I just spent a couple of weeks in Austin (with a side trip on Free Cities to Honduras) to help Ariel and Lucas Miller launch The Bronze Doors Academy. In addition to cool courses such as stop-motion animation and learning Japanese through Manga, in our Socratic discussions we have already created a rich intellectual conversation with many strands for our small group of students ages 11 – 14.
For instance, we read and discussed a selection from A.M. Turing’s article “Computing Machinery and Intelligence” in which he proposes the Turing Test. This led to a fun exploration of chatbots as well as some thoughtful reflection on “What exactly is intelligence?” Meanwhile, in science the students were watching videos showing examples of chimpanzees, Lyre birds, and crows “learning.” Can animals learn the same way that we do? How similar is animal learning across various species to human learning? We also read and discussed the beginning of this interview with Leda Cosmides, one of the founders of evolutionary psychology, and begin to explore the notion that our own “thought processes” were to some extent constrained by the environment within which we evolved. Meanwhile we were reading Jean Liedloff’s account of her experience living with an indigenous tribe in the amazon in The Continuum Concept. To what extent do contemporary indigenous tribes reflect the experience within which our psychological characteristics evolved? What can we learn about the range of human experience by understanding them? At the same time, we were reading and discussing Ruth Benedict’s The Chrysanthemum and the Sword: Patterns of Japanese Culture, in which the students are exposed to an entirely different set of norms and ideals regarding virtuous behavior (while also learning about Japanese language and culture through Manga later in the day). Although most of them had never before even heard the term “virtue,” they are also discussing Plato’s Meno, in which Meno and Socrates famously explore the nature of “virtue” and how or whether it can be taught.
Between these and other experiences, our students’ minds were alive with various connections between ideas and their personal lives. With the eleven year old students just beginning adolescence, and the older students very much engaged in the processes of hormonal change that take them to adulthood, all of these issues of who they are and who their mind and bodies work are very much alive to them. They are waking to the world every day, and the material that we’ve given them allows them to explore their direct day-to-day experiences as feeling, thinking, embodied beings far more richly than would otherwise have been the case.
A standard 7th grade social studies assignment, from Houghton-Mifflin, superficially attempts to engage students:
The Big Idea
Framework Concept: Continuity Isolated by the sea, the early people of Japan established a distinct culture that developed with few influences from other countries, except China.
- Start by making a word web around the phrase “living together on an island.” Have students brainstorm all the advantages and disadvantages to living in an island community. Advantages might include close friendships with neighbors, protection from enemies, and controllable borders. Disadvantages might include overcrowding, lack of resources, and boredom. Then have the class vote for whether or not to allow outsiders to come into their island community.
But in my experience most students simply go through the motions of such exercises, then go ahead and memorize and forget content on tests (great teachers make these experiences more meaningful, but great teachers are the exception).
The biggest difference is that I am trying to create rich, ongoing experiences in which the students are naturally led to use important ideas to make sense of their day-to-day experiential reality, and to have adults re-enforcing that experiential learning, while simultaneously exposing students to some of the most interesting contemporary ideas. Thus my mind is actively involved in integrating the ideas of Turing, Cosmides, Liedloff, Benedict, Plato, and contemporary experiments in animal psychology, just as are the students’ minds. In addition, instead of an anonymous, bureaucratic textbook published by a corporation, the students are directly introduced to interesting, idiosyncratic thinkers, none of which presumes to be, nor is presumed to be, the final authority on anything.
Creating deep learning environments is all about constructing the visible and invisible conditions under which deep, spontaneous intellectual engagement becomes the norm. More to come on exactly how to construct both the visible and invisible conditions under which this takes place.