educational philosophy

Don't raise standards — raise a standard

I often hear discussions about education reform be conducted on the principle of the "well let's at least get them to x" principle. 

"Maybe some kids will be Einsteins," the discussion seems to be assuming, "and that'd be great. But right now, we at least want to ensure that all our students will have the basic skills." 

This position tries to be loving and caring and kind. It recognizes that, without a basic grasp of math, reading, cultural knowledge, and so on, kids struggle. 

But it's wrong.

This approach rests on the assumption that it's easier to do something easy than to do something hard. But, intriguingly, that's not always the case. 

To do anything (large or small), a human being needs to be motivated. They need to want to do it. As John Taylor Gatto has written,

Common sense should tell you it isn't "difficult" to teach children who don't want to learn. It's impossible.

What we need to do (as a school, as a society) is define stirring goals for students to quest toward. 

Want penmanship? Hook kids up with calligraphy.
Want multiplication facts? Set kids on learning the secrets of mental math.
Want literacy? Cultivate voracious readers.

As Antoine de Saint-Exupery wrote:

If you want to build a ship, don't drum up people to collect wood and don't assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.

Which is to say: We have to aim higher. Aim greater. Aim bolder. 

To start with, we should wipe from our cultural vocabulary that horrible phrase "raise standards". It connotes bureaucracy, a dehumanized environment in which children are viewed as the sum of their test scores.

Replace it with the image of "raising a standard" — lifting a flag on a battlefield for soldiers to fight towards. 

A friend challenged me last year to define what we mean by "mastery". He was, I think, concerned that we were buying into the mainstream "LET'S RAISE STANDARDIZED TEST SCORES OH YEAH!" ethos.

Well, rest assured, we aren't.

But I've found it challenging to elucidate precisely what it is that we mean when we say "mastery". It's so big — it's our image of the educated man or woman. "Renaissance man" comes close to it, as does "maker", as does "creator". I'll continue to work on that. 

For the moment, I'll say this: that sometimes, it's easier to aim for the hard things. 

My thanks to for the Gondor standard image above!

Books, computers, and pancake people


David Brooks has a thoughtful column on the different mental skills that are constructed by online learning and by book learning. I appreciate the column because it avoids the typical frame of this discussion: which is better? Is Google making us stupid? What he points out (quite reasonably, I think) is that books and online browsing are different, and we should be quite clear about how. I highly recommend everyone give it a peek.

At the end of the article, he refers to a quote by the playwright Richard Foreman. He doesn't, however, actually give the quote. It's one of my favorites (I've committed it to memory).

I come from a tradition of Western culture in which the ideal (my ideal) was the complex, dense, and cathedral-like structure of the highly educated and articulate human personality — a man or woman who carried inside themselves a personally-constructed and unique version of the entire heritage of the West.

But today I see within us all the replacement of complex inner density with a new kind of self — evolving under the pressures of information overload and the technology of the "instantly available". A self that needs to contain less and less of a repertory of dense cultural inheritance — as we all become "pancake people", spread wide and thin as we connect with that vast network of information accessed by the mere touch of a button.

Though I'd expand "the entire West" into "the entire world", I think this quote really gets at part of what I'm trying to accomplish with our schools — Lee, feel free to demur!

(The photo above is of Foreman, who is not a pancake person.)

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!

We are surrounded by mystery


Kieran Egan — our greatest living educational philosopher — reflects on his schooling, and all schooling:

I suppose, being a university professor dripping with awards and prizes, that I have played the schooling game well. But I was never sure what sense it all made. Why did I have to learn to decline those Latin irregular nouns, or be able to prove that opposite interior angles of a parallelogram are congruent, or recall the provisions of the treaty of Ghent?  Much of the time I and everyone I knew was bored with schooling, and had difficulty relating what was happening in class with human life and its enhancement.

My book is an attempt to show that, indeed, everything in the world is wonderful, but that schools are designed almost to disguise this slightly shameful fact.  We represent the world to children as mostly known and rather dull.  The opposite is the case: we are surrounded by mystery, and what we know is fascinating.

My book is an attempt to show how we can reconceive the school and the process of education to engage students’ emotions and imaginations with knowledge.

(The book in question, incidentally, is The Future of Education: Reimagining Schools from the Ground Up, which may be the best introduction to his wide-ranging body of thought.)

In our (future) school, we don't want to cover knowledge — we want to uncover it. We want to help kids see that the world around them is a mystery — where do clouds come from? how does a microwave work? — and to excite them with the chance of unravelling it.

If we succeed at that, we'll succeed at nearly all our goals.

Blessed are the sense makers


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

Be a sense maker.

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

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

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

Blessed are the sense makers.

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

This is an ever-present danger.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

The universe makes sense. 

When you ask a question, you find an answer.

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

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

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

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

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

What if Zheng He had made it to America?

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

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

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

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

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

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