Monthly Archives: March 2012

The Estate as School — On buildings for learning and working

Design of structures and physical space matters. Sudbury Valley School realized early on that a large estate is the perfect middle ground for a school. Between the intimate and the institutional. Balancing public spaces and private spaces. The importance of general purpose and special purpose rooms.

Here are some quotes from some related articles and books I’ve read recently about SVS, Apple/Pixar, and MIT.
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The word to be defined is student.

“The word to be defined is student. The word has two quite different meanings, depending on context. In the college or university context, a student is one who matriculates, pays bills, attends classes, takes tests, and eventually acquires a diploma. The definition is very procedural and institutional. A common thread tying all the various elements together is compliance: the students goes where he/she is supposed to go, does the assigned tasks, and meets the distribution requirements. Call this student one.

The second definition of student is captured in the phrase I am a student of… whatever…: the civil war… the monarch butterfly… the cold war in Eastern Europe from 1945 to 1990. This meaning of student is provocatively different from the first meaning. It connotes learning that is non-institutional, personally meaningful, self-motivated, self-directed, and long term if not indeed lifelong. Call this student two.”

MORE… The Big Pickle, by Bruce Thomas

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On Peace

Sign at A’s TaeKwonDo:

“Peace. It does not mean to be in a place where there is no noise, trouble or hard work. It means to be in the midst of those things and still be calm in your heart.”
~ Unknown

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Multiple Choice — comment on Seth Godin’s piece

I am not a fan of standardized testing in schools.

But that doesn’t mean I am necessarily against a Multiple Choice exam/test/quiz. That’s 2 different things. I’m not sure what Seth Godin’s point is exactly. I guess he’s complaining about bad tests and bad teachers. OK, but…

If one *CHOOSES* to pursue a course of study (whether training to be a doctor, lawyer, engineer, auto-repair technician, software or hardware expert, etc) then why not a multiple choice test or quiz along the way. Totally appropriate. If you are looking to be certified. I am glad that there are multiple choice tests for getting driving (and boat driving) licenses. Etc. etc.

I’m sure lots of MC tests are bad. But lots are good or just fine. As with anything I guess… it depends.

2 interesting examples:

1) There are online testing/quizzing systems used for teaching (not just assessing) that have (as part of it)
multiple choice questions with instant customized feedback
depending on which wrong answer you choose–focusing the explanation on
the misconception that may have lead you to the wrong answer.
example: OWL
(I believe there is research that shows that for learning… it’s the instant and customized feedback that matters. Disclaimer. I worked on OWL back in 1996)

2) And there are systems for use in large classrooms (like a big university lecture)
called SRSs (student response systems) that allow a 300-person lecture
to be operated more like a 30-person classroom in that the prof/teacher/instructor is able
to access in aggregate (via MC questions answered by the 300 via clickers) what the thinking of the class is. Are they following? Misconceptions? etc. Granted, you could probably do the same with a lower tech show of hands, but the MC aspect remains useful.

I am of course open to seeing studies (or hearing stories) showing that both are flops! Both seemed pretty OK when I experienced them first hand in the hands of expert teachers really thinking about teaching concepts to motivated and engaged students and not just pushing facts on uninterested students.

As long as the person chooses what they are studying, I am good!

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Overheating, Passivhaus Style

One limitation of the PHPP modelling used in the Passivhaus / Passive House certification process is that the only kind of solar thermal heating which is modeled is windows (passive solar… BTW, not to be confused with “passive house”… 2 different things!) and not fancier (active solar) stuff with anything movable insulation and/or small fans and/or externally located solar-air-heaters like:

1 – commercially available solar air-heater SolarSheat or Sunmate (great example here)
2 – low-mass thermally isolated sunspace ala Nick Pine / Norman Saunders / William Shurcliff
3 – “solar siding” ala Nick Pine (essentially a very large solar-air heater, kinda like SolarWall or solar tempering)
4 – DIY downspot heaters ala Scott Davis
5 – a solar “yard furnace” ala Nick Pine (see messages in the SolarHeat yahoo group — always free membership required).
6 – Commercial or DIY solar water heating used for heating (via radiant floor heating or an water-to-air heat exchanger)


So the only thing you can do in PHPP is (in New England) optimize the windows for high SHGC (for the winter-time gains needed, winter being the main energy hog here in 2011) and add overhangs (ideally movable, like a trellis of greenery) or exterior shades (like they used in switzerland and france) to deal with the summer risk of overheating (since it still gets hot and sunny here). Also problematic for overheating are periods of the fall and spring when the sun is still low and leaves are not on the trees but it’s warm outside. Yes, you can open the windows. That will help a bit. Yes, you can install a concrete floor. That will help a bit to even out the swings, though it’s slow to react. But this is what Nick Pine and others like to call “living inside the heat battery”. Temps swing around a lot and you have little control over it besides turning on the heat or AC or moving shutters and insulating shades and such around manually. If you have the time.

A better way is keeping the solar collection on the outside of the thermal envelope of the house and optionally automatically store some for later in a huge highly insulated water tank in the basement (though that gets more complicated and/or expensive) (Getting close to 100% solar heating means being able to get thru quite a few days of no sun, so do your BTU/KWh heat load and storage capacity calculations over at the SolarHeat yahoo group.)

1. You can have pinpoint control over how much of that solar heat you let into your home!
2. Not blinded by all the light pouring thru lots of windows
3. Not as limited in architecture. Want bedrooms to the south but not wanting light blocking shades, etc, etc. Bad view on the South? Just add a huge air collector… no windows needed!
4. Easier to add solar heating existing homes/retrofit

So back to the overheating. To summarize the reasons to think carefully about cooling/preventing overheating in a passivhouse or otherwise superinsulated home:

1. too much passive solar. Big windows on S with high SHGC and no overhangs? Look out!

2. point source cooling on first floor (A BE2012 presentation about the VT Passivhaus by Habitat for Humanity detailed the warm 2nd floor)

3. warm bedrooms in summer. (related to point 2). bedrooms are often on second floor. If you are using air-source mini-split heat pumps to heat/cool your house and there is not an inside head in a bedroom, then guess what… on those summer nights when it doesn’t cool down outside and you need to keep the windows closed, it’s going to get warm in the bedroom… you’ve got 300Watts per person and warmish air coming in thru the fresh-air ventilation system (HRV or ERV) and how is it going to cool off? That’s right… it’s not. People should worry A LOT about this. Winter time is no problem with point source heating downstairs (or down the hall in our case). It’s a tad cooler in the bedroom, but the body heat — 300W per person — helps mitigate. Plus most people like it a “little” cooler for sleeping.

4. Global Warming. Not to get too pessimistic, but some scientific predictions are than NH weather will be like NC in 30 years. LINK. And Southern VT is already like PA in the 1960s. Yikes. It’s worth considering!

That said, the basic idea of worrying more about the heating load than the cooling load in New England and the midwest is a valid one. There are many many more HDD (heating degree days) than CDD (cooling degree days). So optimize for heating first. But have a cooling plan too! It still gets very HOT AND HUMID in Massachusetts and Minnesota!

Also not allowed in PHPP is counting PVs as a solar hot water heater. Instead of buying an expensive and complicated traditional solar hot water heating system that still might only provide a 60-70% overall solar fraction for the year, I explored building one myself for $1k and ultimately decided to just increase the KW of our PV (solar-electric) array to meet the hot water demand (I calculated) a full 100% (net for the year). Marc took the same route described here.

I am of course very open to correction on my assessment of the current state of the PHPP (circa 2010-12) with regard to solar.

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Filed under contrarian, erik-green, passive house, simple, solar, superinsulation, zero energy home

Sudbury Valley School — Stop Stealing Dreams

Sudbury Valley School gets a mention in Seth Godin’s eBook “Stop Stealing Dreams” (2012).

Seth, your kids would love SVS!

Here is the excerpt:


34. Responsibility
The Sudbury Valley School was founded during the hippie generation, and has
survived and thrived as an independent school for forty years. From their
introductory handbook:
“The way we saw it, responsibility means that each person has
to carry the ball for himself. You, and you alone, must make
your decisions, and you must live with them. No one should
be thinking for you, and no one should be protecting you
from the consequences of your actions. This, we felt, is essential
if you want to be independent, self-directed, and the
master of your own destiny.”
While this is easy to dismiss as hype or pabulum, what if it’s true? What if you
actually built a school from the ground up with this as its core idea, not just
window dressing? This is precisely what they did.
Students ask for teachers when they wish. They play soccer if they choose. They
take responsibility for everything they do and learn, from the age of six. And it
If a school is seen as a place for encouragement and truth-telling, a place where
students go to find their passion and then achieve their goals, it is not a school we
would generally recognize, because our schools do none of this.


Also mentioned at the end is a book co-authored by Daniel Greenberg, a co-founder and current staff member at SVS.

“133.Bibliography and further reading … “Turning Learning Right Side Up” by Russell Ackoff and Daniel Greenberg”


One comment about the “founded during the hippie generation” lead in above.  I don’t know if it was Seth’s intention to characterize the school as being a “hippie school” because, really, as a parent of a student who has been there 4 years, my comment is that the student population is incredibly diverse.  There is no one type of student or family who sees the appeal of the Sudbury Valley School or any of the few dozen Sudbury Model schools world-wide.  It’s a huge mix.  The school was founded in 1968 and has been going strong for over 40 years.

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Children Educate Themselves – by Peter Gray

The following is the 4-part series “Children Educate Themselves” from Peter Gray’s blog Freedom to Learn

PART 1: Children Educate Themselves I: Outline of Some of the Evidence
As adults we do have certain responsibilities toward our children and the world’s children. It is our responsibility to create safe, health-promoting, respectful environments in which children can develop. It is our responsibility to be sure that children have proper foods, fresh air, non-toxic places to play, and lots of opportunities to interact freely with other people across the whole spectrum of ages. It is our responsibility to be models of human decency. But one thing we do not have to worry about is how to educate children. MORE

PART 2: Children Educate Themselves II: We All Know That’s True for Little Kids
Have you ever stopped to think about how much children learn in their first few years of life, before they start school, before anyone tries in any systematic way to teach them anything? Next time you are in viewing range of a child under the age of about five years old, sit back and watch for awhile. You’re in for a treat. MORE

PART 3: Children Educate Themselves III: The Wisdom of Hunter-Gatherers
Our human instincts, including all of the instinctive means by which we learn, came about in the context of a hunting-and-gathering way of life. So: How do hunter-gatherer children learn what they need to know to become effective adults? MORE

PART 4: Children Educate Themselves IV: Lessons from Sudbury Valley
The Sudbury Valley School has, for the past forty years, been the best-kept secret in American education. … Professors of education ignore it, not out of malice but because they cannot absorb it into their framework of educational thought. . . . To understand the school one has to begin with a completely different mindset from that which dominates current educational thinking. MORE

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Taylor Wilson

(I would personally spend my time tinkering with solar energy, but hey ok, to each their own!)
(as read on Google+)
Taylor Wilson

At 10, he built his first bomb.
At 11, he started mining for uranium and buying vials of plutonium on the Internet.
At 14, he made a nuclear reactor.

Wilson got his start on, a website where nuclear hobbyists who call themselves “fusioneers” fill message boards on topics that would enthrall only the geekiest subset of society, like “So where can I get a deal on deuterium gas?” The goal of every fusioneer is to build a reactor that can fuse atoms together, a feat first achieved by scientists in 1934.

“I’m obsessed with radioactivity. I don’t know why,” says Wilson in his laid-back drawl. “Possibly because there’s power in atoms that you can’t see, an unlocked power.”

Taylor Wilson (born 1994) is an American nuclear scientist who was noted in 2008 for being the youngest person in the world (at age 14) to build a working nuclear fusion reactor.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Department of Energy offered federal funding to Wilson concerning research Wilson has conducted in building inexpensive Cherenkov radiation detectors; Wilson has declined on an interim basis due to pending patent issues. Traditional Cherenkov detectors usually cost hundreds of thousands of dollars (USD), while Wilson invented a working detector that cost a few hundred dollars.

In May 2011, Wilson entered his radiation detector in the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair against a field of 1,500 competitors and won a $50,000 award.

The Boy Who Played With Fusion

Tayloy’s website:

You can choose to believe that this child is special and especially gifted, and that may be so. I choose to believe that this means that children should be allowed to specialize at younger ages… They should be taught how to get the answers they might need for themselves, not from teachers.

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