Learning the future: how Elon Musk reinvents school education
Joshua Dan works with Elon Musk. He was the director of the Ad Astra School, organized right at SpaceX; the entrepreneur's children also studied there. In 2020, Dan and Musk launched the online school Astra Nova School (classes once a week will cost seven and a half thousand dollars a year) and a more accessible game project Synthesis (from $ 185 a month). «Medusa» talked to Joshua Dunn, who will speak at EdCrunch on Demand in December, about what skills need to be taught to modern schoolchildren, and how, in fact, the school education of the future should be arranged.
- Can you name the main disadvantages of the modern school education system?
- Most schoolchildren do not have the opportunity to express their point of view or propose a solution to the problem in hypothetical conditions, when there is no single correct answer, no black and white. I think showing students the gray areas both ethically and simply in the area of problem solving is beneficial because it gives them the tools and ways of thinking they need to deal with complex and complex problems. The sooner students encounter this, the more confident they will become, both as solo professionals and as team players.
One of the tasks of my work at Astra Nova school was to figure out how to put students in such difficult situations and help them feel comfortable in a situation of uncertainty, teach them to work in such conditions and organize something.
- How can you bring more of this uncertainty into the learning process?
- Some people think that if you formulate the tasks correctly and well, everything will work out. Of course, this helps to assimilate knowledge, and some of them will even be useful in the future. But I think that you need to ask children open and complex questions like: "How can you colonize Mars?", "What will the world look like without technology?" It helps you think.
It is also useful to offer five possible answers as an answer to a question, all of which are correct in some sense, but not perfect. Let the students tell why they chose one of the options over the other, although none of the options is correct until the end.
Tasks related to priorities are very effective - for example, questions about how children would distribute money between state institutions, etc. You can give the managerial right to choose, and then ask why they did it that way, offer to discuss it with classmates.
- How important is it to teach kids the so-called soft skills like critical thinking - or the decision-making skills you mentioned? Are they more important than the usual highly specialized knowledge?
- I think that critical thinking, problem-solving and argumentation skills are relevant in general in all areas. The best way to teach this is to put students in the most believable situations where they will have to make difficult decisions. At the same time, in order for students to act as creatively as possible, they should be given more opportunities and power than they have in ordinary life.
In my view, the school should be a simulation of a world in which students are world leaders. This is how they learn to make difficult decisions. Sometimes these are bad decisions, but they can think about and discuss them, learn something. Soft skills only improve with experience.
At the same time, I do not think that school should be a strange simulation every minute. It is just important that students feel that they have power and that their opinions matter - later they will live with the feeling that they have a voice and that they, at the very least, have the right to question someone else's authority. I think this should happen much earlier than people usually think.
- Does this mean that learning should become more project-oriented? And to what extent?
- Yes. Sometimes you give students a problem and they have to figure out how to make it happen. It looks like a game. One of them is called Art for All. Imagine that you are a schoolboy, you are assigned to a team, you have 101 works of contemporary art from a variety of artists. You also got a map of the world, where about 15 cities like Moscow, Sao Paulo, Los Angeles are highlighted - and there are restrictions on imaginary movement. Your task is to understand which of these works will be most interesting for the cities that you plan to visit with your exhibition.
So what are the students doing? They compete at auctions, get into debt, prepare exhibitions with which they will travel around the world - both in order to get the maximum possible profit, and to attract as many visitors as possible. They also try on the role of a curator: they decide how the exposition will look in each city.
Is this a project? Of course yes. Especially in the immersion sense - for eight to nine weeks you are fully invested in it, trying to figure out how to keep up with other teams that might have similar plans, thinking strategically. It seems like you really have these works of art and plan to show them around the world.
- At least in Russia, many schoolchildren and students hate group projects. How can they be improved?
- Create as many opportunities as possible for different students within one project. Of course, any project has a common goal and strategy, but in addition there may be tasks in specific areas for children who are not interested in the general topic of the project. For example, in the case of a project with exhibitions, someone will be more interested in the design of the exhibition, someone in its marketing promotion, someone in finance.
- It is clear how this approach can be implemented in expensive and high-tech schools. Can this approach be scaled up to schools with fewer resources?
- Of course it's a privilege. But, in my opinion, the job of schools like Astra Nova is to share and disseminate their findings. Of course, full scaling cannot be achieved. Although my new project Synthesis helps schoolchildren around the world gain access to such education.
If you think carefully, what tasks should the school perform, what things do we value most in adult professional life? Teamwork, a real professional mission, the ability to cope with complex and ambiguous situations - you can think of something. Perhaps this is what the school should teach.
In addition, we need to rethink the role of the student and teacher in the learning process. I love to ask questions to which I have no answers. It seems to me that this vulnerability is very important for children to feel their strength.
- Tell us more about Synthesis.
“The idea behind Synthesis is pretty exciting. Games can be very useful, like chess. I wanted to create more complex games of a different type, confronting students with complete uncertainty, chaos. The first game is called "Constellation": in it you need to explore space and compete with other teams in groups of two or three people. Players need to think strategically, to anticipate the necessary steps in advance. But the most exciting thing is that we ask students to participate in the creation of the game; decide how it will work, what can be improved.
We want to offer students new games every few months so they can make friends who are just as motivated to learn new things on our platform.
- What is the most difficult thing in working on such a project?
- To begin with, we want the Synthesis school to exist as an addition to the school. It’s like an accelerator that helps your child acquire the skills they need right now: learning to cooperate, problem solving strategically, being human, reflecting on their victories and failures.
I think some students may find it difficult to explain to their parents why they need it. Parents may think that playing is just fun and not learning. Although, perhaps during a pandemic, when parents feel particularly confused, new forms of education become more in demand.
- Is your approach effective for people who are going to enter the university with a clear profile and a set of specific knowledge? On the contrary, it seems that interdisciplinarity can be harmful.
- In my opinion, if you are a good engineer, but you do not know how to reflect on failures, plan, always keep several backup options with you, you will not realize your maximum potential. Interdisciplinarity has a bad reputation because it seems to oversimplify complex things, especially in the technical or natural sciences. But the idea is to develop skills that will help people in all disciplines communicate and make decisions more effectively.
I would like our students (who are no more than 14 years old) to imagine what they want by the age of 18. They didn't go to university, simply because their parents thought it was right, but made informed decisions. They may not go to university at all. Or, on the contrary, go to the one that they really need.
- What do you think of the online learning that everyone had to master due to the pandemic? Can a student study online with the same interest and dedication as offline?
- If children feel supported and if they have the resources to regularly do what they are interested in, online learning can provide additional time for this: among other things, there is no need to travel to and from school. However, if they were not helped to gain independence, they did not develop the skills of independent work, they will not know where and how to move with their interest.
It is very difficult for many schools to switch to online education. Approaches that work offline are not always effective for the online environment. It is important for children to develop the ability to work independently, not under the supervision of a teacher, because in the new conditions, teachers really have less control, and they do not achieve their goals because of this.
This is a sad situation. Perhaps we should admit that some school rules are outdated and should be gotten rid of. And, perhaps, it makes sense to rethink the criteria by which we assess how successfully children adapt to school. For example, are they well aware of their inclinations and interests, are they able to think about their actions and their consequences.
I think a pandemic can be useful for the education system, because it allows you to see how everything works and what can be improved. Because otherwise schoolchildren will more and more often say: “Real life moves much faster than school. School is not very helpful. " It is important that they understand that the information they receive at school is not everything. The school's job is to explain how to find and use this information.
- Now it seems that offline learning and live communication can become a real luxury.
- I think expensive schools want to return to offline learning most of all, because they have built very beautiful buildings and infrastructure inside them. And, of course, the experience of studying in an expensive or, conversely, poorly funded school is very different. Hopefully, thanks to new technologies, more and more people will be able to learn in a way that they couldn't before. In addition, it will help us understand when we really need to see each other in person, and when we can do online. Of course, this primarily applies to business meetings that require flights and travel long distances.
Perhaps this will help us better understand that we are all going together for some purpose. When you go to school most of the year, it gets forgotten. But the point is not that everyone was sitting at the tables, and one of the students was saying something at the blackboard - this can be done at home online, finishing off the cereal. It will be great if students have the opportunity to choose whether to come to school in person, whether it suits their real needs, the specifics of what they are studying, the projects they are working on (for example, in the case of group work).
It's really hard for younger students to learn online. Even if you are not nine, it is still not easy. But some teenagers would be absolutely happy to study online all week, and meet at a robotics club and discuss what they really care about.
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