island academy of hilton head

What does a school for humans ACTUALLY LOOK LIKE?


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

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

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

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

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

From Lee Rottweilor 8 September 2015

Hi, all!

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

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

The first School for Humans opens Monday!


Let it be official: the first School for Humans will open on Monday! The Island Academy of Hilton Head will start its classes next week off the coast of South Carolina, under the guidance of Lee Rottweiler, my friend and longtime collaborator. Huzzah! Hazooh! [tears up café napkins to throw confetti into the air]

Actually starting poses a whole bunch of puzzles. Practical puzzles.

I like practical puzzles. 

The ones I'd like to pose right now are about how a community of schools might work. (I'm working to open our second school in the Seattle area in Fall of 2017.)

Among these questions: What sort of regularity between schools should exist in our new kind of school? And how much diversity should we welcome (or even court)?

1. What sort of regularity between schools should exist in our new kind of school?

It's useful, I think, to define a core of shared beliefs, and to sketch out some wonderful disagreements.

One shared belief, I think, is what we see as the ultimate purpose of our schools. Lately, I've been using the phrase "to cultivate Renaissance people" to describe that. I've been adding onto that a rewording of our "big three" values: love, mastery, and meaning. Here's what I put those together in my last post:

a kind of school that cultivates Renaissance people: men and women who find the world interesting, develop mastery in many fields, and seek a meaningful life. 

So the first thing we should agree on are our purpose and values.

Beyond that, however, I think our kind of schools needs to define itself as consciously seeking a careful understanding of human nature, as it applies to students, and building on that.

All educational approaches have an understanding of human nature, though it's typically unstated, and simplistic. We want to make ours better.

Jonathan Haidt writes:

It is impossible to analyze “the meaning of life” in the abstract, or in general, or for some mythical and perfectly rational being. Only by knowing the kinds of beings that we actually are, with the complex mental and emotional architecture that we happen to possess, can anyone even begin to ask about what would count as a meaningful life. 

Or, I'd add, a meaningful education.

There is an emerging scientific consensus on what human nature looks like. (This, after a few decades of "human nature" being banned from academic discussion.) This work is fresh and exciting: it's linking disparate disciplines, and is helping us see the big picture of life, the Universe, and everything!

There is, however, a trouble in yoking our schools to the science of human nature: there's as of yet not agreement as to all the details of what human nature is (as it applies to students).

Tom Huntington, a reader of this blog, posted an excellent question a few days ago —

who are the experts on what are the “truths” of “human nature”?

I’d really love to hear a clear statement of your views/knowings about what is “human nature” — at least the most basic, fundamental aspects of “human nature” relevant to your mission for starting your school.

The study of human nature is not yet a mature field. In a decade or two or three it will be, but of course we're not going to wait that long.

In the meantime, we can commit to thinking consciously and carefully through how our schools can leverage the innate psychologies of students, and help them build on their deficiencies.

And we can think best by thinking with other — being part of communities that are chewing through the ways in which understanding human nature can help society, such as The Evolution Institute (founded by David Sloan Wilson, out of SUNY Binghamton).

So the second thing we should agree on is to commit to thinking through the science of human nature — something crucial to education, but which few educationalists are presently talking about.

Beyond that, I'd say we need to agree on some common curriculum elements. Imaginative Education, for example, and Big Spiral History — and perhaps a number of other things.

We already have a lot of these in place. This will, however, always be a bit looser. Some schools in our community, for example, may decide to go not use JUMP Math (which I'm personally incredibly excited about). Exactly what's central and not will have to be up for some discussion.

So, in sum:

  • Schools in our community should agree on a few big things — especially purposes and values. 
  • We should also agree to address a Big Thing that not that many others in education are thinking through — the science of human nature.
  • Finally, we'll find that schools in our community share much of the same curriculum.

2. How much diversity should we welcome (or even court)?

I think a good way to approach this question is through what I'll dub the David Geary / Peter Gray spectrum. Both are evolutionary psychologists, and both are very interested by how we can use the insights of evolution to improve schools.

A provocative (and productive!) debate between the two of them was chronicled in chapter 14 of The Neighborhood Project: Using Evolution to Improve My City, One Block at a Time (by David Sloan Wilson).

David Geary (whose face graced this blog a few days ago!) is something of an educational Traditionalist. He often emphasizes that there are things we want children to learn that are not pre-prepared by evolution: math, for example. (Geary is a national expert on math education, and was appointed to the National Board of Directors for the Institute for Education Sciences.)

Peter Gray is something of an educational Progressive. He often emphasizes that the school environment is a bad one for learning — made to imitate a factory, rather than any natural human environment. Let kids return to more natural ways of learning (such as practiced by Sudbury schools, which he's a proponent of), and they'll learn better.

Who's right? Well, they both are — and finding creative syntheses of their insights that work in reality is part of what I see us as doing. This is a wonderful debate to have.

Might I suggest ordering a copy of The Neighborhood Project right now? In the meantime, feel free to read a consensus piece they both contributed to (along with David Sloan Wilson): Learning from Mother Nature about Teaching Our Children: Ten Simple Truths.