Unschooling, Big History, and Adventure in an American Classroom

In a classroom at the Orca Middle School in Seattle, eighth grade social studies students are engaged in an ambitious, multi-year project; they’re creating their own history textbook. The project has a revolutionary potential and goes to a core question in education: If formal education is less about amassing facts and grades and more about learning to think, to learn, to explore—as my high school teachers repeatedly assured me it was—how does that happen?

The project also goes to a question as to how we learn to see subtlety, the fine-grained details and complexities behind everyday life, in a world where broad brushstrokes, proclaimed loudly, seem to be everywhere, from advertising jingles that create earworms to a screaming announcer on a reality television show. The brushstrokes are simpler and in one’s face; the subtleties require investigation, those much-promised skills of learning and exploring. It’s the sort of problem that Bill McKibben wrote about in The Age of Missing Information in 1992, where he spent weeks watching all of the cable television available in Fairfax, Virginia over one 24-hour period, then spent 24 hours in the woods, and contrasted the two.

That dichotomy, big media versus the woods, came out recently in two prominent articles on education that appeared over the past summer. Each looks at a mode of education that is effectively opposed to the other.

Ben Hewitt’s essay on unschooling in Outside magazine looks at kids having “self-directed, adult-facilitated life learning in the context of their own unique interests,” effectively education as self-directed, creative, but unstructured play, mostly in the woods. Hewitt’s sons are unschooled; going beyond homeschooling, they spend their days exploring the forests around Hewitt’s farm, learning woodcraft, doing chores, volunteering, reading voraciously. They spend very little time in “sitting and studying,” and that mostly for such standard subjects as science and arithmetic. What’s important for Hewitt is that the boys have agency, self-direction, making their own decisions, creating their own education. It’s a far reach from the “prison cell” that Hewitt felt that he experienced in his own childhood schooling.

Meanwhile, a recent issue of the Sunday New York Times Magazine featured Andrew Ross Sorkin’s enthusiastic profile of Bill Gates’s growing fascination with Big History. Big History is historian David Christian’s multi-media and multi-disciplinary approach to teaching world history, effectively a many-chaptered combination of animations and short videos that looks at history in terms of cosmology, physics, chemistry, technology, and broad social movements. It’s “sit-still and watch” education, with lots of fast-paced rock-video-style lectures and beautiful graphics. The Big History program encourages teachers to adapt the course and create their own additions. In the end, it’s the ultimate in received education. Gates is funding it privately, outside of the Gates Foundation’s Common Core Initiative—though the website suggests that the two are aligned—with hopes that it sweeps the country.

Both ideas represent two widely different takes on the way we learn, two extremes in what has become a plethora of views as to what works in education. A multiplicity of takes on education can be a good thing, but only if we substitute the idea of “learning” for “education.” MIT Media Lab director Joi Ito explains the difference simply in his 2014 TED talk, Want to innovate? Become a ‘now-ist, where he looks at the nature of innovation in a networked world. What’s relevant here is his suggestion that “education is what people do to you, and learning is what you do to yourself.” In this sense, the State or Church or our parents may want to educate us, but each of us eventually creates the models for how we ourselves learn. So we may not want millions of theories of education, but we would want millions of models for learning, what we end up doing to ourselves. It may be that education is at its best when it facilitates that process of doing learning to ourselves.

For myself—and I don’t think I’m alone in this regard—learning has been at its best and most memorable when it has contained some element of experiment and self-direction. Even if the experiment is unsuccessful, if it is intelligent and well played, it can provide new and effective models. I remember junior high school, and being put in an experimental class where we were to learn what was then called New Math. We weren’t advance placement students in math. As far as math skills went, we were just another set of students, and I believe that this was part of the experiment.

We spent the first school term of that year learning set theory and base numbers. Years later, I realized that the course was preparing us for computers, for being comfortable with algorithms, binary code, and hexadecimal numbers. For some of us at least, it was a blast. Our teacher was young, smart, energetic, and funny, and we all had to commit to learning this stuff, which was as foreign to us as a whole new culture. As the term ended and the holidays approached, he told us that our heavy lifting was over, that the next term we would move on to geometry as taught through New Math, and it would be a lot of fun.

It was not to be. After the holiday break, we were told that our teacher had become gravely ill and would not be returning to school. I suppose that this is true. But given the huge amount of criticism that New Math was facing at the time—ranging from the charge that it was hokum to the idea that it was crowding out basic arithmetic—I wonder if he was simply sent packing. See, for example, Morris Kline’s 1973 book Why Johnny Can’t Add: The Failure of the New Math, and of course Tom Lehrer’s caustic satire, New Math.

The New Math teacher was replaced with one of our familiar math teachers, who brought us back to more conventional studies, learning the essentials of algebra. I’m sure that she was a nice woman, but she was not a great teacher, and the course became dull. It was so disappointing; the rest of that year was a letdown. I do think the New Math course was exceptionally valuable in getting at the fundamentals of thinking about computers and whole systems. But whatever else I learned, I also got a lesson in what happens when you have good, stimulating pedagogy, and what happens when you don’t.

That sense of stimulating pedagogy is vital. My most memorable college history course looked at post-World War II America. The professor was quite conservative; it was the time of Watergate, and he was a staunch defender of Nixon. But he was also brilliant and a bit of a radical. The quarter consisted of roughly ten weeks of classes. For the coursework, he gave us a list of maybe 150 books. These were histories, memoirs, collections of news accounts and essays, polemics, and the postwar novels of such writers as John Cheever and John Updike. The political slant ranged across the American spectrum of the time, from John Stormer’s right-wing tract None Dare Call It Treason to Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver’s prison autobiography, Soul on Ice.

The assignment was simple: choose any ten books. Read them over the ten weeks, and write essays about each of them. In other words, be self directed, create your own course. The classroom sessions were given over to often stimulating conversations about postwar politics. For an undergraduate course, the schedule was grueling, and it remains one of the most memorable and valuable courses I’ve ever taken.

For me, college was all about self-directed experiment. I wanted an interdisciplinary program that didn’t exist at the time. “Create your own major” programs are fairly common now, but nothing like that existed then, so I created one on my own. I chose courses each term that would reference and amplify each other, unbeknownst to the professors teaching them. Eventually I piled on so many courses that I ended up with two degrees in four years, in history and English literature.

Which brings me back to Bill Gates and Big History. At one level, the idea of teaching history across disciplines is something I should like, given my own predilections. Christian, Gates’s hero, has put together a model where the sweep of world history is taught through big multimedia presentations. Looking at history means going back to the Big Bang and astronomy and back through human cosmology. History is taught as a confluence of science, the arts, and technology alongside more traditional studies. That’s all well and good, as far as it goes.

If the Hewitt model seems like a dream: not just an escape from the regimentation of a classroom, but an escape from any regimentation at all, there’s an opposite scenario for Big History, “a framework for all knowledge.”

Hewitt’s sons are living a life from the 19th century: foraging in the woods, doing chores, reading constantly. Hewitt has come under a lot of flack for his dismissal of regular, classroom education as prison, and he has spoken frequently since the Outside piece came out to say that he is not against public education. He describes his model—or more appropriately, the model that he, his wife, and his two sons have put together collaboratively, as something that works for his family; it may not be for everyone. It’s pretty obvious that most of what he’s doing may be unique to his family. The combination of a small farm run by exceptionally well-educated, culturally aware, and motivated parents, generous and helpful neighbors, and adjacent, accessible woodland isn’t easily replicated. The closest that I’ve seen is the outdoors training at the Wilderness Awareness School, where students learn about the nature through close observation and a large amount of adventure. Here, students—both children and adults—are immersed in the woods and are encouraged to investigate and find their own conclusions. I’m wondering, however, if there are some elements of Hewitt’s model that can be captured for the rest of us.

With a lot of beautiful graphics and the fast-paced YouTube videos, Big History goes the other way, telling the history of the world both as a planet—through the story of forces and elements, and then stars and planets—and as a culture, through the rise of various technologies and cultures across the globe. It mixes basic chemistry with the Popul Vuh, the Mayan creation narrative, and throws in such bits and pieces as the famous Charles and Rae Eames film, Powers of Ten.

Big History is a lovely project; it’s beautiful to look at, and has the feel of great infotainment. Whether or not it should become a core way of teaching history, as Bill Gates and Christian want it to be, is an open question. Sorkin reports that the creators of Big History are collecting large amounts of data about its effectiveness, but I figure that the jury is still out.

Criticisms are legion, encapsulated in this commentary in the Guardian. Much of the Big History content is superficial and fast paced, probably too fast paced for many students. In the classroom, teachers are expected to be available to explain the concepts more clearly. But if that’s the case, what’s the point of this content? Is it nothing more than an amped-up filmstrip from the 1950s? Another critique is that interdisciplinary teaching is not new; teachers have been experimenting with it for decades, and one observation that comes out of that is how hard it is to do well, often requiring team teaching and a lot of extra work. Does this project make that any easier? And then there’s the standard critique: just because Bill Gates thinks it is cool and has the money to reproduce it and give it away to schools, is that the best way to decide how students should be learning?

For me, Big History fits well into the coarse, broad-strokes, content-in-your-face end of the spectrum. As I went through the course, I wondered whether there ways to combine both the subtle, fine-grained approach to learning that Hewitt’s boys are discovering with the huge potential that interdisciplinary multimedia can have in presenting large amounts of information. It’s an important question, and it applies to both children and adults as learners.

One such project is happening at Orca Middle School. It’s the brainchild of social studies teacher Donte Felder, working with teaching artist Nate Herth. Herth has worked as a teaching artist for more than ten years, with a multi-disciplinary scope and a background in painting, drawing, and printmaking. Felder is the sort of teacher who believes strongly in getting students engaged, out of their desks, and doesn’t hesitate to use a TED talk as teaching material, or bringing up a clip from Star Wars to illustrate a historical principle. Danny Westneat, writing in the Seattle Times some years ago, describes a Felder fourth and fifth grade class: “they deconstructed a Paul Simon song. Debated the Second Amendment. Analyzed data from a paper-wad-throwing experiment. Bantered parts of speech in a fast-paced word game. And began creating an original play based on Brown v. Board of Education. That was just one day.”

Felder and Herth have been working together over the past three years in an experimental program to have teaching artists in the schools nearly full time. In the program, the Creative Schools Initiative (which will be expanded to the Highline School District), teaching artists work with teachers across disciplines, incorporating elements of deep creativity into everyday classroom work. Whether the subject is social studies or science, the students might be engaged in creating their own zines, comic books, poems, plays, or videos about that subject. Some of the work may be individual and solitary, but a lot of it involves collaboration, working in teams. Both Felder and I are on the Board of Directors of Arts Corps, the organization that partners with Orca to make this happen.

This year, Felder and Herth are embarking on intensifying the model, having the students create their own history textbook. The plan is for the project to span several years, with a different unit covered each year. This first year, the unit is “the American Dream.” Each student team chooses a different way to look at what the American Dream is and is not. One group is examining the Washington State tax code; another has chosen to look at Ebola and public health. The teams research and write; each team, led by an executive producer, works on creating the stories, podcasts, videos, comics, and plays that will go into the textbook. Eventually the book will be published in both a hard copy and online version.

Felder reports that parents are getting involved, editing what their children have produced, and even some former students who’ve moved on to high school like to come back and help out.

I can’t help but think that both Hewitt and Gates would approve of such an effort. The project allows for, even seeks out, the action, self-determination, and adventure that Hewitt cries out for, with a dynamic balance of freedom and responsibility, commitment and fun. But at the same time, there’s no shying away from today’s technology of the sort that Hewitt seems to favor. There’s no making one’s own basket backpacks, as Hewitt’s sons have done. Rather, these kids are firmly entrenched in the world of today’s technology, learning how to work together to produce videos and podcasts, how to employ stagecraft and drawing skills, how to assemble and present information. These are the sorts of things that Bill Gates’s Big History is built on. But here, the students are behind the wheel. And that, I think, makes all the difference.

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