WIRED: Esther Wojcicki on Teaching Kids to be Independent Thinkers

Esther Wojcicki is Exclusively Represented by CAL Entertainment

Back in the ’80s, my daughters were known in our Tolman Drive neighborhood as the lemon girls. One day they noticed our neighbor’s lemon tree, and she nicely agreed to their plan of using it to start a business. They came up with a price (50 cents per lemon), and sold their goods door-to-door. They even sold lemons back to the neighbor with the lemon tree. Once they filled up their piggy banks, they’d spend their earnings at their favorite dime store, Patterson’s on California Avenue.

I guess being an entrepreneur runs in the family, because my granddaughter Mia has a successful business making and selling slime. Yes, slime. It’s exactly what you think it is. Gooey, stringy, a total mess. But kids love it, especially when it has sparkles and rainbow colors. Mia was talented at designing new types of slime and got the bright idea to market it at age nine. My grandson Leon started working at a local arcade in Los Altos called Area 151 when he was 13 years old. It was his idea to get a job there, not his parents’. Leon sells tokens to the customers, teaches them how to play the games, and even resets and repairs some of the machines. His latest obsession is bitcoins. Trust me, he is a self-made expert on cryptocurrency.

All of these projects came from a spark of curiosity, which itself arises from independent thinking. Do you want to know the single hardest assignment for my students? Coming up with their own topics. They find basic free-writing almost impossible. They complain that they don’t know what’s interesting. The main thing they want to know is if their “interesting idea” will earn an A. I tell them any idea is an A idea as long as they are interested in it, because if they’re not, why would anyone else want to read it?

Lack of curiosity and the inability to free-write were such wide-spread issues in the 1990s, when I was an instructional supervisor for English, that I instituted a department-wide policy of daily free-writing for every student at Palo Alto High. I waited for the back-to-school sale at Target and bought two thousand notebooks. I don’t think they expected a customer like me. They didn’t have a limit at that time (they do now!), but they were surprised that I wanted to buy that many and asked if I was a reseller. “No,” I said. “I’m a teacher and I’m buying these for all the kids at the high school.”

Once they heard that, they couldn’t have been more helpful. For the first few weeks, you’d have thought I was asking them to solve a difficult math problem. All I wanted them to do was free-write about any topic for the first 10 minutes of the class. How hard could that be? Really hard, it turns out. Sometimes I brought up topics from the newspaper. “Look what happened yesterday,” I’d say. “What do you think about this story?” They didn’t even know what those stories were. But suddenly they were paying attention, taking an interest in the world around them, and forming their own opinions. They learned to love those notebooks, and writing every day became a welcome ritual that increased confidence and fluency.

This exercise was the beginning of their independent thinking.

Students often don’t know why they’re learning something. Asking why is so important to kids and they deserve a better answer than “because it will be on the test.” By the time kids reach middle school, they give up asking and focus on getting a good grade. To in- crease curiosity, it is important to address the “why” questions. Why are we reading Hamlet? Why are we solving quadratic equations? When teachers answer these questions, it prompts kids to think more deeply about the implications of what they’re learning.

Parents can elicit curiosity in their children through similar methods. We don’t need to have the right answers all the time, but we need to encourage kids to ask the right questions. If we don’t know the answer, we can say, “Let’s find out. Do some research on Google, and we can go from there.” My grandson Noah is always asking about the stars, the planets, and the world around him, difficult questions like “What are black holes?” and “What does it mean to have a sound barrier?” Those are for my husband, the physicist. Noah asks questions about math, too—complex, philosophical questions. Again, those questions are for my husband, or, better yet, for Noah’s father, Sergey.

When we support curiosity, what we’re really developing is a child’s imagination. Which brings me to creativity, a wonderful by-product of independence and curiosity. Unfortunately, when it comes to creativity and innovation, our kids are suffering. In one study, a test based on NASA’s recruiting process for engineers and rocket scientists was used to measure creativity and innovative thinking in small children. At age five, 98 percent of the kids had genius-level imaginative abilities. But at age ten, only 30 percent of the children fell into that category. Want to guess how many adults maintain their creative thinking skills after making it through our educational system? Just 2 percent.

No wonder Elon Musk says, “I hated going to school when I was a kid. It was torture.” He hated it so much, in fact, that when it came to educating his sons, he decided to start his own school. It’s called the Ad Astra School, and—you guessed it—the focus is on self-motivated learning, problem-solving, and an entrepreneurial mind-set. There’s even a class on the ethics of artificial intelligence. Musk’s solution is unique to his family; other families are pursuing their own solutions, including homeschooling, which has grown in popularity over the past few decades. Why? Because the parents had negative experiences in school themselves and are looking for a better alternative for their children.

Eddy Zhong, CEO of Leangap, a unique incubator for teen startups, sold his first tech company for $1.2 million at age 16 and had a similar experience as a student. He claims that schools make kids less intelligent and less creative. As he says in his TED Talk, “The fact is, there are way too many people out there right now who are obsessed with telling kids to go to college, to find a good job, to be successful. There are not enough who are telling kids to explore more possibilities, to become entrepreneurs . . . No one has ever changed the world by doing what the world has told them to do.”

Here’s what you can do as a parent, even if your child’s creativity isn’t being encouraged at school: I used to set up all kinds of art supplies for my daughters on the kitchen table. There would be markers, colored paper, books, Play-Doh, yarn for braiding, and other arts and crafts. When they came home from school, they got to make whatever they wanted. I was always on the lookout for toys that they could assemble and design themselves. The YouTube Kids app now has instructional videos for any kind of creative project you can think of.

My granddaughter Emma drew some pretty incredible pictures of animals—she probably could have sold them at age 7. How did she learn to do that? Following a YouTube video. There’s also no shortage of videos on scientific experiments for kids, like the optical illusions that my grandson Leon loves. Dan Russell, a computer scientist in charge of search quality and user happiness at Google, was upset with his young daughter for spending too much time online—until he realized that she had taught herself five languages!

Projects like these allow kids to imagine and experiment and, most important, play. Creativity flows from a sense of play, and it’s one of the easiest things to teach your child. Here’s a tip: Let them be. They will create their own imaginary worlds without any help from you. Think of a child on a beach and all the wonderful games and adventures he creates on his own—collecting shells and rocks, building sandcastles, skipping stones, splashing in the waves. This is what makes kids happiest (and builds the right skills).

Following the rules is not play, ever, unless you’re pretending to be a policeman. And don’t forget to play with them. One of my grandkids recently rated me the “craziest person” in my family because I get down to their level. I have been known to crawl under the table with the kids and bark with the dogs and have a sincere conversation with the cats. Steve Jobs had a similar attitude toward life, and even told his daughter, Lisa, that schools kill creativity. I remember him in our cramped classroom, camped out on the beige corduroy beanbag chair. He’d talk to the students, play on the computers, and, well, hang out. He never stopped playing and exploring, and we all know what came of his incredible imagination.