What if schools can help most people become good at almost everything?


I'm launching an advanced academic reading course at the University of Washington Bothell campus this morning — but in lieu of a post, a quote! This comes again from Andrew Ng, whom the MIT Technology Review dubbed one of the top innovators in the world under age 35 —

But often, you first become good at something,  and then you become passionate about it.   And I think most people can become good at almost anything.

What if schools could help most people become good at almost everything? What if schools could help most people become passionate about almost everything?

Such is our quest.

Why value-free education is impossible


In How to Raise a Wild Child, Scott D. Sampson writes:

beauty, truth, and goodness are all essential aspects of learning and education. Value-free education is impossible.

It's occurred to me recently that I haven't done a good job explaining that what we're trying to do with our network of schools isn't just to teach kids more things. It's not just to make them smarter and more skilled, better prepared for the needs of the 21st century.

Our goal, rather, is to cultivate a certain kind of person

Though he comes from a very different tradition, the Protestant theologian James K. A. Smith (in his jaw-dropping book Desiring the Kingdom) writes something intriguingly similar:

I’ve been suggesting that education is not primarily a heady project concerned with providing information;

rather, education is most fundamentally a matter of formation, a task of shaping and creating a certain kind of people.

How do we "shape a certain kind of people"? By helping them think more wisely about the good life — and helping them experience pieces of the good life while they're at our schools. James K. A. Smith again:

What makes them a distinctive kind of people is what they love or desire — what they envision as “the good life” or the ideal picture of human flourishing.

So, to bring together this insight with our core values:

Our schools aren't merely trying to teach kids better. We're striving to cultivate a certain sort of people — Renaissance men and women, who find all aspects of the world fascinating, relish developing mastery in all manner of fields, and work to construct lives of purpose and meaning.

Love before mastery


I've recently realized — or maybe re-realized — how useful it can be to put love before mastery.

You'll remember that the three über-values of our schools are love, mastery, and meaning. The order of those three is important: love (i.e. interest, passion, desire) comes before mastery, and supports it.

Want your child to become really, really good at something? Help them fall in love with it first. At least a little.

Kristin and I had forgotten this, I think, a little while ago, when we signed our five-year-old up for a swimming lesson. It didn't take: he was terrified to put his face in the water, and didn't trust the instructor.

Now, a half-year later, our son is clamoring for lessons. The difference? He's spent more fun time in the water. He's come to love the water, and wants to learn how to do more in it. 

Goodness: now, in baths, he borrows my goggles, and sticks his head in the water.

Love comes before mastery.

Now, it's more complicated than that: mastery builds love, too. As educational psychologist Jerome Bruner wrote:

We become interested in what we become good at.

So we shouldn't become simpletons with this! But a helpful, general rule seems obvious:

When we want kids to become great at something, we need to first help them fall in love with it.

Classrooms that help you feel

There's a debate — a stupid one! — about what should be on the walls of a classroom. If you'll permit me to simplify for the sake of mockery:

Side #1: Crap! Trash! Smother the walls with garbage! Garish colors! COMIC SANS! Side #2: Sparse! Austere! Think monastic cells! Think SUPERMAX chic!

This is over-simplification, but as educational über-psychologist Daniel Willingham points out, some actual research on the effects of classroom decoration is stuck on stupid (my words, not his). A recent study compared more-or-less the above extremes. (Supermax chic won.)

Sigh. Maybe someday our society will actually have some useful debates on educational matters. For now, we'll just shake our heads (and the dust off our feet) and strike out in a sensible direction.

Built environment matters.

As Churchill told the House of Commons in 1943, addressing the rebuilding of the debate chamber which had been destroyed by German bombs two years earlier:

We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us.

What our school physically looks like matters, because it will affect how we feel, and how we think

Today: feeling.

Feeling, & Beauty

Beauty matters. Aesthetics make us feel by tapping into the most primal modules of our psychology. A sense of beauty isn't some recent cultural add-on — it's deeply evolved into our minds. It's something we share with other animals.

As Steven Pinker writes, in How the Mind Works:

The expression "a fish out of water" reminds us that every animal is adapted to a habitat. Humans are no exception. We tend to think that animals just go where they belong, like heat-seeking missiles, but the animals must experience these drives as emotions not unlike ours. Some places are inviting, calming, or beautiful; others are depressing or scary. The topic in biology called "habitat selection" is, in the case of Homo sapiens, the same as the topic in geography and architecture called "environmental aesthetics": what kinds of places we enjoy being in.

A feeling of beauty is evolution's carrot to get us to move toward a certain place. A feeling of ugliness is evolution's stick to get us out of a place.

Beauty pulls us; ugliness pushes us. Aesthetics move us. It was true on the savannah, and it's true today.

Pinker again:

Environmental aesthetics is a major factor in our lives. Mood depends on surroundings: think of being in a bus terminal waiting room or a lakeside cottage.

Ugly classrooms are bus terminals; beautiful classrooms are lakeside cottages. Beauty can be Zoloft.

For all the romantic things we can say about our school — a place of love! and wonder! and flourishing! — it will, by necessity, also sometimes be a place of discomfort. We need all the mood-enhancers we can get.

But what do we mean by "beauty"? In what ways should our classes be beautiful? I'll explore the specifics in later posts, but today I'll suggest two attributes: we should seek to make our classrooms calming, and interesting.


The Reggio Emilia people are really onto something:


And, come to think of it, so are the Montessori people:


And those Waldorf people? Nailed it!


Compare any of those to this photo of a more typical classroom:


Not especially heinous — I found much more egregious photos online! — but (for our purposes) "helpfully unbeautiful". We've got harsh florescent lights, white walls, cheap surfaces and floors, and stuff (pedagogical stuff) cluttering the walls.

This is not a place that makes it easy to fall in love. This is, if anything, a place that makes it easy to fall in hate.

Or maybe that's too strong — maybe I react to aesthetics more strongly than do most people. (Well: I do.) At the very least this isn't a place that invites a student to feel safe and comfortable and cared for.

Some points for us to take: 

Our school won't have harsh, florescent lights, uniformly white walls, cheap surfaces, linoleum floors, or stuff cluttering the walls.

We'll attempt, instead, to achieve some degree of serenity. We'll be riling the kids up with everything we teach them — it'll be nice to have a calm, restful baseline to bring them down to between lessons.


Calm doesn't mean boring: our classrooms (and the other rooms in our school) will be filled with things that are worthy of students' attention during their free time. (Again, we'll be starting the early grades with a Montessori-esque model: there will be large swaths of the day when students will choose among various educational activities to do themselves.)

Again, the Reggio Emilia schools do this quite well —

Reggio Emilia2

Note the mirror-tripod, the aloe plant, the photos on the back wall.

The Montessori people excel at making interesting classrooms —


Note the books, the plants, and the planets. And the easel. And the playsets!

And it's not unheard of for Waldorf classrooms to have tree houses. Tree houses!



We can borrow from all of these — and many more beside.

We have to: making a school for humans means making classrooms that fit our deeply evolved needs. 

Coming soon — classrooms that help us think better.

"One cannot read a book: one can only re-read it."


What's the book you've re-read most? Vladimir Nabokov, one of the 20th century's most controversial authors, wrote:

Curiously enough, one cannot read a book: one can only reread it. A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader.

Oh goodness is he right.

One of the best things about being a teacher is that I'm forced to re-read my favorite books. And I rarely re-read a book without understanding it better. I'll see how the ideas connect together more broadly; I'll see why certain examples are used.

Sometimes I'll realize that the book has a neat, simple thesis that I entirely missed before. Sometimes I'll realize that the thesis I thought I had discovered was really the wrong thesis.

Maybe I just suck at reading? Well, I doubt it. (And if I do, at least I have Nabokov for company!)

Re-reading is one of the secrets of good reading. Re-reading leads to a more extensive understanding of the text. Re-reading leads to a more precise understanding of the text.

And re-reading leads to a deeper love of the text. We're designed to love things we've encountered before: the much-studied familiarity principle: the more you see it, the more you like it. Advertisers, of course, understand this: that's why you've seen Flo the Progressive Insurance Girl a hundred times. (She grows on you, Flo.)

And yet — obviously! — there's another side to this: forced repetition is alien, unpleasurable, hateful. Forced re-reading would ruin reading.

So: how can we encourage students to experience the joys of re-reading without telling them to re-read?

Well: I'm still working on this. But here are some of my current thoughts:

  1. We keep the books that students love. If a student attends our first grade, she can be sure that if she loved a book, it'll be there for her to read again in twelfth grade.
  2. We encourage students to pick up a book they've read before: maybe one they've especially enjoyed — or especially hated. (I find it useful to return to books I despise. Sometimes — sometimes — it turns out the problem wasn't them, but me.) We can do this occasionally, during our individualized reading periods (our S.S.R. or D.E.A.R. periods when the whole school will be rapt silent with readers). We might even let the older students re-visit the younger rooms to find those books, and enjoy them the way they did before — say, splayed out on the rug.
  3. We revisit some of the same topics over the years, and encourage students to briefly rehash some of the books they had loved. This, of course, is what we're doing with our Big Spiral History curriculum — posts here, here, here, here [deep breath!] and here — going through all human (and cosmic) history in three cycles, each of four years. So there's a reason to re-read first grade books in fifth grade, and a reason to re-read fifth grade books freshman year.

But I imagine this is just a start. How else can we use re-reading to increase love, mastery, and wisdom in our school?

A school for touching


I'm not particularly sentimental. I wouldn't — say — describe myself as "touchy-feely, warm-and-fuzzy" so much as "non-touchy, anti-feely, cold-and-clammy".

But: people need to be touched. Kids, especially.

Obviously you knew that — everyone does! But in most schools touching is dangerous. Encouraging, say, hugging seems to increase the danger of sexual abuse, and the chance of lawsuits.

And so schools discourage (and sometimes ban) touching: both the teacher–kid and kid–kid varieties.

And yet: kids need to be touched! We're evolved for it. Removing touch makes a community less human.

A team of fantastic evolutionary thinkers, led by David Sloan Wilson, David Geary, and Peter Gray, has written a brief and profound essay on how evolution can inform anyone looking to improve schools — "Learning from Mother Nature about Teaching Our Children: Ten Simple Truths about Childhood Education from an Evolutionary Perspective."

Simple truth #9 reads:

Departure from ancestral environments can create unanticipated problems.

Species are adapted to their long-term past environments, not necessarily to their present environments... examples include physical activity and touching. Schoolchildren are commonly required to sit still for extended periods, and touching is sometimes prohibited as a guard against sexual harassment.

These practices have a surface logic in today’s society, but they ignore the fact that physical movement and touching among trusted associates were always part of the human ancestral environment.

(The entire essay is so entirely worth your time I recommend you to pencil it in for the next time you need to jolt of exciting ideas into your life.)

Our bodies are hard-wired to experience touch — touch from someone we trust — as comforting. Touch lowers stress hormones. Touch strengthens social bonds.

More: touch fortifies love.

I think I've made a mistake on this blog. I've gone awry, I think, when I explain what we mean by love as the first of our three big principles. When I've talked about love, I've emphasized the love of content.

But as Rebecca Goldstein pointed out (in an excerpt from Plato at the Googleplex in yesterday's post), teachers are the conduits for love of content. Students learn to love content by loving (and being loved by) the teachers.

Interpersonal love is at the core of our school. And this isn't separate from loving the subjects: they support each other.

They even blur into each another. I'm reminded of how a charter school director described the most incredible math teacher he had met: "He loves students through math."

We need to make a bigger deal of this. We need to talk about how students will be loved at our school.

When Kristin and I married, we banned the word "love" from our ceremony. (Remember when I said I wasn't touchy-feely?) We wanted to make the focus the commitment we were making, rather than our ephemeral feelings. We could do that because, obviously, everyone knew we loved each other. It was a wedding, for crying out loud, held in modern West. Love could be safely assumed!

We don't have that luxury in starting a school. Love — of teachers, of students, of content — is not typically understood to be the core of education. The educational thinkers who do talk about love (of people, of content) tend to be the starry-eyed idealists. The serious thinkers, meanwhile, talk about things like subject-matter mastery.

We don't need to choose between these. In fact, we can't: to pick one is to guarantee you won't achieve either.

So we need to trumpet interpersonal love when we explain the school to interested parties. And we need to build interpersonal into the culture of our school. And so we come back to:

People need to be touched!

Our school of mastery, of thick content knowledge, of intellectual superpowers, will rest (in part) upon hugging.

I don't know how we do this, legally — but we won't adopt policies that work against human nature.

We can't afford to.

On fires (metaphorical)

Novelist, playwright, philosopher, and MacArthur genius Rebecca Goldstein has just written one of the most insightful books on education you'll ever read — and almost no one in education is talking about it.

Probably that's because it's not "about" education — it's about Platonic philosophy.

Except that means it is about education.

Goldstein's Plato spends much of the book talking about the essence of learning, and teaching. His major metaphor: fire.

The fire for the subject and the fire for the teacher are intermingled in the receptive student. 

It’s only by proximity to the beloved teacher,
himself or herself on fire with love for the subject,
that the fire can leap over and be kindled in the student
in a self-generating blaze of understanding.

I love this. Goldstein hurls the twenty-four-hundred-year-old Plato into our modern educational wars, which idiotically insist we pick one: teacher-centered (Reformists) or student-centered (Constructivists) or subject-centered (Traditionalists).

Education, Goldstein's Plato tells us, is precisely the intermingling of all three: teacher and student and content.

And the thing that binds them together? Love.

Plato, in Goldstein's telling, puts love at the center of education.

The subject? Worthy of love. The teacher? In love with the subject — and with the students. The students? In love with the teacher — and hence with the subject.

The love is fire: it blazes, it leaps.

Can you imagine this — schools where more-or-less everyone is on fire for what they're studying? Can you imagine anything more likely to nurture the students who can mend the world? Can you imagine anything further from the schools we currently have?

I can't. But it's what I'm excited to devote the rest of my life toward cultivating.

Oh: the book is Plato at the Googleplex: Why Philosophy Won't Go Away, and it can be found at most Barnes and Noble's. Read it — especially the fourth chapter. Happy holiday shopping!

(For an earlier post on love, check out "Our Trinity #1: Love".)

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 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.

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?