Working in a Tradition

A problem:

There's something wonderful about working in a tradition.

Working in a tradition presses the "meaning" button in our brains — it makes us realize that we're a part of something bigger than ourselves. It gives us connection — suddenly we see the the fingerprints of past thinkers and doers on everything we ourselves doing. We feel gratitude for everyone who has come before us.

And it liberates us! Rather than chaining us to the past, working in a tradition frees us to do genuinely new things. As the philosopher and motorcycle repairman Matthew Crawford says:

There’s something liberating about a concept of creativity
that doesn’t require starting from scratch.
– Matthew Crawford


All of K–12 schooling is working in a tradition. Everything we learn in school comes from past thinkers & doers — typically fascinating men and women who boldly advanced their fields!

Knowledge comes from long lines of exciting people. But schools typically present knowledge as coming from a textbook. 

Students can contribute to this tradition. But schools typically present knowledge as something to be internalized.

Our basic plan:

Show kids that knowledge and skill come from people. Show them that most of what they learn — in math, in science, in cooking, in everything — was once the brilliant breakthrough made by a specific human being. 

Tell origin stories. Tell lore. Cultivate an ethos of caring, diligence, respect, and giving.

The goal:

Adults who know their roots, who live as heirs to the greatest thinkers and doers of human history — and as people who can themselves help generations to come.

If you walk into a classroom, you might see:

Kids learning algebra as a conversation with al-Khwarizmi, the 9th-century Baghdadi mathematician who developed our algebraic toolset. (Al-Khwarizmi may even be the person to have given us the letter x for "unknown".)

Kids learning ratios as a conversation with Thales, who brilliantly figured out how to calculate the height of the Great Pyramid by using its shadow — and his own!

Kids developing a fondness for the makers of our knowledge — seeing Isaac Newton as a sort of batty uncle who stuck a needle around his eye (to test a theory about light), and who, after solving the epic riddle of planetary motion... misplaced his notes and forgot his answer!

Students who see themselves as able to build on the past, discover new things, and effect change.

specific questions:

We're heirs to the past, yes — but we're also able to discover new things without a tradition. Plopped down on a desert island, we could figure out some science and math by ourselves. In fact, part of the awe of science and math is that they are independent of us — aliens would discover the same laws that we have. 

Is this truth in danger of being lost, in a curriculum that emphasizes continuity and connection?

(This idea is currently in beta! If you've thoughts on how to make it better, please shoot an e-mail to Brandon at

Related elements:

Epic Stories
Wall of Talking Dead People

To Learn More:

There are many wonderful books written on the history of math — perhaps the most immediately useful for teaching is Math Through the Ages: A Gentle History for Teachers and Others, by William P. Berlinghoff & Fernando Q. Gouvêa. I pair this with a great two-book set on simple stories of great mathematical thinkers: Mathematicians Are People, Too by Luetta & Wilbert Reimer.

Ditto for the history of science — my favorite book here is Bill Bryson's (very) popular A Short History of Nearly Everything. But even better than that is Neil DeGrasse Tyson's rebooted television series Cosmosevery episode of which has a wonderful animated story of a breakthrough scientist.