Religion, meet science. Science, religion!


Last week, I wrote about how we're starting our first year of Big Spiral History. And boy, did I hear criticism from some of y'all on it! Yesterday, to explain the weirdness of our decision to open the history curriculum by telling multiple cultures' creation stories (the Norse, the Ojibwe, the Greek, the Hebrew, the Chinese, the West African, the Aboriginal, and the Mayan) right alongside the Big Bang account, I laid out our vision of our science curriculum.

To quote from yesterday:

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. 

But that doesn't address why we're putting religious stories next to scientific stories. And that, specifically, was what vexed many of you. I got more than one beautifully-written e-mail that ended up arguing, basically, this:

Science describes the world. Religion does something else. Don't mix them.

Or, as one friend put it:

Religion needs to stay out of science's living room, man. And science needs to stay out of religion's!

This, of course, sounds so wonderfully sensible!  I think it's also dangerous — one of the modern assumptions that we need to challenge, if we're going to cultivate Renaissance men and women in our schools.

We need to poke holes in all the disciplinary boundaries: religion, science, and everything else.

I recognize I may be wandering into treacherous waters, but I think I can convince you that this is the only way to go.

Let me explain.

In most schools, we ask students to swap out their brains every time the bell rings.

Going from math to literature? Forget all about those puzzles and algorithms you were toying with, and start thinking about novels!

Going from science to history? Banish all thoughts of observations and hypotheses, and get reading this first-person account of the Black Plague!

We tell kids: Don't think about now: think about y. Scoop out your brain, and plop in your one.

To many of us, this seems wrong, wrong, wrong. (And not just because of the "brain-scooping" metaphor!)

We understand that the world doesn't come in neat, pre-made categories. We want to find some way to connect the disciplines because, well, the world is a seamless whole. Chopping it up into "disciplines" (especially in grade school) seems to destroy what we want to study!

To quote the great educator and mathematician Alfred North Whitehead:

[We must] eradicate the fatal disconnection of subjects which kills the vitality of the modern curriculum.

Chopping up the world kills the excitement it can arouse. It's as if we've dismemebered the world, and are surprised to discover that something seems to be missing. Yes: it's dead!

We need to find a way to bring all the world together — math, the sciences, philosophy, literature, and so on.

Only by doing so will we get the meaningful education we want.

But: how can we bring the world together? Three steps, I think.

1. We put kids in contact with as many pieces of the world as possible.

This, in a nutshell, is why our new kind of school has so many hands-on, knowledge-rich curricula: our curriculum of making lunch together, of Learning in Depth, of animals and plants, of dissecting technology, of drawing realistically, of considering a song a day, of watching a movie a week, of tackling really confusing math puzzles, and of interviewing adults.

As Andrew Ng — brilliant founder of Google Brain and creator of the AI that can recognize cat photos — said in a recent interview:

I don't know how the human brain works, but it's almost magical: ...when you have enough inputs, new ideas start appearing.

2. We develop a culture of geeking out.

If we just put kids in contact with pieces of the world, we'd be in danger of just loading up kids with inert facts. It's not enough for them to know stuff: they have to find joy in knowing, and to make meaning out of what they learn.

Kids in our schools need to take pleasure in finding things out, in asking questions, and in searching for answers. We need to find opportunities to puzzle, to argue, and to celebrate breakthroughs!

Or, to put it simply: we need to develop a culture of geeking out.

(Sidenote: wouldn't it be amazing to have a feast in honor of one student's breakthrough?)

For more on how we're accomplishing this, see our Philosophy for Children approach, as well as our practices of book-eating, question-posing, and answer-hunting.

3. We find a way of seeing everything together — an über-lens. 

It would be great to develop a culture of geeks — people who knit the pieces of the world together in their own heads. If we just do that, however, we'll not be living up to our ultimate calling: to help kids see how the world is already knit together.

There's an old joke: guy goes to college to study psychology, and discovers that psychology is really biology. No problem, he says — and switches his major. But then he discovers that, alas, biology is really chemistry.  But he can take it! Again, he switches his major — only to discover that chemistry is really math.

(At this point, he just says nuts to it all, and majors in business.)

The Universe began as a single point, and the diversity of things we see (atoms, molecules, cells, minds, societies) blossomed out of it. Hence why our Big Spiral History curriculum begins at the beginning of the cosmos, rather than at, say, the dawn of human civilization.

This blossoming outward in the physical world is mirrored by a blossoming in the intellectual world. Human understanding began as myth. The people who first attempted to systematically understand the world (by most accounts, the ancient Greeks) didn't draw up lines dividing the pieces of the world — they dubbed themselves philosophers: "lovers of wisdom".

That is: academic understanding began as a single discipline — "philosophy" — and the diversity of academic fields (physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, sociology) blossomed out of it. 

This point is crucial: all of the academic disciplines grew out of philosophy. The first people who wrote about physics were philosophers; so were the first people who did chemistry. Biologists were called "natural philosophers" until the 1800s. Psychology and sociology didn't split off as their own disciplines until the late 1800s.

In our schools, we're repeating this blossoming.

Our species was born hearing stories of what the world is like. Likewise, each of us is born in stories.

Are those stories true? Perhaps, but perhaps not — it depends on which ones we hear!

Like the species as a whole, we each move from uncritically accepting the stories told by the people around us to a careful, systematic understanding.

As I wrote about yesterday, we can guide students to freshly experience humanity's the greatest breakthroughs. This is an opportunity — it's a gift!

But to do it, we need to be willing to help our kids think carefully about any idea that they bring into the classroom. We can't dismiss ideas simply because they've been dubbed "religious".

As the psychologist (and philosopher!) William James emphasized to his pupil Gertrude Stein:

never reject anything. Nothing has been proved. If you reject anything, that is the beginning of the end as an intellectual.

We want our schools to be vibrantly intellectual communities: we can't afford to exclude religious beliefs at the get-go.

My friend wrote:

Religion and science are baseball and tennis. Don't ask them to play on the same field.

Maybe! Or maybe not.

Maybe the world really is 6,000 years old. I want to be open to that possibility. Maybe the world is 13.7 billion years old! I want to be open to that, too. Maybe it's something else — maybe it's not "real" at all, but is just a projection inside a computer mainframe, created 15 minutes ago by a kid in an advanced civilization as a science fair project.

Maybe we're poised on the back of a turtle! Maybe we're in the midst of a cosmic tree, and Ragnorak is coming. Maybe a thousand other possibilities.

The point isn't to ignore evidence and reasons and remain open to all of these — not at all! (That would be intellectual death of another sort.)

The point is to begin open to anything, and then to feel the sheer joy of finding things out. 

To quote (again) my favorite line from educational theorist Kieran Egan, on whose thinking so much of our schools are based:

We represent the world to children as mostly known and rather dull.
The opposite is the case: we are surrounded by mystery, and what we know is fascinating.


As we start our curriculum, we're less concerned with disciplinary boundaries than with the joy of finding things out. All knowledge — science, religion, math, and so on — begins in philosophy.

Which is to say, in this situation, at least:

Religion, meet science. Science, religion. It's been a while. We're going to have some fun together.

Philosophy? For Children?


How can our school bring in the big questions — down into the very earliest grades?

I had an interesting experience yesterday. I had volunteered to teach Unitarian Sunday School for middle schoolers — all boys. When I walked into the room, the kids were running wild, and the assistant leader and I had an impossible time corralling them (though maybe you already knew that when I said "middle schoolers — all boys"!). There was rocking in chairs, there was loud talking, there was perambulating throughout the room...

And then I asked them when (if ever) it was okay to kill.

It was as if the boys' attentions were iron filings, and I had just held up a neodymium magnet. Everyone's eyes were on me. The side conversations continued — increased? — but now on the topic of murder.

I fake-apologized to them (again) for my ADHD, and told them that I simply couldn't make sense of out-of-turns talking. The side conversation snuffed out; hands were raised. Clay Shirky's wonderful line, discussed in an earlier post, rang more true than ever:

Regarding teaching as a shared struggle changes the nature of the classroom. It’s not me demanding that they focus — it’s me and them working together to help defend their precious focus against outside distractions.

And then, for the next hour or so, we carefully discussed when, if ever, it's okay to kill.

We didn't reach any conclusions (though I would have been happy to acknowledge if we did). But everyone's thinking was nudged along — often into uncomfortable places!

One student initially said it was okay to kill if you were part of the military.

What, I asked, made killing in the military right, but killing outside the military wrong?

Well (the student confabulated) it was because it's legal in the military. You're killing for a country.

If the dozen of us started our own country, right here, right now, I asked, and christened ourselves the military — would that make it okay for us to kill Canadians?

Um, he said. No.

Someone else chimed in: because we wouldn't be killing for a reason! And it can't just be your own reason: it has to be a reason that someone else gives you.

Another student pointed out that that would legalize all hit men everywhere.

Crap, the student responded.

And on and on we went. There's a name for this, of course — Socratic dialogue.

Teaching Socratic dialogue to kids — doing Socratic dialogue with kids — is, delightfully, a grassroots movement throughout the country. (Search for "Philosophy for Children" on Amazon if you're interested.) And everywhere it's performed, it seems to be performed differently.

A common way — one I learned from the good people at the University of Washington Center for Philosophy for Children — is to have kids read a book, and then ask their own questions.  They told the story of coming to a classroom (the group both trains teachers and does drop-in dialogues themselves) where the students had just finished reading Frog and Toad. They had been prepared for the kids to ask about friendship (a major theme in the book), but were surprised when the kids wanted to talk about, instead, courage.

Very well! they decided. Let's talk about courage!

And then they embarked on a short-but-thick conversation about what real courage is. Is courage necessarily good? Do we want to be courageous? 

Beautiful. Just wonderful.

A lot of the fun in making a new sort of schooling is the stealing. We steal ideas/practices from other schools, and we improve 'em.

I don't think we can do that here. Socratic dialogue was done pretty darn well by Socrates and Plato. Any kinks in it, I suspect, were worked out over the last twenty four centuries of its use. So we're not looking to improve Socratic dialogue.

What we can do, though, is give it a more central role than it usually gets in schools. One way to say that: you'll never see "Philosophy for Children" (or "Socratic Dialogue") on our daily schedule: it will just be how we deal with questions of all sorts, and history and literature and art of all kinds.

Oh, we'll do other things with books, too! We'll re-enact them, visualize them in detail… we'll feel them. But we'll also, regularly, use them as fodder for our own puzzling out about life.

It may seem… unmannerly?... to use classic books (like Frog and Toad!) as mere "fodder" for discussion. But that's precisely why people write books: to explore ideas like these. What is the good life? What is wrong, and how do we decide what's wrong? What kind of society do we want to live in? What kind of people do we want to become?

People sometimes go to college and major in philosophy to discuss questions like these. (I did! Well: religious studies. Not all that different.) But it's a stupid educational system that puts those questions off until college. (Stupid and anti-human, I'll suggest!)

We can lead kids into these conversations — starting when they're in grade school.

(For more on how we want to make this not just a school of hippy free-spiriting and test-prep, check out our post on wisdom — number three of our big three goals.)

How to Talk "Imaginative Education" (to People Who Only Want to Hear "Brain Science")

This is you (no, really)
This is you (no, really)

I've lagged in posting because, for the last week, I've been consumed with preparing (and giving) a speech for the 2014 Imaginative Education Conference, held in beautiful Vancouver, British Columbia. Its title: How to Talk 'IE' to Someone Who Only Wants to Hear 'Brain Science.'

It tackled a fairly serious problem I've had: I know IE, I love IE — and yet it's been very difficult to talk about. The standard way of presenting it (starting with the concept of cultural–cognitive toolkits) tends to befuddle people from the get-go.

That's tragic, as IE is (I think) an unbelievably powerful idea — maybe the most powerful in education today. 

And, at its root, it's a rather simple idea, as well.

That, at least, is what I suggested in my conference talk. I've re-recorded the talk, and I'll be posting it (in chunks) over the next couple days.

Here's the first part:

Part two:

Part three:

And, finally, part four:


I'd love (love love LOVE) feedback on the talk.

Oh, hold up — if you don't know anything about IE (Imaginative Education, that is), don't worry. The video shall explain all.

I haven't written much about IE lately, which is, frankly, weird — I see IE as being the beating heart of our school, particularly in the early grades. (In the triad of love—mastery—insight, IE is the tool that enables us to nail love.)

One of my (myriad) hopes for our school is that it can be a sort of flag for the educational world on how powerful IE is in crafting a curriculum that matters — that draws in all aspects of a students cognition, particularly their emotions.

If you like this video, let me know — I'd be interested in tweaking it to explain IE to an audience who's never heard of it. And then maybe releasing it as a series of quite short videos.

Our Trinity, #3: Wisdom

wilsonwilson Our trinity of goals for our school begins with love and progresses, in middle school, to masteryOur third goal — reaching its apex in the high school curriculum, but present at all grades — is wisdom.

If, by the time our students are entering ninth grade, a majority of them (1) love science and history and literature and math and everything, and (2) are accustomed to pursuing mastery, then we have to ask ourselves: where the hell can we take them next?

One common answer (popular at both public and private schools) is "college prep."

I think this answer, though definitely well-intentioned, is positively daft. At best, this answer kicks the question down the road: what is it about college, specifically, that's worthy of prepping for? Job success? Social status? Philosophical insight? Happiness?

However we answer that, it makes more sense to pursue that goal in high school. (Why wait?)

At worst, though, the "college prep" approach runs the danger of degrading high school — turning the four years that could be a marvelous capstone to a rich K-8 education into a bureaucratic checking of boxes, in which the highest goal becomes obtaining a good GPA and amassing college credits.

Ack: anti-human nonsense. 

Tutoring college entrance tests, I see this attitude all the time, from students and families at even some of the best schools. It's disheartening. Which isn't to say that a lot of good learning doesn't happen along the way, just that the goal itself doesn't help ensure the good learning (and can even get in the way of it).

So what's our answer?

What should we do when working with these crazy-wonderful students, who love knowledge and pursue mastery?

I think the answer is easy: explore deeply how to increase human flourishing, both for themselves and for the world as a whole. I'll use the word wisdom to encapsulate this goal. Pursuing wisdom in this fashion will take us more fully into a vividly intellectual curriculum than any "college prep" ever could.

"Wisdom" has, historically, at least two divergent meanings, which are captured by two Greek words: sophia and phronesis (fro-NEE-sis). We want them both.

Sophia… is the ability to think well about the nature of the world, to discern why the world is the way it is (this is sometimes equated with science); sophia involves reason concerning universal truths.

Phronesis is the capability to consider the mode of action in order to deliver change, especially to enhance the quality of life.

(Borrowed from Viona.)

To re-state:

Sophia is book smarts, intellectual knowledge, an understanding of what the world really is and how it all hangs together.  Phronesis is street smarts, practical knowledge, an understanding of how to achieve the good life. 

We need both of these. The question about how to live well in the world (phronesis) requires understanding what the world is like (sophia).

Delving into both of these will take us into a full liberal arts curriculum in which divergent ideas on how society can work and on how life can be lived will take center stage. Our school can be an invitation — for teachers as well as students — to engage the most diverse, most exciting ideas of humanity: anarcho-Communism and Christian pietism and Theravada Buddhism and GOD KNOWS WHAT ELSE. Ours can be a vividly intellectual school, bringing in more cultural and philosophical perspectives than, perhaps, a single school ever has.

It will also take us into a full science and math curriculum in which the substrata and superstrata of human life are explored — what's "below" and "above" us. To understand human happiness, for example, necessitates comprehending psychology, biology, chemistry, and physics. To understand meaning requires apprehending the shape and history of the universe.

Chasing wisdom is thus an excuse to take part in the Big Questions that the brilliant minds in the humanities and sciences have been exploring for ages.

Some of these Big Questions are civilizational, and even cosmic: "Are we just conglomerations of atoms bumping around an empty void? And if so, what are the implications of that?" "What is evil (and is there evil)?" "Do all peoples share a common human nature?" "How do cultures shape people?" "Where is history going?" "Why is there inequality?" and so on.

Other Big Questions are personal: an invitation to puzzle over our own selves, our own struggles and potentials. They include questions like, "What is this thing called happiness, and how might one find it?" "How deeply should one sacrifice for friends and strangers?" "What does it mean to be 'deep,' and what does it mean to be 'shallow,' and is one really better than the other?" "How is my culture shaping me?" and so on.

There's a stereotype I need to war against here — that thinking about these Big Questions is unserious, the sort of thing 19-year-olds talk about in their dorm hallways late at night. The stereotype that these Big Questions are unserious, unacademic.

Well, yes: some college freshmen do have those conversations. But these are also the some of the academy's most serious questions. Significant work has been done on each of these topics. Pursuing wisdom means more than intellectual self-pleasuring: it means advancing our own answers even as we master the previously-formulated ones.

In sum, then, our high school curriculum will be rigorously academic — but the rigor should flow from the meaning and excitement of the questions we're investigating, and not from some sort of superficial severity.

In pursuing wisdom, we can acculturate students into the life of the mind as we pursue together wisdom.


Oh, a note on the photo — it's of the fictional character Wilson, from the 90's sitcom Home Improvement. I struggled to find an image that denoted "wisdom" without falling into the silly trope of the old man with a long white beard — or Yoda. I think those images actually connote fake wisdom: the sort expressed in statements that no one truly understands or which, when taken literally, are stupid. "Do or do not: there is no try." (Sorry, Yoda!)

The character Wilson (full name: Wilson Wilson, Jr.) is the opposite of that: someone who knows a jaw-dropping wealth of knowledge about the world, and who easily brings it to bear on the problems of daily life. Wilson has both sophia and phronesis. When I was growing up, he was my first vision of the sort of useful intellectual that I wanted to become.

Which is all to say: that's why this post doesn't have a picture of Gandalf!

Our Trinity, #2: Mastery

Ours can be a school of mastery.

Let's assume that we succeed in our crazy goal of helping students fall in love with many (or most) of the subjects they study — that by middle school our students are entering adolescence convinced that history, biology, math, astronomy, and so are are desperately interesting. What next?

I suggest: we can help them learn precisely how to excel at any task they set themselves to.

Here, we can get help from science. Psychologists have hacked talent, and the world is only beginning to wake up to it. Most classrooms, driven by a century of inertia, still work off the assumption that kids who lack native skill in a subject (math, for example, or writing) probably won't be able to get more than passable in it. (I've found this idea almost universally held, though only rarely expressed.)

Delightfully, this is wrong. False. Mis-conceived.

The higher realms of performance, the psychologists tell us, are open to us all.

That is: Anyone can excel at math. Anyone can draw realistically, and beautifully. Anyone can write lucidly. And so on, and so on.

What's needed isn't just practice — flashbacks to the "10,000-hours rule" — but a certain type of practice, done (yes) repeatedly over a long period of time. And psychologists have been uncovering what that type of practice (dubbed "deliberate practice") looks like.

To engage in deliberate practice is to target a specific goal, and to measure one's progress toward it. It's to constantly adjust the difficulty level of a challenge, so that one is always working at the full extent of one's abilities. It's to break down complex routines into simple tasks, perfect those simple tasks, and then re-assemble them into their (now perfected) complex routines.

(For a very helpful distillation of deliberate practice that expands on what I've just written, check out this blog post.)

Deliberate practice is painful. But it works wonders. And anyone — with certain commonsense limits — can use it to become impressively better in any domain.

No one has devised a school built on deliberate practice. No one (so far as I know) has done a from-the-roots-up rethinking of what schooling could look like if talent can be built by anyone.

We can do that.

And we can go further than deliberate practice — we can cultivate a culture that values excellence and self-overcoming. And we can do this in a number of different ways. In our history curricula, we can highlight brilliant inventors, crafty leaders, and ingenious artists. In our assemblies, we can laud students who have struggled the most. Perhaps we'll find it good to group students into different houses (I'm imagining Hogwarts here) based on how they best approach talent acquisition — those who benefit from competition in one house, and those who benefit from a non-competitive environment in another.

I've been speaking of the sub-set of cognitive psychology called "expertise studies," but we can also adopt some of the most helpful discoveries of cognitive psychology more generally. Cognitive psychologists, for example, have decisively answered the question of how we can remember what we learn forever. They've worked out useful insights into how creativity functions — how people generate new ideas and solutions. All of these, too, can be brought into our curriculum.

I've focused here on how we can do this all in middle school, but certain aspects of it should start in grade school — for example, we should craft our math curriculum with a full knowledge of deliberate practice, so kids at the very least aren't wasting their time on unchallenging problems, or forgetting what they've worked hard to learn. Before we teach them how to acquire expertise, we should build some aspects of it into everything they do.

A few provisos to what I've just written:

  1. None of this means, by the way, that we should take an intensive, Tiger-Mom / Korean-prep-school-esque approach to any aspect of our school. I'm allergic to these. I think they're (typically) bad places to raise humans. We should aim for a school culture that exalts excellence, and encourages students (and teachers!) to pursue it. But coerced practice is not (typically) useful practice. And such forcefulness can threaten to poison everything else.
  2. I've been speaking too blithely here — I understand (everyone understands, I think) that not literally everyone is able to, for example, excel at drawing, or writing, or math. People with significant neurological damage, for example — or people with a deep, learned aversion to a certain subject. (I'm reminded of the Jack Handy quip: “To me, clowns aren't funny. In fact, they're kind of scary. I've wondered where this started and I think it goes back to the time I went to the circus, and a clown killed my dad.” Such a person would have a very difficult time excelling at clown school.)
  3. I want to be sure that this "virtually anyone can develop mad skills" isn't confused with the "blank slate" hypothesis — the idea that everyone is born with a perfectly equal predisposition to develop talent. I once believed that, but psychologists tell us it's wrong. Some kids really are born with a higher or lower propensity to learning math (or writing, or art, or whatever). But the beautiful thing is that this isn't determinative: a student who doesn't have a predisposition toward learning to do math really can excel at it, with the right sort of practice.

Finally, I think there are some real-world implications to all of this. In my caffeine-fueled dreams, I nurture hopes that this could be a school to change the world. Well, if we really can hack talent in practice (the way that psychologists have hacked talent in theory), that is something the world needs.

Marvin Zonis, the University of Chicago professor of global economics, wrote:

The demand everywhere will be for ever higher levels of human capital [skills and talents]. The countries that get that right, the companies that understand how to mobilize and apply that human capital, and the schools that produce it...will be the big winners of our age.

Again, this is something the world needs. And it's something that we can provide.

A final question: I'm not sure about the word "mastery" to carry all this meaning. I've also been kicking around some other choices: excellence, expertise, genius, and talent. Any thoughts, y'all?

(Next up: wisdom.)