Is he quietly revolutionizing education?
“So you want to keep your kids away from regular schools?” a reporter asked Elon Musk in an interview.
You know Musk’s mindset: If he doesn’t like something, he builds his own versions — cars, rockets, highways, energy companies.
Musk replied: “I just didn’t see the regular schools weren’t doing the things I thought should be done. I thought, let’s see what we can do. Maybe creating a school would be better.”
In 2014, Elon Musk asked Josh Dahn, a former Teach for All Fellow and his kid’s teacher at the time, if he’d start a better school with him at SpaceX. Dahn agreed. The school Ad Astra, Latin for ‘to the stars,’ was born.
Ad Astra School’s Two Core Principles
Musk reimagined education on First Principles thinking: boil things down to their fundamental truths and reason up from there instead of reasoning by analogy.
Instead of accepting the prices of rockets, Musk asked himself, “What’s a rocket made of?” He listed the components and calculated the costs. He found that raw materials were nearly 100 times cheaper. He decided to build his own rockets instead of buying some.
For education, Musk came up with these two principles.
1) Batch children by ability instead of age.
Regular schools batch children by age, assuming it’s is the most important denominator. Traditional school systems expect students of the same age to learn at the same speed. Musk disagrees with age segregation:
“Kids have different abilities at different times. It makes more sense to cater the education to match their aptitudes and abilities.”
2) Don’t teach to the tool. Teach to the problem.
Ever asked a teacher why you learn something? Most answers don’t go beyond you’ll need this..someday. If the relevance isn’t clear, learning feels irrelevant.
Learning to use tools is pointless and boring unless those tools help you solve a real problem. Listing the tools you need to take an engine apart isn’t the same as trying to disassemble the engine yourself. By doing the work, you see the tool’s relevance as you go.
This EdTech Startup Scales Musk’s Ad Astra School
A few years later, Chrisman Frank, Dahn’s former colleague at ClassDojo, visited Ad Astra. He fell in love with one part of the school — Synthesis.
In 2020, Frank convinced Dahn to spin off Synthesis as a for-profit company. Frank’s vision was to scale the learning software and develop a generation of super thinkers. Here’s how it works.
Synthesis is a simulation-based learning experience built around complex team games. Students work through case studies, simulations, and game-based challenges.
While playing, kids teach themselves how to win. In the process, they learn new problem-solving skills. Two game examples:
- Art for All. Students compete in an auction game for the best art exhibits. The simulation covers negotiation and covers mental models such as auction theory and the winner’s curse.
- Fire! In this collaborative game, students fight forest fires with varying conditions. It covers mental models such as positive-sum vs. zero-sum games.
In a recent podcast episode Chrisman Frank, Synthesis CEO, and Ana Fabrega, Chief Evangelist, shared details about ‘the most innovative learning experience.’
Replacing Lectures and Books with Software and Games
Lectures remain the dominant teaching method in most schools. But they don’t allow for dialogue, discussions, and disagreement. Instead of training students to become active thinkers, schools train them to become passive listeners.
Books don’t train for problem-solving. From my time as a Maths teacher, I remember ‘real-world’ textbook examples. But students knew I had the right solution in my teacher’s book. Reality is more complex than right or wrong. Most schools teach students to follow the rules as opposed to thinking for themselves.
Synthesis doesn’t design simulations for content but for the experience. Simulations are complex and have no right answers. 18–20 kids work in groups with one facilitator. But facilitators don’t lecture. The student groups explore and learn game rules on their own.
The idea of the simulations is to change the way kids approach real-life problems and prepare them to navigate the complexity and chaos that comes with life.
Students make decisions that have consequences and meaning. They have to understand trade-offs and analyze their choices where there is no binary answer — and the teacher doesn’t have it either.
Expectations Outside Students’ Comfort Zones
Fleas can jump 8 inches high, but when put in a closed jar for three days, they will never again jump higher than the lid’s height. Their offspring mimics their parents and settles on the same height.
A school system’s low expectations are like flea training. Low expectations are a glass ceiling for children and one of the fastest ways to fail them.
Synthesis claims to have in-built high expectations that make kids step outside of their comfort zone.
At Synthesis, there is no teacher to ask for the correct answer when things don’t work. The students know the teaching team trusts to solve these challenges.
Fabrega says children crave complexity. She describes after a while; kids feel comfortable with all the uncertainty. Synthesis teaches kids to feel comfortable being uncomfortable.
Using the Super Mario Effect for Faster Learning
As a teacher, I fostered my student’s growth mindset. I planned entire lessons around it and focused on praising efforts instead of outcomes. I showed my students mistakes help us learn.
Yet, the system beat me. When a kid received a bad grade, they felt demotivated. When mistakes mean you get a worse grade I can’t blame children for trying to avoid them.
The question is: How can you frame a learning process so you’re not obsessed with failure?
Mark Rober, a former NASA engineer turned Youtube star, explored this question and says games are the answer: “The focus and obsession are about beating the game, not about how dumb you might look. And as a direct result of that attitude — of learning from but not being focused on the failures — we got really good, and we learned a ton in a really short amount of time.”
Rober continues: “It feels natural to ignore the failures and try again in the same way a toddler will want to get up and try to walk again or in the same way you want to keep playing Super Mario Brothers.”
Other research attests to the power of game-based learning. Synthesis applied this insight. They reframed the learning process and created game-based learning experiences.
The result: fear of failure isn’t a problem anymore.
Fabrega says: “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.”
“The more we can gamify the process of learning, the better.” — Elon Musk
Did Elon Musk Quietly Revolutionize Education?
Elon Musk did his thing again. He saw something that didn’t work well and changed it. From being unhappy with his kid’s obsolete education, he planted a seed to innovate the education sector.
The idea that our school system was built for the industrial age and the need for a paradigm shift isn’t new. Schools teach to follow instructions when reality has changed. Yet, systemic change is slow.
Musk’s assets and influence enabled people to rethink and rebuild learning environments. Their aspiration to put students’ learning experience front and center is great. If only half of what the kids say is true, Musk’s initiative is doing a great job on this.
Ad Astra recently changed into Astra Nova. Their philosophy is honorable: student centricity, a value for individual abilities, praising curiosity, and encouraging problem-solving and critical thinking:
“What if students were taken seriously and their time well spent? Astra Nova believes in meaningful student experiences across age levels and domains.”
I couldn’t agree more — there’s no reason any child should not enjoy learning.
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