Breaking Rules

Breaking the Rules Will Produce Better Schools

We were all taught our ABCs and 123s, but what if discovering them on our own would have done the same with a better understanding? After reading a recent article about Elon Musk starting his own school, I, (again) wished that schools would give kids a chance to do just that. What if the path to learning isn’t ABC, but ABS (A Better School)?


Sure, everyone (well, almost) want education to improve, but few seem to know how to fix the systemic problems in education. The main problem is that everyone has their hands in the proverbial cookie jar except the people who make the cookies- students, teachers, and parents. We need a different approach. The cookie jar needs a good hammering. Elon Musk did just that.


For those of you unfamiliar with the innovator Elon Musk, he leads Tesla Motors and Space X – an unconventional business aimed at interstellar space travel. In the meantime, he’s designing cars and education. Ad Astra is a pet project that came about because as an innovator, he realized that education was just not, well….. innovating. Musk took it into his own hands to open a school that would serve the needs of his children using the innovative approach that he embraces. I hope he doesn’t stop there. Some people may say his innovations are pipe dreams, but so far, they’re coming true.


Over the top? Maybe, but I’d like to follow in his footsteps and dismantle lots of education to redesign it to better serve students. Elon Musk took what he knows-innovation and is using it to his children’s advantage.


There’s a lot of talk that schools are not churning out the problem solvers that businesses need. That’s part of the problem. You don’t “churn out” problem solvers. You stand back and let them solve problems. According to business leaders, their employees are not able to work collaboratively, work independently (What’s left?), they need constant direction, and can’t think for themselves. Maybe it has something to do with the kind of thinking that education promotes. Educators are handed a script; even though the children have a different idea of play.


“I didn’t see the regular schools doing the things I thought should be done,” Musk says.


Schools are a micromanaged disaster where the only people not valued for their input are the main characters- students, teachers, and parents. The main problem is the total lack of innovation and autonomy. Without the ability to ad lib, there will be no problems solved; no one able or willing to take chances. It’s gotta’ stop. It’s not only wrecking our schools, it’s wrecking our children and teacher, and our future.
So, how did he do it? Elon Musk reportedly hired a teacher from his child’s school and through innovations, he’s rebooting education. It’s small, it’s exclusive, it’s experimental. It’s what every child needs and deserves.


What changes would I make if Mr. Musk knocked on my door and gave me the chance to start a similar school in my area?


1. Innovate– Ask the parents, students, and teachers what they want. Hire those willing to take chances, explain intentions, demonstrate, fail, refine, and strive for excellence. They need to want to break the mold. Right now, we have a lot of people who realize the model isn’t working, but no one is willing to break it up and start fresh.


2. Educate- Input from stakeholders is vital and needs to constantly be refined in the classroom. Setting a goal and backing off would do everyone in education some good. Schools are handed directions instead of guidance. Following directions instead of discovery is not the way to go.

Musk gives a perfect example of the discovery model through his area of expertise. He speaks of discovering how an engine works by taking it apart. Instead of teaching the merits of a screwdriver (as in modern classroom direct instruction), his idea is to invite discovery for the need of a screwdriver to get the job done. 


3. Involve teachers, parents, and students– I should add ONLY involve these main players in the job of education. What’s important? No one will say, “memorize the phases of the moon” (yes, an actual standard); instead they’ll ask for more problem solving and independent thinking. Unfortunately, micromanaged education demands the opposite.


4. Ditch the curriculum– It’s funny that my Master’s Degree in Education is in the specialty of Curriculum and I’m advising letting it go, but I am. Broad concepts are enough for discovery learning. Every child is different and using a curriculum guarantees his interests won’t enter into the equation.

As a child, I recall wondering throughout my schooling when I was going to learn about topics that I found interesting and relevant. It took me years to discover that “never” was the answer. I researched on my own at the library. Had someone taken me aside at age 10 and guided me to discover all that was really involved in education (when I decided to become a teacher), I might have skipped the indoctrination as a child and as a teacher and opened my own discovery school years ago.

Education always felt phony to me-because it is. Musk’s example of taking apart an engine to discover what makes it work fits perfectly with learning and innovation, but not with education these days. The disconnect is quite apparent. Real learning isn’t about “being told”. It’s about discovering.


5. Enter the real world- I’m not talking about Career Day. I’m talking about mentorship, guidance, and feeding the interests, passions, and aptitudes of our students. Yes, most students will change their initial workplace goals, but won’t that mean that they’ll gain insights into a variety of learning?

Education needs flexibility, innovation, collaboration, independent thinkers and most of all discovery.


So, when do we start?


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