Learning the Elon Musk way

In an interview with Sal Khan of Khan Academy, Elon Musk said, "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."

He is not the kind of person who is unhappy with something and lets it be. Musk believed in acting up creating something new. So he asked Josh Dahn, who was teaching his kids at the time, if he would set up an experimental school at the SpaceX factory. 

Dahn knew there were better ways to teach children rather than just focussing on a textbook and the Ad Astra school was born. The school had two principles. One, age segregation doesn't work. Children have different aptitudes and interests that change over time. The Ad Astra school had no grades.

Second, learning to use tools is pointless and boring unless those tools help you solve a real problem. So the school focused not on the tools but on the problems you could solve using those tools. It was grounded in the belief that education should teach children to think creatively and to solve problems. 


The next stop for education: Gamification

So how did the Ad Astra school change learning? They used games.

Musk's logic was simple. “For my kids, I don't have to encourage them to play video games. I have to pry them out of their hands.”

What if, in this new school, children could learn through games?

Enter gamification. Gamifying learning does not mean that children play commercial video games in the name of learning. Gamification implies introducing elements of a game into a non-game context, in this case, learning.

A game has several elements. There is a narrative and there are characters. There is often a point system or a leaderboard that indicates different levels. A game often has the opportunity to do something with a team in a social environment. 

Introducing some of these elements in a classroom gamifies learning. It could be as simple as conducting a quiz or playing Jeopardy. But it has a massive impact on how much fun a student has and how they get the freedom to fail without negative repercussions.

Since 2013, the Ad Astra school has shut down and Josh Dahn has set up Synthesis, a learning program that is available to students across the world. 

Dahn said, "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."

But why are we writing about Elon Musk and Synthesis? 

A parent of an Openhouse student recently said to us, “There isn’t much of a difference in my school experience and my daughter’s school experience.” 

It made us take a step back and think: Has nothing changed in thirty years? For the last three years at Openhouse, we have always thought about what is next in education. But were we the only ones? 


We decided to write about them not only because we are inspired by what they do but also happy to not be the only crazy ones who want to change the way children learn.