. It turns out there a lot of lists attempting to pick the best music of every genre. The most helpful (for our purposes) list that I've found may be 1,000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die, by NPR music reviewer Tom Moon. I haven't yet read it (I'm caravaning around the Midwest at present), but it looks pretty danged good: the cover indicates it includes jazz, reggae, oldies, opera, folk, soul, and more. (A perusal of the table of contents points to traditional Mongolian singing, rap, funkadelic, rock, and, well, take a look! Here's a very positive review on NPR.)

So here's my thinking: we alternate days. One day, a song chosen from the book; the next day, a song chosen by each teacher. Some back-of-the-envelope arithmetic suggests that between kindergarten and twelfth grade, students will be in our school for about 2,000 days.

Again, there are 1,000 songs (well, "musical pieces") in Tom Moon's book. That means it's about to as close to even as we could ask for.

Alternating like this would also allow for school unity (important, as building a culture requires shared music, art, stories, and other experiences) but also class unity (important, for the same reasons).

Lee, your thoughts?

I've been working on another idea that stems from this, but I'll post it separately. (It's that cool!)

Independent work time


A problem:

Autonomy — being able to exercise choice in what you do with your time — is a human necessity. Quality work, emotional contentment, long-term personal growth: all of these depend, in part, on a person's ability to engage in the activities that they know they need to engage in.

In most schools, students have little autonomy.

Our basic plan:

For a significant portion of each day, students get to choose what they'll be doing — let's dub this their "independent work time".

This won't be the entire day — there'll be periods where we're all gathered together. But during independent work time, students will get to choose between many different options of pre-defined activities (drawing a plant, reading a book about their Learning in Depth project, re-engaging a nettlesome math puzzle, dissecting a toaster, copying a map, and other curricular pieces you've seen bandied about on this blog!).

During this time, students will be fairly autonomous, sometimes working by themselves, other times in partners or small groups (depending on the work). The teacher will be required to check that they're doing their work, and help them when they're stuck. The teacher will also confirm when a student hits a predefined level (say, being able to draw a map of Australia by heart to a certain degree of complexity), and records it.

To help students choose wisely, we may help them write up "work plans" at the beginning of the quarter (fine-tuned each week), which they can follow or riff off of.

Our goals:

  • Students get experience in planning and self-management.
  • Students get greater satisfaction in their work.
  • Students are able to match their mood to the type of work: e.g. math if they're in a creative mood, technology-dissection if they're in an analytical mood.
  • Students simply get more learning done.

If you walk into our classrooms, you might see:

Stumbling into our classroom, you might be surprised to find that everyone is doing their own thing — but that they're not running around wild. Rather, they look intently focused on a specific thing. After a while of observing, you might notice that a group of children who had been discussing the lyrics to a Tin Pan Alley song break up and each independently consult their work plans, checking off the box that says "music" before they move to different stations.

Some specific questions:

  • Is there a better phrase than "independent work"? (I'm pulling this from the Montessori category of "works", which I'm shamelessly stealing this whole idea from.)
  • Is there a better phrase than "work plans"? (Please let there be a better phrase than "work plans".)
  • Can we have the teachers' records be stored electronically, say, in a Google spreadsheet?

Cooking lunch together


A problem:

Kids don't know how to make delicious food for themselves — or for others! Instead, we "feed" them: culinarily, our schools guide children into a learned helplessness. Meanwhile, commercial food scientists develop ever-more-brilliant recipes for hooking children into less-than-healthy fare.

At the same time, the act of making food can be incredibly educational: cooking, baking, and eating can provide questions of chemistry, biology, physics, and culture.

Our basic plan:

Kids cook their own lunch.

We can start with simple (but delicious) dishes — easy soups and breads — and gradually move up the ladder of complexity until students are routinely creating complex dishes — like "Stir-Fried Asparagus with Shiitake Mushrooms" and "Quinoa Pilaf with Herbs and Lemon".

Kids will get experience in setting up a kitchen, cooking the food, cleaning up, and devising a shopping list.

They'll also get experience in enjoying food — not just wolfing it down, but in savoring it, and critiquing it. (At some point, a heated argument will break out as to whether the dish needs more or less tarragon. At that point, we will know we have succeeded!)

We'll encourage kids to ask scientific questions about what's happening to the food as they cook it — why are parts of the egg different colors? Why's the albumen turning white? Now why is it turning brown?

We'll also encourage cultural questions about the food — where does this pho recipe come from? Does it have anything in common with the other Vietnamese dishes we've cooked? Where is this chili pepper native to? (Hint: not Vietnam!) How'd it get there?

Our goals:

Kids will gain competence (and ultimately mastery) of one of the most fundamental skills: making food that nourishes and delights you, and the people around you.

Through this, kids will raise questions about chemistry and culture that can be investigated in other parts of the school day.

If you walk into our classrooms, you might see:

Kids measuring, chopping, stirring, planning, and cleaning. And eating — delighting in the food they and others have made, and making plans to make it even better next time.

Some specific questions:

  • This is a situation in which fine-tuned mastery is key — and in which badges seem the natural measurement. Should we have cooking badges for each kitchen skill? (E.g. a badge for dicing, a badge for slicing, a badge for properly washing a pan, a badge for roasting garlic, a badge for leading a team of people through a complex soup, a badge for properly setting the table, a badge for making a grocery list…)
  • Should we have a test for each badge?
  • How should we rotate the roles? For example, should a group of students spend a week on prep work, then a week on cooking, then a week on cleaning up?
  • Should teams of students stay stable for a semester?
  • What food restriction issues should we be prepared for?
  • Should we ethically source the food? (I'd love to be able to visit the actual farm, so the students can see where their food comes from.)
  • What specific skills should be on our list for the first year? (E.g. slicing, dicing…) Where do we learn the Official Best Way to learn these? (YouTube? A book like The Professional Chef?)
  • What specific recipes should we tackle the first year?
  • How much time will this take at the beginning of the year? How much time will it take by the end of the year, as kids get more accomplished?

Leitner box


A problem:

We leak memories. In school, we stock up knowledge and understanding — but it evaporates. Forgetting is quick and brutal, and impedes future comprehension.

We leak memories even of things that we value. College, for me, was a never-ending series of wows! (It probably helped that I picked my classes mostly on whim, based on which struck my interest.) And yet I can hardly remember anything from my history degree. I learned this the hard way when I tried to teach a European history class, and couldn't remember any of the delightful little stories I had obsessed over in college. Sometimes, now,  I flip through my class books, and can't believe I've ever read them — there's just no memory there.

We're not even asked to value what we learnIn school we learn, and learn, and learn, but we're not given a chance to determine what things, specifically, we love.

Our basic plan:

Students keep, and regularly review, a collection of what they've found most valuable, or interesting, or wonderful, or important.

Each day each student adds to their collection, creating 1–2 flash cards that encapsulates what they've learned that they most love. Flash cards are made elegantly (however the student defines that) and are stored in a Leitner box.

Each day each students reviews their collection, using a spaced repetition system wherein newer cards get reviewed more frequently, and older cards get reviewed less frequently.

Over weeks and months, everything that students enter into their Leitner boxes gets engraved in their memories: they carry around their favorite knowledge wherever they go, and will for the rest of their lives.

The act of reviewing can be a delight: a chance to re-taste some tasty bits of knowledge and to re-visit their past selves ("Why did I ever think this was interesting?!"). It's also a chance to combine knowledge in new arrangements, making connections between information that was previously unrelated.

Eventually, we may transition the cards to a computerized spaced repetition system, like Anki.

Our goals:

Theologian James K. A. Smith writes:

our identity is shaped by what we ultimately love… what, at the end of the day, gives us a sense of meaning, purpose, understanding, and orientation to our being-in-the-world.

Our hope is that the Leitner boxes provide a chance for students to consciously ponder and freely choose those things, and to reflect on them more deeply (and ultimately build them into themselves).

Thus the goals for this really are that students experience more autonomy in school, see what they learn in school as an opportunity to build themselves, and ultimately care more deeply about what they learn.

If you walk into our classrooms, you might see:

Students slowly going through their day's reviews, smiling in reverie.

At the end of the day, the whole class pausing for ten minutes to reflect on what they've learned, and to carefully make two flash cards out of the choicest bits.

Some specific questions:

  • Each kid should get a specific box, but what sort of box that is, and how it looks (or is decorated) should be up to the individual student.
  • "Flashcard" connects soul-crushing tedium, but these flashcards are exactly the opposite! Should we avoid the word "flashcard"?
  • 1–2 cards per day — is that a good number?

A song a day


A problem:

There's so much humanity squeezed into every song — ideas, stories, and feelings! Music activates some of our deepest cognitive plumbing. It draws us into the inner experiences of other human beings, some very unlike us.

Music contains multitudes. And what do schools use? Textbooks!

Even worse: Music divides people. What music we each listen to becomes a tribal shibboleth: high school classes split into rock, hip-hop, and country. We use music to divide others into "like us" or "not like us". Our culture makes us musically insular.

Our basic plan:

Each day, our classes will listen to a new song — and we'll use it to do wonderful things.

Songs will reflect much global diversity — we'll have a cappella and acid rock, alternative country and bluegrass, blues and boogie, bossa nova and breakbeat, calypso and classical and country music. And that's just up to the letter 'c'!

Over the course of 12 years, at the rate of 1 new song per day, students will become acquainted with something like 2,000 new songs — some they'd have run across anyway, but many they wouldn't have.

After students listen to the song together (perhaps twice — once without lyrics, once with), the song will be added to a "music station" in the classroom: a set of headphones and a iPod. There, in independent work time, students can re-listen to the songs they'd like and carry out a series of works.

Students can choose to listen attentively, paying close attention to a single facet: the rhythm, the instrumentation, or the melody. Can they tap out the beat? Can they name all the instruments used? Can they hum the melody, or re-create it on a synthesizer?

Or they can put everything they hear together and focus just on the feeling that the song evokes. Could they express that feeling in non-representational drawing? Could they try to explain how the song makes them feel that way? (This would be an excellent entrée to music theory.)

Another series of options would allow students to focus on the lyrics. What do the lyrics say? What do they mean (can the student summarize them)? Can the student pull a Weird Al, and write a hilarious parody of them? Can the student use the melody to write a song that helps other students memorize some aspect of the curriculum — the names of all the nations or the parts of a cell?

Or students could go beyond the song, research the story behind it (how was it conceived? how did people take to it?), the story of the people who created it, and the story of the genre as a whole. They could also critique it. Is it a great song? Why, or why not?

Our goals:

Part of our goals is to forge a common culture in our schools. We want to make it easier for kids to connect with each other across the usual lines that divide people (socio-economic class, ethnicity, religion, age, etc.). We also want to make it easier for students and faculty to connect together, and cultivating a common culture. We want to help students connect with adults outside the school — their parents' and grandparents' generations in particular. Finally, we want to help kids connect with people across the world.

Shared musical experiences can play a part in accomplishing all of this — a small part, to be sure, but a meaningful one all the same.

If you walk into our classrooms, you might see:

Kids liking, loving, and occasionally hating music — all together, or all by themselves.

Some specific questions:

  • How should we pick the songs? I see three major options:
    • Option A: Each teacher decides. If we go this route, each day's song could become a means for the teacher to share her/himself with the students. Love is a virus, and spreads through people.
    • Option B: The whole staff decides at the beginning of the year. If we go this route, each day's song could help knit together students across age ranges.
    • Option C: It's centrally decided for the whole school. If we go this route, we relieve teachers of the responsibility to pick out songs. If we consult with some musical experts, we could also ensure a greater diversity of world music.
  • A song every day, or every other day?
  • How many times a day should we play the primary song? One seems too few.
  • Are there legal issues here we should be aware of?
  • It'd be cool to offer access to these songs to parents, so they can use the songs to bridge the generational divide as well.

Oh my: we're in business!

Exciting things have been cooking in the last couple months. I've held back on writing about them for fear that that they'd change, but now that they've solidified (and I've regained control of my calendar), I'd like to present you with: the plan moving forward.

Wonderful Thing #1:

Lee's opening a school!

Long-time readers will recall that Lee Rottweiler is a sometime-contributor to this blog. (In fact, the whole plan to start a school came from him! He and I have been kicking around all the ideas featured on this blog for years.)

He's now living off the Eastern seaboard, on Hilton Head Island (in South Carolina and roughly between Savannah, Georgia and Charleston, North Carolina), where's he's been asked to start a school.

A school of his own design.

To open in the fall.

And he's asked me to help design the curriculum.

Ladies and gentlemen: it's begun. Here's the website for the school — The Island Academy of Hilton Head.

The whole "we'll open a Seattle-area school in Fall 2017" is still very much happening — but now its design process has lurched forward! (This is very, very good for me: I'm forced to get clear on everything for our school now, so I can focus more on the nuts-and-bolts of opening our school in the upcoming year.)

Wonderful Thing #2:

To help me think through the curriculum that Lee and I are creating together, I've signed up to present our curriculum on July 2nd, at the Imaginative Education Research Group's annual conference up in Vancouver. We've titled it "A New Kind of School: Imaginative Education and Love, Mastery, and Meaning." Here's what I wrote up:

What could schooling look like, if we reimagined it from the ground up? How could love, mastery, and meaning infuse everything we do? And how could every subject be fueled by Imaginative Education?

We’re two teachers who have contemplated these questions for years, and we suddenly have the chance to bring such a school into being. This fall we’ll be opening a school on Hilton Head Island, off the coast of South Carolina — and we’d like your help in fleshing out the curriculum!

What could history look like, in such a school? Math, science, and literature? Drawing, music, and dancing? Physical education, cooking, and meditation?

This will be a venue to share your hare-brained notions and hard-won wisdom. We’ll spend some time sketching out our thinking so far, but half the workshop will be devoted to eliciting participants’ fresh educational thinking.

Come with your hopes. Leave with some bigger ones.

So now I just need to lay out all of the ideas for the school, in condensed form — and quickly!

What a wonderful situation to be in.

Wonderful Thing #3:

I need your help.

I don't advertise this blog, so if you're reading this, it means that you know me, and that I trust your educational instincts.

Over the next two weeks, I'm going to publish about 30 short descriptions of what students will actually be doing at our schools. (I'll put a hold on the more general discussions of philosophy.)

I'd love (love love) to get your radically honest feedback. I'm desirous of any feedback you want to give, but here are some especial things:

  • I'd love any ideas on what challenges you think these curricular ideas might experience. From students, from parents, from teachers! Because oh, there will be challenges! I and Lee would love to know about them before we go into it. (These might take the form "One potential challenge could be…")
  • I'd love any ideas on what opportunities you think these curricular ideas might hold. (These might take the form "This idea excites me, because…")
  • I'd love any questions you have about this. This'll be my first time publicly presenting some of these ideas, and I know I won't be as clear as I could be. (These might take the form "One thing I don't quite understand is…")
  • I'd love any advice you have on how to make these ideas better. Is there already curriculum for doing what I'll be writing about? A book I should read? Do you have a cool idea or tweak? Please, let them loose! (These might take the form "Another thing you could try is…")

Oh, and one more thing: I'm, in general, way too sensitive. (It's something I'm working on.) But in this forum, I'm not looking for pats on the head. I don't especially need to hear that these ideas are cool — believe me, I'm already convinced enough of that! If patting me on the head makes it easier for you to give more critical advice, that's perfectly fine — but don't just say nice things on my account.

All right: Look for three pieces of curriculum (programming, games, and art immersion) in the next day.

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


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

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

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

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

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

The 22nd century?

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

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

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

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

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

Human nature: no, really.

But it's not enough to have goals!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

School is the bridge — or, many bridges.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A movie a week


We'll be enacting a lot of oddball ideas at our school. One of the simpler ones — and yet one I'm most excited about! — is to watch a movie together each week. What, you ask? With droves of subjects to be explored, with scads of skills to be mastered, why would we frivol away precious class time passively staring at a (gulp) screen? Can't kids do that at home? Isn't this too easy? Doesn't this go against the whole idea of the school?!

Nope! Let's explore this.

When I was in school, I often saw teachers use movies foolishly: as "treats" (they rarely were), as history lessons (they're typically terrible history!), and as (it seemed) excuses for the teachers to take breaks.

We'll use 'em much better.

Movies provoke moral questions.

Should we root against King Kong, or for him? Are the Greeks adventurers in the 1963 Jason and the Argonauts actually heroes, or are they villains? What's up with the weird xenophobia of the sheep in 1995's Babe? Should Charlie really have refused to give the Everlasting Gobstopper to Mr. Slugworth? (I mean, come on! Wonka was being a jerk!) When Indiana Jones shoots that amazing swordsman in Raiders of the Lost Ark, and you laughed, were you being a horrible human being?

Movies make it natural to probe the questions that matter.

Not that we can't do the same thing for books: we will! (Later I'll post on our reading curriculum.) But movies are wonderful fodder for this, too.

Movies allow for intergenerational conversations.

Modern media profits from splitting up the generations: making new movies and new games for each age cohort. This can make it hard to find common cultural touchstones. By bringing classic movies into the school, we can make it easier for kids to have meaningful discussions with their parents and grandparents — who have seen Mary Poppins, and Snow White, and so on.

Maybe we could even invite parents and grandparents in to join us!

Movies saturate us in foreign cultures.

French films aren't American films. Japanese films aren't French films. And Indian films are different still!

Without actually living in another country, it's hard to get a taste of a different national culture. We'll be trying to do just that in a few ways: books, food, music, art…

But film might be the most useful of these. No other media combines stories with visuals with sounds so well — no other media offers up such quantities of sheer information in such a short time.

Movies support reading comprehension.

As Daniel Willingham — the greatest educational psychologist on the scene today — writes:

You need to know more than vocabulary to read with understanding: you need knowledge of the world.

(That comes from a YouTube video he posted about reading comprehension. It's good — if you want more, check out his wondrous book, Why Don't Students Like School?)

Well: movies give knowledge of the world!

Good movies (like good books) are revelatory: they give us a peek inside the heads of other people. They show us what other lives are like — around the world, or in the past, or in our own towns.

Willingham, again from the video:

So who are "good readers"? People who know a little bit of everything, so they know something about whatever comes up on a reading test! General cultural knowledge correlates about .50 with reading comprehension test scores!!!!

(Those excessive exclamation points, incidentally, are from the distinguished professor himself. I only would've used three.)

Films give general cultural knowledge.

Movies beg for criticism.

Was a movie enjoyable, or not? Believable, or not? Biased, or not?

How did it depict men? Women? Rich people? The poor? Blacks, and Whites, and Asians, and so on? Urbanites, and country life? Religiosity? Traditional values?

What's the tacit worldview of the movie? What sort of person does the filmmaker want you to become?

We don't want our students to be mere consumers of culture: we want to help cultivate wise users. They need to get smart about the values (explicit and implicit) that they're being fed.


Movies are terribly enjoyable.

I've been sneaking around this point so far. I've talked about how movie-watching can help develop wisdom (they can communicate other cultures, and be fodder for critical reflection). And I've talked about how movie-watching can help develop mastery (in reading).

But at their heart good movies bring love. Movies — and I say this as a person who reads more books than he watches films — are some of our civilization's best story-telling. They tap into our emotions so perfectly to communicate a different vision of reality. They can help students (and faculty) fall more deeply in love with the world.

It's a crying shame that schools don't make greater use of film.

Well: ours will!

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 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!

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 Difficult, Exhilarating Math

The problem:

Math is more than following someone else's recipe. Math is about prolonged puzzled, creative daring, and brilliant insights.

In my last two posts, I argued that we need to make math as simple as possible. If we're going to be risky, let it be in making mastery too easy.

That sounds snarky, but I mean it seriously. It's our duty to students to all but guarantee that they'll succeed in coming to a full understanding of math.

But that's not enough. It's not enough that all our students excel at math. Our job is also to lead them to love math.

How can we do that? How can we lead kids to mathematical infatuation?


Well, there are a number of ways we'll be pursuing this, but one major route:

Bring in creative puzzles. Puzzles that are challenging. Puzzles that can't be unraveled right away — that need to be put away and considered hours or days later. Puzzles that offer multiple solution methods. Puzzles that require creative daring — trying something that, on the face of it, might seem strange or stupid. Puzzles that, week by week and month by month, grow creativity.

Some of these puzzles will incorporate old ideas — the concepts that the kids have learned in previous years, only shown in an unfamiliar form. Others of these puzzles will preview new ideas — the concepts that the kids will be learning in the following months and years.

What matters is that the puzzles not just be technically difficult, but conceptually cleverthat they be about ideas.

As a class, the goal isn't merely to get the right answer, though that's (of course) very important. The goal is also to explore diverse routes for finding that answer.

Good, complex math puzzles typically can be solved using multiple methods. For example, consider a classic math puzzle: What's the sum of all the whole numbers from 1 to 100?

There's a straightforward way to solve this: just add away! 1 + 2 + 3 + 4… + 99 + 100 = 5,050.

There's a clever way to solve this: Look for similar pairs. 1 + 100 = 101 2 + 99 = 101 3 + 98 = 101 … 50 + 51 = 101.

There are 50 pairs. Each pair adds to 101. 50 * 101 = 5,050.

There's a weird way to solve this: Add sets of 10s, and spot the pattern. Sum of 1–10: 55. Sum of 11–20: 155 Sum of 21–30: 255 Sum of 31–40: 355 … Sum of 91–10: 955 And then add all those together: 5,050.

On their own, students will come up with all these methods — and more besides! Our teachers need only give them the encouragement to do so. (According to the excellent book The Teaching Gap, this is actually pretty close to how math is taught in Japan, and to a lesser extent Germany.)

One of these super-challenging problems can be given each week. At the week's end, our students can present their methods. And teachers can lead the class in exploring how, ultimately, each method is exactly the same thing.

This is deep mathematical understanding.

Diverse routes lead to fuller understanding.


But the results could be even better than that. Devising (and valuing) diverse routes to solving puzzles changes the nature of math. No longer is math something out there to be obeyed — it's something in you to be explored.

Diverse routes make math personal.

As a class, we might award a prize each week to the method that is the most clever, and to the method that is easiest to perform in your head, and to the method that is the weirdest!

It's not that there's a single right method, and many wrong methods. It's that there are many methods, each beautiful or ugly or useful or pointless in its own way. 

Math is an expression of humanity.  It's a human thing, not a robot thing.

To best appreciate these puzzles, we might collect them (and our favorite methods) in binders, and encourage students to re-visit them from time to time.


The focus of this post is to talk about love, not mastery — but mastery is exactly what will result as students slowly internalize these puzzles and their methods. As students write these ideas in their long-term memory, they will become more and more brilliant at mathematical problem-solving.

The SAT and ACT are made up (nearly exclusively!) of these sorts of puzzles. Bizarrely, a curriculum of creative math, of loving math, will end up being the best standardized-test-prep curriculum imaginable.

Not that we're putting much weight on that.


In brief:

Alongside a micro-scaffolded curriculum of tiny mathematical discoveries (based on JUMP Math), our school will also have a curriculum of unguided math puzzles. We might have 1 super-challenging problem per week. Students can work on the puzzles by themselves, or in teams. At the week's end, students will present their methods, and the teacher will help the class explore why each method works.

Our hope is that this won't just help raise kids who are adept at math — but kids who truly enjoy it.

A School for Complete Mathematical Understanding (2 of 2)

(Also entirely true!)

Complete Math Understanding and Social Justice

In my last post, I identified a huge problem with traditional schools: they don't reliably bring all students up to a complete understanding of math.

This was a problem in the middle of the 20th century. This is a disaster at the beginning of the 21st. 

If I can interject a bit of social justice: the inequalities in contemporary American society as numerous as they are complicated — but there is a strong correlation between economic success and mathematical understanding. This holds through many inequalities.

There's a gap between the outcomes of males and females, but when you filter out differential math abilities, the gap gets smaller. There's a gap between the outcomes of white students and students of color, but when you filter out differential math abilities, the gap gets smaller.

Obviously — obviously! — these disparities are not reducible to math performance. There is sexism, and it matters. There is racism, and it matters.

But there's good evidence to say that if we provide a way for all students to excel at math, we will make a significant stride toward reducing inequality in American society. This is something worth fighting for.

All right. So: how can we accomplish this?

Step #1:  JUMP Math

We'll start by using the gold standard for curricula that achieve full comprehension: JUMP Math.

JUMP is published by a non-profit organization from Canada, the brainchild of John Mighton: an actor-turned-playwright-turned-math-tutor-turned-Math-Ph.D.-turned revolutionary-curriculum-designer. (Y'know, one of those people).

(Not that it particularly matters, but you might have seen Mighton before — he played the inspirational teacher in Good Will Hunting.)

The heart of JUMP Math is the insight that each math concept — even the very most complex ones — can be broken down into smaller and smaller chunks, until they're small enough for students to understand in mere seconds. Students come to understand (not merely perform) each chunk quickly, and then jump onto the next micro-concept.

Emphasis on quickly. In JUMP, students move from insight to insight, with only a small bit of struggle in between. There's little of the floundering that makes many (many) students feel that they're just spinning their wheels, that they'll never understand math.

People don't like floundering. People don't like struggle without hope. People love to struggle and achieve.

Video game makers understand this. In the last few decades, they've mastered the psychology of struggle and reward, and have made video games into feedback systems so well-suited for human brains that they are nearly addictive.

JUMP stokes the ego. JUMP (metaphorically) turns math into video games.

Learning anything — feeling the change from not-knowing to knowing well — feels fulfilling. Learning quickly feels especially fulfilling.

a (Crucial) Side Note

Crucial side note: small struggles are not enough. To be psychologically healthy, humans also need big struggles — we need to take on enormous projects that we're not confident we'll be able to solve.

In our school, our math curriculum will also have another component — baffling puzzles that students will need hours and weeks to unravel; puzzles that will allow for creativity and individualized solutions.

Our school's math curriculum will be both/and: students will fully learn the core K-12 math curriculum through a micro-scaffolded JUMP Math curriculum, and they will cultivate their creative brilliance through non-scaffolded puzzles.

I'll be blogging later on the second half of this.

End of side note.

What about Struggling Students?

Some students, of course, have more difficulty learning math. (Again: people are not blank slates.) That doesn't mean their mathematical understanding has a ceiling. 

JUMP Math works wonderfully for them, too. Teachers simply break the micro-concepts down into still-smaller chunks — however small the student needs to quickly and fully understand the concept.

Every student can learn one more concept. Every student can learn another concept after that. There are no ceilings in math.

This psychological insight is perhaps the most revolutionary piece of JUMP. My students who use JUMP report having new faith in their abilities to learn. JUMP teaches that anything is possible in learning.

Learning to teach the JUMP Math way is an art: one of the most joy-inducing skills I've honed as a teacher.

How is This Different?

Traditional math books have two phases: they introduce the concept (the first couple pages of each chapter, replete with 2-3 sample problems), and then they ask students to apply the concept (the next few pages, featuring about 20-30 problems).

JUMP Math doesn't do that — it teaches new concepts through the very problems it presents.

Every question enlightens. Students learn constantly. No problem is wasted.

I recall, when I was in high school, staring blankly at my math book, reading the sample problems a third, fourth, and fifth time, wondering what I wasn't getting.

(I also remember stabbing my book in frustration. Lost a good pen that way!)

JUMP, again, makes learning math easy. It makes achieving a fundamental skill of the 21st century simple, something everyone can do.

This seems, to me, a fundamental human right.

But Wait, There's More!

Any curriculum that did all the above would be excellent, but JUMP Math goes an extra step.

Instead of asking students to merely perform math, JUMP leads them into the messy guts of understanding.

JUMP helps all students clearly understand somewhat-obtuse concepts that I recall merely memorizing.

Students understand why order matters in subtraction and division. Students understand why order doesn't matter in addition and multiplication. Students understand why you can't divide by zero. (Hint: it has nothing to do with blowing up the universe.) And so on.

Again, I'm pretty "good" at math: I got a perfect score on my GRE Quantitative, for example. But I regularly learn new things when I teach with JUMP. Big things. Things I never thought to ask about. Things that make me aghast I didn't know them before.

JUMP Math makes it simple for every student to develop full mathematical understanding. We'll ground our curriculum in it — and move beyond it, too.

I listed, in the last post, four things we should be able to promise students vis-à-vis math. By explaining JUMP, I think I've handled the first two of them — complete (2) understanding and (3) solving of the K-12 curriculum.

I haven't touched on (4) remembering everything that students learn, and (4) allowing students to be active learners, rather than passive receivers.

But I suspect I'm pushing the upper bounds of how long a blog post ought be already. I'll look forward to addressing those in future posts!


In Brief:

Understanding math is (and will continue to be) crucial in the 21st century. Yet our brains aren't built for it. What's needed — and what our school will set itself to delivering — is a math curriculum that takes seriously how difficult and unnatural math learning is, and then helps students master it entirely. To do this, we will start with the JUMP Math curriculum, and build from there.


For Further Reading:

John Mighton has written two books — The Myth of Ability and The End of Ignorance. Both are excellent, though start with the first. For a quicker overview of JUMP, however, take a peek at these two excellent posts in the New York Times Opinionator column — "A Better Way to Teach Math," and "A Better Way to Teach Math, Part 2."

A School for Complete Mathematical Understanding

both of these... The thing is, this is actually true — for all genders.

The problem:

The 21st century rewards those who can think mathematically, but the human brain isn't built to do that.

A new kind of school can train students — all students — to understand math, all the way from 4+5=9 to statistics and calculus. Our goal is nothing less than that. And there's good evidence that this isn't just a utopian wish.

But before we continue with the optimistic thinking, we have to make something perfectly clear:

Math is unnatural. Math is hard.

Sure, there are a few rare humans who apprehend new mathematical ideas as readily as the majority of us apprehend the plots of, say, Michael Bay movies. Those people face entirely different problems in math class — we'll ignore them for right now.

For the grand majority of us, learning math is difficult. Vexing. Boring.

We shouldn't be surprised by this — the human mind wasn't designed to do complex, abstract math. Being able to solve for x wasn't of particular use on the African savannah.

In contrast, the human mind was designed for learning a different abstract, rule-based, and knowledge-heavy system: language. Each human language has a syntax and vocabulary that is far more complex than the sum total of everything we ask students to learn in K-12 math.

Yet every virtually every 6-year-old speaks their local dialect flawlessly, while few 18-year-olds have mastered math.

We're built for language. We're not built for math.

Maybe there's some species out there who can do complex math automatically — but it ain't us.

We need to face this reality — until we do, we'll underestimate the difficulty of math learning, and sell kids short. From this dismal starting point comes the outline of a plan:

We need to make learning math easy.

Once we understand how alien math learning is, and yet how crucial it is to success in the 21st century, we're left with the resolve to re-invent math learning so every student can succeed.

This is already being done. We can piggyback on it, and make it even better.

By understanding how human cognition works, we can lead all students to learn math, and learn it well. We can help people succeed. We can have a better world.

We should be able to promise a few things about math to every student who comes into our school:

1. They will be active learners, not passive receivers. 2. They will be led to fully understand every concept in the curriculum. 3. They will be adept at solving every mathematical problem they encounter. 4. They will easily remember everything they learn, all the way up until they graduate.

In the next post, I'll sketch out how.


(A note: I'm worried about two things in this post. First, that what I've just sketched out will seem too optimistic. Is it really true that all kids — even those who aren't predisposed to math — can master calculus? There's excellent evidence that, excepting students with interesting neurological difficulties, the answer is yes. Second, I'm terrified that I've wrongly conveyed the sense that math can't be enjoyable. This would be horrible, as I love math: love teaching it and learning it for myself. The joy of fully grokking a math concept is one of the sweetest pleasures I know. Hopefully I'll be able to explain how we'll bring the love of math into our school in a future post.)

A School for Engineering (part 1 of 2)

Behold, the humble toaster

The problem:

We are surrounded — and confused — by technology. Those who will flourish in the 21st century are people who can understand, and revel in, machinery.

At present, few of our schools connect students to the wonder of technology.

Our schools can lead all kids into the joy of technology — even without being special "technology" schools. If they pursue this right, they also build abilities in other subjects — science, history, math, reading, writing, and thinking.

Putting engineering near the core of a school can help the entire curriculum become more vividly intellectual.


 The Possibility

Unless you're reading this off the grid in the wilds of Alaska, you're surrounded by technology.

We often complain about this: we grumble that mechanical things feel other and alien, that they feel unnatural. We want to return to simplicity, to nature. (Well, at least feel this way!)

But this is stupid. 

Technology is the creation of human minds. It's not alien to us: mechanical objects are human thoughts given form. A gasoline engine is as much a part of Homo Sapiens as a snail's shell is part of it.

Steve Jobs captured this perfectly — as usual!

Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact. And that is that 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.

To understand the technology around you is to try on other people's minds. It's to expand yourself. Understanding technology makes us into different people: We become fuller. We sit in the driver's seat. We understand that we're not chess pieces pushed around by machinery — we can take charge of the technology.

A proper engineering curriculum, that is, brings human transformation. 

Kids should understand how toasters work. Kids should understand how computers work. Kids should understand how gasoline engines work. And so on.

Understanding the "made environment" can help students live more fully in the real world.

Engineering: The Magic Is Not Magical

If we don't understand technology, the external world looks like magic. We have no idea how things work. I discovered this recently when I asked some of my high school students how computers work.

"Hard drives," I was told. "Processors. Graphics cards." Blah, blah, blah.

No, I said, these were only the parts of a computer. What about the essentials? What makes a computer think?

They didn't understand what I was talking about. I decided to try another path.

Okay, I said. Does a computer need electricity? Could we build a computer out of, say, Legos, or wood blocks? How about even a simple computer — like a Nintendo, from the 1980s? Could you play Super Mario Brothers on a Nintendo made out of wood and metal?

The answer is yes. In fact, the first computers were entirely mechanical — made of wood and brass, and powered by hand-crank. (Side note: it's really fun to imagine how you could make a Nintendo out of such materials.)

This answer blew my students minds. They saw that they'd never understood computers before — they had thought electricity was, somehow, "magical," that it had the power to "think." In reality, the "thinking" that a Nintendo (or any computer) does comes from the organization of its pieces.

The Renaissance engineer Simon Stevin was enraptured by the ability of scientific understanding to make wondrous things. The secret, he said, was realizing that the wonder came from simple sources which could be perfectly understood. "The magic," he wrote, "is not magical."

Mechanics can be magical. The deepest wonder, though, comes from seeing magic as flowing from mechanical laws.

We need schools that use engineering as a way to encounter wonder. 


Next up: How this could actually look in our school.

A food curriculum (for grade school)

stew In our school, how can we do food good?

I mean, how can we acculturate children into a way of life in which food matters — in which kids love to make food, love to eat food, and love to understand how food connects into the rest of the universal and human stories?

How can what we do with food interlock with the rest of our curriculum? How can the ways that we cook and eat food help us shape our own values and habits? And how can food help us knit together the school community?

We've been kicking around these questions for a couple years now. We're still adding to it — please suggest your own ideas in the comments section — but I think what we've got is pretty exciting.

In this post I'll limit myself to sketching out our vision for just the primary grades — look for the continuation in a later post!



In grade school, our kids can dine together every day — on food they themselves make.

I'm shamelessly stealing this idea from a good friend who, in a previous life, ran a Waldorf-inspired preschool. A few years ago he told me that, each morning, he guided his kids in gathering components — roots, berries and whatnot — and adding them to the day's store-bought ingredients.

Then they made soup.

(That's so radical I want to put it in italics, and read it like it's a movie-trailer voiceover : Then they made soup. But of course the idea is utterly simple — a lost piece of pre-industrial society.)

My friend commented, "If you don't have enough time to eat together when you're in preschool — when will you have enough time?" This thrilled me then, and thrills me now.

Here's how I see us appropriating this simple "daily cook together" for our school, in grades 1–4.


1. Our food can start simple.

I'm imagining we can begin by making basic vegetable soup.

We'll need to round out the meal — hungry kids are peevish kids! — and so can add in sides such as bread (particularly types that evade whatever food allergies our kids have), butter, and cheese.

The kids will prepare the meal: measuring the water, slicing the vegetables (wielding age-appropriate knives), and doling out the spices. And then heating the water (in a slow-cooker), setting, the table, and finally washing the dishes.


Or at least it can be after some practice: with practice comes automation. (A question to those who teach cooking to kids: does a half-hour sound reasonable for lunch prep, not including the time the meal spends stewing?)

After a few weeks, I imagine the process will have become fluid enough that we can begin to complicate things.


2. Our food can (slowly) become complex.

Having mastered simple soup, our classes can experiment with other elements.

We can try out new ingredients, and new spices. We can add in sides — simple salads, with simple dressings. We can also (excitement of excitements!) begin to make our own wheat bread, and our own butter. (For a six-year-old, what's more fun than shaking a jar of cream until it magically transforms?)

How delightful would it be to smell freshly-baked bread when you walked into your child's school?

Vegetable soup is a gateway: having become proficient we can move to chowders, chilis, and stews, and from there to pastas and stir-frys. (And beyond!)

Likewise, wheat bread is a launching pad: bread can lead to biscuits, muffins, popovers, and so on. From there, we can move in more directions still: the rest of the world of food.

And we don't have to rush it. We can can move toward this complexity slowly — relying on the gradually-accumulated expertise that our students have built up over the months and years they've been in our school. Every week there may be new things to learn — but every day most of the food-making task will be automatic.


3. Our food can be an engagement with world cultures.

In eating, we internalize the world. This has special ramifications for our school: from grade 1 on, we'll be exploring a wide swath of human cultures — Chinese and Roman and Aboriginal and Indian and Semitic, to name just a few. (I'll be writing about our social studies curriculum in future posts.) We can integrate our food with our social studies.

We can regularly prepare traditional dishes from multiple cultures.

In our soups, we can make bisque, egg drop soup, goulash, lentil stews, miso, and pho. In our breads, we can make challah, injera, baguettes, naan, and tortillas. (These, of course, just to name a few.)

Food is an in

Now, we mustn't delude ourselves: in one sense, food is the most superficial way to understand another culture. (The deeper ways involve stories, metaphors, and ideas — tacts we'll be taking.) But in another sense, preparing and consuming the food of another culture is a profound method of understanding. To eat a meal is to make your body out of it: the eater becomes the eaten. And perhaps none of the "five senses" is as emotionally hefty as is taste. Eating is, if you'll pardon the pun, visceral.

We can use that in the hard work of helping American children emotionally connect to cultures which may at first seem quite alien.


4. Our food can be a science question-starter.

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

These are all scientific questions. (And hard ones, at that.)

A major task of our science curriculum (any science curriculum, I think) is be to get kids to wrangle with the ineffable complexity of the physical world. The work of learning science is to recognize the fractal-like intricacies of the external world, and to trace them in one's own mind — posing questions, imagining answers, and finding out if they're real.

This kind of awe-powered, fact-guided science education is glorious. It's also maddeningly difficult, because it requires more information-processing than most teachers or students are used to.

Help comes when we look at repeating children's exposure to the physical phenomena we'd like to help them intellectually unpack. For too many of us, school sometimes felt like a conveyor belt: study one thing, then it's gone — then move to another, and then it's gone.

We can't reach a complex understanding of the Maillard reaction (the chemical process that we recognize as the "browning" of food) the first time we consider it.

We can't reach a subtle appreciation of the fungal zoo that a lump of sourdough is when we first hear about it.

Perhaps we can't understand anything deeply if we're expected to "learn" it the first time through.

To achieve the deep, rich, and imaginative understanding of science that we're hoping for, our kids need repeated engagement with physical processes. They need to encounter a complex phenomena on a daily and weekly basis.

(And better yet if they can do this through multiple senses: seeing, touching, smelling, and of course tasting.)

Our food curriculum can integrate with our science curriculum. The level of scientific understanding that students at our school might reach with the help of the cooking curriculum is impressive indeed.

The complexity of the world routinely floors me — as does its unseen simplicity. Only recently, I recognized that most of what I eat is flowers. Bread? Largely flour, ground from grass seed. Grass seeds are part of grass flowers — are, indeed, the raison d'être for the flowers. How about the fruit I had for lunch? Also flower parts!

An odd fact: there is very little in a peanut butter and jelly sandwich that is not a flower.

The bread and the jelly are largely flowers, of course — but the peanuts? Peanuts grow under the ground, but they're not roots. After a peanut plant's pollinated, its flowers stretch out and descend to (and then into) the ground, where the ovaries become the delicious snacks we know, love, and smear onto children's sandwiches.

How have I made it into adulthood without realizing that? Heck, how did I graduate grade school without realizing that? Flowers — these little critters from the early Cretaceous — now make up a majority of my meal. Just nuts.

The world is complex, and it's also simple. Both sorts of understanding can be approached by a food curriculum like this.


And finally:

5. Our food can be a community- and ego-builder.

Communities are forged around shared projects. The daily practice of making, devouring, and cleaning up after the meal can, I hope, become a major community-builder. 

Furthermore, kids can differentiate, developing individual expertise and even styles for cooking. In our world of pre-made everything, kids crave opportunities to do something themselves. How cool will it be when they recognize they're actually better at making serious food than some of the adults they know?

Dodging the banality of modern fables

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Any recommendations for heterodox children's stories?