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


Reactions to our last post fell squarely into two camps:

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

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

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

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

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

Three things, I think!

First, we're telling the history of science.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stay tuned for more.

Big Spiral History begins!


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stay tuned.

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

Conference feedback — Big Spiral History Stories


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

Big Spiral History Stories

Kids need these, because they long for heroes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why do we teach history?

My usual stump speech:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who is telling the story?

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

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

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

Whose story is important?

An epic question!

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

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

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

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

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

The following are from the same commenter:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is all made more complicated by the next question.

Some clarity on history vs. story?

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

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

We're not going to.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks, commenter!

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

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

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

Answer hunting


A problem:

Without hope of finding answers, posing ever-more questions can be miserable.

Though you wouldn't know this to read a lot of us educators — as a tribe, we're prone to praising asking questions, and to demean finding answers. (I sometimes hear the quote by Rilke: "Love the questions themselves" used to this end.)

But answers are thrilling. Finding answers is the goal of asking questions. 

Don't get me wrong: I love mystery. Love love love it. But I love true mystery: the sort that comes from questions that elude even my best attempts to answer.

If our schools revolve around a curriculum of question-asking, we need to match it with a curriculum of question-answering.

Our basic plan:

As stated in my last post, our students will collect questions in their personalized commonplace books. These questions can be of any sort — philosophical, scientific, mathematic, historical — anything. Once a week our classes will choose a few questions to pursue more deeply.

Then they'll decide how they want to hunt for answers. There are three things (at least) our students could decide to do with a question.

  1. Write the question on our chalk wall. Our classrooms could have one wall (or a section of a wall) painted in chalkboard paint. Students could write the question, and then throughout the week other students could write their replies, and their replies to others' replies. (This doubles as an authentic chance to practice elegant lettering.)
  2. Commission a student to find an answer. Imagine, here, each class as its own Royal Society: funding exploration to solve the most tantalyzing gaps in knowledge. At the end of the week, the student could issue her report in a brief speech — 4 minutes, say, outlining how she pursued the answer, and what she found.
  3. Share the question with the wider communityWe could, for example, ask other classes their opinions, or the faculty. Or we could ask the classroom parents. Or we could ask a few particular community specialists — a rabbi, perhaps, or an engineer, or a city councilperson. (Skype could perhaps help here.)

Our goals:

We hope to...

  • Knit together a community through shared quests.
  • Invite debate when everyone can't agree to an answer.
  • Learn a whole lotta cool stuff!
  • Develop some mastery at research. (Commissioned students could have practice using Google, Wikipedia, print encyclopedias, and — gasp! — an actual library full of books.)

If you walk into our classrooms, you might see:

If you waltz into one of our classrooms, you might spy a pair of students earnestly debating a policy issue — like whether a lowering of the drinking age would be worth it. Or you might see a single student giving a slick 5-minute presentation on what plants eat (hint: the Sun). Or you might see a whole class interviewing someone about history — like asking a veteran whether the United States should have invaded Afghanistan.

Some specific questions:

  • When I was in high school, we sometimes had to write papers answering some specific question. Only rarely did I especially care about the question I was supposed to answer. Students should spend their time answering questions they actually care about.
  • That last point wasn't actually a question. The real question: isn't this cool?

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 Understanding the News

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

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

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

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

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

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

What's, erm, going on, again?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or, as William Faulkner wrote:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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