Crafting a Better “School”

“A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and, seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realization of Utopias.” ― Oscar Wilde


UPDATE: Winter 2020. Although I am not quite ready to take this post down yet I have learned much since initially writing this 5 years ago and it is need of some revision.   


This post is a working draft of my ongoing thoughts on building a better school, in this case a high school. I post it in the hopes of receiving feedback, all thoughts or suggestions are welcome.  This is draft will be continued as I work out further thoughts in coming months and be adjusted to reflect that.

I was recently asked to explain what I would consider a dream high school and I am embarrassed to admit but I wasn’t really able to articulate one.  I was surprised by the question, and then equally surprised by my own lack of an answer. This despite my own lifelong personal obsession with utopias, having proudly purchased a super cheap used version of Tomas Moore’s classic Utopia as a 15 year old—missing all the religious messaging but always struck by the brilliant manipulation of gold as a reverse status symbol and infatuated with the idea of a building a perfect world. Furthermore in my teaching I use Utopia’s as a device with my own students—how do you imagine a more perfect world. (For example my digi-topia semi-capstone ITGS project).  However despite all of this I drew blanks, really only about to think about existing systems—for example the IB—to give a stumbled explanation and ultimately not really answering the question.  My inability to articulate a vision prompted this rambling essay on my developing thoughts. 

What is it to be Educated? 

“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.” -Robert A. Heinlein
“Education is the progressive discovery of our ignorance” – Will Durant
Educado – (Español; adj. Polite, Well-mannered, Cultivated)

“Learning is what you do to yourself, Educated is what somebody else does to you” – Anon

In an ideal world by Age 18 I think that a person should be able to:

  • Know thyself. Understand how our bodies and mind work and to be able to maintain a healthy well adjusted lifestyle. Habits matter. Bodies are more than simply vehicles to carry our brains around.  Similarly they need to know how the environment, and what we eat/drink/breathe impacts us. A physical activity mastery is essential to this (sport or fitness, whatever). 
  • Knowing how/why the world has turned out the way it has. This is a very broad content category where I essentially say all science and social science knowledge. In reality I would probably model the big history project with a strong combination of Science/Social Science knowledge + independent student research on their own topics. Regardless a mastery of basic concepts is a requirement. 
  • A deep conceptual understanding of mathematics and the scientific method. Logic is a primary tool for understanding the world and it must become intuitive.
  • Display a strong mastery of at least one hands-on skill set by designing and building a quality projectThis could be a digital story-telling product, a model building, a computer program, a mechanical device, really any sort of serious design product or work of art. Ideally one that solves a real problem, or perhaps illuminates information for the community….
  • Be able to conduct serious research effort and produce a decent research paper detailing results (this would be an independent inquiry modeled on IB’s EE).
  • Be able to analyze art & literature for higher themes, basic cultural context, and basic assessments of techniques. Be able to tell a story in a compelling manner. 
  • Understand basic epistemology and be able to apply those understandings to our various knowledge methodologies (modeled on the IB TOK class but without the esoteric steps—ideally integrated directly into classes themselves rather than a separate class—but it needs to be an explicit part of curriculum with a focus on the limitations of our knowledge methodologies.
  • Ideally a second language mastery—or at least for language deprived Americans, 50% competency but on the way to fluency (yes a high standard I don’t quite measure up to). 
  • Be able to teach a high level class in each basic subject (Science, Social Science, Math, Design Technologies, Language(s), Art)
  • Have a strong sense of civic commitment with efforts to improve real problems.
  • Be able to solve problems in the world! 
  • Ideally a musical skill as well…and of course everybody should dance!

Wow, this is a tough list. I have high expectations that I personally did not quite match as young man–in fact I am not sure if I meet them now–but it’s always good to start with high expectations. Perhaps some of these rightfully are learned in college or later years. Or can these be done sequentially or building on one another. Or are these ideas even the right ones for our world?  Looking over the list though I can shorten it to a very simple: Be able to think and act critically and intelligently with civic & honorable intentions.  

What does the World Need?

No utopian vision should exist outside of the society it is meant to serve.  We need to understand what we should be building. We are undergoing an unprecedented informational and technological transformation. Our economies and societies are going to be remade. Most of our current ideas of work–from which most of us derive our identities and self worth–are going to be completely revamped, and in many cases simply replaced.  

So why is our goal in education, as Ken Robinson posits, to create univeristy professors?  (When I know all too well those jobs are amongst the most rapidly disappearing…).  It should obviously not to create more manufacturing jobs that our current US model of education was intended to serve.  So what?

I suppose I come down strongly on the side of great liberal arts tradition: Education should be to teach you how to think and equip you with the tools to think yourself.  I still believe passionately in the progressive movement to improve education in order to build a stronger more robust and more just democracy and society?  I do also agree with Robinson’s critique that creating Uni professors seems to be an aim, and the criticism is particularly true of my own vision laid out above. So should we aim to create fully self-actualized artists instead? Or civil agents/ What? We obviously need people who can reimagine the world.  Does that really require knowing the world fully?  I love history but…

Anyway I am not sure…

Am I Grounded or Just Beached? 

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Be careful what tools you use in your search, for the ones you know best may not be of any help at all.

In retrospect the most notable thing about my answer to the initial question is just how stuck in my own existing epistemological frameworks I behaved. This despite my constant goal to warn young students to not let their world views be coopted by our current systems… the world can—and should!—be different and you can make it that way.

Let me explain myself.  At the moment I teach the IBDP, and there are many aspects of the program that I absolutely love. Most notably the Theory of Knowledge (TOK) class, the Creative/Action/Service requirement, and the great independent research undertaking the Extended Essay where student create an independent 4000 research project—despite its major headaches for all involved is probably my single favorite part of teaching. Additionally there are very high external standards in all classes and one must be kept accountable in order to achieve them. This strikes me as a great system design and ensures that courses are kept “honest” or driven to very high standards safe from grade inflation worries or subjective attachment (not that this is always bad; there are multiple important considerations).

BUT there are some major drawbacks. Overall the amount of factual knowledge that classes often require is tough to cram into two years it is often done through the most time effective way possible: boring textbook learning with lectures. The amount of work required sometimes comes at the expense of student health, particularly as PE courses/extracurricular activities lose out to study halls as kids prepare. This is a major downer.

The expectations are very high—perhaps too high—and often the implementation is mixed. In the social sciences external assessment often appears somewhat subjective and—well—flawed as assessors are reading hundreds of papers, usually at the end of May after they are grading their own students. I can guarantee that mistakes are made, probably often. (and I always hope my students are accessed early in the morning rather than hangry time…).

The IBDP does have a project requirement that I think very highly of, every class has an “Internal Assessment,” requirement.  These are usually a project that students must demonstrate a mastery of the topic and that is the IA. (In my course ITGS that is the IT project students must build). In the basic math course students do statistical analysis, in science they do a self directed lab. These are brilliant projects and I think very highly of them.  HOWEVER, the external assessment of these projects is very difficult and it can be very frustrating for teachers and students alike. 


I am big believer in these ideas… in general

But this is what I first drew upon for my answer. It’s not a bad one, but it is not a perfect one.  And most critically it doesn’t yet answer the initial question: What would my utopian vision be?

In summary, the goals of the IB that I strong believe in:

  • Deep understanding how the world works—and critically—the limits of how we know this,
  • Serving the community, and treating others with respect and empathy
  • Creating projects that demonstrate mastery of knowledge that hopefully are of benefit.

Now these messages are a part of my vision, but my education would be much more holistic—both its approach to curriculum where I would advocate much interdisciplinary approaches with projects directly integrated into coursework; but also in the approach to our mind/body/environment.  We humans are of our environment and there are profound ramifications that we should be aware of.

I have always felt passionately that one must both understand and be able to act with that knowledge. So my vision would reflect this, students must be capable of critical evaluation, while also able to create. This would entail an inquiry and project based approach, however with a very high content level.

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A true education should encompass both evaluation and creativity. Personally I believe that moments of creativity can happen without necessarily progressing up the pyramid, but that is a small quibble with a very helpful conceptualization schema

The IB is moving in these directions, but with all the nimbleness of the large bureaucratic multi-layered institution that it has become. The IB will also need new models for what education can ultimately, so let us leave our ideological binders and set sail for another utopia…but first we must ask where do we want our students to go?

So what sort of ship should we build?

I have recently been blessed with a young daughter. And I spend a lot of time Intently observing how she learns through doing. It also gets me thinking about how important creativity is to me personally and how this should impact the way education is delivered….. to be continued,

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“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”
– Antoine de Saint-Exupery

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