Our classes answer the question, “What would we teach if we were starting over from a blank slate today?”
Social Studies for Social Problems
While biology, chemistry, and physics are the gateways to all other sciences, the social sciences are distinct lenses through which to understand humanity and society. But too often, high school students’ exposure to the social sciences is limited to history and US government, and once students get to college, they don’t have time to sample each of the social sciences before deciding on a major. The goal of this class is to give students an efficient introduction to each of the major social sciences in the context of a persistent social problem. Students will learn how anthropologists, economists, political scientists, and sociologists would each approach the same issue differently. For example, how does an economist think about immigration? A sociologist? An anthropologist? Each social science is also paired with a related skill. For example, anthropology with design thinking, history with asking powerful questions, economics with Excel, and sociology with surveying. By the end of the class, students will have an informed hypothesis about which social sciences are most interesting to them, a deeper understanding of a handful of social issues, and a practical skillset they can put to use regardless of their path in life.
For the image for this course, what questions would each sort of social scientist have?
You are a policymaker who needs to vote on a bill about changing food aid benefits; you only have time to talk to three experts before you vote. Explain which social science disciplines you’ll call upon and why.
For the first time, we understand the basic functionings of our minds—how we learn, what motivates us, how we decide, our cognitive biases, etc. But these important concepts are rarely taught in schools. When they are, it’s generally from a third person perspective rather than with bias toward a first person understanding of how to notice and put them to use. That is too bad because mastering the mechanics of our minds is a force multiplier for being effective in the world. Life isn’t a series of optimized environments with uniformly excellent teachers, managers, and coaches. It’s a series of environments, some better than others. Whether students succeed on the uneven terrain of life will be a function of their ability to hack any environment for their own purposes. This class gives them the skills to do so.
Build intrinsic motivation. Pick one of your classes and evaluate the extent to which you are intrinsically vs. extrinsically motivated in it and explain why. Then think of three specific things that you could do to feel more intrinsically motivated in the class, regardless of whether the class changes. Finally, think of three things the teacher or school could do to increase the intrinsic motivation of students in the class.
24 hours in the life of human bias: Keep a journal of every cognitive bias you observe throughout a day, labeling and describing it.
Complete a “because / but / so” for each of the following statements:
Interleaving is a more effective strategy for learning
Underlining is a less effective strategy for learning
Because / but / so is an effective strategy for learning
storytelling & narrative
Storytelling is a 40,000 year skill--one that’s always mattered and will always matter because we are wired for story. It is a powerful way we learn, influence and are influenced. Yet, students currently spend thirteen years studying canon literature without learning the predictable structures that makes stories more or less compelling or developing the skills to tell compelling stories themselves. This is too bad because storytelling is fundamental to being human. For all of human history it’s been a primary way we foster cooperation, establish social norms, and define our tribes. Even now, we move forward as a society at the rates our stories advance. This class is an introduction to storytelling.
Here is an outline of a story—diagnose the features that make it more or less compelling; re-write the features that are less compelling
Here is a piece of information you are trying to communicate—tell a story that you think would work for each of three different audiences; now, think of a story that you think would work for all three audiences at once
Translate a story from one media to another, analyzing strengths and weaknesses of each media in effectively conveying the story
In the real world, problems don’t come labeled "solve me" with instructions for which tools to use. Instead, we have to identify the problem, find data to bring to bear on it, assess its quality, make some assumptions, build a model, frame a decision, and persuade others of it. And unlike our current high school math sequence, Problem Solving isn’t “one right answer” math. Instead, it’s math that helps us make more informed decisions in a world with better and worse courses of actions, not right and wrong ones. This is math that everyone would benefit from—it requires organized thinking but doesn’t require advanced mathematics. But right now, Problem Solving is kept behind elite gating—graduates of top colleges who get jobs at top consulting or tech firms are trained in it, but few others get the opportunity despite how important it is. The result is most people learn too much math that they can too rarely apply. This applied math course exists to change that.
Analyze the history of U.S. immigration, including periods of sharp increase and decrease and the drivers of these changes. Explore the relationship between immigration and crime and wages, justifying your statements with data.
Prioritize with justification a list of colleges for a hypothetical student to attend based on their interests and preferences, the financial aid packages they receive, and the outcomes of students from that institution.
Model and analyze the risks of a new sexually transmitted disease—who is most at risk, how quickly it will spread, what the key drivers of spread are, how best to mitigate, and how to ration a scarce vaccine.
Current Affairs: The Headlines and Beyond
Students have never had so much access to what’s happening in the world. In a short period of time, we have moved from Encyclopedia Britannica and World News Tonight to push notifications and social media platforms. While the gulf between what’s happening in the world and what’s happening in school has always existed, new forms of media make school feel more disconnected than ever. At school, students rarely get the opportunity to discuss the news, let alone the skills to critically evaluate it or to get beyond the headlines. This course teaches just that. In addition to building the habit of reading and critically discussing the news, this class chooses a half dozen areas of focus to go deeper on each year. Examples of current or upcoming issues the class could take on include the 2020 midterms, Putin’s Russia, and the opioid epidemic. Additionally, the class includes a core knowledge component, teaching concepts that are repeatedly used by journalists, e.g. win-win, zero sum, first principles, unintended consequences, etc.
Getting beyond the headlines: Simulation of redistricting (students assigned secret information about their goals) to use in combination with public data to divide their state into districts
Developing skill in and habit of discussing topical events: Practice debating logical propositions related to current affairs, e.g., to proposition “Assault weapons should be banned.” students in round respond: ”I couldn’t disagree more…” disagreeing with whatever person said before them by using a unique response that directly responds to the person who spoke before them.
The History of Humanity
Many states require world history. It generally starts with the early civilizations and leads to a study of European history. For many students, this is an entirely abstract endeavor—a study of places they’ve never been from the perspective of privilege and power they’ll never have. What if we instead gave students the opportunity to study the history of humanity? What enabled our ascent as a species? What were the turning points that led us from a world where human lives were “nasty, brutish, and short” to one where more people are living longer, healthier lives than ever before? Unlike the traditional approach to teaching world history, the history of humanity is intrinsically interesting since as humans, we can all relate.
Reflection on tribalism: Describe the tribes you are a part of, identifying whether they are inherited or chosen tribes. Analyze the costs and benefits of being part of them—for you and for those who aren’t in the tribe.
Science & Society
In school, we generally dive straight into the science—memorize the organelles, balance the chemical equation, calculate the momentum—without making a case for why science matters. The result is too few students care about science even though in a short period of time, science and its application have changed everything about our world. This class shows how science has made us healthier, wealthier, and wiser. And it takes on the advances on the horizon—artificial intelligence, synthetic biology, alternative energy. This class makes use of popular science reading to explore these ideas. These texts provide exposure to more areas of science than a typical lab course can. They offer a glimpse into what it is like to be a scientist and do science. And they are designed, unlike the average science textbook, to be as engaging as possible, often including questions of ethics alongside those of science. This class thus offers something both to the student who loves science and wants to go deeper and to the student who first needs to understand how it connects to the world before becoming invested in it. It also builds the skill and habit of science reading, which is a key to having an educated citizenry, not once for a test in high school but over long the term.
Compare and contrast the reception of heliocentrism in Galileo’s time and climate change today
Analyze the coverage of science-related issues in your local media—what are the top stories, how are they presented, how do they connect to civic issues.
The advent of septic systems and the discovery of antibiotics are considered two of the greatest advances in population health; make an argument for which had a bigger impact.
Life at Risk: Biodiversity Loss & Climate Change
The human race has never been healthier, wealthier, or wiser than it’s been over the last fifty years. But over the same time period, we’ve lost 90 percent of the big fish in our oceans, 50 percent of the coral in our seas, and half of our forested land. In 2017, hurricanes ravaged Puerto Rico and Houston, and fires threatened Los Angeles and San Francisco. Which of these events are outliers and which are part of a pattern? What’s driving them? How can we tell? And what will it take to make a difference? How these trendlines continue will play out over the next generation. High school students deserve a direct introduction to these issues. One that’s engaging, unbiased, and expects students to critically evaluate the evidence for themselves. How the future plays out will be a function of their contributions.