Learning Occurs When…


Elon Musk, CEO and CTO of SpaceX; co-founder, CEO, and product architect of Tesla Motors; co-founder and chairman of SolarCity (I’ll stop here), has created a school without grade levels and teaches students to consider the problem before them, not the tools to solve it.  With a background in physics, Musk relates that he was taught to always question his thinking, beginning with the premise that his thinking was wrong.

Learning occurs when one proves to be “not wrong.”  Musk continues that he learned more reading books and talking to constructive people than he ever did in school.

There are no grade levels at Ad Astra (“to the stars”) elementary school, catering instead to education that matches curriculum to the student’s aptitude and abilities.  The traditional notion of grade levels, Musk argues, put students on an assembly line, ignoring personal interests, skills, and individual intellectual and personal development.

The school’s primary curriculum is teaching problem-solving and fostering creativity. Teachers need to “teach to the problem” not to the test and embrace failure as part of the learning process. The key to learning, Musk maintains, is engaging in a process of “recursive, self-improvement” that produces something truly “useful to other people.”

This framework is essential, Musk continues, to learn things that are not obvious. “If you only do things that are certain to succeed, you are only going to do very obvious things.”  Learning occurs through experimentation and innovation as well as failure.

Musk certainly is charming and an avant garde thinker, but he unsettles a few. Calling Mars a “fixer-upper,” Musk argues for far more funding for interplanetary space travel and habitation, not to avoid the once-every-100-million-year extinction event that Earth has experienced (and depicted in pop Hollywood movies), but rather as a necessary extension of our development as humans.

Musk’s framework is put to the test week after week at SpaceX. While Musk has been very successful overall in the venture, setbacks have occurred with explosions, the most recent this month at the launch pad at Cape Canaveral. We must “learn what happened . . . address those things . . . and maximize probability of success for future missions,” Musk observes.

He certainly practices what he preaches. See his interview with Chinese television. http://tinyurl.com/zrxxt3u



Posted by

Bob Pacheco has more than 30 years of experience as a consultant and educator, from elementary through graduate schools. Dr. Pacheco served as the Assessment Chair of the Research and Planning Group for eight years.