It's not a secret that our current education system is outdated and limiting. The global pandemic school closures have only proven the delivery of traditional curriculums have not been adaptable to our current needs.
I've been observing and researching the best innovation practices in education, especially now with many countries headed for a second lockdown. I recently recalled Elon Musk's experimental school that open under the radar years ago and decided to investigate what the school has been up to. I wanted to see what we could learn and apply in our current lockdown education scenario. Here is a little background on the schools before I share the key takeaways.
Ad Astra & Astra Nova Schools
The father of 7 was unhappy with the traditional education that his children were receiving. He felt their curriculum lacked relevance and the structure made little sense. So, he created the Ad Astra School to provide his kids with the skills that he believes they will need in the future. The Ad Astra school gave students out of the box learning experiences but it was limited to a selected number of students. Soon after Elon's sons had graduated, a new sister school Astra Nova was set up. Astra Nova is built on the principles and culture established by Elon but Elon Musk has no involvement in the new school.
Key Lessons From Elon To Innovate Education
Lesson 1: Teach Skills For The Future
Elon believes that the future of work will require a set of skills that are not taught in schools today. This is one of the main reasons he started a school for his kids. The world has changed a lot since the schooling system was formed. The pandemic has been a big catalyst for the 4th industrial revolution. The future of work will depend on the kind of education and skills young people receive from schools and colleges during this decade. We need to evaluate what subjects are really important for young people to develop. Does it benefit young people more to understand English literature or how to leverage on current technologies?
Lesson 2: Include Ways For Students To Learn Real Transferable Skills.
Ad Astra & Astra Nova were formed to challenge the current school curriculums around the world. The basis of most of their lessons, projects and assessments are focused on critical thinking and practical skills. As discussed in Lesson 1, schools need to include more skills relevant to the future like life-skills and tech-skills. We must also think deeply on how to include activities and events that will allow students to practice transferable soft skills. Anyone involved in education should re-think the practicality of the subjects we teach and innovative ways for students to engage. Some examples of the transferable skills and activities provided for students to practice in the Astra schools:
Problem-solving by encouraging students to reflect on conundrums
Entrepreneurship with an in-school currency called 'Astra' children where students can trade with each other in a school marketplace.
Communication by learning how to give a "Ted Talk"
Teamwork and synthesis via their newly launched Synthesis School an online enrichment program. Students learn by playing live online team games.
Lesson 3: Explain The Reasoning Behind The Lesson
Elon has expressed in several interviews that typical educational systems teach skills and tools without justifying the reasoning behind it. You could know a lot about how a tool is made but not know why it is used in certain projects. Most students end up memorising content instead of truly understanding it. Educators need to know the value of a skill or subject and it's applications in the real world. It benefits everyone involved to be able to explain the reasoning behind the learning. Problem-solving comes before the tools you need to solve them. The 2020s is a decade of transition, how we educate needs to be a lot more thoughtful.
Lesson 4: “Less paperwork. More thinking.”
We spend too much time memorising text, marking exam papers, writing letters or filing reports. Parents, students, and educators all get lost in this rigid structure and routine.
Elon Musk wants people to be able to use logic more than memory hence the school motto: "Less paperwork. More thinking". The world is ever-evolving and at times we don't notice all the tasks we do that are not as useful or relevant as they use to be. As we mentioned in lesson 2 & 3, we need to understand the reason behind our lessons and design an education system that focuses on helping students think on their feet as the world constantly evolves (as 2020 has proven).
Lesson 5: Monitor Progress Not Grades
There are no grades at Ad Astra, they wanted students to purely enjoy creating and learning. Students at the Ad Astra & Astra Nova schools do receive scores on their work but they do not receive letter-grades at the end of a semester. I've always disagreed with the traditional exam, tests, grades and marks because I know students are individuals who learn and develop differently. How we evaluate student learning now always reminded me of the quote:
“Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”
It is a huge reason why we started Play Thru. We want to award students for gaining experience and progressing instead of punishing them for any mistakes made in rigid tests. Our gamification method provides a system for students, teachers and parents to monitor progress without typecasting them. I hope educators take this transitional year to transform how they assess their students.
Lesson 6: Don't Label Students And Put Them In Boxes
In his talk about changing educational paradigms, Sir Ken Robinson reminded us that schools are modelled after factory lines. We educate children by batches, putting them through the education system by age group. He asks "why is there this assumption that the most important thing children have in common is how old they are?". Elon probably asked himself the same question. Students aged 7 to 14 work together in teams in Ad Astra & Astra Nova. Again a reminder that every child is different and develops at a different rate. Mixing age groups can encourage older students to be leaders and allow younger ones to learn from older peers. Educators should also consider actively mixing different cultures and backgrounds to help students learn from each other's different world views too. We should also take inspiration from how the school day structure provides the freedom for students to choose. Children can go out of their school anytime they felt like it. There are no mandatory classes that should be attended in Ad Astra. Instead, if the kids don't feel good about taking a particular subject, they can easily opt-out of the class.
Lesson 7: Build A Student Centric Curriculum & Environment
In Lesson 6, we learn how designing around students individuality instead of categorising them. We also learned that young people can thrive if they have autonomy over how their school day looked like. The school experience should be designed around the students' needs and wants, after all the whole point of school is to produce confident young people who are ready to contribute to society. It is disheartening to know many schools around the world rely on an education board to make all decisions (without ever having taught a class or engaging with the students themselves). To keep students truly engaged and motivated, the Astra schools re-develop their curriculum every year based on student feedback and any lessons learned throughout the year to keep things current and enjoyable for students and staff. This is something the Play Thru team advocates and practices when we develop our content and platform. We highly recommend including your students when designing your next lesson or activity.
So what can we take away from these lessons? I think anyone involved in shaping a young persons' learning experience should start with student centric thinking, value for individual abilities, curiosity, and encourage critical thinking.