A leading Palo Alto educator on how to create a classroom fit for this century

Give the kids control.
Give the kids control.
Image: AP/George Niktin
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

“We’re teaching for the wrong century.”

That’s the feeling of Esther Wojcicki, a pioneering teacher at Palo Alto high schools who built an award-winning high-school journalism department (she’s also active in edtech, serves as chief learning officer at Planet3, and is a journalist in her own right).

While this is not a new observation—it is a well-worn gripe that the 19th century industrial model of education is woefully outdated—Wojcicki, speaking today at Slush, a startup-focused conference in Helsinki, offered some concrete solutions, packaged in a new initiative called Moonshots. In sum:

“A moonshot classroom is a fundamental shift to give students more autonomy and agency in the classroom and to empower greater ownership of their learning outcomes. While teachers still play an integral role, its core function has evolved from ‘sage on the stage’ to ‘master coach’ of each student’s development.”

The key, she says, is giving kids a say in their work, and trusting them. Teachers have acronyms for everything: hers is TRICK (trust, respect, independence, collaboration, and kindness). Treat children like this and “they’ll do anything,” she said on stage during a debate dubbed, “If we started from scratch what would schools look like?”

Wojcicki on stage in Helsinki.
Wojcicki on stage in Helsinki.
Image: Slush

While this may sound obvious, a lot of classrooms are not run this way. Teachers run the show, tests dominate the subject material, and kids are meant to be subjects, not agents, of their learning. She argues that it doesn’t have to be this way. ”Think about it in the workplace,” she said. “You work harder when you’re trusted and respected. Why not do that for kids in the classroom?”

She suggests that teachers should set aside 20% of their time do some sort of project-based, student-led learning. Put another way: let students be in charge 20% of the time, or the equivalent of one day during the school week. “Give the kids a voice,” she said.

Project-based learning is a buzzy and much-debated idea in education. Proponents say it better reflects how we work, integrates important skills like collaboration and creativity, and posits that with choice comes passion, and passion begets performance. Critics say kids need more direction, and project-based learning can exacerbate achievement gaps.

Wojcicki’s movement, Moonshots in Education (related to a 2015 book she co-authored), is inspired by John F. Kennedy’s famous 1962 quote about getting to the moon: “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” The equivalent in the classroom, Wojcicki believes, would value real-life work, leverage technology, promote student agency, and focus on mastery (rather than grades or tests) to stoke passion in subject material.

If it sounds airy, and too good to be true, consider that Wojcicki’s proposal is based on her 34 years of experience creating a high-school journalism program that has won more writing awards than most newspapers. What’s good for students is also good for teachers, she argues. People become teachers because they want to make a difference, but “get burned out because there are so many rules that are interfering with making a difference.”