This week, I have two guests. Both are affiliated with Synthesis, a new kind of online school where kids learn through games and simulations. One is Chrisman Frank, the CEO of Synthesis. The other is Ana Lorena Fabrega, who is their Chief Evangelist.
Here’s the backstory: A few years ago, Elon Musk asked the co-founder to start an experimental school with him at Space X. The goal was to develop students who are enthralled by complexity and solving for the unknown. Synthesis was the most innovative learning experience from that school and spun off into its own company. In full transparency, I’m an investor.
This episode presents a vision for the future of childhood education, enabled by the Internet. Please enjoy my conversation with Ana Lorena Fabrega and Chrisman Frank.
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The facilitation of learning through video games. [00:01:44]
Our guests’ experiences at school and the shortcomings of traditional educational systems. [00:03:22]
The amazing engagement and commitment that is possible through the format of games. [00:07:30]
Bringing passion and exploration into educational spaces. [00:09:10]
The components that facilitate learning within a game; the six-factor system. [00:13:00]
Focussing on on-demand learning instead of the traditional, just-in-case model for teaching. [00:16:25]
The rising trends of video and interaction media for learning in the future. [00:21:52]
How Synthesis disrupts the trend towards the learned helplessness that occurs in most classrooms. [00:25:02]
The relationship between mistakes, penalization, and continued efforts. [00:27:01]
Open-ended problem-solving and thinking about the value of this for the future of work. [00:28:41]
Interaction across age groups and preparing kids for more realistic scenarios. [00:32:38]
The issue of socialization; some ideas for how to approach this part of development. [00:36:10]
Talking at schools and the reality of connection and communication in most learning environments. [00:38:10]
A more diverse set of systems and approaches for education. [00:43:51]
The internet-speed evolution of learning and how this network will contrast to homeschooling. [00:46:50]
Synthesis’ brand new approach to developing ways of learning, and using what it means to be human as a guiding light. [00:51:01]
The common misconceptions about what kids need from their teachers. [00:53:26]
Allowing space for the intelligence and enthusiasm that children naturally possess. [00:56:04]
The ‘push’ and ‘pull’ models and how Synthesis approaches structure. [00:58:44]
The people who are inspiring our guests and their philosophy at Synthesis. [01:01:50]
Bringing the world into the world of education; understanding how these fit together. [01:05:46]
Mentorships and applying some of the systems of sports to learning tasks. [01:09:58]
[00:01:44] DP: Ana and Chrisman, welcome to the podcast. I want to start off talking about video games in particular. My parents always said, “Video games are bad and they’re a waste of time.” What are we missing about the nature of video games and how they help to facilitate student learning?
[00:02:01] AF: Here’s what’s really interesting. So, when kids play video games, they really get like the experience of having to teach themselves something new. So, they have to figure out how to win, they have to pick up new skills and use all the available resources that they have in order to reach their goals. What we’ve seen is that this provokes a positive feeling about themselves, and about their abilities to learn on their own, which is what schools are pretty much lacking, like training kids in that sense.
So, in this sense, Jane McGonigal, who’s a PhD designer in video games, she was talking about that, that’s one of the main reasons why games are sort of like the ultimate learning simulator. Because kids really get to teach themselves something new, they feel like they can teach themselves anything. So, they feel empowered to learn and to improve on their own. So, that’s something that in Synthesis we use this game-based approach and we can talk about that in a little. But it’s not, again, because of the fun of it, or because of the engagement, it’s because these are sort of like the features that lead to the ultimate end, which is learning.
But then all the implicit novelty and the difficulty of the actual games and the simulations is what leads to the satisfying experiences, and together with the engagement and the fun, then that’s what allows us to teach kids problem solving and decision making. So, I would say that perhaps like that’s the most powerful thing about video games that relates to learning nowadays.
[00:03:22] DP: Talk about that fun point, specifically, in regards to the way that you used to teach kids to read when you were in school, like you allowed them to read standing up, you allowed them to read sitting down. But then the only rule was that they actually understood what they were saying. So, I’m really curious to hear about your experience in school and how that informs how you think about why Synthesis works as a way to teach kids.
[00:03:49] AF: A lot of what happens in school is that the kids don’t really have a chance to practice making real decisions or solving real problems. If you look at the textbook math problems, or when you teach kids how to read systematically, with like the stories that we give them with the curriculums in school, it’s really hard to make the connection to the real world. It feels very much prefabricated, because that’s how it is. The kids know that the teacher knows the outcome, and that there is this one right or wrong answer. So, that really were sort of like removing, learning out of context.
But when you look at something like Synthesis, we don’t design the simulations from content the way that we did in school. Every time I was planning a lesson planning was all about the content. At Synthesis like we designed for the experience. So, the simulations are built from scratch to not only be engaging but really deep. The idea of the simulations is to change the way that kids approach real life problems and to prepare them to navigate all the complexity and chaos that comes with life.
Our simulations at Synthesis, very different from school, push kids to actually take a stance and make decisions that have consequences and meaning. So, they actually have to understand tradeoffs and they have to analyze choices in a world where there are no right answers. Just like in real life. And kids are very confused at first, because they’re used to everyone knowing what the answer is, or at least knowing that the teacher has the answer. So here, it’s very, very different.
So, the simulation also allows students to understand that there’s a purpose behind the learning, and to see the relevance to the real world. So, they’re designed to put the kids sort of like on the spot, and to push them to be vulnerable, very different from school. In school, we’re trying to do the opposite. We don’t want kids to feel vulnerable, we want for them to figure things out quickly. And if not, the teacher sort of like runs and gives the answers. But at Synthesis, because we purposely do this, kids sort of leave their comfort zones and this not only enables them to make new friends, but also it taps into the emotional rewards that we’ve noticed that the kids crave the most.
So, they want to keep coming back and they start to get comfortable with all the uncertainty and all the chaos and they feel like we trust them, and that’s why we’re giving them those challenges. I’ve written and talked about this before, how we really make sure that we continue to add complexity to everything that we do, because kids not only can handle that, unlike what they teach you in school, they can’t handle it, but they actually crave it. So, we’ve seen that this works really well in terms of like not only the learning loops, but also the engagement.
[00:06:15] CF: That’s great. The simplest way to put it is like video games are learning by doing and that’s natural to humans. It’s actually really, historically anomalous, and strange that we have this idea to sit you in a desk for – how long is it? If you start at age five?
[00:06:30] DP: Too long.
[00:06:30] CF: Do you finish at age 21 or 22? So, about 17 years? Seventeen years of just – if you think about like the learned helplessness this creates and the sort of reliance on authority. It’s sort of crazy. It’s never been like this in human history, apart from like, the last 100 years. I think, in another 100 years, we will just definitely not be doing things this way. I think video games are more natural way to learn because you’re learning by actually doing something, the consequences actually matter. It’s not like you’re putting something forward for a teacher to judge you.
They’re sort of like a “reality” with a video game. We see this all the time in Synthesis. The kids will get together to make a plan and make a strategy and they’re like, “We’re going to crush everybody. This is going to be awful. We’re just going to smash them.” And then they get killed, and they’re like, “Oh, man.” Now they have to check their thinking. It’s not like, “Oh, a teacher gave me a bad grade, that teacher doesn’t know what they’re talking about.” It’s like, “No, we got outplayed here, like, let’s reflect on this experience.” That’s just a much more natural way to learn than sitting in a desk.
[00:07:30] DP: Yeah, when I was a kid, one time, we had this make-believe game where there were like six different continents and six different teams in the class of 20. Then the game went for like a month. The whole job of the game was for everyone in the class to compete to conquer the world and we got so into it. We got so competitive that we were talking about it outside of the actual class. We’re like teaming up at lunch. We started changing where we’re sitting at the lunch table, and we got obsessed with the game.
[00:08:00] CF: Dude, that is exactly when I first saw Synthesis, I went down a tour at Ad Astra, which is a school Josh and Elon created. I actually wasn’t expecting much because I thought it kind of seen everything in education and been to so many different schools that were new and doing things a different way, and nothing really lived up the hype. I had that moment at Ad Astra where it was lunch/recess, and it’s outside because it’s California. And then inside, there are these kids gather around a table just shouting these really complex arguments at each other. I was like, “What is this?” One of the teachers is like, “Oh, sorry, it’s Synthesis.” The kids get kind of obsessed. I was like, “This is an educational thing that they’re talking?” I hardly ever see kids this animated, period. Regardless, especially not anything school related. So, it’s kind of like what you’re talking about.
I saw that and I was like, “Whoa!” Number one, these kids were making very sophisticated complex arguments and their communication skills were really advanced for like 11, 12, 13-year-old kids. I was working on building tech companies at the time, and I was like, “These kids would just fit right in to our meetings, they’d be better problem solvers than a lot of people I work with, and they’re 12.” Something’s going on here that we need to pay attention to.
[00:09:10] DP: I’m just sort of amazed at how much of just my own education was just like being fascinated by things and then following those rabbit holes of fascination. What’s crazy to me about a syllabus, is syllabus basically implies, do things at a normal speed and don’t spend any too much time on one thing. If you get obsessed with something, well, it’s time to move on. And if you don’t get obsessed with something, then keep going. Whereas what life is, is like an exploit strategy where you just sort of look at things but then you find your thing and you just go ham on that. I remember my senior year of college, I got a C in my entertainment media class, which is basically what my job is, thinking through the future of how media is interacting with the world in business bottles. My teacher was like, “How did you get a seat? You’re obsessed with this stuff?” And I was like, “Well, I didn’t like this class, because I was so obsessed with it. But you didn’t actually let me follow my trails of obsession. I was really frustrated with that.
[00:10:14] CF: Yeah, it’s so interesting. I suppose there are things where you need that syllabus. The founder of Lambda schools and investor in Synthesis, and I think they’ve got to have a syllabus, they got to prepare people and train them for this specific job. But yeah, there’s also this other component to learning where, like you said, it’s like following the obsessions. What’s interesting about that is, if you let kids do it that way, they’re sort of infinite occupations in the world. There’s infinite niche. I mean, both of you guys, you have jobs that I don’t think anyone really thought were jobs before you started doing it. That’s just a product of your obsession, and your passions. This idea of like a skill stack, you’re not the absolute best podcast, interviewer something like that. But you’re the best across a couple different things, maybe talking about writing and creating media and applying this to business, and that’s all these things combined to make this unique niche that just didn’t exist before.
What’s really exciting about this point in human history is there’s going to be infinite, more niches like that. So, we’ve got to prepare kids now not to just fit into something that already exists, but to find. That’s not been true, actually. It wasn’t true in the 1950s. This would not have been good advice in 1950s. The best advice would have been do good in school, if you’re going for economic success, do well in school, and join a big company and move up the ranks. That’s just not true anymore.
[00:11:39] AF: That’s when you need to think about what what’s the purpose of any learning experience because we’re talking about Synthesis. But really, any learning experience should be for you to come out really excited and curious and inspired and wanting to learn more, knowing what you’re uniquely good at, or David, what we were talking about the other day what you’re irrationally passionate about. But how often do you have a chance in school to really explore that or talk about that? Not really. We need to cover a curriculum that’s very extensive. So, there is no time we don’t prioritize that in school as much as teachers would want to.
So, we really try to keep that in mind in Synthesis. We want to teach kids new ways of thinking with new mental tools to make better decisions and solve problems. But really give them like plenty of experience to try new things and fail and try again, because that’s what gives you the sense of possibility and connects you to this larger purpose of learning in life. We’ve also talked about before how kids go through all these years of schooling, and we teach them in all these mechanical ways, only to leave school and they don’t really want to learn on their own anymore. They don’t want to read for fun anymore. They don’t want to write for fun anymore. So, then what’s the purpose of having them in school for so many years during their most crucial years, during their childhood, and they’re not going to come out excited and wanting to do more of that on their own.
So, really keeping that in mind for any learning experience that you’re creating is crucial and it’s what we’re doing at Synthesis.
[00:13:00] DP: What are the components of a game that facilitates learning?
[00:13:03] AF: So, the way that we design simulations is, we have like these six components of the Synthesis experience, which are simulation mechanics, simulation concepts, mental models, team reflection, simulation, analysis, and personal reflection. I’ll kind of like go into those. But when we designed a simulation, the first thing that we do is we put ourselves in students shoes to sort of like visualize how they’re going to interact with the information. So, visualizing simulation mechanic involves picturing how the kids are going to act with incomplete information. And then sort of like, how are they going to be working with the teammates to bring a sense of order into the game. Again, we have a lot of chaos in our game. So, this is pretty challenging.
So, this includes figuring out the basic rules, having them identify the different scoring variables that are always changing, determining how to best adjust their strategy, depending on what’s happening in that specific moment. And then managing all the inherent disorder that occurs when you’re working with a team. Sounds very chaotic and that’s because it is. We try to really make it like real life.
The second ingredient of the Synthesis experience is called simulation concepts. I mean, as you know, by now, because we’ve talked about this a lot like we really want to equip kids to solve hard problems. So, to do this, we need to elevate the standards for the concepts that we’re teaching them. So, at first glance, especially for parents who come from a traditional background, they may be like, “Wait, you’re teaching kids about harmony, about profit, and these are eight-year-old.” This concept may seem a bit hard to digest for kids. But we really believe at Synthesis and we don’t get tired of saying this that kids are really capable of understanding much more than we think. So, our simulations really try to expose kids to these adult concepts, like I was saying like revenue, profit, Dutch auctions, warm holds, headquarters, and we do it in a way where they start to improve their vocabulary and talk about these things like adults will be talking about them.
Then the third component of the simulation is mental models and this one is like a big one, sort of like at the heart of what students learn at Synthesis. So, mental models represent all these tools and concepts that the kids are kind of experiencing, and maybe Chrisman, you can talk a little bit about this later, because we don’t teach mental models explicitly, like, “Oh, we’re going to teach you about this one.” No, we sort of let them experience them. And then we have them tie it through the reflection to the other simulations that they’re playing. So, we have like a few videos where you see how we do that.
[00:15:26] CF: The mental models are for people that are unfamiliar with that concept. They’re sort of patterns that come up repeatedly, no matter kind of what domain you’re in. One mental model in the first game is this idea of networks. There are communication networks, distribution networks. This comes up in your, if you’re looking at any company or any industry, the network idea comes up a lot and we don’t necessarily build the games with these things in mind, but because they’re broadly applicable, they arise in the games, and the kids will sort of start to notice these patterns, and then start to talk about them and that’s when we’re like, “Okay, so what you’re looking at here is a network.” Now, we can talk about networks and they’re going to be actually interested in learning that because it’s going to help them win the game.
So, if we went and we’re like, “Okay, kids, today, we’re going to do a course on networks”, that would be a snooze fest. But when you’re playing the game, and you’re losing to a team, because they understand networks better than you do, then the kids get really excited about learning those things. Sorry to cut in there, Ana.
[00:16:25] AF: No, that’s a perfect interruption. David, I don’t know if you remember, we talked about this in one of our show and tell episodes, the difference between learning on demand and learning just in case. When in school, we teach from a curriculum, all these concepts and all these subjects just in case kids are ever going to use them in the real world. We’ve talked about also how we know that knowledge the case really quickly. So, this approach is not really effective, because unless kids are using that knowledge, in the next 14 days in the real world, that knowledge is going to decay, even if it was theoretically interesting to them.
So, a better approach is to teach on demand, which is what Chrisman was just saying. When the kids find themselves in a situation where they need to learn this mental hack or this mental model in order to advance or win the game or get unstuck, then the relevance of that mental models comes to play and they’re like, “Oh, I need this. It makes sense why would want to learn this.” They put it into practice, boom, they learned it.
So, that’s sort of like also the approach that Elon had when he was coming up with like, how he wanted the school to work, he was like, “Don’t teach to the tool, teach to the problem.” When they need it, and when the relevance comes, then you use that.
[00:17:31] DP: Well, within that, the thing about just in case versus just in time is I feel like there’s a third category that I just realized is left out of the conversation a lot. These are things that are like foundational ways of looking at the world and this is something like mathematics, or the laws of physics or something like that. Whereas just in case, is like learning marketing in your sophomore year of college. It’s like, “Oh, you’re going to need to do this after you graduate, young child.”
That’s just sort of ridiculous and I think sort of what we’re getting at, like, we actually waste a lot of time thinking about that. But the thing that I wish I knew better was basically math and physics. I feel like, you could call that just in case because it’s like, “Oh, you might need to use this someday.” But more foundationally, I think that these are ways that everyone should be able to look at the world and to the extent that we can facilitate these ways of thinking through games, then that’s a good thing.
To return to the network’s idea, networks and sort of complexity thinking, thinking of ideas like emergence and morality, and how different ideas scale, how an idea can actually spread through society. These are foundational. These are almost like the laws of social physics or the laws of how society functions. And to the extent that we can train that, then I feel like it’s this third category that I think Synthesis is really beginning to hit upon.
[00:18:53] CF: I think that’s right. I think, in one sense, education is always just arming the next generation with the tools that have come before. The two most prominent are literacy and numeracy. You can call that just in case, but it’s really just in case you do anything in life at all, you’re going to use those tools. I think computation is quickly becoming one of those things. I do think a lot of these mental models sort of fall into that category. They are tools for thinking, they’re software upgrades that you may not use every day. But a lot of what we’re teaching is stuff that we use every day. We’re teaching the kids concepts and mental models that we use to run the company and that we’re talking about all the time.
I think you’re onto something there, that there’s probably a broader set of tools. If you look to the future of humanity, we will have more in our toolkit that’s developed through school than just the literacy and numeracy piece.
[00:19:52] AF: And then just to end up what we were talking about the question that David asked of how do we design our simulation, so we already spoke about those first three, and then the second component of the Synthesis experience is what we call the sense making of the experience. Then here is where you have the difference between playing a video game for entertainment, and then playing Synthesis. When you play a video game, there are opportunities for you to reflect, but it’s really not mandatory. You usually don’t have a parent sitting afterwards and saying, like, “Well, what did you play? Let’s talk about it.” And there’s a lot of research done on video games, saying that the way that kids really transfer the benefits of the game to the real life is when they’re able to really reflect on the experience and see what elements can transfer to the real world.
Again, that doesn’t really happen when you’re playing for fun, because you’re not actively going through this. But we make a big deal out of this at Synthesis. So, the next three components, which are team reflections, simulation analysis, and personal reflection, they’re all about helping kids make sense of their interactions with all our competitive simulations. So, after each game, the students engage in team reflection, where they start to talk about how they operated, the personality of their team, and sort of like how they make decisions and the roles played by all the members. Then these dip conversations and the reflections that we lead is really what drives the learning and all these conclusions.
Similar with the simulation analysis, which is like where you sort of discuss the decisions and weigh their efficiency, and it’s really interesting to see how the kids depending on what team they are, they will act differently. They definitely not always win. They win, they lose, so they really have to like reflect on this. And then our facilitators play a big role in that one.
The last one is the personal reflection, which is not only like how your team operated, but how did you as an individual operate? And how did you contribute to the team dynamic? How could you improve? What role should you play next time? So, we have like a video that helps them reflect on this, and really, that’s the most important part of the simulation and what makes this different from any other video game.
[00:21:52] DP: It’s really interesting, because you guys have me thinking about what I guess I could call the bias of education. So, I think that we’re moving from books and lectures, to software and games. So, with books and lectures, the thing that is communicated well, in that style of media is letters and numbers. So, words and math, basically. But the thing is traditional forms of education, they’re very low on video and interactive software. So, I feel like these are methods of teaching and ways of being that school isn’t really hitting at. And for example, with video, there was a great story in the Wall Street Journal a couple years ago about a player on the Boston Celtics, his name is Jason Tatum. His coach looked at him, he was 21 years old when it got to the NBA. His coach went up to him. He’s like, “How is your footwork so good? I can’t believe it.”
What happened was, he was one of the first players to grow up in the YouTube generation. So, what he did was he would watch videos of Kobe Bryant, of LeBron James, the crossover of Allen Iverson, and then he would go to the gym with YouTube, and he would go copy the footwork of those moves. That’s exactly the kind of thing you can’t learn about in a textbook. The subtleties, the rhythm, the flow, too complicated. But now you can bring that in with video, and all of a sudden, you’ve actually unlocked a new passage way of learning. I feel like that’s what we’re getting at here with video and interactive software. These new ways of actually delivering information that it’s almost like seeing new colors on the color wheel in terms of now what we’re able to teach students.
[00:23:33] CF: There are two things there. The video. You have the mimetic piece of it, which is that we like to copy. I think, very little of the thinking we do, or the learning we do is sort of learning from first principles in a conceptual way. It’s much more common, that we sort of copy people who are further on the path than us. I took business classes in college, but I definitely learned way more just reading biographies of people who I wanted to emulate. I think probably the reason students take your course is because, “Oh, this guy is going to teach me how to be successful by writing. He’s very successful through writing, I’ll pay attention.” So, I think that YouTube piece definitely unlocks that. I think that’s way underestimated just how – anyone who has kids will know this. If you want to get kids to do something, you find them a role model who’s a little bit older, who likes to read books, and then now your kids can be reading books. That’s the way it works. That’s very powerful.
And then the other piece is the interactive, that Seymour Papert, the inventor of Mindstorms, which is written I think, at the ‘80s and it’s about how the interactive elements of software and computers are going to change education. He’s not been right. so far. I think that’s more to the challenges of getting schools, existing school system to do things in new ways. But that’s very much like Synthesis, you can read that book, we’re going to bring that vision to life. I think learning is going to go exactly what you said, more video and more interactive. Those are going to be the two really big trends, I think, that are going to sort of push out almost everything else.
[00:25:02] DP: I want to hear you guys talk about the ideas of winning and losing, because a lot of the best moments that I got in terms of learning as a kid was just epically failing in sports in some way and being like, “You know what, it’s part of life. You got to work harder. You got to get over it and stop being a sore loser kid.”
[00:25:23] CF: What’s really remarkable about Synthesis is I worried more initially, that the kids would lose, and that it would be demoralizing. Because you see that happen in schools, a lot of the time, people who that do poorly in school than they get like a learned helplessness and stop trying. What’s weird is it’s the opposite in Synthesis. I’ve been trying to kind of like put my finger on why that is. I think part of it at least is it’s something that you’re interested in. So, you’re trying to get better on your own.
It might just be that these kids, they react differently than I would expect most adults. I think adults are kind of check out if they try this and we’ve seen it. Because we tried Synthesis games with adults and they’ll kind of check out if they’re like, “Oh, it’s too complex”, or like, “It’s too hard. I don’t get it”, and they’ll kind of stop. I wonder if the kids are just naturally the way they are in Synthesis, which is they bounce right back from failure, and just want to try hard, and they want to learn from whoever beat them, they want to learn their secret so they can improve.
I wonder how much of the attitude that adults have is sort of driven into us by this model of school that we have, where you’re submitting to the judgment of an authority figure, and it’s a zero-sum game. Class rank is probably just one of the most destructive ideas ever, that you have a single variable continuum, or you’re going to rank everybody. I don’t exactly know what’s going on there. But I do notice that the kids, they bounce back from failure much more quickly than adults. It almost seems to energize them. I don’t know if that’s because of the way that our facilitators are running things or what exactly, but it’s sort of remarkable how quickly they will move on to the next thing.
[00:27:01] AF: To me, this is one of the most fascinating things about video games. I actually did a whole write up about this a while ago, because as a teacher, I would often see kids, whenever they would get something wrong, or we would get them to reflect and to learn about their mistakes, it was really challenging, because we were always penalizing them with a grade or they knew that there was something else, and nobody likes to fail. But when it comes to video games, you notice that kids can spend most of their time failing, and they still love playing.
So, I was very curious about this. I was like, “Well, what is it about video games that keeps kids optimistic in the face of failure?” If you think about it, I mean, there’s this whole experiment done by Mark Rober, this former NASA engineer. What he discovered was that when mistakes are not penalized, people, and this sounds straightforward, but we don’t do this in school, when mistakes are not penalized, people are more likely to just keep trying. And if you keep trying, then naturally you have more chances of eventually succeeding. That’s what happens at Synthesis. That’s what happens at video games that people are sort of focused on the end goal and you lose, but you know you have a second chance, and you may die in the game, but then you can bounce back and do it again.
Our kids had synthesis, they play so many times, because the games are really short, and they fail, but they know that they have a second chance right away, they’re going to play again and next time, they’re going to try something different. So, when you frame sort of like the learning challenges in this way that you’re not going to be penalized. Then kids just want to engage, and it’s natural for them to sort of like ignore that and just get up and try again. That’s the attitude that we want to teach kids to have. I haven’t seen anything better for this than video games. It helps them normalize making mistakes and learning from them. So, I think that that’s where it comes from.
[00:28:41] DP: I feel like one of the things that you are really hitting on too, is this idea of open-ended problem solving. A lot of times what we learn at school is there’s very set problems, there are ways to do it right, there are ways to do it wrong. For me, I’m terrible at following directions. So, a lot of the points that I lost in school, I was an atrocious student, my goodness. Just because I didn’t do what the teacher said. But for whatever reason, I’m good at open-ended problem solving, and just because that’s not taught in school, that’s one reason I feel like there’s just not a lot of people who are as good at that even though oddly that seems to be what more and more is economically rewarded.
Seth Godin has this idea called the law of the Mechanical Turk, where he basically says, “Anything that can be segmented, made clear, with repeatable steps that are easy and simple to follow. That work will be driven lower and lower.” First, it will be minimum wage work, then it will be outsourced, and then it will be done by software. So, you basically have to take all of those variables and do the opposite, in order to get to a point of high economic leverage in your personal career.
[00:29:54] AF: Speaking of Seth Godin, I remember reading by him that he argues that the jobs in the future are going to fall in two different categories. The downtrodden, like assemblers of cheap mass goods, and then you have like the respected creators of the unexpected. These can even be people, even if you’re not working for yourself, but you’re still going to have to sort of be there. I agree with that. That’s why there’s this new list of survival skills in the new marketplace that are really not being prioritized by schools.
So, what we’re starting to notice is that parents who really care, they’re starting to look at initiatives outside the system, that are actually meeting that new way of thinking and those new skills. That’s sort of what Synthesis is doing.
[00:30:29] CF: I think that’s right. I’ve been thinking about this lately. I think it’s just very interesting, because I have been having a lot of conversations with people about the current education system and how it’s designed to produce factory workers, which I think just misses something, which is it’s designed to produce factory workers and bureaucrats. So, even for white collar people, it’s designed to produce people who follow the rules. One way to think of it as a paper driven bureaucracy is sort of like a massive computer made out of humans. So, what computers do really well is just copy instructions, just follow instructions precisely. So, there’s a reason we have the system that’s built to get you to follow instructions precisely. And, like you said, it’s just not a thing anymore.
So, I think it’s important to look at how the world has changed, whether it was right or wrong to build an education system to support industrialization, maybe that was the right move for humanity at the time. We have very inexpensive cars and inexpensive goods, material goods, and the prices just fall every year and continue to fall. So maybe that was a good thing. But anymore, the computers do a lot of what we’re training kids to do in school. So, it’s exactly what you said, the most highly rewarded skill is to add to human knowledge.
There’s a book I’ve been rereading recently called the Beginning of Infinity by the physicist of David Deutsch, and the title is the Beginning of Infinity because there is an infinite future of knowledge that can be created. Because whenever we create new knowledge, we have new problems, we’re always a little bit wrong, and we can keep on improving that into infinity, which I think is just really exciting, because it means for the kids today, if they’re trained in this kind of way of learning to solve unbounded, complex problems, there’s an infinite amount of cool things that can be created. The world can be so much better than we can even imagine right now, and the way to get there is by training this next generation in these skills to create knowledge just to find and solve problems, not to precisely follow instructions.
[00:32:38] DP: One of the things about synthesis that I think is really interesting is the way that kids of different ages are intermingled. Like Ana, when you taught third graders, and they were very specific age, at most maybe 18 months apart. Something about that seems misguided and I’m curious to hear your take on that.
[00:32:58] AF: Chrisman has spoken about this a few times. This is perhaps one of the most ridiculous ideas that we continue to embrace nowadays. Because if you think about it, again, education we’re trying to prepare for the real world. In the real world. When do you only interact with people your own age? I really can’t think of one scenario where I’m like stuck in a room with like only people my own age. That doesn’t really happen. So, it doesn’t really make sense why we keep kids for 12 years only with kids their age. Not only that, but when you think about the most organic way to learn is from people that are older than you and younger than you, and it works really well.
I gave this example in a Clubhouse a few weeks ago, where I was student teaching in the school in New York, that was mixed age groups and that was the moment where I really saw that the teacher could step out of the room, and learning would continue to happen. Because you have the older kids teaching the younger kids the things that they already knew, you have the younger kids emulating the older kids and doing things that you wouldn’t think that a four-year-old would be able to do. But just because you put them in a situation where there were older kids, our human instinct is to imitate and to want to emulate what other people are doing, especially the older kids. So, it worked really well. It takes a lot of toll on the teacher from having to teach the kids. That’s the second thing.
And then the third thing is that we know that one of the best ways to learn something is to teach that. So, when you have mixed age groups, you have the older kids that have learned a concept teaching it to the younger kids, so they crystallize that learning and that’s the best way to learn it when they actually teach it to somebody else. And then you have the younger kids go to the other, like the little ones and teach it. So, it becomes a very beautiful cycle of teaching and learning done by the kids.
So, to me, it’s the best way to do it. It’s the best way to teach and learn and it’s just really surprising that that’s something that we’ve kind of like dragged along for the past 100 years and we continue to do.
[00:34:52] CF: I think it’s a completely psychotic idea to do the age segregation thing. It’s the number one thing that I would change if I could snap my fingers, if the education dictator. I would say no more age segregation, particularly for the younger kids. It makes the teacher’s job so much harder. The funniest thing, if I tweet anything negative about school, then I get all these comments that are like, “Kids need school to be socialized”, which one I’m not saying, lock them in a closet at home, instead of sending them to school. Presumably, there are other ways that you can be around kids that don’t involve sitting in desks and rows.
But two, it’s a very weird socialization. I know you guys have written about the Lindy effect, the idea that ideas that are kind of new, are more likely to die off. This is a really weird and historically anomalous idea that you should be aged segregate. It’s never been like this in human history, and only really been like this since about the 1890 when we adopted the Prussian system. It’s sad that it’s lasted this long, but it’s based on just a flawed manufacturing model of the world, that doesn’t really work with complex things like humans. So, if I could snap my fingers and change that, just have every school adopt that mixed age model, and deal with the chaos that comes from that, I think we’d be a lot better off.
[00:36:10] DP: Talk about the socialization issue. So, you could say, “Hey, we do need to be socialized, and I don’t want my kids spending more time on the computer.” So, what do we say to that?
[00:36:22] CF: What I’m doing for my kids, not going to prescribe anything for anyone. But what Josh and I are both doing and I’ve actually been speaking with a bunch of people who have unlimited means over the last couple of weeks, and are asking about how should they educate their kids. Not to be prescriptive, but what I’m doing is we’re doing a forest/beach school. So, my kids are seven and five, are the two older ones and they’re joining with the couple other families we’ll have a teacher, they’ll go outside, and basically play explore the woods, explore the beach, because we live in California, which is nice. But basically, just be outside and be a kid for most of the day. It’s mixed aged, you get with other kids, they make up little games. My main goal is just get them socializing, but outside of that weird school environment.
So, it’s this terrible trick we play on kids where what they crave most is to be around other kids to have that social development and then we gate that behind seven hours of sitting in a desk, and listening, and then half an hour of recess. It’s absolutely a horrible thing to be doing at this scale. So, I think a lot of the problems go away, if you just do mixed-age classrooms, and that entails a lot of other changes. Immediately, you can’t do the thing, where you expect people to all learn the same thing at the same pace. As much as that doesn’t work now, definitely not going to work with like a five and a 7-year-old or 10-year-old and a 7-year-old in the same classroom.
That’s what I’m doing my kids, a couple hours a day on the forest school, then we’re going to do a full stack Synthesis School, which is going to be two hours a day, five days a week, and just pretty intense accelerated technology and science and engineering. And then just reading books for the rest of the time. That’s what I’m doing. Not to say what other people should or shouldn’t do, but that’s at least the solution I’ve kind of hit on after thinking about it for a while.
[00:38:10] DP: Ana, talk about the virtues of talking in school. I feel like one of the biggest issues and you in particular, just needing to talk and this sort of idea of like –
[00:38:23] CF: I was going to say, Anadoesn’t really know anything about talking, so someone else take that.
[00:38:27] DP: Ana has a thing where she’ll call me and she just goes off on Ana riffs. But I mean, I think that a lot of kids need that, this sort of desire to process information and then synthesize it through speaking. I feel like the words that I hear the most in school are, “Be quiet.”
[00:38:46] AF: It’s really interesting, because every time I hear people say like, “Well, I would love to homeschool. But what about the social aspects like homeschool’s kids are not socialized? Or they need to go to school in order to learn and socialize with peers?” I’m like, “No.” I’ve taught for 5 years, I went to 10 different schools, ranging from all types of schools. And the reality is that out of those seven hours that kids are in school, they are chatting, and you can ask them, they’ll tell you, “Yes, I get to socialize in the bus, in my 20 to 30 minutes of recess.” And before they would say lunchtime, unfortunately, when you start to ask around, a lot of schools are starting to do quiet lunches.
The school that I worked at, just because you had all these kids in the cafeteria and the cafeteria monitors could not handle all the noise in this net. The kids would come back and they’re like, “Miss Fab, we had a quiet lunch again.” So, those 30 minutes that they had to chat, quiet. So, when kids are in class, the teacher has to cover all these materials, so the reality is that we’re like in a monologue, we’re like talking, covering this and that. The kids barely have time to chat. During group work, they may chat but group work is very rare. Like it’s not the norm. It’s not what kids are doing all the time. So, it’s just really ironic when I hear this from parents like, “No, they need to go to school to socialize.” I’m like, “I’m sorry to break it to you, but kids are not really socializing in school. It’s not happening.”
So, when you look at people like what Chris is doing, or people that are homeschooling like homeschoolers, have actually plenty of opportunities to interact and with actually, members of the communities and more real and authentic ways. They’re not limited to kids her own age, they go to meet up with friends, they can go to the playground, they go to community events, they participate in sports in art lesson. So, they really have a chance to interact and communicate way more than in school. So, to me, that’s like a no brainer.
And then I was also reflecting like, two of the hardest things that I’ve had to do, at least like in the past 10 years was trying to keep a group of 20 plus kids quiet, sitting down and paying attention. The reason for that, it’s because it’s so unnatural. Human beings, especially kids are not meant to be sitting down, especially for that amount of time. They’re not meant to be quiet. They’re meant to be talking and socializing. So, we’ve really like taking learning and what being a human is out of context by putting it in these institutions that we call schools, and then we’re like, “Oh, why aren’t kids learning?” Or, “Why is this not working?” I’m like, if you reflect on it, it doesn’t make sense. That’s definitely a big concern.
Here’s something that’s really interesting. When I first joined the Synthesis simulations, something that caught my attention, because, of course, with COVID, and everything and everything going online, a lot of what parents experienced was a very passive online experience for their kids. That’s because that was not online learning, that was remote learning, where teachers quickly have to grab everything and put it in the online space, and then sort of like, replicate the classroom online. As we’ve talked about, this doesn’t work.
But at Synthesis, there are actually more opportunities for kids to talk and socialize than you would see, in the real classroom. It’s incredible, like out of the hour to 75 minutes, kids are doing most of the talking. They’re actually like screaming and talking over each other. And like at the edge of their seats, they’re really active, although they’re in front of the computer. They go into breakout groups, they’re talking, they come back from the breakout groups, they’re the ones leading the discussion. So really, even though it’s the online space, there’s more talking and more socializing than you see in the actual classroom, which is like mind blowing. Something that people, unless you witnessed it, you don’t really notice. But that’s the reality, it’s happening.
[00:42:15] CF: That’s why it can take a couple of sessions for kids to get into Synthesis because they show up. Maybe their parents are like, “Oh, we’re doing this new online class or like learning thing.” And then they show up expecting it to be kind of passive and be docile and just follow instructions, and listen quietly. It takes three or four weeks to like break that. Then that kind of carries over to the rest of their life. In school, they’re like asking, “What exactly do I do?” So, they show up at Synthesis and they have all these questions like, “What exactly do we do?” And we’re just like, “You’re going to figure it out. That’s how it’s going to work. You’re going to figure this out. That’s why you’re here to learn to figure things out, not for us to tell you.”
Luckily, kids are pretty resilient. So, even though they’ve been trained that way in school, they quickly figure out there’s another way of being, and that they can just sort of attack problems. They don’t have to be passive or hapless. And to me, the best feedback we get from students and from their parents is that that attitude is carrying into other things in their life. The parents are like, “Hey, here’s a situation where they normally would have asked me to do it for them.” Instead, they’re like, “No, I got this mom. Let me figure it out.” It’s like the reverse of learned helplessness.
One of my big ideas like school, is the sort of industrial scale system for producing learned helplessness, like learned intellectual helplessness, don’t think about anything, you can’t solve problems on your own, just stay within these bounds and repeat what you’re told. I think that’s one potential way synthesis can be transformative is to reverse that, the reverse of learned helplessness, learned efficaciousness, something like that.
[00:43:51] DP: One of the things that I think about when I think of Synthesis is that it’s so radically different. And the thing is, I think it’s easy to hear Synthesis and say, “Oh, that’s not for my kid”, and stuff like that. But I tend to think like, first of all, that’s totally fine. But I think that the biggest problem with the education system isn’t the system. It’s that we have one system. It’s crazy. It’d be like only having one kind of job. We have so many different kinds of jobs and a lot of what it takes to build a career is matching your personality to your job. It’s just wild to me. This is what the future is going to look like. There’s going to be all different kinds of educational systems, where you maybe could get a personality test or your parents can begin to observe how you behave as a kid. Because for me, I was needed to be outside, I had tons of energy, and I was really creative. But then I wasn’t great at following directions and within bounded sort of ideas, I did very poorly.
So, the fact that I was in the traditional school system for 18 years just felt criminal to me the entire time. And so, I needed some different kind of system. But I think that we should also have the exact opposite of Synthesis exists to. My point is, we should just have all these different kinds of educational systems.
[00:45:12] AF: Whenever people ask me what works, I’m like, “What works is diversity of approaches.” There’s not one thing. I don’t think Synthesis is for everyone, just like, I don’t think that the school system is for everyone. We need diversity of approaches and then you sort of like pick and choose what fits with your needs, with your situation, with your means and everything. I love how Chrisman and Josh are doing their kid’s education, because you’re sort of like putting together a very personalized educational experience for your kids grabbing from different places. So, the more alternatives we have out there, then the easier it’s going to be for parents to do this. So, for sure, I agree with you, David.
[00:45:48] CF: I think that’s really the problem with the massive system, the common core standards may have had like a noble kind of idea behind them. But what we need is just a system that evolves and to evolve you need, it’s basically Darwin’s theory, but applied to human ideas. So, you need variation, and selection. And Synthesis is a new variation, a new variant, we’ll see how it goes, see if that becomes part of the education ecosystem in the long term, but we don’t really know. But at least there’s an honest selection mechanism. If it’s not working, then parents aren’t going to pay for it and we’ll go out of business. And if it is working, then people will pay for it, promote it and get it more widely into the world.
So, I think, that idea of error correction, it’s not so important that we get everything right, but that we can course correct. That’s what we tell the students in Synthesis, get it wrong, you’re not getting what you want, then that’s fine, that’s natural. It’s always going to happen. More important to make quick course corrections, then to get everything right, the first try.
[00:46:50] DP: as I’m thinking about where Synthesis fits in, because you could just say, “Oh, that’s great for you guys, because you literally run an educational company, and you have the means to sort of create your own system.” But I think that that just entirely misses the point about where the world is going and I’ll tell you why. Because the internet is fundamentally changing the access to be able to create your own education piecemeal.
I think that there’s a couple ways to think about this. The first being, we’re going from centralized to decentralized. So, what we had was a very centralized, generally government-run system, where there’s the same system, and because success needs to be measured at scale from sort of top-down very bureaucratic way, we need, even geographical constraints are often eliminated. Also, school is very geographically local.
So, I always make the case that with — I mean, I teach people how to write online. The number of people who are in Austin, Texas, who would want to take this class, I could not run a business off of that, no way. But once I started using the internet, now, I can go way more niche and reach a global audience, and all of a sudden, I have a good business. And then what we can do is through the internet, we can sort of break free of the centralization, we can basically have this sort of Darwinian competition for ideas where the best ones tend to do better, we differentiate, we select and then we amplify the experiments that are doing the best.
The point isn’t that this system is the best. The point is, we want a system, I think that has some of these evolutionary methods baked into it so that we’re testing all over the place, and then that combined with the Internet, and the sort of the global scale, which allows for the nichification of education, then now you fundamentally change the playing field, so that it can be both cheaper, and just as accessible for people to create their own styles of education. And it’s not like parents have to stay home like traditional homeschooling, which is why people are just sort of red with rage when they think, “Oh, homeschooling’s the future?” No, this is a fundamentally different thing that actually needs a new word to describe it.
[00:49:02] CF: That’s right. One of the insights I had was working at ClassDojo was that education on the internet would evolve at Internet speed. So, one thing I think very few people agree with me on, but I’m pretty sure I’m right, is that intelligent parents, it’s going to seem foolish to leave your child’s cognitive development up to whoever happens to be around locally. Like the internet options are going to – you basically have like all these local monopolies. If you have like a good private school, there’s a couple of them in the Bay Area, but it’s like four or five, and they’re all trying to get the kids into the same prep schools and the same college. So, they all basically do the same approach. Even though in theory, they could do something different, they largely don’t.
What I think is going to happen though, is local is going to be daycare and socialization. If you want to teach your kids to think or to acquire knowledge, it’s going to be on the internet because it’s just going to evolve so much faster. There’s basically no way. These local schools, I feel they’re like zoo animals and then now that people are moving on to the internet, it’s like you’re released into the wild and you have to compete with all these things that there’s just a Cambrian explosion of internet education options right now. I’m just really excited for that future. I think if I was running a local school, I would try to figure out how to plug into the internet and let the internet do what it does best and I would focus more on that, like daycare socialization, that things that can only be done, hands on in person.
I think that could be like a really beautiful vision for the future, actually, because you can bring back childhood. My son, he’s in a school right now, because we moved to California in the middle of the pandemic, and it’s kind of the only way to make friends. So, he’s there, but it’s like, it’s seven hours of just sitting and then half an hour of that social time. What if it could be four or five hours of social time, and then do his learning on the internet? I think that’d be a much more humane way to do things. So, I’m incredibly excited about that future.
[00:51:01] DP: Ana, you said something really interesting earlier that I want to come back to and just get you to expand on, which is that we’ve taken what it means to be human out of context.
[00:51:12] AF: As you guys were talking about all this, all I kept thinking was, my favorite thing about Synthesis is how we’re not looking at what other people have been doing, or the way that teaching has been done and looking at best practices. We’re really just looking at kids and thinking, “Okay, what are we seeing? What do we know about how kids learn? What are the things that caught their attention?” And then sort of looking at the things that we think that they’re going to need in the future and then going by that. In school, it’s the opposite of that. That’s why I say that we take what it means to be human or learner out of context, because we’re not following based on the kids. We’re not making it about the kids. We’re making it about this curriculum that we have in the system that we’ve had in place for so long, and adding more things and all these bureaucracies, and we’re forgetting about the most important thing, which is like kids, and it only takes to look at the kids to realize that we’re doing things very wrong.
So, I love how at Synthesis, like we try things out, we run it by the kids, we design the simulations based on the challenges that our kids are taking. We debug in front of them so that they realize that we don’t have all the answers. I love that we don’t have everything figured out. But that we’re just taking into account what we see and the needs of today, and trying to come up with something incredible, really based on the kids and we’re making it about the kids. To me, even though we don’t know if this is going to work out or not, that’s the best approach. We’re having the kids in mind and their needs in mind and seeing what they’re doing.
So, that’s sort of like what I was thinking about when I said that comment. But also, I’m very bullish on this idea of self-directed learning, maybe not like we’re going to have all this education systems out there. But really what the internet has done for kids, and I think Naval talks a lot about this, how with the internet, information abundance is everywhere, what’s lacking is that desire to learn. And that’s really what any good learning experience should be focusing on as well, like more than the content, more than the experience is, are you getting kids excited to use the internet and all the things that they have out there in order to produce content, and in order to learn on their own, and in order to expand their interests? To me, that is really like that magic moment that we have and what I’m really excited to do with Synthesis as well, use that to our leverage and cultivate that desire to learn and the kids. Because ultimately, it’s going to be up to them when they grow up if they continue to learn or not. So, those are sort of like the things that are going through my mind when I said that comment.
[00:53:26] DP: What are some of the things that when you were a teacher, you saw word like these deep-seated misconceptions about what kids need, how to build relationships with kids, because you had some of your students at your wedding, most teachers aren’t like that. So, you very clearly understood something about what it means to be a teacher, that the educational system itself, not specific teachers are blind to.
[00:53:54] AF: Yeah, so it came back to what you guys were saying earlier, I love to talk and I remember growing up being very upset with the fact that I couldn’t talk in school. I love to move around and I was also very upset that in school, I didn’t get to move around. So, I would keep these things in mind. Every time I’m with kids when I was teaching them or now that I’m working with them, I always try to go back and put myself in their shoes. I feel like the best educators are the ones that do that, that they stay with that element of the childlike and can put themselves in their shoes and be like, “What would I have wanted when I was a kid? What was I lacking?”
So, I would let my kids move around. If they didn’t want to be sitting down, they didn’t have to be sitting down. If I opened a lesson and they raise their hand and they’re like, “Why are we learning this?” And I had no idea when they were going to use that I would be like, “Hey, maybe we’ll skip this lesson, we’ll do something else.” Or they would be like, “Why are we learning perimeters by measuring this with a ruler in the notebook? Like why don’t we measure the classroom?” I’m like, “You guys are right, let’s go ahead and do that.”
I think that I would just be very real with them and acknowledge that a lot of the things that we do don’t make sense, and I wasn’t afraid to say that in front of them. I wasn’t afraid to be like, “I actually don’t know, this doesn’t make sense. Let’s figure it out.” The other thing I would always encourage them to, even though it’s on the textbook, even though I’m saying this and it’s in the lesson plan, like it doesn’t mean it’s true. So, when you give them that they’re used to thinking, “Oh, the teacher said it.” Or if it’s in the test, or if it’s in the textbook, it must be true. It’s not common when they hear from a teacher like, “Actually, not really. Maybe not. Why don’t we find out? We have some computers in the back, let’s go and check it out.”
That just really motivates them, because you’re sort of empowering them and letting them know — a lot of what happens in schools is that we treat kids like kids, and they’re like sort of inferior. But when you turn it around, and you’re like, “You can figure it out. You actually know more than you think. Let me give you this complex problem.” That empowers them, and that motivates them. So, I think that that was definitely something that came naturally to me, because I was able to put myself in their shoes, and that they really appreciate it. When you’re open with them, and when you open it up to them, they will surprise you. They know way more than we think they do. They really do. They just need sort of like for you to give them that space and that time and the voice to talk about these things. So, I think that that’s definitely something that made that connection really real with them.
[00:56:04] DP: Yeah, Ana, you’ve always had a big respect for children. I think that, looking back on my own childhood, I saw a lot of adults just treat me like I was dumb. As if I was like an inferior human being. What you’ve always done is you said, “Well, what are kids actually capable of?” What if we started treating them like often these creative geniuses that they are? I just watched the movie Parasite and one of the fascinating storylines in Parasite is that everyone in the main family that continually gets played, they actually know so much. They’re almost deceiving themselves, which is why they are being manipulated. It is like the seven-year-old kid who is using his sense, who’s using his intuition. The seven-year-old is the person who first sees that there’s something really fishy going on, and the parents are like, “No, no, no.”
[00:57:05] AF: Totally. When you’re interacting with kids, you realize, people think the teacher is the one teaching. But really no, the kids are – if you really are open minded, and you pay attention to what they’re saying, they’re teaching you way more than you’re teaching them. Remember that they don’t have – still like, especially when they’re younger, all these preconceived notions, and they haven’t learned that things have to be a certain way. So, they naturally thinking first principles. They’re asking tons of questions. They want to know how everything works.
If they don’t agree with something, they’ll straight up tell you, and they’re trying to find everything out and that’s sort of like, I admire that so much. And when you start working with adults, or like hanging out with adults, you notice that he like loose that kids just really excited about everything. That really caught my attention always and I was always drawn to them, because I felt like I was learning more from the kids and from the actual adults.
The other thing, going back to what we were talking about separating kids by age, like when you do that, you sort of like put a barrier as to what they can do. But when you don’t have any expectations of the kids, and you just throw a hard problem at them or anything, and you don’t tell them like, “Oh, this is as much as you can do.” They will surprise you. They will often do more than you thought that a third grader could do just because you’re not labeling them and you’re giving them the chance. I was so fascinated by that, that I was like, imagine if we could change the structure or change the way or create a learning experiences that kids not only really want to be part of, but that would let them guide the experience, how much more could they learn? That’s exactly what I’m seeing at Synthesis.
You have like seven-year olds leading the groups, calling the strategy, changing, and you’re like, you would never think that but because they’re giving the chance, they’re able to do it. So, they surprise themselves, they surprise us, and that’s such a beautiful thing to watch and to witness and something that I’ve always liked to be part of.
[00:58:44] DP: One of the things that I’ve been thinking a lot about is how childhood has become a full-time job. We’re always on the clock, there’s no freedom, there’s no awe, there’s wonder and also, I consider myself very intellectually moody. What that means is I am unable, I have no idea what I’m going to be interested in in like 90 minutes from now, let alone 90 days from now.
So, what I’ll just do is I’ll just go and I’ll just follow whatever I’m interested in at that moment. But I’m so frustrated with myself even because I’ll try to do different book clubs, I’ll try to do like a learning plan, and I can never stick to it. I just need to do what I’m sort of in the mood for. So, I have like this general principle that I always want to be learning. But on top of that, the specifics of what I’m learning about, I just follow my mood and I’m wondering how you think about syllabuses, how you think about structure within Synthesis?
[00:59:41] CF: I think the main thing that you are kind of hinting at there is that you need to go from a push model to a pull model. So, as we think about developing, do you want the games to – as much as possible, the simulations kind of mimic situations in life. So, they’re usually like complex systems like managing waters for commercial fishing, being careful, trying to take as many fish as you can. So, you can feed as many people as you can, but also not to overfish and destroy the ecosystem.
So, there’s some knowledge like embedded in that that there are different mental models like tragedy, the commons that you could learn about, you can read other stories, real life examples where this has happened. But what we won’t do is put that on a syllabus where it’s like, you need to learn this by next week or something. We’ll have it there so you can pull it if you want it, and if you’re interested, but we won’t push it on you. It’s kind of up to you. I think that’s really important, because I’m the same way you are and it’s just taken me a while to kind of come to terms with that. If I start reading a book, and I get 50 pages in, I’m really excited about it, and then read five more pages.
I feel like I get it. I’m better now just like putting that book down and being like, “Okay, I’ll come back to it later.” I used to feel bad about that, because school is like, they want you to get through the book, like something like that. But I think that’s actually a much better way to structure learning. This is what I plan on doing with my kids. I only have a lot of time to just read whatever you want to read, because you have a limited amount of time and a limited amount of energy. And if you’re wasting your energy and your will, trying to learn things that you’re not interested in, I think that’s overall, less effective. If you do that for six months, versus you just kind of bounce around learning whatever you’re interested in for six months, I think the person who’s bouncing around is going to actually learn and retain a lot more, even though it’s the same amount of time.
So, I think you’re onto something there. That’s just a more natural way of doing it. It’s again, you go back to the Lindy effect. We’ve only been having this idea that you would cram information into people’s heads on a schedule for a short time in human history. Before that, it was all more or less curiosity driven.
[01:01:50] DP: Chrisman, for models, in terms of inspiration, as you think of actually building the company, where are you looking? Who are the people who are inspiring you? The ideas that are inspiring you that you’re beginning to pull bits and pieces from and actually synthesize into Synthesis?
[01:02:05] CF: Obviously, Josh is a big one. It’s interesting because we just launched a company, a company is only like six months old. But the ideas and the approach like Josh has been developing for the better part of a decade. So, a lot of it, I still feel like I’m learning a ton, just from talking with him on a daily basis, because he’s a tinkerer. So, he’s just been in front of kids all these years and he’s always trying new things. He has this sort of intuitive sense of the way that he feels things should go, and then I just kind of try to process that and then put it in words and give it back to him to see if I’m getting it. That’s been like probably the most interesting kind of part of this.
And then outside of that people always ask me about what education books I recommend, and I have a hard time coming up with any because I think it’s more interesting to me to look at sort of high stakes environments, where the learning really matters. So, like military, I pull a lot from there, because if you look at something like Navy SEALs training, they view each other as their brothers. So, when it comes to making sure that they know how to get the job done, you’re looking at like, if you don’t get it right, then your brothers die. So, you kind of figure, they’re probably paying attention, and you’re probably going to do everything they can to actually get it right in a complex environment.
So, if you look like what a military people do, what is the SEAL training like? Well, one, it’s much harder. The training is harder than the battles. The training is so difficult that you’re just ready for anything. That’s one piece of it. Another piece is you have this vision of who you want to be. So, if the inner SEALs training, you want to be a Navy SEAL, and you’re bought into that. So, you’ll kind of do anything along the path, and you have these different models to mimic.
And then the third thing that I notice that comes up a lot. I look at medical training as well, like how do you train surgeons, you do kind of like war games, you practice. You want to have something that simulates the environment that you’re going to be in. It’s harder to measure, it’s easier to measure a multiple-choice test, which is why they proliferate, but it’s not as good a training. If you care more about building the skill, then you care about measuring it, then I think this idea of war games and simulations is quite a good one. The simulations are never perfect. So, there’s always a chance that someone will be great in the simulation and not great in the real thing. But it’s at least much, much closer than what you would get from like a multiple-choice test.
[01:04:24] AF: Yeah, I think that the other co-founder, Josh Dahn, he was in a very unique and beautiful position where he was able to start a school without having to report or do anything all these things that the schools have to do even though you have incredible teachers, but you unfortunately have to follow a curriculum and do a bunch of things just because they come from the top. Josh didn’t really have to do that. So, he was really able to focus on again, what are the kids doing? What should the kids be learning? What are new world demands? People who are self-learners, who are creative, resourceful, who can problem solve and make good decisions and adjust and adapt to constant change.
So, based on that, he was able to create them this learning experience that targeted that without having to adhere to all this like fluff that we have to do in schools and all this meaningful work and the measuring and assessment. No, he was just like, “Let’s get really good at this.” And then he saw how the kids would respond to it and they were just all over it because it’s real learning.
So, Synthesis is grabbing that and grabbing those principles and those ideas that Josh was able to explore with, and then bringing them to life by putting them online, and making it accessible to kids all over the world. So, I think that that’s why it’s so effective, because we’re just doing what we see that works. And like Chrisman was saying, he’s tinkering, we’re trying things out, oh, this worked. This didn’t work, let’s change and we’re coming with a really good solid program.
[01:05:46] DP: Yeah, the last couple minutes actually remind me of the story of Beethoven. So, Chrisman, what you’re saying is that you’re not reading education books. Josh didn’t have to follow the fluff of the school system, and was able to focus on students. Very famously, Beethoven lost his ability to hear music as he became older in his own career. So, because of that, a lot of people theorized that he was less influenced by a lot of the fashions of the time, and his early influence, was his coach. And later on, he lost his ability to hear this other music.
And so, he began to have to turn inward and trust the musical structures in his own brain, and once he didn’t have the soundtrack of society in his ears, he was able to be more original, and is now of course, the father of modern classical music. I think that there’s something here about the nature of creativity. You want to be both an insider and an outsider. You want to be plugged in enough that you understand the system, the conversation that is being had, but you don’t want to be such an insider, that you become blind to the environment that you’re inside of.
[01:06:55] CF: I think that’s right. I mean, I think education to do it from first principles, education is preparation. So, you have to have some idea of what you’re preparing for. That’s quite difficult. It was easier when people were going to work in bureaucracies or factories like then it becomes much more clear, what you want to do, and you see that in the schools with the bells and the rows and all that sort of thing. It’s much more difficult in this sort of complex environment. I don’t know exactly what we would do to train people for the careers that you two have, or that I have. But there’s some sense that the idea that you’re going to have to solve complex, unbounded problems, and you’re going to have to get used to this process of tinkering. It’s conjecture and criticism. You come up with some idea of how you think things work, or what you think might work, and then you criticize it. And either you do that through conversation, or you do it by colliding with reality.
That’s at least as far as I can tell, the education, it’s exactly what you said, it gets to navel gazing. A lot of the ideas are just the same ideas that John Dewey was writing about 100 years ago, or Maria Montessori wrote about 100 years ago, and it’s fine. They’re fine ideas. But at some point, we need to kind of move beyond that. I assume we can do better than ideas from 100 years ago, at least in some ways. In some ways, maybe those ideals be with us forever. We have to tinker to find out.
Education is not a separate thing. You’re training the next generation to move civilization forward. You have to understand the world not just the world of education. I think that’s where things go bad. Another sort of crazy idea, but I don’t think we should have teacher credentialing. I don’t think that should be a separate enterprise. You should try and find people who are successful in life in other ways. Not to say there should be no training, but the teachers should be the ones who are successful. To go back to your example, you’re a writing teacher, you’re a successful writer, maybe you’re not going to be perfect at doing this. But you’re going to be better than someone who studied at a writing teacher’s college.
[01:08:54] AF: I totally agree with you, Chrisman. I feel like one of the reasons why was a good teacher was not because of the training that I had, the formal training. Yes, I went to NYU for undergraduates. I got my degree in education, childhood education, psychology. But really, that’s not where I got my skills from, or what made me connect with the kids. It was that I understood kids at a deeper level and you don’t need to be a teacher for that. I’ve met countless of parents. A lot of our facilitators actually at Synthesis don’t come from a teaching background, but they understand kids, and they take the time to really go down to their level and talk to them and play with them and understand.
So, you don’t really need training for that. So, I agree with you Chrisman and that’s a controversial idea that not a lot of people will agree on, but it’s true. A parent who takes the time can really understand a kid and can play that role. You don’t need to send your kid to a teacher for them to be learning, just like you don’t have to send a kid to a school for them to be learning. So, I totally agree with you.
[01:09:45] CF: Again, like Lindy Effect. It’s not been a specialized occupation for very long in human history. You learn from people who are just a little bit more advanced than you on the path for most of human history.
[01:09:58] DP: I’m thinking of sports teams and how a lot of teams keep somebody who sort of rides the bench, who’s older just to be a mentor to all the younger people. It doesn’t feel like mentorship has been institutionalized very well. But mentorship can even be a 12-year-old mentoring an eight-year-old.
[01:10:19] CF: Absolutely. And for the same reason you connect with people who are close to you in time. That’s exactly right. The best mentor for my five-year-old is like a seven-year-old, that looks up to them, and it’s like, within reach. He can kind of see himself moving along that path. Back to the sports analogy, I always like to think about this. If you know, Lionel Messi is like the best soccer player who’s ever lived. Barcelona got him at 13, like the professional team, recruited him at 13, and then put them in a training program until he turned fully professional at 17.
It’s just so interesting to me what we take seriously. If you wanted to build the best, most compelling future for humanity, then you would take education, particularly innovative education, trying to cultivate the skills to build things that move the civilization forward, building human knowledge, you would take that very seriously. And we don’t, but we do take developing soccer players and athletes very seriously. What we do there is often you start at like a pretty young age, and you don’t just go play soccer on your own. You’ve got a coach, and you’re playing with very stiff competition. That’s always something that’s been very interesting to me as far as Synthesis goes.
We talked about this idea of being the Ender’s Game for innovators. Well, so we should do what soccer teams do. Cast a very wide net, and then let anybody come in and give it a shot. And then as you kind of advance through the levels, you level up in the complexity of the simulations and in terms of your competition, and that’s how you’ll get this just spiraling upward kind of out of control, because the competition does that for you. When you’re in school, the best you can do is an A or 100%. When you’re in Synthesis, when you’re doing creative endeavors, the best you can do is better than what you did yesterday, and it’s unlimited.
It’s so interesting to me, we do this for sports, but we’re so lax about education, when it’s really the generator. All other problems are downstream of education, and yet, we’re just so incredibly lax about that. I know I’m weird in that way. But I always just kind of go back to what if you really take this seriously? If you develop your kid’s minds? Because if you’re kind of doing the same thing that professional athletes do. I mean, I know that analogy is not going to be perfect, but let’s at least try to take this seriously.
[01:12:34] DP: This was absolutely fantastic and how can we learn about Synthesis? What are the best places to go? I mean, I think that my show and tell YouTube videos with Ana and anything else?
[01:12:48] CF: We’re open and accepting students now in between ages 7 and 14. And there’s a pilot program for kids as young as six. If you have the six-year-old and you’re looking for more of a full stack school online, then you can apply for that at synthesis.is, is our website. And also, we’re hiring facilitators, coaches, adult kind of mentors that are part of the program, and the same thing, the applications that our website. And then you follow me on Twitter, I’m Chrisman Frank on Twitter.
[01:13:15] AF: Then you can also follow the Instagram accounts, synthesis.is, and our Twitter account, Synthesis School, and our YouTube channel at Synthesis as well. We’re starting to create content now for everyone to watch. So, it’s really interesting. You can follow me @anafabrega11 on Twitter, for more educational content, and on YouTube.
[01:13:33] DP: Ding, ding, ding. Thank you both.
[01:13:36] CF: Thanks, David.
[01:13:36] AF: Thank you.