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!

Falling in love with books!


A problem:

Schools sometimes teach the skill of reading without creating the hunger for reading.

Not enough students fall in love with reading.

Our basic plan:

We'll pull out all the stops to cultivate a community in which all kids regularly fall in love with a multitude of books. (See the list below for how we might do that.)

Our goals:

Every student — not just almost every student — enjoys reading, and wants to do it more!

If you walk into our classrooms, you might see:

  1. A small collection of books that constantly grows larger. A huge collection of unknown books can feel alien and imposing to people, so at a year's beginning you might only see a small number of books in a room. The teacher will give students a pitch for each of these books — to arouse students' interest. Then, each day, the teacher will publicly add another book to the collection, giving a very brief pitch about why students might find it interesting. (This uses a psychological trick: feelings of scarcity can create feelings of values. It also relies on students having more interest in a collection of books that they know something about, and that someone they know — their teacher — already values.)
  2. A daily period of silent, sustained reading (SSR). In this period, students can read whatever they want. Ideally, it would be wonderful to synchronize this team throughout the school, so everyone — all students, all teachers, all administrators and custodians — could have the experience of reading simultaneously.
  3. Comfortable reading spaces: bean bags, soft carpet, reclining chairs, fancy arm chairs, and the like. Our classrooms should be full of reading nooks.
  4. Book tastings! It's hard to get excited about a book you know little about, so during we might kick off our SSRs with a 3-minute book tasting: students find a book they've never read, and dip into it for 3 minutes. If it's fiction, that probably means reading the beginning; if it's nonfiction, that means looking at the inside cover, the table of contents, and then just leafing through the book to see if anything catches your interest. (Tasting large numbers of books in libraries and bookstores is, by the way, one of my personal secrets as an avid reader.)
  5. Students treating books with respect — and perhaps even reverence. We might have rules, for example, that books can't touch the ground. Like all rules of this sort, this would be silly on one level, but could lead to change attitudes.
  6. Photos of authors on the wall. Books are not just things — they're fragments of real people. It can be good to help kids remember that.
  7. A regular practice of kids giving short, public book recommendations. This is similar to the book reports we all did in grade school — except with the specific goal of actually getting other students excited to read the book!
  8. An index of questions. As students read, they can write down what questions they think the book answers. For nonfiction, this might include questions like "What's the bottom of the ocean like?" and "Who really wrote Shakespeare's plays?" For fiction, this might include questions like "How could you survive if you were abandoned in the forest?" and "If your parents were divorcing, and were both emotionally distant from you, how might you cope?" Students looking for a new book could flip through this index of questions.

Some specific questions:

  • Should we go so far as to help kids make a reading nook at home?
  • In general, I'd like to guarantee families zero homework (or a very limited amount) each night. But I'm thinking about making an exception for personal reading — maybe requiring 30 minutes each day. What are the advantages and disadvantages to that?

Can a (new kind of) school change the world?


I'm obsessed with societal collapse. Economic inequality? Cultural dissolution? Systemic poverty? Environmental degradation? Substance abuse? The depression epidemic? Racial unrest? Ideological polarization? These are the topics that keep me up at night.

Though: I'm not despondent about these. Not only is there hope — I think our society is even making important progress on some of these fronts, progress that goes largely unrecognized in the media.

But a good outcome isn't a foregone conclusion. We live in the middle of a story whose ending is still up for grabs. From my vantage point, it's reasonable to expect that we'll screw the whole thing up (and take half the biosphere with us) and, at the same time, reasonable to expect that we'll get society right (and create a world truly worthy of Homo sapiens).

And I'm obsessed about figuring out how we can move away from the bad ending, and toward the good one.

I say this because lately I've realized that almost no one knows this about me. (Not my friends; not even my wife! That was an intriguing conversation.)

And I say it because, at some level, my goals for this school — this new kind of school — are bound up with these questions.

Can a school — a new kind of school — help mend the world?

Not save the world, mind you. Save is all-or-nothing. Mend is a more realistic goal. Mend allows us to count half-steps, allows us to take pride in making improvements at any scale, allows us to work with others.

So: can it?

Three possible routes

Obviously, this question of "can a school mend the world?" is an old one. It's what launched the common school movement in the mid 1800s, what launched Dewey's Progressive movement in the early 1900s, what launched Maria Montessori's and Rudolf Steiner's schools in the mid-1900s.

I can count (at least) three routes that people have pursued as to how a type of schooling can do this. The first — ideological indoctrination — I think misguided (and entirely inappropriate for our school). The second two — developing skills and cultivating understanding — I think promising (and entirely fitting).

Route #1: Ideological take-over of society? Nah.

There's a famous essay — well, famous among historians of American education! — that advocates that schools be ideologically-charged: that they communicate the true view of the world and radicalize the students, who will then go on to launch the revolution that will change society.

(It's funny: the author I'm thinking of was a Communist, but what I just wrote could equally well describe any number of Republican or Democratic writers currently writing about education.)

The author was George Counts, a previous partner of John Dewey who, in the midst of the Great Depression penned the pamphlet "Dare the School Build a New Social Order?"

I love the chutzpah of the pamphlet. Heck, I love the chutzpah of just the title! (I bet George Counts' wife knew where he stood on mending the world!)

It's a short piece. If you haven't read it before, and have yet to fulfill your doctor's daily recommended dosage of fiery midcentury call-to-revolution rhetoric, can I suggest you take a skim through it?

Counts argues that schools should help bring about the socialist revolution:

If Progressive Education is to be genuinely progressive, it must... face squarely and courageously every social issue, come to grips with life in all its stark reality, establish an organic relation with the community, develop a realistic and comprehensive theory of welfare, fashion a compelling and challenging vision of human destiny, and become less frightened than it is today at the bogies of imposition and indoctrination.

This is the moment I probably should make something clear: George Counts was a Communist, and I'm not. (Though, oddly, I'm wearing this Communist Party t-shirt right now! In my defense, it was still dark when I picked my clothes this morning.)

George Counts, of course, failed in his attempt to make the teaching profession an extension of the Communist Party. And in retrospect, it's almost impossible to imagine he could have succeeded. Politics follows Newton's Third Law of Motion:

For any action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

If well-meaning people on the Left try to bend schools to their will, then well-meaning people on the Right will step in to thwart them. And if well-meaning people on the Right try to do the same, then well-meaning people on the Left will step in.

George Counts' mistake was thinking that the schools could stand outside the rest of American society — that they could influence without being influenced (except by him!).

Mending the world by ideologically charging the schools: a losing game.

Route #2: Building skills? Yes.

But there are other routes to mending the world: one is by building crazy-mad skill.

I'm teaching a high school course in moral economics this year, and this week we've talked about human capital. "Human capital" is a term from economics, invented when economists started taking seriously that the resources that lead to economic well-being aren't just oil and machines and large stacks of bills: they include the grand sum of skill, natural talent, knowledge, experience, intelligence, judgement, and wisdom that reside inside people and contribute to their ability to make a living.

Human capital, to be clear, is a very expansive idea. Sci-fi author Robert Heinlein once wrote:

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

All of these, even, fit cheerfully within "human capital." (In fact, one of the primary criticisms of the concept is that it's too inclusive, but that's a different topic.)

Why do we care about this? Because human capital is one of answers to the question "why are some people more successful than others?"

Charles Wheelan, a professor of public policy at Dartmouth, writes in Naked Economics:

True, people are poor in America because they cannot find good jobs. But that is the symptom, not the illness. The underlying problem is a lack of skills, or human capital. The poverty rate for high school dropouts in America is 12 times the poverty rate for college graduates. Why is India one of the poorest countries in the world? Primarily because 35 percent of the population is illiterate.

Now: this isn't the whole story. Poverty is a complex beast, and it has more causes than a dearth of human capital: systematic racism, classism, sexism, and so on. But human capital explains a crucial part of what holds some people back (and allows others to leap ahead).

The wonderful thing, of course, is that schools do provide human capital: reading, writing, math, and so on. The terrible thing is that they seem to not do it particularly well.

Take reading. Diane McGuinness unpacks a research finding, in Why Our Children Can't Read (And What We Can Do about It)

about 17 percent of working adults, thirty-three million people, are both well educated and sufficiently literate to work effectively in a complex technological world. We are dooming the vast majority of Americans to be second-class citizens. 

And E.D. Hirsch writes, in The Knowledge Deficit:

Reading proficiency… is rightly called "the new civil rights frontier."

There's a defensiveness that can pop up when people criticize schools. To be clear, I'm not criticizing public schools in particular: it's been demonstrated that private schools don't do a much better job.

There's also a defensiveness that can pop up when people suggest that people in poverty lack skills — the idea can appear to people as "blaming the victim." But does anyone really want to argue that children born into intergenerational poverty wouldn't benefit from reading much better, from excelling at math and science and computer programming and everything else?

A new kind of schooling can deliver human capital. Heck, we can develop superpowers — recall that this is Big Goal Number Two of our school! And we can do so without stirring up the ire of the political Left and Right, the way ideologically-charge interventions do.

We can empower people — especially marginalized populations. We can help people read well, write well, and think well. And by doing so, we can help mend the world. 

Charles Wheelan again, citing Marvin Zonis:

Complexity will be the hallmark of our age. The demand everywhere will be for ever higher levels of human capital. 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.

I'm not concerned with our schools being "winners" of our age. I'm obsessed with cultivating children and adolescents who have the capacity to win for themselves, and for others.

And we can do this.

Route #3: Expanding understanding? Oh yes.

There's one more route, I think, that a new kind of school can take to helping mend the world: expanding comprehension about how the world really works.

On this blog, I've been concentrating on describing our vision for elementary school, because that's what we'll be opening with in 2016. Our high school program is a decade out — we'll be growing the school organically with our opening classes of kids.

But boy, am I excited to be starting a high school.

I'm a high school teacher, and I love my job precisely because I get to spend my days peeking into how the world hangs together. A stranger, looking over a list of the social science courses I teach, might be confused —

  • Moral Economics
  • Evil
  • Happiness
  • Philosophical Worldviews
  • World Religions
  • Political Ideologies
  • The Next 50 Years
  • Ancient History
  • Moral Controversies in American History

The thing that connects them is my obsession with how society works. Why can we explore space but still have poverty? Why do some people behave horrifically to others? What is the good life? How do ideas drive society? Where is technology taking us? Where do we come from? And so on.

Many students don't get the opportunity to deliberate on these compelling questions in school. Most schools aren't designed to reflect on issues like these every single day. Most schools aren't designed to help students ask probing questions, identify and overcome their biases, and develop hard-won wisdom.

Ours can be! (In fact, this is our school's Big Idea Number Three.)

The thing to keep in mind is that mending the world is possible. We know that, because we've seen it.

Steven Pinker's recent book on how some things (especially rates of violence) really have been getting better — The Better Angels of Our Nature — helped convince me of this. From that he wrote a short essay, "A Two-Minute Case for Optimism," that appeared on (and I love this) Chipolte bags. The essay concludes:

“Better” does not mean “perfect.” Too many people still live in misery and die prematurely, and new challenges, such as climate change, confront us. But measuring the progress we’ve made in the past emboldens us to strive for more in the future. Problems that look hopeless may not be; human ingenuity can chip away at them. We will never have a perfect world, but it’s not romantic or naïve to work toward a better one.

We can have a better world. To some degree, every school everywhere — every teacher who teaches — is already creating this world.

Our school can be part of that effort.

"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?

Reading for Joy


When did you begin to love reading? Was it a specific book? A specific person? What's behind your book lust? Now: how can we create that same love in every student? To repeat what I wrote yesterday: if we bring up kids who can read but choose not to, we'll have wasted our (and their) time.

To succeed at this — bringing kids to experience daily the joy of reading — we'll want to compile a long list of strategies, and pursue them all.

Some of the ideas on this blog are wacky, or at least sit on a WACKY—BUTTONED-DOWN spectrum. I like being wacky. Most of these ideas, though, are securely in the 'buttoned down' region: they're practices being done at good schools around the world.

These ideas are also crazy-incomplete. We're in need of more — please post your suggestions in the comments!

1. Fill the school with good books!

A surprising number of children's books are garbage. That sounds unfair, but: it's true. Such, at least, is my experience these five years (my son will be five in November) rustling through libraries and book stores. And kids aren't fooled: they won't pay attention to the dull ones.

Good books make kids rapt; bad ones make kids bored. Bizarrely, adults seem sometimes to be incapable of recognizing which are which. I've watched librarians and teachers read aloud truly insufferable books — stories where nothing much happens and no one much cares — and then be shocked (shocked!) that the kids are acting so squirrelly.

Good books grab listeners. 

And there are so, so many of these: stories and poems and picture books and reference books and novels. A college professor of mine pointed out that this is one of the under-appreciated joys of adult life: that there are more excellent children's books than anyone could read while still children.

Obviously, people will disagree about which books are good, and which are bad. No surprises there! We shouldn't frivol away our time looking for unanimity. Our rule, instead, should be this: We won't let any books stay in our school that aren't actively loved.

That way, our school will be stuffed full of books that teachers and students love. Reading can be about sharing loves.

2. Share beloved books!

I envision our faculty and students sharing their favorites — giving (very short) presentations on why they love certain books, and helping entice others to try them out. The presentations could be in the format of "You might love this book if…"

Everyone would participate — the secretaries and janitors included!

Then we could set the month's recommended books on a special bookshelf, along with a note of who recommended it, and why. This way, reading could sometimes be less a solitary act than a shared one. Books can be a way of connecting to the people around you.

3. Read aloud!

We need to show that people love to read, and the easiest way to do that is to actually show people loving reading.

We'll want to read aloud selections from wonderful books daily. Sometimes the goal can be to focus an entire class around an entire story — the teacher could read the whole of Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel (in one day) or Where the Red Fern Grows (over many days).

Other times, the goal can be to entice students to read different books — the teacher could read aloud the first quarter of Dr. Seuss's Horton Hatches the Egg or the first chapter of Lemon Snicket's The Bad Beginning.

Obviously, reading aloud isn't some revolutionary new tactic. People have been hearing stories for hundreds of thousands of years longer than they've been reading them! As a school that takes human nature seriously, we might capitalize on that. Loving to hear stories (and love to tell them) is natural, deeply embedded in the human brain. We can build from that, inculcating a love of books and reading, long before students are actually able to decode the (evolutionarily novel) squiggles in front of them.

(Note: this point is made to great excellence by Jim Trelease in his classic The Read-Aloud Handbook, which our school will be making good use of!)

4. Give kids time for personal reading.

Many schools have periods of individualized reading — variously dubbed SSR (silent, sustained reading), DEAR (drop everything and read!), and so on. This is a wonderful thing. We'll do it, too.

I wonder — and this might be a silly idea — if it'd be worth the effort to have the entire school coordinate its DEAR time. Would it proclaim our community's book lust if, for 15 minutes, our entire school was silent, with everyone (students, teachers, janitors, administrators…) reading to themselves?

Let me know your thoughts on this.

Additionally, we're planning to have very, very minimal homework each night in the grade school years — with an exception made for an hour of daily reading. More on this in a later post!

5. Make physically comfortable reading spaces.

Human bodies weren't designed to sit in desks. Any school that aims to be "a school for humans" needs to mull over this pretty deeply, and we will be — more on that later.

For the present: sometimes, straight-back chairs are perfect for reading, and sometimes they're terrible. Our classrooms should have many options for reading: sofas and soft rugs and exercise balls and stand-up tables and lofted beds.

Similarly, our classrooms should have options for lighting: bright light and soft light. And perhaps for sound: silence, and white noise, and soft instrumental music.

Those, anyhow, are the ideas I can come up with. I know I'm only shaving the top of the proverbial iceberg.

Fellow teachers, parents, and educational geeks — what ideas have you seen work? 

A school for books


How can we bring up readers? Reading will be at the existential heart of our school. If we succeed at raising readers, we'll have succeeded overall — and if we fail here, we'll have failed everywhere.

What do we mean by "readers"? Let's (as always!) look to our three goals —


We'll bring up people who are *hungry* to read — who pick up fiction and nonfiction, who relish both its escapism and its realism, who like to read alone and with others.


We'll bring up people who *excel* at reading — who have vast vocabularies, strong focus, and variable speeds. For them, reading will be easier — they'll have top-notch skills in decoding, and deep reservoirs of content knowledge to ease comprehension.


We'll bring up people who *use* reading to build themselves — who browse broadly, who ask questions, and who stockpile personally meaningful quotes and quips.

I'll be exploring the nuances of these over the next few days. But first, a confession:

I'm a reader. (Of the "problematic" sort — I got in trouble as a kid for hauling multiple books into every situation, socially appropriate or not.) And I teach high-level reading. (A course on the campus of the University of Washington.)

But I'm out of my depth when I talk about how to teach reading to children. I've read a lot of books, but it's not my expertise. There are lots of people whose entire academic training is on this one subject. So: please forgive me in advance, and correct me in the comments section. I'll be thankful for any feedback I receive!