Wall of Talking Dead People
Our brains are specially designed to think about people, but so often schools treat “knowledge” as something that comes from a textbook.
It doesn’t. Knowledge comes from people. And, more often than not, fascinating people — people who pushed boundaries, people who refused to accept the status quo.
Music? It's a conversation with Beethoven and Duke Ellington.
Science? A discussion with Darwin and Galileo.
Geometry is kibbitzing with Euclid.
Algebra is deliberating with al-Khwarizmi;
literature is debating with W.B. Yeats and Chinua Achebe and A. A. Milne and every other author we read.
Knowledge comes from fascinating people: we need a way to make this obvious to kids.
Our basic plan:
Make (1) portraits of the people who gave us the knowledge we study in school, with (2) speech bubbles coming out of their mouths.
But build up to this gradually. Start the year with one whole wall of the classroom empty — then, as we learn about interesting people (in history, in science, in technology, in art...), make a portrait of them, and hang it up on the wall.
Let students into the decision-making process: who should go up on the wall? Is Confucius important enough to be on there? Are Watson & Crick, the discoverers of DNA? Is Vladimir Zworykin, the engineer who invented the first television?
(Note that not all of these people are dead — we needn't take the title of this curriculum element too seriously.)
And let students help decide: which quote should represent the person? This’ll spark a conversation about what the meaning of each person is: how should we remember them?
(Take Napoleon: do we celebrate his audacity by remembering that he declared, “The word impossible is not French!” or his tyranny by remembering that he confessed “I have come to realize that men are not born to be free”?)
Our students can realize that knowledge comes from people. They're indebted to a great chain of thinkers, tinkerers, and makers — and they can join this chain. Steve Jobs said it best:
Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact: 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.
If we bring the creators back into their creations, I suspect that we can help students live more fully in the world. They’ll see that they’re surrounded not by abstract, inhuman facts, but by the beloved handiwork of people — people they even like, people they even are like.
A Wall of Talking Dead People, in short, can help re-humanize schooling — and students’ conceptions of the world.
If you walk into a classroom, you might see:
Students going beyond the surface features of an idea to ask ask who came up with this?
Students quarreling over whether so-and-so should be remembered as a hero, as a villain, or as something still different — and thus which quote should represent them.
Students quarreling over whether so-and-so is important enough to deserve limited space on our wall.
(Perhaps) students playing a trivia game that we make for our Wall of Talking Dead People — students could make a certain number of cards asking for oddball, memorable trivia for each person.
Two students, engaged in a debate, walking to our Wall of Talking Dead People to be reminded of what other minds might have thought about their issue. (The purpose is to make ideas and stories immediately accessible to students, so the kids can do stuff with them.)
Students evincing pride when they refer, casually, to what Socrates might have thought about consumerism, or what King Solomon might have thought about it, or what Nietzsche might have thought about it.
(This idea is currently in beta! If you've thoughts on how to make it better, please shoot an e-mail to Brandon at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Big Spiral History
Classroom as Brain-Extender.
To Learn More:
See the blog post "A Wall of Talking Dead People".
I first wrote about this in a paper for graduate school; ask me if you'd like to see it.