In the world of business and technology, the word "disrupt" is thrown around quite a lot these days. By definition, this refers to the process of causing radical changes by means of innovation. Already, we have seen how new technologies are radically changing things like manufacturing, banking, medicine, and transportation.
But in terms of education, there has been a lot of talk, but little overall change in how it is administered. Luckily, there are many people today who are looking to change that. As with many disruptions taking place, Elon Musk has a hand in this one too.
Years ago, he recruited educator Joshua Dahn to create a new type of school that would "gamify" education to teach kids vital skills. Today, Dahn and co-creator Chrisman Frank are taking things to the next level with Synthesis, a new education platform they founded to make this form of education available to the whole world.
The story of Synthesis began six years ago when SpaceX founder Elon Musk approached Joshua Dahn, one of the teachers at the private school his children were attending at the time. Musk shared his concerns that his children were not getting the education they needed to prepare them for the "real world." This was something that he attributed to the "assembly line" model of education, which he is not a fan of!
As an instructor with a Master's in Education — one who specializes in working with gifted children and curriculum design — Dahn certainly understood Musk's concerns regarding conventional education. This led the two gentlemen to discuss how education could be given an "overhaul." Musk expressed these same views in a 2013 interview with Sal Khan, founder of the Khan Academy (a nonprofit online education platform):
"What is education? You're basically downloading data and algorithms into your brain. And it's actually amazingly bad in conventional education because it shouldn't be like this huge chore... The more you can gamify the process of learning, the better. For my kids, I don't have to encourage them to play video games. I have to pry them out of their hands."
Beyond "gamifying" the process, Musk also cited how conventional education still relies on transmission-style learning, where the teacher talks and students are expected to absorb and regurgitate later. What is lost in the mix is the "why?" of things, the applications of knowledge. If students don't know why they are required to learn something, they won't see the value in it.
This is something that Musk described as "vaudevillian," which essentially means that it's the theater of the absurd. Not only are students expected to passively absorb the information that is being transmitted to them, but they rarely understand the purpose or application of it. Believing that humans are hardwired for play and knowing the "why" give people a sense of purpose, Musk saw an opportunity for change.
In the end, Musk asked Dahn if he would be interested in starting a small school at the SpaceX campus in Los Angeles for his children and those of his employees. Dahn agreed, and from this, Ad Astra ("to the stars" in Latin) was born, an innovative school sitting in the shadow of the SpaceX rocket factory. In a 2015 interview with China's Beijing Media Network, Musk shared what the core concepts of this school were:
- No grades or age segregation - Age segregation doesn't work because kids have different aptitudes and interests that vary across time.
- Problem-solving, not learning to use tools - Learning to use tools is pointless and unstimulating unless you can see how they solve real problems.
Education to Scale
Over the next few years, the school and its methods became the subject of much interest, and families all over California (not just SpaceX employees) began looking to secure spots for their children. Word of its accomplishments also reached the ears of Chrisman Frank, an educational software developer who specializes in getting ideas and resources to children and educators directly.
Frank was an engineer with ClassDojo at the time, an app that facilitates communication between teachers and parents. His work also involved a partnership with Stanford's Project for Education Research that Scales (PERTS) Research Center to create a video series about the "Growth Mindset" concept (which teaches that intelligence is acquired, much like how working a muscle increases its strength).
This series has been viewed by over 10 million kids and got ClassDojo's founders interested in other ideas that they could deliver at scale. About four years ago, Sam Chaudhary (CEO and co-founder of ClassDojo) met Dahn during a dinner function, and he and Frank decided to visit the Ad Astra school. Frank was very impressed with what he saw, and he and Dahn became fast friends and colleagues. As Frank told Interesting Engineering:
"Josh and I ended up producing 'Conundrums' through ClassDojo, a video series asking kids to make decisions on open-ended questions like 'Who should lead a Mars mission?' Through that project, we became friends due to both of us being maniacal about getting better learning experiences to kids."
While Frank was impressed by what he saw at Ad Astra overall, he was especially intrigued by what he saw with a class called "Synthesis." Here, students would engage in complex team games that Dahn created himself, working through case studies, simulations, and game-based challenges. The purpose here was to engage the students and develop their problem-solving skills while also making the whole learning process fun.
"I had never seen a group of students so energized and invested in their learning, but it gave me a pit in my stomach," said Frank. "I knew I couldn't give my own kids anything like this." However, a few years later, Frank would prove himself wrong. During the COVID-19 pandemic, he and Dahn sensed that the time was right to launch a new education platform that could really disrupt the field. Fittingly, they called this platform Synthesis.
With Frank as CEO and Dahn as Creative Director, the goal of this platform is to take what Ad Astra did with its Synthesis class and build it to scale, making it available as an enrichment program available to students other than Musk's children and those of SpaceX employees. Similarly, Dahn left SpaceX to co-create the Astra Nova school ("New Star" in Latin), a virtual institution based on the Ad Astra model, with full-time tuition starting at $31,500.
This independent school is a scaled-up model of Musk and Dahn’s experiment that offers services to a larger student body. Parents are able to enroll their children and pay an annual fee, as they would any other independent school, although classes are held entirely online. But with Synthesis, they hoped to scale the most innovative aspects of Ad Astra and Astra Nova and truly make it an experience open to everyone. As Frank explained:
"When I first encountered Synthesis, it was at Ad Astra, which was only Elon's kids and some other rocket engineers' kids — a very select group, you might say. So the first kind of thing was, 'what if we put this in front of just average kids,' or even just kids whose parents don't work at SpaceX? How's that going to go? Is it going to be just too wild or too complex?"
What they found out, pretty quickly, was that it wasn't and that kids from all walks of life enjoyed it just as much as the select Ad Astra kids. And so, Dahn and Frank were inspired to do something transformational and make their platform available to every kid in the world. Admissions, which Dahn is still forced to contend with at Astra Nova, was also something that they were eager to avoid.
"There's just no way to make these decisions very well," said Frank. "When you can accept 1 in 20 or 1 in 50 or whatever it is, you're going to make mistakes. If you have better education, excluding people from that based on your own judgment, that's a tough thing to do, and we don't want to have to do that."
While they have an application process right now, they eventually hope to open Synthesis up so that anybody who wants to enroll can do so. Meanwhile, Frank, Dahn, and their colleagues will not be forced to make the hard decisions that place limits on accessibility.
At present, classes are a weekly affair (for one hour) and cost a steep $180 per month, but they hope that this model of education will become widespread and something children can engage in on a daily basis. Like Ad Astra and Astra Nova, the Synthesis program does not rely on grades or age segregation, nor does it offer courses in differentiated subjects. As Frank described it, the Synthesis program remains true to its name by making many fields of knowledge work together:
"The idea right is like you have your other subjects, but Synthesis is like 'now you're making all this stuff work together.' And that's what it takes to get things done in the world, right? There's no reward for being the best engineer, actually. You have to fit in all these other systems, so synthesis gives kids that chance to do that complex thinking that's missing from the traditional curriculum."
Kindling the Flame
The Synthesis philosophy calls to mind the oft-cited quote by Socrates: "Education is not the filling of a vessel," he said, "but the kindling of a flame." This is the basis of the "Socratic method," which is often considered to be the opposite of the traditional transmission (or "assembly-line") model of education.
In a Socratic classroom, students are involved in the education process through dialogue and activities that are designed to get them to confront what they don't know. In this respect, the teacher works with the student so they can find their own way to knowledge and conclusions.
For years, educational theorists and institutions have sought to move away from the transmission model to increase student engagement and success. These efforts have largely relied on ideas like Gardner's "Theory of Multiple Intelligences," which argues that there is more than one type of intelligence (and that they can be learned).
Another guiding principle is the "Constructivist Approach," which states that learning is an actively involved process of meaning and knowledge construction, which requires that teachers build on what is familiar to the students. And then there's the concept of the "gatekeeper," how assessment should move beyond the old "pass/fail" paradigm and become more diagnostic.
Beyond merely emphasizing student engagement, Synthesis also leverages advances in technology to make learning more distributed, more hands-on, and more fun while also ensuring that it is not limited to a physical space. Ana Lorena Fabrega (aka. Ms. Fab) is an educational entrepreneur (aka. "EDUpreneur") who recently joined Synthesis as its "Chief Evangelist." In one of her many Youtube videos, she describes their education process this way:
"Imagine a virtual playground where kids get to make tough decisions and develop the instincts and cognitive tools and collaboration skills to deal with complexity, all while having a blast. Because learning can and should feel like playing a fun game."
We also caught up with Jessica Anne Bogart, an educator/facilitator who works with the Synthesis program and is responsible for putting Interesting Engineering in touch with Frank and Dahn. In addition to conducting outreach with publications, journalists, and science communicators, Bogart also teaches four classes at Synthesis.
She described not only how the educational philosophy is different but what a typical class would look like. For starters, it consists of throwing the students into team games without a lot of instruction beforehand, which allows them to engage their problem-solving skills and powers of observation to determine what the game is about.
Meanwhile, the teacher will facilitate, make sure the students stay on-task, and foster discussion afterward. As Bogart explained:
"So, for example, this Wednesday’s class is a new class. They will join Zoom, and maybe some students are nervous or anxious about 'getting the answer right' or whatever. Right away, I declare that ‘Synthesis is not like regular school. There are no grades, and I’m not going to split you up based on your age.’
"Immediately, the students seem to relax a little. Synthesis is a community of problem solvers, a place to try things, experiment, sometimes fail, and sometimes win. Laugh, learn, share. From there, they login into Constellations and begin. No explanation of the rules, or scoring... the students figure all that out for themselves, and then discuss with each other what they learned”.
Consistent with the philosophy of "Growth Education," there is no winning or losing with these games. Each game comes down to teamwork and learning what strategies are best for solve different complex problems. As one student described the Synthesis experience, "you win, or you learn, that’s it."
Education During the Pandemic
As noted earlier, the COVID-19 pandemic played a role in the launching of Synthesis. As social distancing and restrictions forced schools to close all across the world, parents and teachers were forced to turn to online resources like Zoom to keep their children's education going.
It was here that Frank and Dahn saw an opportunity to introduce their platform, which not only differs from conventional education but traditional online classes and "distance education" as well. According to what Frank has been told repeatedly by customers who have enrolled their children in the past few months, the big difference is the level of socialization:
"Synthesis is like a hyper-social kind of learning experience, so a lot different than the online classes kids are used to taking... We definitely hear that a lot, [that] the nature of it just being games and solving problems together, and having to chat with each other, and see each others' faces. It breeds friendships in a way that the other online classes haven't because you're not just sitting there listening to a teacher. You're actually getting to talk with other kids.
"I'm not really knocking that approach, but usually, it's a lot more sitting and listening to someone else. A lot more than Synthesis, at least, where its teachers are speaking very little. They're just kind of like guide rails in case the kids go too far off track. But yeah, for the most part, it's the kids doing the work, which is something Josh mentioned when we first met. You want to give kids agency, as much as you can, put them in the driver's seat, bring them behind the curtain, let them help shape their experience."
At the same time, the experience with the pandemic has changed the way many people think about how they conduct business and socialize with friends and colleagues. This is certainly something that could influence how we think of education in the long-term.
"It's not like I don't miss getting together in person, but I miss it less than I would have thought, maybe," added Frank. "So it's possible [that] a lot more of our social development and work continues to be online and that people were happy with that. I mean, obviously, or if we could get kids back to school and in-person and having that social interaction as soon as possible. But until that happens, we're at least providing some kind of alternative for people."
Bogart also noted how beyond merely providing a virtual classroom for students during the lockdown, the launch of Synthesis has created a community that goes beyond the platform and will likely endure long after the lockdown is over:
"In the last few months, Josh and Chrisman have scaled up these classes and brought these kids together. And we're talking about kids from all over: Bahrain, Egypt, Australia, Canada, Mexico, United States, England, Ireland. We have kids from all over the world that join these classes. Additionally, Josh and Chrisman created a Discord Server, which provides an opportunity for students to interact outside of Synthesis. Sharing art with each other and invention ideas. Sometimes they get together and play Minecraft. It’s an organic amalgamation of kids who want to build a future together".
Future of Education?
Another interesting benefit, said Dahn, is how the games are a framework to talk about higher-level ideas and mental models. These include things like how to model strategic interactions among rational decision-makers (aka. game theory), using deductive logic to gauge the level of uncertainty in knowledge (probabilistic reasoning), or how increased numbers of participants improve the value of something (network effect).
These are concepts that even most adults aren't familiar with, not unless it relates directly to their profession (like computer sciences, psychology, or economics). This is due to the fact that in conventional education, concepts are only taught if they are deemed "essential" and/or are related to a specific career path. But with an education where information is not treated as "on-demand," students have the chance to cast a wider net.
"In one of my upper-level classes this week, we were talking about offensive versus defensive strategy," said Bogart. "We started talking about Sun Tzu and The Art of War, concepts that are rarely discussed in a regular classroom." In this sense, said Bogart, Frank and Dahn are out to really "disrupt" education:
"We throw that word around all the time. But now, here at Synthesis, we are out to really disrupt education for the better and give kids the opportunity to make contributions at fourteen, fifteen, sixteen years old. Why do we have to wait for them to be twenty-two, twenty-four, after all these decades of education? 'Oh, now you can make a contribution to the world?' NO...remove the speed limit — that's what Synthesis is doing."
For now, Synthesis classes are a weekly affair, lasting just one hour, and are open to students aged 8 to 14. Enrollment is currently priced at $180 dollars a month, putting them out of reach of most, but Frank and Dahn intend to reduce costs as they expand their services and the Synthesis team. According to Frank, it's not unlike what Elon Musk set out to do with Tesla, SpaceX, and other ventures he has created over the years:
"Obviously, we're in the very early stages of that, where we started off very high-touch and high price, so it's got it's kind of like our Tesla Roadster version that we have out right now," he said. "But the prices will come down, and we will make it more accessible to as many kids we possibly can, and that's the goal."
Or as Dahn put it, the real mission for Tesla was never to sell as many electric cars as possible but to accelerate sustainable transport and sustainable energy. For SpaceX, it was not about selling rides aboard the Starship, but about opening up space and making it more accessible by reducing the costs of individual launches:
"In the same way, I think that with Synthesis, we're giving a name to something that we all know is indispensable because it is an exercise in life. And you give that to students at a time where they can have the support to actually build these skills in a real way before [they become adults].
"To be able to figure out how to solve all these big problems and get that experience, and also to change the way you think about yourself as it relates to complexity and problem solving — from passive to you're an active part of it — this is Synthesis, and this is the promise of it."