Perspective: Is the future of education an online platform with roots in a school started by Elon Musk?
With the motto “Embrace the chaos,” Synthesis is teaching children how to fail and take risks
A study from The Hunt Institute shows that nearly half of voters say their trust in public education has declined during the COVID-19 pandemic. Those polled expressed concern that public schools are “not teaching real-world skills for the future workforce,” nor aiding in students’ social and emotional development.
Recent legislation across the U.S. reflects the growing skepticism. The Utah Senate just passed a bill that provides $8,000 scholarships to some families for private schools and “other private education options.” Other states that have passed school choice bills include Arizona, West Virginia, Arkansas and Iowa, with Texas likely to follow.
In another sign of flagging trust in public education, the National Home Education Research Institute reports that private school enrollment in the U.S. increased 12% from 2019 to 2021. Of course, these numbers are correlated with the pandemic. Yet, while the institute notes a decline in private enrollment from 2021 to 2022, the extant 3.135 million K-12 homeschool students remains a number “much higher than two years prior.” It seems that many parents sense pending changes in the world and are making changes of their own to prepare their kids for uncertainty.
Entrepreneurs are answering these heightened concerns with innovative digital tools. One example (among many) is Synthesis, an online supplementary learning platform founded in 2020 by Josh Dahn and Chrisman Frank.
Before co-founding Synthesis, Dahn was hired by Elon Musk to start a school at SpaceX in California. Given almost half a million dollars, Dahn’s only task in building the school was “to make it great” and “teach from first principles.”
Sometime later, while working for online learning platform ClassDojo, Frank traveled to SpaceX to tour Musk’s school, formally known as Ad Astra (in Latin, “to the stars.”) There Frank met Dahn and recounted overhearing some of the students “shouting at each other, but shouting these really complex sounding arguments.” He asked what was going on, and was told: “Yeah, it’s a synthesis week. The kids get pretty obsessed with synthesis.”
Frank later learned that “synthesis” was a weekly series of interactive games at Ad Astra, in which students would “go nuts and get really engaged” to collaborate and solve real-world problems. Over time, Dahn and Frank decided to take the ideas from these synthesis activities, and they founded a start-up offering the games to a broader audience.
A new aptitude
At Synthesis, the students range from ages 8-14. With each simulation they enter the game in medias res: no reading of the rules, no introductions. A simulation of the real world. Embrace the chaos.
“This is a gamble,” says a 9-year-old, working with his team of three to build an effective network against the other teams in a game called “Constellation.” “Nebula is more risky, but the outcome is better.”
The game goes fast. Multiple iterations force the young students to think on their feet and try again, allowing them to experience both the beauty of failure and the reward of victory. At the end of the game, you see the smiles stretch across their screens as the class reconvenes for group analysis.
The activities, aimed at improving teamwork, take many forms. Students collaborate by curating an art gallery at auction, governing “an ancient Greek city-state” or “banding together … to explore space, stake territory and gather resources.” With each game, the kids work in unity across the age gap to “embrace the chaos” (the company motto) and solve remarkably complex problems in the face of randomness, and even luck.
Frank explains that the games at Synthesis teach principles such as the necessity of risk, anti-fragility and this month’s theme of epistemology, which poses the question “how do you know that you know something?”
Similarly, the simulations prepare students for real life (including preparation for the workforce) by programming life-like randomness and luck into the simulations. In fact, there are times when the rules completely change mid-game without the kids ever being told. Tess, a 9-year-old student at Synthesis, says, “They’re always making the game different, so I have to be ready to adapt.”
This methodology might prove vital for rising generations, with the World Economic Forum projecting that “1.1 billion jobs could be transformed by technology over the next decade.” The group claims that “65% of children entering primary school today will ultimately end up working in completely new job types that don’t yet exist.”
This reality will require adaptability to change beyond knowing how to get an A+ in junior high biology. It requires an aptitude for embracing complexity at the risk of failure.
Yet most public institutions never teach, nor have the tools necessary to prepare students for real-world risk. Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt write in their 2018 book, “The Coddling of the American Mind,” that the current generation of kids, more than any other, “have been systematically deprived of opportunities to ‘dose themselves’ with risk.”
As such, these kids “will see more ordinary life tasks as beyond their ability to handle on their own without help from an adult,” leading to disturbing increases in social neoteny. They added, “it should not surprise us that anxiety and depression rates began rising rapidly on campus as soon as (Gen Z) arrived.”
Philosopher Roger Scruton writes that “Children are not, on the whole, encouraged to risk themselves in physical ways; and it is not surprising if they are reluctant, in consequence, to risk themselves in emotional ways either.”
At Synthesis, risk is fundamental to the curriculum.
Author Nassim Taleb writes in “Antifragile” that a traditional student is called “a ‘swallower’ in Lebanese dialect, those who ‘swallow school material’ and whose knowledge is only derived from the curriculum.”
The result from this traditional form of learning gives a nice number for us to “measure” the “intelligence” of any one individual. But the method makes students into receptacles of information, not agents who use information to solve problems.
At Synthesis it’s the opposite — and this is the key to the platform’s success. The students are expected to act and make consequential decisions for themselves, rather than be told how to act or what to do as mere objects/receptacles of learning. They are expected to take risks and to fail. And in these small failures they learn which risks are necessary and which are foolish. Their enthusiasm thus comes from actually having learned something for themselves as opposed to having “swallowed” data. They are not just playing games; they are preparing for the risks they must take in the future.
The promise of Synthesis
Despite the benefits of Synthesis, the company is not without its flaws. Like many other digital platforms, the learning takes place entirely online, perhaps ironically disconnecting the virtual learning from ground level reality.
In the essay by Scruton, the philosopher writes, “Friendships that exist on the screen cannot easily be lifted off it, and when they are so lifted, there is no guarantee that they will take any strain.” Will the virtual learning gains at Synthesis find the same strains in the real world for which they claim to prepare the students?
Likewise, as I write, Synthesis has problems with accreditation, particularly with regard to traditional learning metrics. The paradox, however, is that the very difficulty in measuring students’ learning is the efficacy of the Synthesis method. As Nassim Taleb writes, “people who build their strength using … modern expensive gym machines can lift extremely large weights … but fail to lift a stone” outside of the gym.
Synthesis, and the growing online education industry, are not for everyone. They are often price prohibitive and exclusive: A Synthesis subscription costs $180 a month (though Frank plans to reduce the price as they scale) and the platform is targeted at already high achieving students. Even so, it shows promise as one solution to what is lacking in American public schools.
Companies like Synthesis and others will likely push private and public education toward better preparing students in their practical, social and emotional capacities. Hopefully these new models in teaching will spark positive changes in public schooling where over 95% of our kids still receive their education. But with 48% of voters losing faith in traditional schooling, it’s possible we will only see more shifting of resources if public schools cannot compete and adapt.
In these early stages of new educational technology, the question remains: In the climate of today, are we giving our kids the tools they need to embrace and thrive in the chaos of tomorrow? The future of America’s public schools depends on this — and the future of America itself.
Scott Raines is a writer and doctoral student at the University of Kansas.