susan wise bauer

Natural vs. unnatural (and why this is a smidgen too simple)


Is this whole natural/unnatural divide simplistic? Yeah. But it's a helpful place to begin — even if we need to move beyond it.

In my last post, I cited a distinction made by cognitive (and evolutionary) psychologist David C. Geary: humans are biologically prepared to do some things, but not others. Things that we're designed to do (walking, singing, telling stories) he calls primary abilities. Things that we're not designed to do (riding unicycles, juggling, Newtonian physics) he calls secondary activities.

This distinction isn't just academic: it lies at the heart of what our schools (any schools!) see as their purpose. In fact, this distinction neatly encapsulates a major divide between two major philosophies of education.

One type of school thinks that learning is unnatural. These schools (let's call them "teacher-centered" schools) think a school's job is to instruct. If schools don't do a good job of directly instructing students (they think), the students aren't apt to learn much.

The other type of school thinks that learning is natural. These schools (let's call them "child-centered" schools) think a school's job is to provide an environment for learning, and then get out of the way. If schools succeed in doing a good job of directly instructing students (they think), the students aren't apt to learn much — because students learn best on their own!

So what is it: is learning unnatural, or natural?

This is a question of human nature. And in my last post, I suggested that, well, human nature is complex. Some things are natural for us, and other things are unnatural. Success in schooling depends (I suggested) on figuring out which is which.

But that's not so simple.

It's not (for example) that art is a primary ability, and math is a secondary activity. Entire subjects don't fall neatly into one camp or the other.

Rather, each subject demands multiple skills. For example, in an English class, students read, write, discuss, reason, empathize, and so on. Each skill may be primary or secondary. 

In fact, it's more complicated than that. Each skill is made up of sub-skills. Writing, for example, is made up of spelling, handwriting/typing, syntax, idea generation, idea organization, and so on.) Each sub-skill may be primary or secondary. 

And in fact, it's even more complicated than that! Typically, a sub-skill isn't purely natural or unnatural. Human nature doesn't usually work like that. There are a few things that we do wholly naturally: breathing, for example. A person raised on a desert island would breathe just fine.

Wel, obviously, schools don't need to teach breathing.

But other primary skills seem designed to be activated and shaped by cultures: dancing, for example. All cultures dance — but it's not clear that a person raised on a desert island would dance by themselves.

So is dancing primary or secondary? Well, it contains elements of both. The urge to shake and jump and wiggle — all in tandem with other people — may be primary. But specific elements of motion (for example, pliés in ballet, promenades in square dancing, and arials in swing dancing) may be secondary.

Why does this matter? Because we need to tap into students' primary abilities, and be prepared to systematically teach secondary abilities.

In teaching dancing, for example (as will be an important aspect of our schools), we'll need to capitalize on young students' desire to shake and jump and wiggle, and on older students' desire to touch each other. (That schools typically ban touching seems a sure sign that they're evolutionarily off-kilter.)

But we won't assume that undirected wiggling will automatically bloom into beautiful dancing. Rather, we'll be prepared to teach elements of more formal dancing from a host of cultural styles — circle and line and ballet, salsa and swing and waltz, flamenco and mambo and Bollywood.

As I said before, we'll start with abandon, and move into structure.

If we don't tap into students' primary abilities, we'll be passing up our greatest resource. This is the mistake that teacher-centered education makes.

And if we don't systematically teach secondary abilities — if we expect them to just grow up naturally — we'll be denying our students the education they're ready for. This is the mistake that child-centered education makes.

Our job — as a new kind of school that takes human nature seriously — is to draw upon primary abilities, and systematically teach secondary abilities.

Next, I hope to explore how this can look in teaching writing.

(Props to David Geary: his categories of "primary" and "secondary" abilities are designed to reflect this messy reality. They're not "pure" categories. It took an earlier debate on this blog — about whether math instruction is "natural" or "unnatural" — for me to realize that. Props, too, to Catherine Lewis, who helped me see that.)

A School for Big, Spiraling History (part 3 of 5)


As I wrote in my last post, a new approach to the social studies curriculum...

will attempt to overcome the tragedy of conveyor-belt knowledge: information is learned, tested, and instantaneously forgotten…

A new model must attempt, rather, to layer and complicate knowledge so students can achieve a full, complex understanding.

Taking, as we do, a Big History scope (see the last post, if you missed it!), we're especially at risk for this "tragedy of conveyor-belt knowledge." We've got nearly 14 billion years to cover — more than five thousand years of modern, urbanized human history alone! A Big History scope, laid out foolishly, could actually deliver a more shallow understanding of the world than the unfit for the 21st century model currently being practiced around North America.

But we can steer clear of this disaster. How? By sequencing Big History in a sensible way over our students' twelve years of school.

First, let's imagine what an awful sequence might look like:

  • In grade 1, students would learn about the origins of the Universe.
  • In grade 2, students would learn about the origins of the planet.
  • In grade 3, students would learn about the origins (and development) of life — fish, dinosaurs, giant ground sloths, etc.
  • In grade 4, students would learn about early foraging societies.
  • In grade 5, students would learn about ancient civilization — in Mesopotamia, China, India, and the Americas. …

And so on, and so on. You get the idea. What would be so awful about this (entirely hypothetical) sequence?

With this sequence, students would only arrive at the contemporary world in grade 12. With this sequence, students would forget nearly everything that happened previously. With this sequence, students would never connect information across time.

With this sequence, the wonderful potential of Big History would be wasted: students wouldn't cultivate a unified vision of the world.

In order to have a unified, interconnected understanding, there must be repetition of scope — though not repetition of specific information. That is, students should revisit some of the same events, people, and themes — but not slavishly rehash what they've learned before.

How often should they revisit the topics?

Well, again, let's imagine another awful sequence of Big History, but this time in the other direction:

  • In grade 1, students would learn about all of Big History.
  • In grade 2, students would learn about all of Big History.
  • In grade 3, students would learn about all of Big History.
  • In grade 4, students would learn about all of Big History.
  • In grade 5, students would learn about all of Big History. ...

And so on. With this "sequence," students would never focus on particular periods, persons, or events. They'd always and forever be flying over, skimming the surface. They'd never have the pleasure of diving into the wonderful details. This sequence would be awful of a different shade.

So: we should strike a balance.

Between first grade and senior year, students go through the whole of Big History, not once, not twice: but thrice. Each cycle consists of four years.

We're talking spiraling through human (and universal) history in three cycles, each of four years.


What could this look like?

In grades 1–4, students learn about the whole history of the Universe (focusing, always, on the human story of the last 5,000 years). The goal in this cycle is to introduce and excite the students with some of the "greatest hits" of history.

In middle school (grades 5–8), students revisit the history of the Universe. Because they've developed quite a bit of knowledge over the last four years, and because they're older, they'll bring new question and insight to their learning. The goal in this cycle is to complicate student understanding by teasing out and challenging their earlier perspectives.

In high school (grades 9–12), students revisit the history of the Universe again. Because they've been through this twice before, they'll already know more about the grand story of humanity than (we expect) do most adults. They'll be overflowing with knowledge and (if we've done this right) hungry to learn more. What they'll be wanting is the big picture — ways to fit together what they've learned.

The goal in this cycle, then, is to connect. What is the story of life, the Universe, and everything? Is the world getting worse, or better? Why have Europeans ruled the world (rather than, say, the New Guineans)? What happened before the Big Bang? What forces drive history? What might the future hold?

The final cycle, then, will focus on the big questions, and their most interesting answers.

In sum:

In our Big Spiral History model, students will explore the history of humanity (and, to a lesser extent, the Universe) in three cycles, each of four years.

Throughout, complex knowledge will grow. The particular goal of the grade school cycle, however, will be to excite students — stir their emotions. The particular goal of the middle school cycle will be complicate their understandings. The particular goal of the high school cycle will be to connect the pieces of student knowledge through big visions of how the whole world hangs together.

Shout out to Susan Wise Bauer!

Note: I need to be transparent about how much of debt I am to the historian Susan Wise Bauer, author of the beautiful guide to classical homeschooling, The Well-Trained Mind. I fell in love with her work — particularly this approach to teaching history — some years ago, and am probably more shaped by her vision of education than by anyone else's, with the notable exception of Kieran Egan.

I take from Bauer the idea of a "spiraling" approach to history (though she doesn't use that term): 4 years × 3 cycles. I've modified her approach, I think, in only three ways. First, I've changed where the story begins. She suggests that instruction start at the earliest city-states; in our school, we'll spend substantial time on the whole story, from the Big Bang on up.

Second, I (and Lee) have changed the other divisions, which I'll post on in tomorrow's post. Third, I've changed the theory behind each cycle: Dr. Bauer advocates the classical schooling approach of the Trivium — teach the facts (the "grammar") in the first cycle, the connections (the "logic") in the second cycle, and the arguments (the "rhetoric") in the third cycle. In their place, I've put excite, complicate, and connect.

Why I've done so deserves a post or three of its own (!), but in short, I've striven to marry the classical education of Susan Wise Bauer's with the Imaginative Education of Kieran Egan. Of which, more anon — in a few posts, I'll suggest how an Imaginative Education approach to Big History might be especially wonderful!

For what it's worth, I see this marriage as preserving the genius of both thinkers — though others are free to disagree!

If you'd like to learn more about Dr. Bauer's classical approach, check out her succinct explanation of the Trivium — "What Is Classical Eduction?", and poke around the rest of her wonderful website!