[ExI] Improving schools

Dave Sill sparge at gmail.com
Thu Aug 27 14:39:40 UTC 2020


How I’d Change School

By Mark Sisson

Almost no one’s happy with school these days. Kindergarteners are sitting
in front of devices for 4-5 hours a day. Teens are dreading daily online
meetings and getting prescriptions for “Zoom fatigue.” Some of this is
growing pains—kids, teachers, and parents are being asked to completely
change the way they do school on a moment’s notice, and change like that
doesn’t come easily. But that’s not the only reason.

There just aren’t many great options left. Parents don’t want their kids
stuck on the computer all day, nor do they want them in class masked up and
unable to touch or play with their peers. There are big problems in every

Change is in the air. People are fed up with the new way of doing things
and realizing they don’t like the old way all that much either. I don’t
have kids in school anymore, but I do have a grandkid who will be in school
soon. Besides, everyone who lives in a country has a stake in the school
system of that country. The schools shape the people who become the adults
who shape the nation. That affects everyone. Something needs to change.

If I could wave a wand, how would I change school?

Here’s what I’d like to see:

Later start times

8:30, 9 AM. This would give kids extra sleep. Everyone needs sleep, but
kids need it more than anyone. It helps them consolidate memories and
recently learned skills.1 Even the CDC has called for later start times2
for schools. as kids especially need a lot of sleep. Kids are staying up
later and later than ever before. Particularly in studies using teen
subjects, delaying school start times by 25-60 minutes can increase total
sleep duration by 25-75 minutes per weeknight.3 That’s up to more than an
hour of extra sleep a night, five days a week. That’s a huge ROI.

There’s more beneficial fallout that the studies don’t address. When you
push the start time back, the mornings are less stressful for everyone.
Instead of giving your kid a ziploc bag full of dry cereal, you’re
scrambling eggs, slicing apples, and frying bacon. You’re not worried about
being late, you’re taking your time. Hell, maybe there’s even time to walk
to school.

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Better food

Just go full whole food Primal with a macronutrient-agnostic bent:

Full-fat dairy
Real meat and eggs and seafood
Fruit and vegetables
Starchy tubers
No seed oils or gluten or refined sugar
That may sound strict. You may think “kids would never go for that.” It may
be overkill. And you couldn’t control what kids ate at home or brought for
lunch, and not everyone would participate in the program. But just imagine:
We’d finally see what could happen if you removed most of the processed
seed oil-and-sugar-and gluten-laden junk from kids’ diets—on a national

A nation of kids eating eggs and fruit and kefir and potatoes cooked in
butter for breakfast, a burger patty and yam for lunch with a side of
full-fat milk. You’ve seen what getting some good protein, fat, and clean
carbs in your kids for breakfast and lunch can do. Imagine everyone else’s
kids eating the same thing. That could change the world.

Walking to school

I used to run to school every single day. That’s actually how I got into
cross country running at an early age: I realized I could beat the bus to
school if I just ran. So I did. Those daily runs to and from school
introduced little bouts of pure freedom and adventure into my life that
made me who I am today. Until several years ago, kids weren’t even allowed
to show up to school alone. They needed to be dropped off or accompanied by
a parent or guardian. I’d go a step further. At my ideal grade school, the
default would be arriving alone. If a parent wanted to drop their kid off,
they’d need a permission slip and doctor’s note.

I’m kidding, of course. But kids these days need that freedom and adventure
more than ever, however they can get it. There’s not as much to go around.

More and longer recess

Recess is shrinking. Most grade school kids are lucky to get a single 20
minute block of free outdoor play per day. Some schools don’t even give
first graders any recess at all, and a disturbing number of them even hold
recess hostage as a punishment for poor behavior or performance.4 This is a
travesty, not only because recess (and PE) increase physical activity and
step count, but because physical activity improves learning and reduces
acting out. In one Texas grade school, implementing four 15-minute recesses
a day reduced bullying and tattling, improved focus and eye-contact, and
even stopped the neurotic pencil chewing teachers were noticing among their
students. The kids are testing ahead of schedule despite less actual
classroom time and test prep. Recess improves academic performance, and
physical play improves subsequent learning capacity. Give a kid a 15 minute
play break for every 45 minutes of book learning and he’ll learn more than
the kid who studies an hour straight.

Recess needs to be longer. The absolute daily minimum is 45 minutes (spread
across 1-3 sessions including lunch), though I’d like to see the entire day
spent outside with movement interlaced with learning/lessons.

Hold classes outdoors

The benefits are immense and irrefutable:

Kids with ADHD can focus better after exposure to green spaces.
Kids who frequently spend time outdoors get sick less often and show better
motor skills and physical coordination.5
Kids with exposure (even just visual) to nature have better
For kids dealing with stress at home (who isn’t?), nature can act as a
Kids with consistent daily sun exposure have more vitamin D, better
circadian rhythms, and stronger immune systems.
The more outdoor time a kid gets, the lower his or her risk of myopia.
Add to those the general benefits of green space seen in all humans and the
outdoor classroom setting looks more attractive.

Ideally, the entire school day takes place outdoors, but even a small daily
nature excursion is better than nothing.

Walking classrooms

We’ve all heard of Socrates’ peripatetic school, where he’d lead his
students on walks around Greece while lecturing and leading discussions.
This is incredible. Who else loves going on hikes with friends not just for
the nature, but for the incredible conversations you end up embroiled in?
There’s something special about physical movement that stimulates mental
movement. Physical flow promotes cognitive blood flow.

The kids could make stops to write and do some deeper work, but class
discussions and lectures could easily happen on the move.

More deep work, one subject per day

This isn’t the only way, but I think many kids and teens would thrive on a
“one subject a day” schedule that allowed them to really immerse themselves
in a subject or project. Imagine reading an entire book from start to
finish. Imagine working on an art project all day long. Imagine getting
lost in history, going down rabbit hole after rabbit hole, following
whatever thread tugs on you.

Kids tend to obsess over things. Schools should take advantage of that.

Eliminate almost all rules at recess

Kids should be able to climb trees, roughhouse, leap fences, ride bikes,
play tag, play dodgeball, play butts up, and all the other classic
playground games that carry a modicum of danger. Kids shouldn’t be expelled
for playing cops and robbers or making finger guns. Staff intervenes only
if kids request it or injury is imminent. The whole point is to introduce
kids to risk. Navigating relatively small risks (skinned knee, hurt
feeling, short fall, wounded pride) builds mettle and prepares developing
brains to deal with bigger risks. It makes them more anti-fragile. People
talk about school as preparation for the meat grinder of “real life,” but
most schools eliminate any real prep work because adults mediate every
conflict, grievance, hogged sandbox, and stolen dinosaur toy.

Tons of climbable structures and trees

Kids (and adults) need to climb things. It’s fun, it builds strength, and
introduces manageable risk and responsibility. You get stuck up in a tree,
you get yourself unstuck. You can climb all the trees you want, but you’ll
have to get yourself down.

I’m imagining networks of trees and structures all over the playground and
campus to the point that a kid could get anywhere without touching the
ground. There’s actually a great book about this: The Baron in the Trees,
by Italo Calvino. It’s about a young Italian nobleman who runs away from
home as a child to live in the trees surrounding his estate and stays there
for the rest of his life, never touching the ground.

No busy homework

The evidence for homework is weak to nonexistent.8 Instead of giving five
year olds an hour of paperwork to complete or 15 year olds four hours of
work, give them open-ended suggestions.

“Read a book with your parents and tell the class about your favorite part
of the story.”

“Find 7 leaves, each from a different tree, and bring them to class.”

“Start a business. Come up with a business plan, a product, and marketing

Enabling deep work and deep learning during the school day would make most
“busy” homework pointless.

Bring back “tracks”

Only don’t limit these tracks to “academics.” It’s not that you split the
kids up by “smart” or “dumb” or “advanced” and “behind.” You allow the kids
to establish their own track based on interest and aptitude. You get more
specific with the tracks.

Someone wants to just do math all day? Let them focus on that.

Someone shows promise as an artist? Let them draw and paint to their
heart’s content.

Someone’s obsessed with video games? Let them learn to make their own.

Obviously, even a math-obsessed whiz kid should also read great literature,
but I’m not sure the math whiz kid needs to be writing essays on “Brave New
World.” Simply reading it is probably enough.

More doing and playing

Humans learn best by doing. Everyone accepts that we learn languages best
by speaking it or being thrown into a foreign country, not by reading
language lessons. But learning through doing works for everything. Learning
the fundamentals matters, but only if you also practice them. I learned to
write by reading and aping other writers. This even works in subjects like
math. One American educator, Benezet, showed that children who delayed
formal math instruction in favor of natural math instruction (doing) until
8th grade quickly caught up to and outperformed kids taught the traditional

You could very well teach simple arithmetic by playing card games like
Blackjack or Addition War or Subtraction War.

You could teach (or reinforce) grammar by playing MadLibs. Or just giving
kids cool things to read.

What else?

More trades

Don’t just bring back the old woodshop and metalshop. Introduce full-blown
apprenticeship programs. Paid ones.

And so on
Name a profession and you can probably figure out an apprenticeship
program. Heck, this already exists in many states. Check out the listings
for California apprenticeships for an idea of what’s possible. Many high
schools can even set this up. I bet there are guidance counselors who
currently do it, or have. But is it the norm? No. It should be.

Lots of kids would really benefit.

Teach basic competencies

There are basic physical skills everyone should learn.

Self defense
First aid
Physical fitness (running, sprinting, climbing, strength standards)
And other “non-physical” core competencies:

Bill paying/taxes
Home economics, in other words.

Mixed ages

Segregation by age makes little evolutionary sense (until the public school
system arose, children had historically hung out with other children of all
ages). As a kid, whenever we weren’t in school I’d rove around my
neighborhood in age-desegregated packs. It was all very fluid. We’d have
the bigger kids leading the way, the smaller ones tagging along, and
because everyone pretty much lived in the same place their whole lives,
kids would graduate into different roles and new kids would always be
coming up in the ranks. Without age mixing children miss out on many

Younger kids can’t learn from older kids.
Older kids can’t learn how to teach younger kids.
Younger kids can only do age appropriate activities. With an older kid’s
help, a younger child can accomplish much more. Two 4-year olds throwing a
frisbee around is an exercise in futility. Include a 7-year old and it gets
a whole lot more productive for everyone.
If any of this sounds good to you, what are you waiting for? No politician
is going to make this happen. The Department of Education certainly won’t
make these changes. You have to make it happen, either by finding a school
that does this or creating your own curriculum at home. If you have the
option, consider gathering together with a few other families to form a
“pod” to realize your vision.

If that’s not feasible, get together with other like-minded families and
petition your district for incremental change.

No one school or parent can enact all these changes. Some conflict. Some
are downright impossible in certain environments. But even if you just
implemented one or two of these ideas, you could have a positive impact.

What do you think, readers? Parents, kids, non-parents, teens, teachers:
what does your ideal vision of early education look like?

What would you change? What you add or take away to the current set up?

Thanks for reading.
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