Elon Musk's EdTech Adventure
Scaling first-principles thinking and problem solving with Synthesis
We are thrilled to share that Elon Musk is setting up a school to reimagine the way students learn. Safe to say that Musk is a busy man running a wide range of public companies but the very fact that he is venturing in the edtech space gives us hope that one day schools will be more than factories designed to produced standardized Jacks and Jills trained to ace tests.
These are the first few sentences of Elon Musk’s school Ad Astra which has now been rebranded as “Synthesis”, a weekly, 1-hour enrichment program for students who want to learn how to build the future.
“Some students want to be physicists. Others want to be poets. Some want to be both. Most aren't sure yet, but they want to be people who make a difference.”
Educator Ana Lorena Fabrega recounts that the path to Synthesis opened up back in 2014 when Musk walked into a parent-teacher meeting. At the time John Dash used to teach his kids. Disappointed by the way the education system was organized, he asked Dash to work on a micro-experiment to run a school for employees of Space X.
Essentially first-principles thinking is breaking down complex problems into basic elements and then reassembling them from the ground up.
Musk often says that we should resist the temptation of learning by analogies and focus on the building blocks of knowledge, truths and mental models that stand on their own. Analogies can be biased, first-principles are unadulterated truths.
How to Scale First Principles Thinking?
Incentives run the world. If students are incentivized to ace tests, they will optimize for tests, not learning. According to Musk, there are three core components of scaling first-principles thinking. These are hallmarks of his edtech adventure.
First, no grades. By taking the pressure off, students become motivated to learn and compete with themselves, not others. Also, it provides the unique opportunity of students across age groups to learn with and from each other. That is what happens in life, don’t you think?
Second, optimization for relevance. The human mind is not designed to ignore stuff it finds relevant, Musk says. If students find information relevant, they are likely to remember it. For example, memorizing dates for history examinations - nightmares we all remember - isn’t relevant without understanding the context. Schools can make students date memorization machines but it won’t matter one bit in the real world unless the relevance of those dates is widely understood and appreciated.
To understand this a bit more, consider the difference between remembering random dates of the second world war vs understanding the importance of winters in shaping the course of the same war and how critical it was to understanding the Russia vs Germany story. Remembering dates because you understand the significance of winter snow in slowing down the German army is so very different from remembering a random historical date.
Third, problem exploration instead of tool memorization. In the newsletter “Explaining the Pandemic to Your Children” we attempted to explain the interconnected dots and second-order effects of COVID-19. Instead of inflicting students with obscure facts, we need to empower to students to explore the contours of thorny problems. Essentially, make students fall in love with the problem, not the loudest solution of a premature victory lap.
If students appreciate the problem, they will automatically be interested in figuring out the tools and techniques. Jumping to the tools expecting students to automatically visualize problems is a recipe for disaster.
Take a look at this video.
The Magic of Ad Astra: Synthesis
Synthesis (now the name of the company) was the most powerful class taught at Elon Musk’s micro-experiment, Ad Astra. It was focused on complex coordination, simulations and team games designed for the singular purpose of scaling first-principles thinking among students.
Games can be both fun and educational. Imagine if schools around the world indexed on fun and learning instead of standardized tests. Our hypothesis is that students groomed with first-principles will also end up acing tests but if we make tests the holy grail of performance, we can’t expect education to change at a fundamental level.
Elon Musk isn’t involved with the day-to-day operations of Synthesis but he is the reason why such a school exists today and is being taken seriously. Synthesis just raised $5 Million at a $50 Million valuation from A Pompliano and others. They already have hundreds of happy students and are making $3 Million annualized revenues.
NC is attempting to build its category of one. We are inspired by the foundation of Synthesis and feel even more charged to help students discover what they care most about, work on foundational skills (critical thinking, writing, public speaking), build a strong community and emerge as leaders who make a measurable impact in whatever they choose to pursue.
Learning is contextual. There is no perfect school for every student. Cultural context matters. Relatable mentors matter. Our mission is to enable every student in our school to have a tribe of relatable mentors for life.
**Take a look at some of our faculty
In our summer school, school students across age groups will immerse themselves over 4 weeks and graduate with -
A published article
A mini-TED talk
A real-life capstone
The adventure starts on June 1. Last few spots left.
Do not confuse test-preparation with education. The real disruption in education is just getting started. This pandemic has helped students, parents and even senior executives rethink what matters and why.
Edtech ventures like Out School, Wonder School, Synthesis, Lambda School, Make School etc. have the opportunity to transform the educational rut students find themselves in to something they cherish and celebrate for the rest of their lives.
See you at the summer school.
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