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!

Teaching writing through questions (and cupcakes!)


Learning to ask useful questions is one of the most important things we can teach. Might I invite us to be skeptical of this claim? It has a certain "hippie-dippie" ring to it that makes even me dubious!

I've written before of our method of teaching question-posing and answer-hunting. We're spending significant time each day on this. Is it really worth it? After a year (or more) of being in a community that cultivates these skills, what might we hope for?


A former student of mine sent me an e-mail yesterday describing his experiences in a year-long seminar I led on happiness a while back. (A fun class! I'll be describing the newest version soon.)

He calls especial attention to how our class affected his writing ability — which is interesting, since I never had the students write more than one sentence a week.

Specifically, I had them write down a single question: what question they'd most enjoy posing to the class. When we got together, we compiled those questions, and simply voted on which ones we'd like to tackle first. (The person with the winning question got, erm, a cupcake.)

What follows is, of course, an anecdote — one student's experience. We shouldn't assume it'll be the norm, and we shouldn't let this distract us from systematic track of how all students experience question-posing and answer-hunting.

But: well, read it for yourself!

(I've taken the liberty of boldfacing certain words and phrases, to ease Internet reading.)

I've been hearing a bit about a new happiness class this fall. I'm starting school at UW in fall (and hopefully lab work), so sadly I don't know if I'll be able to come. But it reminded me of something that I've wanted to tell you for a while! Namely: happiness class taught me how to think and, by extension, how to write. For the longest time I could only write research reports, simple straightforward summaries of information in topical or chronological order. When it came to something more akin to an essay, taking a question or thesis and fleshing it out in my own words, I balked; I was so intimidated I gave up before I tried.

We didn't do any literal writing in happiness class, but we did read and, most importantly, we asked a lot of questions. Maybe I asked more than most because I was motivated by the pursuit of a certain cupcake. But the result was that I spent an hour or more a week wrestling with every word and idea of one book chapter, combing through to find the author's arguments so that I could challenge them or pose my own questions. To be able to defend your question at the meeting I had to flesh out the argument at least a little, and I found it wasn't so hard to talk about my own ideas after all.

Come the end of that year, I had to write a pretty long final essay for a class. Before I might've flinched at the thought, but I was ready. I skimmed an entire book first to get a feeling for the topic, and then I sat down and asked, "what questions can I ask about this?" And it worked! I built up an argument with an interesting question, a supporting sub-question, and a pretty fleshed out outline. It was the easiest essay I had written, and certainly the most fun. 

Now I can't get enough of writing commentary, media or literature analysis, mini-essays, and reflections.  I know I always had some thoughts, but until I had the practice, I didn't know how to talk about them. Furthermore, I didn't know how to conjure insight on-demand. And who can, consistently? But now I have a fighting chance. What's more, the way I see and think about the world has changed. As I've grown even more comfortable with the logic of writing and the structuring of arguments (which is of course at the heart of all thought), I feel like a new world has opened up to me. I can now enjoy, wrestle with, and experience a type of thought that, before, I couldn't.

Thank you, Brandon! I could say many other things about the quality of our discussions or the great books you exposed me to, but learning how to ask questions - learning, essentially, how to think (and thus write) - was the most precious gift.

So, to sum up:

By teaching question-posing, we're teaching thinking. And by teaching thinking, we're teaching writing.

(Thanks to the student in question for giving me permission to post his letter. Which, I'll note, is very well-written!)

Wonderful feedback from a wonderful conference! (Question-posing)


I attended the glorious IERG (Imaginative Education Research Group) conference these last few days, where I presented a workshop on some of the curriculum practices that I've been posting to this blog! After presenting our ideas to about a dozen wonderful people, I asked them to scribble their radically honest feedback on some posterboards I scattered around the room. The transriptions of their comments (with some grammar corrections and clarifications) are beneath the jump!

Question-posing / Answer-hunting

Big questions about cosmology bridged with traditional stories & narratives.

I think this commenter is saying "incorporate many cultures' stories about the beginning of the universe into your Big Spiral History curriculum, and use those stories to ask the questions that matter!" If I'm interpreting this rightly, then check! We're doin' it!

Questions are so important, but you can have a question on some "content". So, productive questions are generated in the "quest for some content". So I question making question posing an independent period.

Ah, I love this! Of course we do want kids to be asking questions throughout the school day — in math and history and everything! There's some danger that other people (or even the kids, and future teachers) could interpret a separate question-posing period as meaning that we shouldn't ask questions thoughout the learning experience.

Any thoughts on how we should delineate this?

Philosophy for Children.

Yes — and actually, I attended the semi-annual international Philosophy for Children conference earlier this week! Earlier I had posted that we wouldn't have a special P4C (oh, we educators and our acronyms) period — that we'd rather infuse it through the day — though now I'm wondering if that's wise. Maybe we should have a period a few times a week that just aims at philosophical conversation. Or maybe we should infuse our fiction curriculum (which I've yet to post on) with philosophical pondering.

"What questions did you ask today?": an alternative for parents to ask when their kids come home from school, instead of "What did you do in school today?"

OH MY GOSH YES! This is great way of engaging parents into the educational process!

An interesting question comes from this: should we encourage students to take their commonplace books home, or to not take them home?

At some point Skype an expert... from anywhere! After kids get great questions ready!

Yes! Why didn't I think of this?!

Imagine that kids had gotten interested in what fire is. Though this is a simple question, it's doesn't have a simple answer (or, at least, its simple answer is not at all intuitive, and requires an in-depth understanding of a lot of chemistry).

The kids shouldn't ask an expert when they're just starting to explore the question. First they should debate the question among themselves and parents, then they should look for explanations in books, and maybe finally they should look for online sources (this video may be the best on the web).

Only after they've gone through all that, and continue to discuss the matter, should we bring in an outside expert. And imagine the questions the kids would have at that point: questions about real chemistry, asked with an understanding with what the "book answer" says, and with a understanding that they don't understand what it means.

Our grade schoolers may be able to ask more scientifically-brilliant questions than undergraduates.

Maybe I'm being too optimistic: we'll see. But I think we can use teleconferencing to help our kids attain a level of understanding far, far beyond what most K-12 students are able to even imagine.

If asking an expert turns out to be as powerful as we hope it is, we might want to cultivate a small number of experts with whom we have regular calls — maybe once a month, for 15 minutes or so. (I'm imagining a chemist, a historian, a mathematician, a biologist, an engineer, and so on.) We could award those experts a teaching honorific — something for them to feel pride in, and put on their C.V.

Instructions/Background on how to develop a good question or just go with intrinsic abilities and develop along the way?

Great question — I think the answer is to start with kids' skill in asking questions, and tease out an art and science to asking better questions.

There are a few frameworks I think we'd be wise to consider — The Right Question's framework most of all. (We should probably collect a list of potential frameworks.) There might be wisdom in having a framework ready to bring in shortly, as soon as we can identify the ways in which our students' questions are being stymied.

T'morrow, I'll post on the responses we got from the Public Speaking curriculum.

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?

Question posing


A problem:

Schools don't teach how to ask good questions. Which is a shame, because good questions are magic.

They're hard to ask, though! To ask a good question, you have to understand what you know and what you don't know, and stand on the very edge. A good question transforms a cloud of unknowing into a tool. A good question directs your emotions toward finding an answer.

Posing a good question isn't easy. It's hard to ask big questions, hard to ask specific small questions, hard to ask solvable questions.

In fact, questions of any sort only come into schooling in a limited way. Students ask questions in school, of course, but often just at the periphery — when they really don't understand what the teacher just said, and feel bold enough to admit it. But great learning is powered by questions.

Our basic plan:

Every day, students collect their observations, questions, and stray hunches into a special idea-journal they have (for now, dubbed a "commonplace book").

Once a week, the class meets to share the questions they'd most like to pursue. In that meeting, students evaluate their questions — are they open-ended, or close-ended (for example, could they be answered with a single word?)? Are they factual, interpretative, or evaluative?

In the meeting, the class chooses a handful of questions that they'd most like to pursue.

(For how, specifically, the class might pursue the questions, look forward to the next post! It'll be epic.)

Our goals:

Our hope is for students to get good at recognizing what they don't know.

We hope that recognizing that they swim in mystery might make them much more curious about everything.

We hope that wielding the ability to control questions will give students control over their learning.

We hope that giving students a regular chance to share their questions (and explain their findings) might cultivate a community of passionate learners — something like that which is depicted in Raphael's famous School of Athens.

If you walk into our classrooms, you might see:

Walking into our classroom, you might notice students furiously scribbling notes in their commonplace books whenever a question pops into their head — as they study a ficus tree's roots, say, or watch the opening to Casablanca.

Some specific questions:

  • I'm imagining this question-meeting as being once a week — but I wonder if there's a value in doing something once a month, as well. Maybe we could set a theme for the month, or set some broader questions.
  • Initally, I imagine that the teacher will lead the question-meeting, but eventually it'd be great to have students try taking it over.
  • When would be the best day to have our question-meeting — the first day of the week (Monday), or the last day of the week (Thursday)? The easy answer is Monday, but I wonder if letting the questions mull for a weekend might be cool. (Also, students could research the question on Friday, our "school day off".)