We had the good fortune of connecting with AJ Webster and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi AJ, do you disagree with some advice that is more or less universally accepted?
“Don’t reinvent the wheel.” When people offer that advice, it seems self-evident: don’t waste time redoing something that’s already been done. The assumption is that previous minds have already found the most perfect, elegant solution. According to this adage, we’re better off using our time to make some tweaks to achieve incremental improvement.
But if we never question the basic assumptions of our profession – be it technology, healthcare, or my own field of education – we miss the opportunity to revolutionize it. Focusing on incremental progress can blind us to the bigger picture. Astro Teller, head of “Moonshots” at Google X, says that it is easier to make a 10X improvement than it is to make a 10 percent improvement.( For those unfamiliar with the term, “Moonshot” thinking focuses on framing seemingly impossible problems as solvable, like JFK’s challenge to walk on the moon.) Counterintuitive? Yes. However, as Teller notes, “when you’re working to make things 10 percent better, you inevitably focus on the existing tools and assumptions, and on building on top of an existing solution that many people have already spent a lot of time thinking about.”
This statement is at the heart of why we need to occasionally reinvent the wheel. It is particularly relevant in the field of teaching, where tradition is honored. Consider how much prestige is given to schools whose philosophies go back over a hundred years. Yet, how much of what schools taught in 1880 is relevant to students today? Why is it a badge of honor to study the same curricula as our great-great-grandparents?
Here are a few things that haven’t changed about school in over a hundred years:
sitting quietly in desks; taking timed tests; treating the teacher as an expert and the student as a passive vessel to receive knowledge; honoring the written word as the highest expression of knowledge as well as the primary source of it. In contrast, how do most of us live and work in modern life? We have freedom of movement in our workplace, including the option of remote work; we consult outside sources such as the internet and coworkers when ‘tested’ with a problem; we are active participants in our own learning, gaining on-demand lessons on any subject that arouses our curiosity via YouTube tutorials; and we communicate through diverse forms of media that rely on music, visuals, and movement as much as the written word.
The lives we lead today would seem like the stuff of science fiction to our ancestors. Who knows, the idea of “wheels” might seem quaint to our great-great-grandchildren. So I say, yeah, let’s reinvent the wheel!
Let’s talk shop? Tell us more about your career, what can you share with our community?
I started as a mostly traditional teacher. I taught Latin(!) and English to middle schoolers at a college prep k-12 private school. Like most teachers, I began by mimicking the way I’d been taught. It’s ironic because I was a restless student who found a lot to dislike about traditional school. I questioned why we had to learn certain facts and not others, or what made the teacher believe that her answer was more accurate than mine; I remember being told by a lot of teachers, “Cool your jets, Webster.” As a student, I chafed at the idea of institutional authority. I didn’t believe then – and I don’t believe now – that “because I said so” is an acceptable answer to the question, “why do we have to learn this?”
It didn’t take long for me to realize that I wanted to change how I ran my own classroom. My teaching partner, Christy Durham, and I started to bring play into the curriculum – creating learning games. We dropped the standard reading comprehension test in favor of student-designed presentations that could cover any topic they found interesting in a book. We were blown away by what kids could do if you allowed them latitude for creativity and personal agency.
Unfortunately, our increasingly radical ideas were not a great fit with the larger school culture. Christy and I had moved toward play-based, maker-based, and project-based learning; meanwhile, the school had doubled down on “academic rigor,” which is code for “more tests and grades.” It was time to move on.
I moved to another private school that was creating an innovative middle school program called PlayMaker. It was a truly innovative joint venture between the school and a local ed-tech company, GameDesk. It was liberating to employ the resources and mindsets of a game design company in the classroom. Education tends to change slowly and value tradition; in stark contrast, technology and game companies embrace disruption and innovation. The PlayMaker program was a laboratory to test some of my wildest ideas about what learning could look like. This was where I connected with Tedd Wakeman, who shared my desire to push boundaries and redefine the classroom experience. What if there are no tests? What if the students are in charge of the classroom? What if we give children a choice in what they learn and how they learn? Will it be a raging success or a total disaster? Answer: a little of both.
Learning – real learning – is messy. When there is money on the line and anxious parents want “deliverables,” schools tend to prefer the neatness of familiar methods. After two years, our educational experiment was shut down and the school returned to traditional instruction. This was a pivotal point. I had the option of keeping my job but reverting to methods I no longer believed in; or, I could strike out on my own and hope that I could find a place where my radical ideas were welcome. It was a real moment of crisis. I believed education needed a revolution, but I also felt overwhelmed by the vast institutional biases. I was a tugboat trying to turn the Titanic. What, realistically, could I hope to accomplish?
Luckily, the work Tedd and I did at PlayMaker was featured on PBS NewsHour. The segment caught the attention of a biotech mogul who was dissatisfied with the local school system and was looking for some willing partners in starting a school. It was an incredibly fortuitous meeting of the minds. We found ourselves with the resources and freedom to build a school based on principles we believed in. This became the Sycamore School.
As Christy, Tedd, and I envisioned the school, we made a conscious effort to strip away the layers of accreted tradition and assumptions surrounding education. We focused on intentional design with student lives and their futures in mind. We instituted a “no worksheets” rule. Instead, we celebrate the role of deep critical and creative thinking in the learning process. We strive to foster student engagement and to create learners who have the tools to ask questions and follow their curiosity.
It’s a tall order. In the first year, we functioned as teachers, administrators, cafeteria workers, janitors, and therapists (both for each other and for the parents who dared to take part in our radical experiment). We kept classroom boundaries fluid and did a lot of project-based work, joking that we were running a “one-room schoolhouse on steroids.” At times, it was creatively chaotic; there were days when it would have been a sweet relief to hand out a photocopied worksheet and enjoy the silence of students working by themselves on an easy-to-understand task. However, if we wanted that, we could find it on any other campus in LA. This was a chance to test our ideas and embrace the messiness.
It has been gratifying to watch the school grow. Our graduates have flourished and our educators continue to explore new ways to facilitate learning. After five years of active involvement, I stepped away from the day-to-day running of the school. I worked on a podcast about education: EducationX.0 and recently, had the pleasure of teaching a graduate course on games and assessment at CSUN. Helping other adults think about how to create an active, engaging learning environment feels like a natural outgrowth of my professional journey.
Let’s say your best friend was visiting the area and you wanted to show them the best time ever. Where would you take them? Give us a little itinerary – say it was a week long trip, where would you eat, drink, visit, hang out, etc.
Because I thrive on creativity, that is what I’d want to showcase in our town. For example, LA is home to some incredible escape rooms. A well-designed escape room is a feat of social engineering, production design, and intellectual challenge. I’d especially encourage someone to check out Lab Rat, Minotaur, & Stash House. Regardless of which rooms you choose, I always tell people to sign up for 3 in a row. That way you get into the puzzle-solving flow and can compare the different experiences.
And of course, LA’s food scene is amazing. Food trucks really showcase the city’s diversity and innovation. I love coming across some weird fusion cuisine or humorous presentation of food. Speaking of playful dining experiences, I’d also recommend a restaurant called Barton G. Every item on the menu is elaborately displayed, like the popcorn shrimp that arrives at the table in a popcorn machine. See if you can find the dish served with a samurai sword or with a blow torch!
Shoutout is all about shouting out others who you feel deserve additional recognition and exposure. Who would you like to shoutout?
Over the last 20 years, I’ve read a list of important books as long as my arm, but there are a few that are good starting points for thinking differently about education. The book that really started my journey in earnest is Daniel Pink’s A Whole New Mind. It is about the value of creativity. I’d also say that Tony Wagner’s Global Achievement Gap is another must-read. In it, he lays out the mismatch between the skills taught in schools and the requirements for success in the modern knowledge economy. Alfie Kohn’s What Does it Mean to Be Well Educated? also confronts some of the outdated myths that continue to propagate in traditional learning settings. While I could go on recommending books all day, I think these three are a great starting point for reimagining learning.
Trying to reshape education is a real struggle. It’s too hard to go it alone. I have been lucky enough to have two amazing teammates alongside me. Tedd Wakeman and I have spent the better part of a decade inspiring people to have the courage to try something different, first through our work at the PlayMaker program at New Roads school, then through the founding of the Sycamore School in Malibu. He and I share a conviction that education must change, and his positive energy has helped me through many dark nights of the soul. My other “partner in crime” is co-founder of the Sycamore School, Christy Durham. Christy and I began our teaching careers as team teachers at the Buckley School. Over the past twenty years, we have shared lesson plans, served as each others’ sounding boards, gritted our teeth through grad school, and taken turns pushing each other to ‘think outside the box.” After years of discussing how school could be done better, both of us agree it was time to put those ideas to the test. I couldn’t have gotten anywhere without Christy’s vision and acumen.
Other: Podcast: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/education-x-0/id1536437031