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!

Animals and plants and toasters, oh my!

So what could a K-12 STEM school look like, if one were devoted to maximizing love, mastery, and purpose — and could draw upon the weapons of Imaginative Education?

Below is what Kristin and I wrote up when asked this question. Advanced warning: there are some pretty exciting things in here. 



  • Bring in plants to the classroom, and animals, and mechanical objects Bring in food, too, and cook it together daily.  
  • This means having hermit crabs, birds, and fish in the classroom.  It also means bringing in incandescent lightbulbs, vacuum cleaners, paint, old telephones & microphones, pumps, and small gasoline engines.  
  • Some of these would stay in the classroom long-term; others could migrate from classroom to classroom at regular intervals.  (The mechanical objects, for example, would move every two weeks.) 
  • Also, get the kids out of the classroom — repeatedly visit a specific site to get a sense of how the various elements of an ecosystem work together.
  • The class’s goal is to understand these objects as well as possible.  
  • Kids would poke, prod, and take apart these things.  They’d feed them, nurture them, and clean up after them.  They might even shake, sniff, and lick them!  Bring in as many senses as possible.
  • These would get kids into physics, chemistry, biology, geology, and ecology.  (At present, we're struggling to incorporate astronomy into this.  If you’ve any thoughts, we’d love to hear them!)


  • Ordinary physical engagement isn’t enough — kids need to develop specialized techniques that will help them notice in more detail. 
  • One of these techniques is a game of just listing out everything they notice.  (We’ve adapted this from a famous story told of the scientist Louis Agassiz, which is well worth reading.)  It’s incredible how doing this pushes us far beyond our initial interpretation of things, which we had foolishly assumed to be more-or-less all there was to see.
  • Another of these techniques is to teach children to draw realistically: drawing being a way to externalize observation (and to make obvious what we’re not seeing).  There are a few outfits in Seattle that do this, and some DVDs and books that teach it as well.
  • Another of these is to use physical tools — especially magnifying glasses and microscopes — to uncover worlds we’d otherwise not have access to.  (The secret is to provide these things as tools for students to use to explore objects they’ve chosen, rather than assigning the objects.) 


  • Fill the classroom with engaging popular books of science — both for children and for adults.
  • Allow kids to have a limited number of web searches per day.  (This creates scarcity and value, and forces students to be more discerning in their browsing.)
  • Prompt kids to ask parents and community members what they know about these topics.


  • Give kids blank books (“commonplace books”) in which to make their observations, draw pictures, and pose questions.
  • Once each week, students submit one question they’d most like to get the class’s help pondering (e.g. “Why doesn’t the filament burn up?”).  These questions get written onto the chalkboard wall. 
  • Each day, time is set aside for offering up possible answers to those questions — along with new sub-questions that the original question spawns.  Those are also written down on the board, which becomes a giant thought map.
  • Have students ask parents and community members what they think the answers to these specific questions might be.
  • The immediate job of the teacher isn’t to answer these questions directly, but rather to facilitate thinking well — challenging the kids’ theories, and praising effort.  (This is Socratic dialogue, and though I think I can teach it in person, I’d need to look into how to teach it remotely.  There are some good books on this, published by people associated with the Philosophy for Children movement, which has a center in Seattle.)


  • The longer-term job of the teacher is to steer children toward the correct answer.  To do that, the teacher needs to, of course, herself understand the scientific phenomenon deeply.  To help relatively untrained teachers do this, we could put together informational materials — scans of relevant books, PDFs of relevant webpages, and YouTube video explanations, for example.  We’d also want to make it easy for teachers to ask each other questions — teachers, in a way, take on the role that the students are doing.  We’d perhaps also want to pay some scientists (or PhD students) to directly answer questions online, and preserve those answers for future teachers.
  • And we can go beyond just providing information for teachers — we can help pre-prepare lesson plans on the Imaginative Education framework.  The goal here is to show students how this physical phenomena is really, really interesting — in addition to showing how it works.  (Some students are born with a love for scientific phenomena — for the rest of it, it needs to be cultivated.  This starts with the teacher falling a little in love with the topic.)  I’d be thrilled to put you guys in touch with some of the leading science-teaching experts in the Imaginative Education community. 


  • At the end of the project, students demonstrate their understanding by making something that teaches the science to others.
  • Most frequently, this should be a written report, which we can use to hone writing abilities.  These would be authentic projects, written for specific audiences — parents, and perhaps younger students.
  • These demonstrations can also be done in other media: students can draw diagrams, shoot photos, make movies, write songs, and draw comics to explain the science. 


  • Tell the stories of the things we’re studying: the stories of the scientific and mathematical insights, and of the technological breakthroughs.  
  • Focus particularly on wrong ideas and inventions that didn’t work (for example, aether, classical elemental theory, phlogiston, and abiogenesis — or one of the planes before the Wright Brothers, one of the lightbulbs before Edison).  We need to make this kind of “failure” okay.  We also want to appreciate how clever the correct ideas really are!
  • We can tell those stories alongside the objects we’re studying, and tell them as part of the Big Spiral History framework (14 billion years in 4 years, encountered not once, not twice, but thrice!).
  • Use these stories as “think-alongs”: as excuses to help kids do their own thinking.  We can tell the stories slowly, asking kids to interpret the evidence that e.g. Newton is observing, and seeing if we can figure out how Newton made the intuitive leaps that he did.  
  • Start with the Big Bang, and quickly give the whole narrative of the universe.  This gives us a foundation to tell the stories of where all material things (grass, dirt, rocks, carbon atoms, nuclei…) came from in the first place.  

Stay tuned t'morrow for the math component of our plans — as well as what all of this leaves out!

What Seth Godin doesn't understand about science education

Seth Godin — entrepreneurial guru and all around clever doer — recently shared his thoughts on how science should be taught.

Now, Godin is typically brilliant — his On Being interview, "The Art of Noticing, Then Creating" is an especially great meditation on the process of innovation, and is entirely worth your time! 

But these thoughts? I'd say they're good, but also problematic, and in a very interesting way. Showing how might, I think, point us beyond the simplistic science reform movement that's currently ascendant, and toward a genuinely new sort of science education, one that regularly cultivates adults who think like scientists.

Read his whole post — it's super short. To keep this short, I'll just excerpt the part I disagree with. (How terribly unfair of me!)

Godin writes:

Start with the method. Unlike just about everything else we teach, science is not based on human culture or history. If one wants to study literature or geography or the Kings and Queens of England, it begins with knowing all that came before, the work, the names, the lists, the battles. Science, on the other hand, is above culture. Gravity would have existed even if Isaac Newton hadn't invented it. After two weeks of science class, students should know how to think like a scientist.

Much of this is gold. Kids absolutely should learn to think like scientists. And science really is above culture — getting at the world outside our heads is much of the fun of science! (Aliens civilizations, if they exist, can puzzle out the exact same laws of chemistry that we've discovered.) 

There are, however, two important problems with what Godin writes.

Problem number one: though Godin is entirely correct when he says that "science is above culture", he forgets that hearing the stories of great discoveries can spark interest, and help us think for ourselves.

Stories are brain candy. They can help us enter into the romance of the real world.

Isaac Newton, actually, is a great example! Hearing about the nutty professor who, on his own time, derived the laws undergirding the motion of the planets, then losing his notes, then re-deriving them and as a byproduct discovering the mathematics of all gravity — this can be an easy way to catch the interest of science.

And, indeed, we do catch interest. There are a few people for whom a lust of physics springs naturally. But for most of us, it needs to be cultivated. And the stories of discovery are a great way to do that.

Stories shouldn't, by the way, take the place of scientific thinking — rather, they can help us get deeply into scientific thinking. 

For example, it's famously difficult to think about natural selection — evolution is a deeply counterintuitive notion. It practically breaks all the rules of our folk physics. But hearing the story of Charlie Darwin, and really getting behind him — feeling his loneliness aboard the Beagle, feeling his bamboozlement at the odd patterns of finch variation in the Galapagos — can launch us into struggling for the answers ourselves.

Stories — that is, "culture" — can scaffold our thinking.

The physicist Michael Polanyi argued that science is not really a method — it's a detailed culture that we get inducted into by other scientists. (He wrote in the 1940s, when America was throwing money at science, but was unable to produce much without importing scientists from Eastern Europe, who were schooled in a long tradition of careful lab work.) 

Well, we can (in part) get inducted into the community of science by learning great scientists of the past.

It's important to not push this too far — kids need hands-on and brains-on experience with the real world (see below) — but culture can help cultivate real scientists.

Problem number two: "method" is bunk. Or, at best, it's an unhelpful characterization.

At least, most methods are. Let's overstate this a bit: there is no “scientific method”.  

It’s now generally considered foolishness in science education circles to insist strongly that kids follow the “HYPOTHESIS—PREDICTION—ETC.” cycle.

Real thinking — and here I know Godin agrees! — is messy. It emerges on its own haphazardly. You engage something in nature. You get your hands dirty, your shirt stained. And then you ponder, and try stuff out.

Well, perhaps you could say that what I'm describing is a method. I could roll with that, I suppose. But the word "method" is still unhelpful: it brings to mind an emotionless, Vulcan-like, "System 2" process. Real pondering is a much hotter, human, intuitive thing. 

So what's needed for a real science education — an education that cultivates real scientists?

1. Regular engagement with real stuff, not (God help us!) assigned textbook reading. Kids should dissect toasters. They should observe the actions of animals and plants. Cook food daily. Visit, and re-visit, a single ecosystem. Peer at a particular square foot of ground under a microscope

This takes time. It also takes tools, like being taught to draw what's in front of your face.

2. A culture that prizes asking questions, and hunting for answers. A tribe of people committed to thinking together, challenging each other's notions

3. Teachers — aka Learners in Chief! — who fall in love with what they're studying, and help connect the kids to their love. (Say, by using Imaginative Education.)

4. A curriculum that doesn't, at the end of the day, differentiate between "science" and "philosophy" and "math" and "history" and "literature" and "religion" and "spelling" and anything else. 

There's one world, and our subjects are lenses for viewing it. (I've most controversially argued that in a series of posts about teaching creation and evolution.)

If we do these things, I'll suggest, we can create schools that cultivate real scientists — adults who think expansively and cautiously, who look for evidence before belief, who remain open to opposing explanations, who are willing to play with crazy notions — whatever profession the kids end up in. 

At the end of the day, I don't think Godin and I are far apart on this. Certainly our ultimate goals are exactly the same!

And when Godin writes this —

Science makes sense, it's not magic. One of the challenges of teaching science in high school is that there seems to be so much to cover, it's tempting to cram all the formulas, names and theories in front of students. Just as there's no room to argue about when they fought the War of 1812, we often present science as a bag of magical facts, not the result of a method, a method students can implement.

I can only respond, yes, yes, YES! 

But: I'll take his "not magic" and raise it — it's magical, too! As the Flemish physicist Simon Stevin wrote: 

The magic is not magical.

This, in a nutshell, is the promise of science — and of all learning: things make sense.

When we get beyond our usual boredom of the world around us, we realize that we're surrounded by mystery. Everything — clouds, vacuum cleaners, cats — appears to be miraculous. 

And then we launch ourselves into understanding it, and discover, bit by bit, that it consists of parts, and those parts fit together perfectly, gaplessly.

But this doesn't reduce its wonder — rather, it increases it!

I used to say things like "the goal of education is to re-enchant the Universe". I still think there's something right about that. But now I say this: the goal of schools isn't so much to re-enchant the universe as to show that it already is enchanted.

Any science education that can help do that is something that I — and, I think, all of us — can get behind.

How 'EVERY STUDENT STARTS A BUSINESS' can teach... science?


I asked Steven Pinker once: "What should I say to my students, when they ask me what they should do with their lives?" "Measurement," he replied.

The full story:

I had volunteered to pick up Rebecca Goldstein (famed novelist–philosopher) and Steven Pinker (famed psychologist, linguist, and all-around public intellectual) at the airport last summer when they were flying in to speak at a conference.

As a brief aside, I trust that the giggly-girlish expression on my face below indicates the depth of my fanboyness towards both thinkers:

Goldstein, Pinker, Airport

I had pondered for weeks what Big Important Question I should ask the two of them, while I had 'em in my minivan. (Which, for the record, was cleaned more thoroughly than when we had purchased it.)

I was quite suprised to hear Dr. Pinker's answer.

"Measurement?" I responded, dumbly.

He explained that organizations are doing wonderful things in the world — curtailing malaria, lessening domestic violence — but we can't be sure which organizations, and where, and how. 

And when we lack careful measurements, we're left with braggadocio. Who can spin anecdotes into the best story? Who has the most compelling TED talk?

Our civilization can do better — we can mend the world (see my earlier post "Can a new kind of school change the world?") — but doing so will require looking very carefully at what we're doing now. 

And that means measurement.

I've been proposing, these last few days, that one of the pieces of signature curriculum in our new-kind-of schools could be that every student, in high school, helps start a business — a "social business" that aims not only to make money, but also to improve human or environmental well-being.

I've suggested that having students embark on this could help cultivate intellectual superpowers (especially in complex thinking)the hard work of being part of a real team, and ecstatic joy (only a little bit of an overstatement).

Now, I'd like to suggest that having students start their own businesses could teach students how to measure — and how to think scientifically.

The secret here is the Lean Startup methodology.

The Lean Startup methodology comes from the book The Lean Startup: How Today's Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses by Eric Ries.

Here's what I'm taking from the book:

The world is full of opportunties to help people — and by helping people, make a profit. There are, let's postulate, a trillion of them. But to take advantage of these, you have to pull it off just right. There are a googleplex of near misses.

How can an entrepreneur tell the difference between a successful business strategy and a near miss? She can't, at first. No one is smart enough to know this ahead of time.

This revolutionizes the way we come at entrepreneurship. In the past, we've championed successful entrepreneurs as people who had a brilliant vision, and then toiled to make it real. (Think about the stories we tell about Steve Jobs.)

What's needed, however, isn't cocksuredness, but a method of self-correction.

What's needed is the scientific method.

If there are a trillion workable opportunities, the entrepreneur's job is to find one. That requires steering, and steering requires knowledge, and knowledge requires experimentation and measurement.

The Lean Startup approach is a cycle of three parts:

  1. You have an idea.
  2. You build a product.
  3. You measure the results.

And then you repeat — tinkering with the idea, and conducting an experiment to see what's really going on. You attempt to call into question the assumptions you've made, and discover what people really want.

Lean methodology (to repeat) is an application of the scientific method. 

We can train kids in some of the deep ethos of science by having them start social entrepreneurships.

How can we help kids FALL IN LOVE with an ecosystem?


Let's assume that our new kind of school can achieve what I set out yesterday, in "Make Naturalists, Not Biologists": get kids learning about and loving nature through mucking about in it. How can we do that? How can we cultivate a love of the natural world?

Scott Sampson — whose powerful How to Raise a Wild Child: The Art and Science of Falling in Love with Nature I've been riffing on lately — argues that local places can help us.

He suggests that there may be something deep in human nature that helps us fall in love with specific places.

Sampsons suggests a "topophilia hypothesis".

He's riffing himself off of E. O. Wilson's biophilia hypothesis — that humans have an instinctive urge to affiliate with other forms of life. (For how we've responded to that, see our curriculum of animals and plants in the classroom.)

Sampson's idea, though, is a bit more specific. He starts by tracing the roots of the word:

In 1947, poet W. H. Auden coined a similar word, topophilia — literally, a "love of place" — to refer to the affective bonds that people often form with the places they live....

I decided to borrow this neologism to put forth a new idea, the topophilia hypothesis, which proposes that we humans possess an innate bias to bond with local life and landscape, inherited from our foraging forebearers.

Animals need to bond in order to survive: to food, to water, to members of the opposite sex, to anything that can protect them from predators, and so on. Animals are bonding machines, and each species needs to bond to somewhat different things.

What did humans need to bond to, throughout our evolutionary maturation?

Among other things: the particular ecosystems they were living in. 

Now, humans aren't koala bears: we're not just native to one specific ecosystem. So humans would need a general-purpose ecosystem bonding system: a drive that works something like "whatever the environment around you, pay attention to it. Be curious about it. Be prepared to develop affection for it!"

Sampson again:

I've proposed that topophilia evolved to help humans adapt to a diverse range of settings, each with its own unique suite of life forms and landforms.

Humans who bonded to the place of their childhoods — be they a savanna, desert, rainforest, or whatever — tended to understand it better, and hence tended to survive more.

This is, note, only a hypothesis. It's entirely possible that the lust we see for specific places doesn't come from a specific evolutionary source, but has arisen for other reasons. (We must, as always, be on guard against just-so stories.)

But what seems undeniable is that

a deep passion for local place often develops, particularly among those living in oral, indigenous cultures.... Our body, mind, and senses are "designed" to connect with nature.

Humans are designed to connect with specific natural environments.

A school for humans can make good use of that.

But how?

Here an idea from the Imaginative Education community can come to the rescue: Whole-School Projects.

And about that, more anon!

Make naturalists, not biologists.


A new kind of school — our new kind of school — is attempting to provide a fuller, deeper science curriculum than any school has ever achieved. Today — following my series of riffs off of Scott D. Sampson's powerful book, How to Raise a Wild Child: The Art and Science of Falling in Love with Nature — I'd like to suggest that, to do this, we shouldn't try to make biologists — we should try to make naturalists.

What's the difference, you ask?

It's subtle, but exciting.

Sampson talks about how scientists and explorers adopted the moniker "naturalist" in the 18th and 19th centuries. Charles Darwin called himself a naturalist. So did Thomas Jefferson! And in the 1870s and '80s, so did a whole host of Americans.

Nature fever overtook the general public, resulting in hundreds of small natural history associations from coast to coast.

This wave of excitement brought us our great natural history museums (including the Milwaukee Public Museum, which I loved as a boy).

But, by and by, people started spending more time indoors, and the scientific field became professionalized. A new field — "biology" — was defined, focusing

on genes and molecules rather than whole organisms.

The professionals wanted (quite understandably) to differentiate themselves from the masses. And they had reason to, because the sorts of research they conducted was quite different:

Field observations, the bread and butter of natural historians, were replaced by replicable experiments conducted in sterile laboratories.

Ultimately, the word "naturalist" itself faded. Sampson laments:

By the time I began exploring that forest on Vancouver's west side in the mid-1960s, natural history had become a quaint hobby for amateurs.

But, I think, in the death of "naturalist" lie the seeds of its renewal.

"Amateur": an interesting word!

The New Oxford American Dictionary gives one definition of amateur:

"a person considered contemptibly inept at a particular activity"

It probably goes without saying, but: That's bad. We don't want that.

But there's something cool in the word. Remember that amateur comes from the Latin amare: "to love".

Amateurs are lovers.

A new kind of school — an actual new kind of school, that pushes beyond the tired educational debates of the 20th century — needs to be a school for lovers, even before it needs to be a school for mastery or a school for meaning.

And so, I suggest, we need to reclaim the word "amateur".

The good people at the podcast A Way with Words summarize the difference between "naturalist" and "biologist" quite nicely —

"Naturalist" connotes "muddy boots". "Biologist" connotes "crisp, clean lab coat".

You think "naturalist", and you think tromping in the muck. You think "biologist", and you think holding a tenured chair.

In the last few decades, people have valued chairs over boots.

Well: "naturalist" is coming back. It's being reclaimed by scientists — most notably E. O. Wilson — who see the need to reconnect people to the natural world.

Now, ain't nothing wrong with lab coats. And ain't nothing wrong with tenured chairs!

Ain't nothing wrong, that is, with learning about the natural world through carefully-controlled experiments conducted in sterile labs.

Our society needs (desperately!) more of that sort of science. And we need to do some of it in our schools, too.

But it's not where we need to start.

So, let's be clear on this: A new kind of school needs to do science in the muck. A new kind of school needs to bring back actual experiences — oftentimes messy, occasionally dangerous — into science. A new kind of school needs to reclaim the mantle of amateur science.

Sampson writes:

We're closer than you might think to rebuilding a country of naturalists.

A school for humans needs to be a school for naturalists. And that's one of the things, I'm proud to say, we're doing!

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.

What can a science education be? (How stories and riddles can save the world.)


Reactions to our last post fell squarely into two camps:

  1. Oh what a beautiful idea! I wish I could have gone to a school like this.

Dialoguing with friends in Camp #2 about our "creation of the world" curriculum has made me realize that I haven't done a good job explaining why we're approaching history, science, and religion in this unusual way.

And to be clear: what we're doing really is unusual! I'm not sure I know of any other school that's setting its goals for student understanding so high.

It's to the folk of Camp #2 that I dedicate this imaginary Q & A.

Question: Plopping creation stories next to the Big Bang narrative makes me uncomfortable! What are you guys even trying to do with this history curriculum of yours?

Three things, I think!

First, we're telling the history of science.

Why? Well, scientific understanding is an odd beast: in theory, it's timeless — Gregor Mendel's idea of genetic inheritance (to take one example) could have been figured out by anyone in the ancient world.

But in practice, scientific understanding is often bound up in politics, social realities, religion, economics, and a host of other things. And oftentimes scientific discoveries depend on earlier scientific discoveries.

Science has a history, an arc — one that intersects with everything. Science is part of the grand human story — something that can get lost in the traditional curriculum! Our Big Spiral History curriculum brings us back to the humanity of science.

(Lest you think that Big Spiral History is the only way we're approach science, remember that our schools are also cultivating a scientific mindset with a host of other practices — among them question-posing & answer-hunting, dissecting technology, cooking lunch together, bringing animals & plants into the classroom, realistic drawing, Learning in Depth, and location study.)

Second, not only are we teaching the history of scientific ideas — we're emerging ourselves in the epic, personal stories of scientific discovery. 

This, I think, is something that got completely left out of my previous post.

Archimedes' "bath" method of measuring volume? Yes. William Harvey's realization that the heart was a pump? Yes! Anton van Leeuwenhoek's discovery of the "wee beasties" in pond water? Ho yeah!

And dozens and dozens of other science stories, besides. Using the Imaginative Education methodology, we can teach these stories with more intellectual respectibility and more emotional heft than is hardly ever done. We can have one of the most vivid history of science curriculums of any school.

It’s easy for students to fall into the feeling that "science" is a series of immutable truths that spring, fully-formed, from the head of Zeus. And, in reality, "science" (in one sense of the word) is exactly that — it's the real world! What's true would be true, even if no humans were around to talk about it.

But "science" in the sense of "scientific understanding" is human-hatched notions — notions that compete and prevail based on how well they are able to make sense of evidence. Notions that sprang from the heads of often quite interesting men and women, whose back stories are fascinating.

So we're not just teaching history of scientific ideas — we're teaching the history of science through personal stories. Actually, this is currently quite a hot subject! Think Bill Bryson's bestselling A Short History of Nearly Everything, which chronicles the scientific breakthroughs of the last three hundred years. Think Neil DeGrasse Tyson's Cosmos TV series, which flips back and forth between CGI representations of scientific ideas, and animated narrations of the people who first cooked them up.

We can match the wonder and excitement and intellectual heft of those works. We can even surpass them — because of the third thing we're trying to do.

We're not just telling the history of scientific ideas, and we're not just telling that history through personal stories. We're using both of those as an opportunity to puzzle alongside. 

When you watch Cosmos, you're mostly along for the ride. Neil DeGrasse Tyson frequently asks questions of the audience, but I can't remember him waiting more than 15 seconds before giving us the answer. This isn't anything against Neil — it's a limitation of the medium of television.

But we're teachers, working with kids over the long term: we have access to all sorts of tools that television (and Khan Academy) don't. We can re-create experiments. We can prompt kids to explain phenomena that don't seem to make sense. And we don't have to tell them the answer after 15 seconds — we can sit in puzzlement with kids for minutes, hours, weeks! We can prompt them to expose their confusion, to ask questions, and to imagine what a resolution might look like.

A great teacher can do this — can make kids more confused than they'd ever be on their own!

And a great teacher can be a guide, too — giving clues, assigning students to ask their adults for their ideas.

This is part of what we're aiming for with our Philosophy for Children approach to literature, history, and everything. It's also part of why we're making question-posing and answer-hunting a staple of the week.

Here, in brief, is our vision for what a science education can be:

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. 

Or, at least, that's part of our vision of what a science education can be.

Stay tuned for more.

How to teach evolution, creation, & the giant cow that licked the world into being


Where does everything come from? This is how our new kind of school has started off our year of Big Spiral History: by telling stories about the creation of the world.

That's stories, plural. Whose stories, you ask? As many peoples' as possible!

In order: we're teaching the Norse story, the Greek story, the Hebrew story, and the Ojibwe story. That's our first week.

Norse cow

(This is, of course, the cow that emerged from the primordial ice to nourish the first of the frost giants. Y'know, the bad guys in Thor? It's a pretty generous cow.)

Then, we're telling the creation stories of the Chinese, the West Africans, the Maya, and the Aborigines. That's the second week!

And the third week, we're slowing down to tell just one creation story: that of the Big Bang, and the evolution of multicellular life, up through us humans.

Go ahead: ask why!

First off, we're beginning at the beginning: the dawn of Life, the Universe, and everything.

The way that history is typically begun in schools, we think, is foolish. I've criticized this before, but the long and short of it is this: in grade school, kids don't begin with the beginning. Rather, they begin with the close at hand: their own selves, their own neighborhoods, their own cities. They're plopped in the middle of reality, and are held back from looking at the big picture.

This approach is designed around an outmoded theory of children's reasoning — that they can only understand things that they've actually experienced. (How these old theorists would have explained children's lust for a certain movie series that begins A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away... — well, that I'd love to know!)

By the time the curriculum gets around to talking about any beginnings, it's already middle school. And the beginnings don't go back far at all — mine went back only to the Fertile Crescent. Fail! The Fertile Crescent was one particular origin of "civilization" — that is, city-centered state-level society — but not of humanity, in general.

And the origin of humanity? And of life? And of anything? Those are thought to be scientific questions, not historical ones. They're not part of the story of humanity — they're held apart in another class.

Which, of course, is ridiculous. Drawing a sharp delineation between "questions of history" and "questions of science" might have made sense two centuries ago, but at the start of the 21st century it's just foolishness.

The humanities and sciences have linked up, and we now possess an all-but-seamless narrative of all of cosmic history. This is the result of decades of daring acts of research — it's one of the great successes of human intellectual life!

Your atoms were forged in a supernova. The oxygen you just sucked in was breathed by Triceratops and Velociraptors. Life blooms, proliferates, and adapts. And you're part of it: your amazing qualities are the inheritance of millions and billions of years of biological experimentation.

But we don't let this paradigm shine in the curriculum. We don't use it to orient kids, and invite them to ask the big questions.

Instead, we bury it.

So the first reason we're doing this mad-rush through creation stories, is to follow the advice the King in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland:

Begin at the beginning, and go on.

It's only sensible.

We're beginning at the beginning: the Big Bang, and all that.

But why all the other creation narratives? 

(Note: this is contentious. Political, even! We Americans love to hate each other's views on this. And, according to various polls, we're about equally split — 50% think the universe is about 6,000 years old, and 50% think it's about two million times older. I'll be treading boldly into this fray — but I hope, also, politely and kindly.)

So why are we starting the year with multiple creation narratives? Well, a host of reasons, actually!

  • We want to introduce kids to the awesome mystery of where the Universe comes from. (Approaching this question from a multitude of previous attempts helps kids appreciate the mystery.)
  • We want to expose kids to a multiplicity of human cultures and their stories. (Think of each story as a hand-shake to a culture they'll be hearing more about later.)
  • We want to help kids see that stories matter — that where we think the world comes from can inform how we think about ourselves. (Stories — origin stories in particular — shape worldviews, and worldviews shape lives.)
  • We want to get kids used to the idea that differences of opinion are the norm, and that they can be fertile grounds for great conversations. (A disagreement is a great opportunity.)

In my mind, though, there's one great reason that we're starting by luxuriating in a multiplicity of creation stories: to make kids question our authority when we tell them something is true.

In our schools, truth is rarely — if ever — handed down on authority.

If people in the real world disagree about something, then it's not our job to pick a side and tell the kids to swallow it. Rather, our job is to expose kids to multiple viewpoints, and help them reason through them.

Perhaps I'm speaking too blithely here — perhaps I'm coming across as if I think our schools should champion every idea equally.

No — quite the contrary! What I'm saying is that our teaching shouldn't champion specific ideas at all.

What I'm saying is: science.

There is a world outside our heads. We can approach it through observing carefully, interpreting carefully, and concluding humbly — and then inviting criticism of our conclusions.

A shorthand for this: the scientific method.

We're starting our school by putting all creation stories on an equal footing. We're not ending there!

All of the above, I think, would be a bad approach if it were performed in a school that simply Delivered Answers. But ours is not — we pose questions, we hunt for answers, we practice science and philosophy continuously. We splay ideas on the wall; we sit in mysteries and slowly unravel them.

I'm not advocating this curriculum for most schools: I'm announcing it for ours.

Allowing the world's true diversity of hypotheses to be considered honestly sets an important standard: we are a kind of schooling that is willing to ask the big questions, and to help children form their answers thoughtfully. 

And it's hard to do this with just one story. Differences spawn productive thinking! But setting up just two stories leads to tribal warring — "you're either with us or against us!" What we need is a plurality of stories.

I'll pause here to acknowledge something obvious:

Some of our parents will be evolutionists who fear (quite legitimately) that the scientific narrative will be lost amidst the flush of other origin stories.

And others of our parents will be creationists who fear (quite legitimately) that the Genesis account will be lost, too.

I owe answers to both groups of parents. And here it might be useful to disclose my own origin story. I'm convinced the story of Darwinian evolution is true — but I didn't used to be — and the story of how I got from there to here is a bit unusual.

I grew up in an evangelical home, but my childhood intellectual life was shaped more by dinosaur books than it was by Sunday school. (I was a dinosaur fanatic. Still am, sorta!)

I only became a creationist in 8th grade, when my (public school) science teacher decided to transform our classroom into a courtroom, and to put the theory of evolution on trial.

He himself, I believe, supported evolution. And I think he thought the evolution side would come out as the obviously true one.

He picked me to lead the prosecution: to argue against Darwinian theory.

And, as a result of that, I became a creationist: not because I was indoctrinated into it, but because I became convinced of the evidence.

(Note: looking back on this, the evidence against evolution that I was looking at was really terrible stuff — since then, I've seen many creationists criticize it, and criticize fellow creationists who use it. The much-mocked "teach the controversy" idea, I think, really is fantastic — but only in an environment in which kids are helped to develop a B.S. detector. Our schools can do this — and, I think, are!)

After we finished the debate, I kept reading. (It really was interesting stuff!) And, slowly, my conviction that the world was made six thousand years ago faded. The arguments (even the better ones) really weren't that strong. When I looked deeply into them, they were convoluted and riddled with holes, and seemed to depend on giving lots of weight to oddball discoveries — for example, what might be a Mesozoic-era human footprint, if you squint just right.

The arguments for evolution, meanwhile, seemed straightforward and robust. Given what we knew of DNA (and math), it seemed impossible that evolution wouldn't happen. And the evidence was everywhere. I realized, at some point in my freshman year of high school, that the earth almost certainly was very, very, very old, and that natural selection was the best way of explaining the evidence — maybe the only way.

And so I became an evolutionist. 

I came to my conviction the old-fashioned way: through personal exploration, helped along by a community of people. (Though, in my case, the community was mostly people who wrote books, and who posted online.)

I think this is a much better way to become convinced of evolution. Why? What does it matter how one becomes convinced of some truth of the world?

One reason is that approaching truth through doubt and exploration made me humble in my beliefs. I recognize that I've changed my beliefs before; I'm likely to do so again!

I said a minute ago that I'm an "evolutionist". I hate that word: the -ist suffix makes it sound like evolution is something I "believe" in. I suppose I do, under certain definitions of "belief" — but what's wonderful is that I'd upend these "beliefs" in a heartbeat if I found good evidence to the contrary.

This is a better way to hold a "belief": humbly, and carefully. The strange thing is that such beliefs aren't weak: they're actually very strong and resilient. 

A second reason I think it's better to come to true beliefs through doubt and exploration: doing so allows you to see beliefs from the inside. And when you do, you see why people love them.

I don't think the Genesis story is true — but boy, do I love aspects of it!

Genesis paints a picture of original harmony — humans didn't slaughter animals; animals didn't even slaughter other animals! Pain and suffering weren't originally part of humanity — a state we can perhaps strive to reach again. And humans were designed to be careful stewards of the natural environment, not exploiters.

So often, in online debates, evolutionists portray creationists as stupid. What they fail to see is that creationism is a beautiful poem — one that can have wonderful implications for how we structure our society.

Our schools don't only seek to immerse kids in good scientific reasoning — they seek to make kids better at understanding all humanity.

Here's another reason I think it better to come to true beliefs through doubt and exploration: by doing this, I became acquainted with what in-depth understanding feels like.

Exploring creationism and evolution meant learning a lot of science — paleontology, biology, geology, and some chemistry and physics.

Even better, it meant appreciating what really is good evidence and good reasoning — and what only seems to be.

I'm a deeper knower now — a much more careful knower — than I would have been without this.

Sometimes, when I feel really passionately convinced of something else (say, some political idea), I'm able to reflect on how that feels different. It feels ungrounded.

I'm not saying, of course, that our schools should lead kids through false beliefs before they get to true ones. (What an effort that would take!)

And I'm not saying that in-depth understanding can only come from leading kids through wrong theories. (Our Learning in Depth curriculum in particular will also aim to develop this sort of understanding.)

I'm only saying that, when a student believes anything to be true without good reason, we should be delighted for the opportunity to patiently lead them through thinking about it. Because on the other side of that patient reasoning lies actual, hard-won wisdom.

This is part of what good teaching is. We should look for more opportunities to cultivate it in our curriculum.

So what can I say to parents who fear the scientific narrative will get crowded out? Just this: that it's only when the scientific narrative is placed amidst the earlier narratives that we can really appreciate what makes it wonderful.

And what can I say to parents who fear the Genesis narrative will be crowded out? Just this: that in most public and private schools, the Genesis narrative is entirely ignored. And in evangelical schools, it is believed woodenly and thoughtlessly (something many evangelical thinkers are critical of). Both of these approaches are tragedies. The Genesis narrative deserves to be taken seriously, both scientifically and poetically. And the role of teachers in our school is not to direct students to this or that belief, but to help them think carefully about all beliefs.

There are, maybe, two other reasons I'm happy to not only tell just the Big Bang story of creation by itself.

First, this doesn't result in accurate belief.

Last summer I went to a presentation by evolutionary scientist Steven Pinker. He talked about how about half of Americans don't believe in evolution. That's bad, he said. But there's something that's worse: that most of the people who say they believe in evolution don't actually understand what evolution is.

"Believers" in evolution tend to think it's goal-directed, Pinker said. That organisms are trying to evolve "upward".

What they actually believe in isn't natural selection — it's something that more closely resembles the medieval "Great Chain of Being".

If you want people to understand evolution, I suggest, help them try to attack it. Help them be skeptical. Help them construct their own understanding of it — and point out where things don't make sense.

Second, telling the Big Bang story by itself — in a culture that believes lots of things (from young-earth creationism to alien intervention) — sets up a very stupid sort of rebellion.

As a teacher, there's something that terrifies me about many of my high school students:

They're so prone to conspiracy theories. 

Aliens, Bigfoot, evil government cabals that encourage vaccinations to murder people and keep the population down — you name it, I've seen kids believe it — worse, zealously adhere to it, even in the face of obvious, overwhelming evidence to the contrary!

And why are they so difficult to convince otherwise? Well, many reasons, no doubt:

Conspiracy theories

But one big reason seems to be that they see themselves as the rebels. They're stuck in a framework that sees common sense as "dominant, corrupt opinion" and see anyone who departs from it as a freedom fighter.

"Hey, I'm just being skeptical", it seems like they're saying.

No, they're not. They're being the opposite of skeptical: they've picked an opinion, and are zealously clinging to it against evidence.

They haven't realized that being skeptical means, among other things, being skeptical of yourself. As physicist, samba-player, and all-around-amazing-human-being Richard Feynman said in a commencement address:

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool.

The way to teach evolution is to start by teaching it along with other stories, and to keep coming back to the question, "How would we know if any of these is true?"

And this turns out to also be a great way to get kids interested in many human cultures.

And to enjoy telling some awesome stories.

That's not it for our first few weeks of Big Spiral History — and it's certainly not it for teaching about the creation of the Universe (no, seriously — where does the Universe come from? what happened before the Big Bang?), nor about Darwinian evolution.

But this is a great place to pause, and seek out clarifying questions. Obviously, certain online communities can get pretty red in the face when it comes to talking about origins — I'm hoping that we can use a bit of that to help us fine-tune how we engage students in these questions.

One question on my mind: Is there a danger in our schools becoming too relativistic? What else would need to come later in the curriculum in order to avoid this?

A second question: does any of this run afoul of the church/state divide? Though we're starting this new kind of schooling with two private schools, we have our eye on eventually starting some charter schools. The church/state question isn't relevant for now, but it might be, later.

So, if you've got questions as to how, exactly, we're going to pull this off, please ask them! Join the conversation on our Facebook page. (And like us, to get updates!)

We're creating a civil community, and any posts that smell of dissing "the other side" will be deleted (ah, I'm sorry I even have to say that, but: the Internet!).

But every other piece of commentary will be appreciated, and considered!

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?

Cooking lunch together


A problem:

Kids don't know how to make delicious food for themselves — or for others! Instead, we "feed" them: culinarily, our schools guide children into a learned helplessness. Meanwhile, commercial food scientists develop ever-more-brilliant recipes for hooking children into less-than-healthy fare.

At the same time, the act of making food can be incredibly educational: cooking, baking, and eating can provide questions of chemistry, biology, physics, and culture.

Our basic plan:

Kids cook their own lunch.

We can start with simple (but delicious) dishes — easy soups and breads — and gradually move up the ladder of complexity until students are routinely creating complex dishes — like "Stir-Fried Asparagus with Shiitake Mushrooms" and "Quinoa Pilaf with Herbs and Lemon".

Kids will get experience in setting up a kitchen, cooking the food, cleaning up, and devising a shopping list.

They'll also get experience in enjoying food — not just wolfing it down, but in savoring it, and critiquing it. (At some point, a heated argument will break out as to whether the dish needs more or less tarragon. At that point, we will know we have succeeded!)

We'll encourage kids to ask scientific questions about what's happening to the food as they cook it — why are parts of the egg different colors? Why's the albumen turning white? Now why is it turning brown?

We'll also encourage cultural questions about the food — where does this pho recipe come from? Does it have anything in common with the other Vietnamese dishes we've cooked? Where is this chili pepper native to? (Hint: not Vietnam!) How'd it get there?

Our goals:

Kids will gain competence (and ultimately mastery) of one of the most fundamental skills: making food that nourishes and delights you, and the people around you.

Through this, kids will raise questions about chemistry and culture that can be investigated in other parts of the school day.

If you walk into our classrooms, you might see:

Kids measuring, chopping, stirring, planning, and cleaning. And eating — delighting in the food they and others have made, and making plans to make it even better next time.

Some specific questions:

  • This is a situation in which fine-tuned mastery is key — and in which badges seem the natural measurement. Should we have cooking badges for each kitchen skill? (E.g. a badge for dicing, a badge for slicing, a badge for properly washing a pan, a badge for roasting garlic, a badge for leading a team of people through a complex soup, a badge for properly setting the table, a badge for making a grocery list…)
  • Should we have a test for each badge?
  • How should we rotate the roles? For example, should a group of students spend a week on prep work, then a week on cooking, then a week on cleaning up?
  • Should teams of students stay stable for a semester?
  • What food restriction issues should we be prepared for?
  • Should we ethically source the food? (I'd love to be able to visit the actual farm, so the students can see where their food comes from.)
  • What specific skills should be on our list for the first year? (E.g. slicing, dicing…) Where do we learn the Official Best Way to learn these? (YouTube? A book like The Professional Chef?)
  • What specific recipes should we tackle the first year?
  • How much time will this take at the beginning of the year? How much time will it take by the end of the year, as kids get more accomplished?

Our technology/mechanics curriculum

[Over the next few months, I plan to be sketching out very short synopses of all of the pieces of our school's curriculum. From those, I'll create a new website — not merely a blog — so we can nudge the school one step closer to reality!] A trouble of the 21st century is that we're surrounded by technology we don't understand. We feel confused, and powerless.

But what if a school could explore the technological world from a very young age? What if we could raise a generation who was in awe of the complexity others had created, who was convicted that they could add to that complexity?

What we'll do

1. Our classes, starting in first grade, will choose an Thing of the Month — a toaster, a refrigerator, a light bulb, and so on.

2. Kids will interrogate the object with questions, as they tap it, squeeze it, sniff it, draw it, and use it. (How does it know when to pop up the toast? Why do the insides glow red?)

3. The teacher won't just slap on superficial answers that hide more than they reveal: "a timer!" "electricity!" Instead, she'll dive into a little research (books, websites, community members) and make suggestions and drop hints to guide students into deeper pondering.

4. Over the weeks, the class will have a conversation as they begin to dissect the object, slicing and dicing and shooting down old hypotheses as they propose new ones, and asking ever more questions. (Why don't the coils burn? What is electricity, anyhow?)

Our hope is that by the end of the month, kids'll have come to a deeper real understanding of the physical world than many students get in all elementary school.

Steve Jobs famously said, "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."

We can raise a generation that has gratitude toward the makers who came before, and who want to be makers themselves.

If you find this interesting, you also might be interested in our biology curriculum, our drawing curriculum, and our question-formulation curriculum (links coming soon).

Previous (and longer) blog posts on this include this and this.

Some open questions: Is there anyone who's already doing science like this? What sorts of liabilities do we have when teaching kids how to use saws and other sharp things?

What if a school could destroy the thought/feeling divide?

Susan Sontag proclaimed, in an interview with Rolling Stone in 1978 —
One of my oldest crusades is against the distinction between thought and feeling, which is really the basis of all anti-intellectual views: the heart and the head, thinking and feeling, fantasy and judgment... and I don’t believe it’s true... I have the impression that thinking is a form of feeling and that feeling is a form of thinking.
I've gone over this quote a dozen or more times now (it's in my spaced repetition system), and think I've just now glimpsed its importance to our coming school.
Is this the mistake that elite schools (college-prep and hippie-dippie alike!) are making: drawing a distinction between thought and feeling?
And is this the first step toward creating a vibrantly intellectual school: saying that "thinking is a form of feeling and that feeling is a form of thinking"?
This is one of my hopes for our school — that we can encompass math and art, philosophy and music, science and dance — all these things which are usually thought of as opposite poles of experience. That we can explore how knowledge flows from stories, and how stories flow from physical reality. And that by incorporating these two extremes, we can show how joyous both can be.
We can be more STEM than a STEM school, and more artsy-fartsy than an arts academy.
Such, at least, is my notion.
(I'll be back from my vacation next week! The photo above is from the book-length compilation of those Rolling Stone interviews, from which the above quote is taken.)