Makerspaces > Textbooks

Yesterday, we shared our "what a new kind of STEM school could look like" proposal. But you may have noticed that some important things were missing. 

(Well, first off, math! But stay tuned for that t'morrow.)

We left out three important things — MakerSpaces, coding, and documentaries — because Kristin and I don't know how to integrate them with the rest of the curriculum. 

And that's bad. Everything connects to everything; disconnected subjects are (in our vision) verboten. Got any thoughts about how these can fit into a school? Please let us know!

Oh, and there's one other thing that's missing — but that's quite on purpose! (Hint: IT'S TEXTBOOKS.)

Missing: A MakerSpace.

How do we fit in a MakerSpace? 

Right now, we're planning to invest good time into having kids puzzle out how stuff works. But they should also be making stuff themselves. 

Enter the MakerSpace movement: throwing people into rooms full of tools to actually construct stuff. 

How can we incorporate this into our schools?

Missing: Coding.

You hear a lot about how coding is the next basic skill — and, actually, I'm prone to believe that. 

Even for students who don't end up choosing to pursue any adult-level coding skills, having dipped one's toes into the art of coding does two important things:

  1. Logic. I remember my surprise when I asked my college logic instructor about which classes I should take if I wanted to pursue the subject further. "Coding", she replied. But I shouldn't have been shocked: at its heart, coding is applied logic.
  2. Problem-solving. Programming is hard. Practicing it means getting really good at solving problems: breaking them down into sub-problems, and holding up all the connections in your head. We want to cultivate this skill across the board; programming can help.
  3. End alienation. As I've written about technology, those of us who feel like machines are magical are divorced from the actual wonder of the world. "The magic", to quote Steven Stevinus again, "is not magical". That's why it's magic. Learning to code connects us to the world around us. 

Missing: documentaries.

There are, of course, wonderful documentaries that have been made on science — both the old and new versions of Cosmos come to mind.  These can take people into imaginative experiences that they could never otherwise get — at least, not without access to an electron microscope or particle collider.  

We think a new kind of school should be unapologetic in showing and re-showing these videos, and should help kids do something with them (take notes?)… but we’re still not sure exactly what, and how to integrate these into the curriculum.


No textbooks are mentioned here — this is quite intentional!  We’ve rarely seen a science textbook that did a good job of communicating scientific ideas to the reader.  Sometimes it’s because the “science” is faulty; more often, it’s because the books are utterly and truly boring, written to pass the review of a curriculum board, rather than to keep the attention of an 8-year-old.

Historically, one of the main purposes of textbooks has been to compensate for the untrainedness of the teacher. As we'll start by hiring teachers who are serious learners — an idea at the heart of Imaginative Education — we won't need textbooks to fulfill this role. 

Textbooks — even very good ones! — cannot inculcate students in scientific thinking.  At best, they can help with that.  Typically, they substitute for scientific thinking: kids think “science” is merely a bunch of facts to be learned, when the ethos and method are equally important.  (A PhD science friend complains about how Chinese students, especially, come in unprepared to do science, though their book learning is excellent.)  If we want to prepare kids to enter STEM fields, we should be careful about how we use textbooks.

So does that mean no science books? Perish the thought! Engagingly-written science books are a wonderful idea.  (There are so, so many of these — Randall Munroe's Thing Explainer is an example.) 

Books externalize and “glue down” information in a way that allows students to focus on it for an extended time.  They also allow a much greater bandwidth of scientific knowledge into the classroom.  The classroom ought be filled with these, and students ought be given chances throughout the day to peruse them.  

Tomorrow: what a math curriculum for a new kind of STEM school could look like!

A movie a week


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

Nope! Let's explore this.

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

We'll use 'em much better.

Movies provoke moral questions.

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

Movies make it natural to probe the questions that matter.

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

Movies allow for intergenerational conversations.

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

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

Movies saturate us in foreign cultures.

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

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

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

Movies support reading comprehension.

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

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

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

Well: movies give knowledge of the world!

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

Willingham, again from the video:

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

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

Films give general cultural knowledge.

Movies beg for criticism.

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

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

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

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


Movies are terribly enjoyable.

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

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

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

Well: ours will!