New View EDU Episode 21: Full Transcript

Read the full transcript of Episode 21 of the NAIS New View EDU podcast, which features Josh Dahn, executive director of Astra Nova School, an experimental school for ages 10-14 headquartered in Los Angeles, CA. Josh joins host Tim Fish to talk about the school's quest to create an educational experience that has a far-reaching impact, beyond the small group of students enrolled in his school at any given time. 

Tim Fish: Imagine if Elon Musk, one of the most innovative and successful business leaders in the world, came to you and asked you to build a new school from the ground up, and the only requirement was to make it great. What would you design? What aspects of traditional school would you hold onto? What would you let go of?

Today, we are talking to someone who had that exact challenge. Josh Dahn is the executive director and founder of Astra Nova School in Los Angeles, California. He's also the co-founder of Synthesis, an educational technology company that brings students together from around the world to learn through complex games. Josh, it is such a pleasure to welcome you to New View EDU. Thank you so much for joining us today.

Josh Dahn: Thanks for having me, Tim.

Tim Fish: So let's get right into it. I had the opportunity a few years ago to visit SpaceX, to spend some time on your campus. At that time, I believe it was still Ad Astra School. And I saw, Josh, a culture of disposition around learning that frankly, I have never seen at any other school. It was truly unique, the way students were working together and the way students were interacting with your team. And so I know, also, that that culture wasn't accidental, that that was based in first principles around learning and around what school could be. So I am curious, what were those principles, how did you think about the design of school, and how was it different from what we typically think about in school?

Josh Dahn: Yeah. Well, seems crazy how long ago it's now been since we were at SpaceX. I started my career at Teach for America, so I was teaching fifth grade in East Las Vegas. And I think for me, it was like a, there's this creative imperative to try to design new things for my students.

And I guess I carried that throughout my first, you know, 5, 6, 7 years of teaching. And then when I started this school, Ad Astra with Elon, there was an additional imperative that was added on top of this was, which was basically like, make it great. And there are no excuses. So. And from a first principal's perspective, I mean, a lot of school leaders or those who start schools, you don't really start with a blank page. You know, there are all of these pieces that you sort of have to work into your school design and, and by the end of it, you probably have a few opportunities to do something a bit different. 

But for us, because Elon has essentially no patience for the status quo or the way things have been done. Yeah. It made it a little bit easier to jettison things that other people would probably, for good reasons, like move forward with. So I would say that there was essentially nothing that had to be in the design. So from a kind of first principal's perspective, it was like, all right, we've got kids between the ages of eight and 14, who are coming together on the west campus of SpaceX to spend six hours together, five days a week.

What should we do with that time? And from that sort of, Ad Astra was born. Yeah, that was it.

Tim Fish: That was it. I mean, I've always dreamed about saying, all right, let's take, let's just take a blank tabletop. Right? We're gonna have students. They're gonna be here this amount of time. Let's start putting things on the table and let's be very deliberate about what we add, what we make that time all about.

And so what did you start adding? What were, as, and Elon's thing? Make it great. What, how did you first think about how I'm gonna make it great?

Josh Dahn: I think the obvious thing to do when you're running a school for Elon is to hire some remarkable colleagues. So I think that was maybe the first thing that we got right, was just bringing people in with, they had like deep, I don't, I wouldn't even call it expertise, but just like really rich experiences, you know, usually through the lens of a particular field.
So bringing on like Dr. Rose, for example, and she had her PhD from Caltech, she is a biochemist. But she also was like running a tutoring thing on the side. So just finding really eclectic, interesting people, and then bringing them into the school. So, you know, she's making the chemistry lab in our first location, we were at Gene Wilder's old house. So for the first two years of Ad Astra, we were at this like little Bel-Air bungalow. And, and you know, Dr. Rose is creating a chemistry lab out of the garage. So just finding remarkable people like that is kind of an obvious first step. 

And then, you know, the thing that you kind of fall into the trap of is like, all right, well, we'll just have, you know, English, and of course we gotta do math and yeah, we should do science. And before you know it, you've sort of, sort of filled up your five or six hours a day for five days a week. So I think that we were always really intentional around like, okay, what are do I ask you how Gmail works or like what Google's incentives are to offer it for free?

Like that kind of question, like how do we work that sort of thing in? And these kind of questions ended up driving a class that I taught, which I called Synthesis, which was really just a catchall for all the things that I was designing to those questions that I felt like otherwise were not going to be asked in school.

So I had seen, in my previous experience, this idea that, oh, if you just call it multidisciplinary or just say it's interdisciplinary class, or you just call it humanities instead of, you know, English and history, that somehow those big questions will be asked. And maybe they are, but in my experience, it—you kinda got the worst of all possible worlds. There wasn't much of a synthesis and there was very little history and very little English. So I think just calling out that that was like an imperative is that we had this space to think about kind of the big problems and then to work in teams collaboratively, kind of as a first principle of our school design. And then to try to defang all of the anxieties that come with, you know, matriculation, high school or grades or any of that sort of stuff is like, Hey, we're here to just dive into the big questions. We ourselves are very much on that quest and let's just see what we can come up with. So.

Tim Fish: I love it. You know, for me, I love that notion you started with the people, right. You started with who was gonna be, who was gonna be there, who was gonna be interacting with the young people that joined. And one of the other things that really surprised me was how you then went about thinking about who the young people were gonna be. How are you gonna find students who are a really good fit for this school? And you went about it in a kind of nontraditional way in terms of admissions, and around how you found students. Can you talk a little bit about that and how that's continued today, even to Astra Nova?

Josh Dahn: Sure. So I, I think it's just best to, to give you kind of all the pieces on the board. So you're starting the school. It's Elon's five kids and then a few kids that came over from the school that I was at previously. And, you know, you're trying to convince, convince is maybe the wrong word, but you're, you know, when you are in contact with families that are interested in the school, you're joining something that looks more like a homeschool share than it looks like a, you know, a private school. And when maybe your other options you're looking at have well manicured campuses or just a reputation, or that you've been around. Like all of those things were deficits that we were, were playing from, but the, you know, the good news was, is like, but, you know, we started this school with one of the most interesting people on earth. And it seems crazy to say this now, given how Elon is Elon with, you know, all capital letters, but back then, it was not uncommon to say, oh yeah, like, and I started this school with Elon Musk and people were like, who's that? I never like, who, what does he do? Right. 

So just to give you a sense from, you know, 2014 to 2022, how someone who goes from like 300,000 Twitter followers to 100 million. Just as one proxy for Elon's largesse. But in, in terms of like finding students, we wanted to, again, I would say strategically, it was important that we add value to SpaceX because I knew of course that Elon's kids would get older, and also that we were very likely to end up on SpaceX campus. And the obvious question to ask is, well, why is there a school here when this could be used for avionics or for engine development or for literally anything else in the company, because they're trying to go to Mars. So how does Ad Astra fit into the mission of the company?

So we were, really throughout the Ad Astra days, always looking for SpaceX—children of SpaceX employees. Now the difficulties of course, are that SpaceX employment is not an ongoing endless condition. At times, people move on for other opportunities or are, you know, are not moving on for reasons that are not in their control.

So it was always important that we'd be able to bring SpaceX children in and then say, regardless of what happens with your employment, that you can continue at the, at the school, like no problem, no questions asked. So that was really important. And then the second thing was to design an admissions process that looked like how our school looks, so diving into big questions. And what is your appetite to consider multiple perspectives or avenues for a particular answer? So obviously this – over, this is talking about admissions process over basically eight years, but always, we've tried to ask questions that we find to be kind of delicious in design.

And if you are kind of eager and sal—I, I hate there's all these food analogies here, but basically that you're, you're sort of game to dive in and to consider that maybe you, you don't have the full picture, but that you're comfortable with some level of ambiguity and you can kind of dive into the reasoning. So, but, but honestly, since the very beginning, kindness is actually the word that we lead with. Like, we are always looking for just kind kids. And not that I don't think that we come across kids that are, are unkind necessarily, but there are so many families that are looking to a school like Ad Astra, and now Astra Nova, to be, you know, I don't know, to, to celebrate giftedness or celebrate academic excellence or celebrate all of these sorts of things. And, and we really wanna ground it in, in kindness and your ability to, to work well with others. I mean, the, the phrase we use in Synthesis is super collaborators. That's really the thing that we've always been looking for.
Someone who is, yeah, there's your own individual path, but you make other people better and are, are interested in other people and wanna bring out their voices, not just your own. So yeah, to the extent that you can find that in an admissions process you know, hard to say, but I'd say by and large we, we find it more often than not.

Tim Fish: That was one of the things I really noticed when I was there, was this idea of the super collaborators working together. And one of the first things that was striking to me was how the super collaborators were of different ages, that there was really no differentiation about who works on what problem or on what team based on age.
Tell me a little bit about that.

Josh Dahn: I, I think it just starts with the questions you're asking kids, you know, and when you ask questions that have depth and an opportunity for you to make sort of, you know, the decisions that you make within a problem, I find to be really compelling. And, you know, we would often, you know, and especially like in fabrication style classes, the youngest kids would be more, you know, undaunted in their pursuit of like different designs or, or kind of rethinking like how this thing could accomplish its task.

You know, where the older kids are like, well, I need, you know, I need a saw. Or a younger kid would say, well, actually, like I need something to sever this piece. It could be a saw, but like maybe it doesn't actually need to be fully severed. Anyway. It's like just kind of thinking about it that way. So it was one of the things that was, I've always been really proud of is that we have students of different ages that consider their friends, you know, there are nine year olds who consider the 11 year olds and 14 year olds to be their friends. And it seems odd for you to suggest that maybe that's, that's odd, you know, that that's weird in some way. But I think they're united by the problems that they're grappling with. And if the problems are compelling enough, then it's really just about commitment. And then when you have that commitment, it's not necessarily, you know, dependent on, on grade, grade level or anything quite like that.

Tim Fish: So what other things from you said that, you know, as you started designing, you ended up looking to the traditional disciplines as an organizational unit. You started having English and writing and math and other things, but you also had other things that were quite different. What are the sort of elements that are different from school? What things have you been willing to put on their head and think about differently about the design of school?

Josh Dahn: Sure. I mean, I think when you're a school that’s that small, like the students should be partners in the creation of it. I mean, that's a pretty obvious one, but it was definitely true at Ad Astra. I would say that it was a feeling of vulnerability in that, all right, so we're designing this school that's gonna be at SpaceX, it's for Elon. All of the obvious criticisms are there. Okay. So great. This school has 50 kids, like, isn't it wonderful for them, but how does this impact anyone else? Great. You have people like Dr. Rose who are, you know, hyper educated and I'm sure she's a, you know, this is the perspective from the outside. I'm sure she's a brilliant chemistry teacher, but how does it help my child? Right. So I was always, I mean, this is especially felt in an acute way when you bring someone in for a tour and, you know, you pass through the gates of SpaceX, you park and you walk in, and I think people are expecting robots to be assembling the lessons or, you know, you're, you're just expecting something really mind blowing, just like when you walk into SpaceX's, you know, factory at the main building. 

So I always felt an, an, the most important obligation was to students who did not have the opportunity to come to Ad Astra. So that's something that kind of—that imperative that we must think more broadly than just the children that we directly serve was, has always I guess been in me since I started teaching in Las Vegas. And then the second thing is I wanted to, is to give everyone a good show. I mean, so when Tim Fish comes to visit, I don't wanna show you, Hey, this is like a really great physics class, or here's a really remarkable engineering class or whatever else.

I mean, that's great, but that's not, that doesn't really affect anybody else. And. I think in the end, you're kind of cool. Good, good for you. It seems like you figured out how to hire hyper competent, really engaging educators. So for me, it was this design of this class that was called Synthesis, where I was trying to, to push the type of thinking and collaboration that I hadn't encountered in, in my schooling and definitely had not any of the schools that I had worked in. So it started with the design of like case studies. So if you think of like McKinsey's interviews, they'd walk you through these case studies basically. And they're asking you, which of these choices would you make?

And they're weighing the choices that you, the multiple choices, they pick the options you decide as a candidate. And then ultimately there's some, you know, point scale as to how you've done. So I started designing in that way, and then I designed things that were more simulation. So you're taking the perspective of, you know, North Korea and, and a nuclear negotiation or something like that. But what I ended with was that all of these things required you to suspend disbelief in some way, and it felt... a little theatrical. And not in a bad way, but in a way where I'm having you embody a perspective that is not necessarily your own. So I started designing games actually in synthesis class. So we started playing these two player games.

I just designed them in illustrator and print 'em out and, and make changes as I saw. If the game, you know, if it wasn't deep enough or if there was a clear first mover advantage or something else, and that evolved into like much more complex games with teams, believing that the decision making is just richer than anything I'd experienced. Because you're considering multiple paths. You're having to think about the other teams. There's that social element of your own decision making within your team, not to mention the other teams and what they, you know, might do. So that thing became this class called Synthesis, which is now turned into a company. And yeah, it's been pretty wild to, to sort of back into game design as maybe one of the richest ways to give students powerful decisions that they can make.

Tim Fish: I love it. I love it. And you know, it's, it's amazing also, and I don't know if it was because of the pandemic or not, but like, you've taken what was Ad Astra, now converted it to Astra Nova school. You've taken these ideas, these things you learned, and now you have two things, right?

You have a wholly online school. Astra Nova school for students 10 to 14 years old, something in that neighborhood? Right? And then you have Synthesis, another organization, another approach for having students engaging in these collaborative games. But the whole thing is online. And in this world of online learning where frankly, I don't think online learning got such a, such a great name coming out of the pandemic. A lot of people were not super bullish on what it could be, and I've always thought there's huge capability if you can make it really collaborative. If technology is a connector, it creates the context for interdependence, it can be super powerful. But if we make it about content distribution, it can be deathly.

And I'm curious about how you have created, how you've taken what you learned now and created both Astra Nova school and Synthesis.

Josh Dahn: Sure. I mean, I think Astra Nova more than anything else was a byproduct of not having a good follow up to a location at SpaceX. So once we left in 2020 and Elon's kids had moved on and it was time to, to spin the school off and, you know, be our own —yeah, to really be on our own. I, I think it was a lot of growing up that we had to do over those, those six years at SpaceX.
And it was clear that the company's priorities were shifting to other things. And, and so too were ours. So it's hard to go from a, I mean, not there's anything wrong with church basements. I mean, lots of schools start in church basements or, or similar places because of zoning. So for us, it was a hard, you know, it's hard to go from SpaceX's factory to, yeah, a local church. So we, and we also just knew that there were always going to be families that would be drawn to the Ad Astra story. And now that doesn't mean because you're drawn to the Ad Astra story, that this is the right fit for your child or that the school could deliver on the promise that one might imagine that it, that it offers or that one, that frankly, that we advertise that it offers.

So we just realized pretty early on in the pandemic—well, we realized, one, that we were always going to have some level of interest from kids around the world. And if we have a physical location in Los Angeles, there's just absolutely no way. Not only could kids who are in LA not get to our location, largely given traffic and everything else, but definitely that no one outside of the city would be able to, to have, you know, have this as an opportunity. So that was a pretty straightforward decision, actually, looking back, to just go fully online, commit to that. And, and, and move forward. And then the second thing I would say in terms of the collaborative stuff, which you pointed to is we—we got to this place where we were like, what, what, what are we insisting upon?

You do one math and you do a science, and then you do history. I mean, even the restrictions that we had, you know, unwittingly in some ways created at Ad Astra, we just got rid of. We're like, wait, what if we just thought of ourselves as the designers of interesting experiments and opportunities, and for every block of the day – and there are four blocks, five days a week for those kids that are full time – like, what if we just try to create interesting options, potential futures for every kid and give it entirely into the hands of the parents to decide what, what classes? Well, mostly to be fair, to the hands of the children with signoff from their parents as to what opportunities they wanna take advantage of.

So there are definitely kids at Astra Nova that will take six science experiences. I, I hesitate to call them classes because they're not quite like classes, but six science experiences in a term. And I, I think that's really amazing. I, I don't think there's any reason you can't take planetary science and, and Astro geology and, you know, some physics and, and everything else, biochemistry and, and all that.

So with that being said, I, I think that we all, we, there's some level of coercion in schools and in our, we're not immune from that, but I think it's better to be transparent about where you are making choices for children. And if there is an opportunity to put some of that power in their hands and let them, you know, I don't—live with the consequences sounds like a little, I, I, I, but you know. Yeah. You make, you make your choices, and you see how it goes this term and you show that kind of commitment and you may end up, after six science experiences, like, all right, like next term, I'm gonna do two. But those course corrections, when you own the decisions, tend to be much more powerful when they're a product of your choice rather than one that was mandated on you. 

Tim Fish: How's it been going since you've gone online, since you've been, since you put it out there in the world, since you started building this approach. Have you been getting traction? Have you been, have people been knocking on the door?

Josh Dahn: Yeah. I mean, again, how could I express my level of gratitude to Elon beyond just that, you know, he—he's made all of this possible. Gave me an incredible opportunity. And that is one that reverberates to this day where people come to Ad Astra or Astra Nova through, whether it be Synthesis or the conundrums. So when I mentioned that it's really important that we share good work with the world, that really the sole purpose of Astra Nova is to be experimental. And if there's any insight that could be gleaned from the work that we do, we try to find ways to share it. Astra Nova is not a scaling agent. Like the goal is not to scale Astra Nova. The goal is to figure things out that may spark a good idea elsewhere, or serve as sort of justification for a school leader or a teacher to try something maybe a little bit different than what might be on the menu otherwise. 

So conundrums are basically Synthesis, but distilled into one to two minute videos that ask kind of an ethical conundrum with usually three to five seemingly equivalent responses. And those have been viewed through Class Dojo's platform like millions of times in classrooms around the world. So whether people come to Astra Nova through conundrums or they come through Synthesis or they come through a simple Google search that says Elon Musk school, yeah, we, we have, of course we're very grateful and fortunate to have far more students than we could possibly accept. And really what I'm most impressed about in terms of the way we've been able to do this is to run this school in such a lean way that we give a hundred percent of financial, you know, demonstrated financial need.

We, you know, about 50% of our students receive some level of financial assistance and that number has actually only gone up. And because we don't have an admissions department, because we don't have, we just all do it ourselves. You have that radical ownership over all the choices that you make, including everything on the website, all the copy, every, all of my bad design in Squarespace, all of that stuff right, is

Tim Fish: —That's what, that's what I love about it though. That's what I love. And I'm sure many of our listeners will take a look. You know, the other big thing I love is there's an honesty in the way that you talk about the school, right? In the page, for example, that talks about, you know, the application and—which is not a traditional application, you know, you ask students to engage with a conundrum and to give you some of their thinking.

As we say this word conundrum, I'm sure our listeners are wondering like, okay, what exactly is a conundrum? Can you give an example of what a conundrum might be? And the videos are out there and they're amazing. And I watch them all the time. I love them. I also love how they were made, how you had students actually partnering with a firm somewhere in Eastern Europe to make the animation. And tell me that story a little bit, but also sort of what is a conundrum?

Josh Dahn: sure. Do you have a conundrum that's your favorite that I should ex—I mean there's so there's 36 of them.

Tim Fish: I think the pizza conundrum is one of my favorites.

Josh Dahn: Cool. Sure. So the pizza conundrum's in season one, the basic idea is like, Hey, there's a, in a rapidly growing city, there is a, a vacancy, commercial vacancy. And the question is there are two pizza shops that are vying for the space. How should the town decide which pizza place should get it? And it basically boils down to something like a taste test, they should flip a coin, whoever basically gets in the contract first. You know, there's just some different ways of thinking about how one might look out for like the greater good of the community, but also be fair to both business owners and—what it is fun about the taste test is that it's the, the town leaders that do the taste test. So the kids are always really, you know, skeptical of whether the town leaders would know what good pizza is. So that one is actually, of all the conundrums probably, you know, it's funny. Class dojo's like kind of peak audience is probably second, third grade. And, and our, most of our kids are, you know, fifth, sixth, seventh.

So we started with, in season one, pretty straightforward conundrums. And then over time, I just naturally gravitate towards the, just more complexity within the problem. So if you end up looking at conundrums, you can find them on YouTube, just type in Astra Nova conundrums, or just even class dojo conundrums. You'll see that as we get deeper into the seasons, there's a little bit of creep in terms of the complexity, to the point where there's like nine options and you're picking three and allocating, you know, money or whatever. So yeah, those are the conundrums. And let's see, what was the second part of your question?

Tim Fish: On the website, about the honesty and about how, how authentic you are about explaining sort of who you are. And you ask in the application process to have students give you some feedback on a conundrum, choose a conundrum, and they give you some feedback as a way of seeing their thinking and how they go through it. And so on. But what I love so much, even about the way you talk about tuition, is you're really straightforward and honest about why there's tuition, how the process is done for selecting financial aid. You hand it all off to the SSS number. So whatever SSS says, that's what you go with. You talk about how some people may not be happy with that number, but that's the sort of discipline that you use internally to do that.

I also love how you talk about giving. And how you talk about, you know, donations and how most of our schools in one way or another are connected to annual fund, capital gifts, major campaigns, but you don't have any of that. And you're a nonprofit, Astra Nova is, but yet you're not doing any kind of giving. Tell me about that.

Josh Dahn: I would love to say that by being radically transparent, we head off all kinds of dissatisfaction or that people come in like ready to go and, you know, Hey, I've read your website. I totally get it. And you, we, to be fair, we do have families that absolutely do that. I, I don't know. I think it's just maybe who we are as, as founders of this school, we just can't help but to be honest about it, and we have no interest in spending time trying to raise money.

I understand why that is the case for most independent schools. It makes total sense to me. It's not to say that you—that that's not the way that things need to be run. Like that's sort of the business model it's from at least my, my understanding and we just have a different one. Part of it's helped, of course, by not having a, a beautiful campus that we need to maintain, or even not a beautiful campus, a campus to maintain. Right. So we don't have rent and all those sorts of things. So that makes it easier. And also we just don't wanna be in a position where any family might feel as though another family has some sort of advantage, whether we're more accessible to them or because they have a donation and the gym is named after them, that that entitles them to something beyond.

I mean, I think we've always to, maybe to a fault, despised entitlement to a level that, that makes us go so far in the other direction. So it's, it starts with just being honest about who we are and, and maybe who we aren't. We have never had language at Astra Nova. We have never had music. We have, you know, there are a lot of classes we've never had.

Not again, because we don't think that those are important opportunities or experiences for kids. We just wanna be really honest about what we do well. We didn't feel like there was a way as a small school to do language in the way that we'd want to do it. Similarly for music, it's hard when you've got kids that are playing at Carnegie Hall and others that, you know, have never picked up an instrument and tried to create a music experience that can kind of reach both those kids.

Of course, other schools have to do this and do it very beautifully. And I think part of it too, is not falling into that trap. When we talk about, you know, innovation and, and education, where we're just so dismissive of everything else and think that like, oh, this is the solution. I think from the very beginning I've tried—and I have to say, I'm not always disciplined on this message because sometimes I get carried away when you start thinking about really a bad time that a lot of kids have in school in the name of things that frankly, I don't think in the, in the light of day, you can justify. Like how we spend time with kids. I think there are some things that are absolutely unacceptable. I will say that, but by and large schools have a tremendous challenge. And I don't think that Astra Nova as a small experimental school with all sorts of advantages should be the one delegate, you know, just pontificating about how you should just do it like this, because everyone would look at me and be like, you're an idiot.

Like, cool, that's nice that you can do this at, at, you know, 50 kids. Try 5,000 or, or whatever that is. But all I have to say is like, when you, when you are honest, especially in matters of finances. And you're honest, in terms of admissions, You have a better chance of, of having families go through an admissions process and even if the answer is unfortunately no, that they feel like it was worthwhile. I've led my, the team at Astra Nova down some paths that were not maybe the best use of time in the end, but I always wanted to give every kid feedback who applied, you know, you spent the time to put together a conundrum. I'd love to give you some course corrections, not so that you can be successful next time, as much as, so that I can push your thinking so that you might, you know, look at the next conundrum in a different way. 

Now there, of course, are trade offs and limitations to what you can do. And I—I'd love to say that we do that for every kid that applies, but that's something we've retracted on. But I think just asking those questions about your processes, the things that you communicate. You know, how authentic are they to who you really are or who you want to be? And when are we sort of promising the world and more, and like, what is it really? You know, what is this thing in its essence? I remember I was talking to someone at, I don't mean to call it Snapchat, Snapchat the other day. And they were talking to me about how, you know, no, we're like a camera company. I was like, no, you're an advertising company. And that's okay. Like that's just, that's where 99% of your revenues come from and that's totally fine, but we, we get carried away sometimes, especially in Silicon Valley and startups. And sometimes I think also independent schools, where we purport to be something far beyond what we actually are. And so I think that kind of being grounded, it comes from Elon and it's true to who we are as well.

Tim Fish: I love that. You know, it, it makes me think back on, I was having a conversation with a school last week and I was doing some work with their leadership team and we were talking about strategy and their future. And one of the things that was an insight of our time together was that we talked about this notion that they all felt, that once they walk into a classroom, they're like, oh, this is it. It's happening like right now. And there are other times they walk in the classroom. Well-meaning folks doing good work, love kids, but they're like, no, this isn't it.

And it was this thing that came up and we spent the next like hour and a half talking about, well, what is it, what makes it, what are the characteristics of it when you see it and what are the characteristics of when it's not there? And one of the things that I have found from when I visited and also just watching some of the videos and I, and I'm sure if I had the opportunity to jump in and spend some time in a Synthesis classroom or in an Astra Nova classroom, I would see what, what they were referring to as “it” in the room.

And what, what ended up emerging was engagement. Curiosity, collaboration, hard problem solving, like what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi talks about as flow. Right. But what is, I think is so interesting about what you've been able to do and what I think many schools are doing is creating what I would call collaborative flow. That not only I am in a state of flow, but I am in a state of flow with others.
And that for me, when that is present —and it could be working on a math problem. It could be writing something collaboratively together in a Google doc. It could be practicing for a play. It could be thinking about analysis of a poem. But when it's present, it's powerful. And when it's not, I think that's when we go, something's missing. And I'm curious about if, if, if that resonates with you or like, if you've seen other things you would add to my definition, or as I was thinking about what is it, when we say we're looking for that spark in a, in a classroom environment. 

Josh Dahn: What you're describing is the motivating principle of everything that I design and by extension, in some ways, everything that's designed at Astra Nova. Is you're looking for that collaborative flow. And you're looking for the types of challenges that can bring it about. Now, part of it is establishing the culture, right? So that you can feel comfortable to be able to give yourself to the team, to the problem. And I mean for me, the, the greatest joy of my professional life has been working on high functioning teams with colleagues that—

Tim Fish: Yeah, me too.

Josh Dahn: You know, are more, right? We know—

Tim Fish: —Matthew Barzun calls them constellations, right? This sort of interdependent team that's doing work that's never happened before.

Josh Dahn: I love that. Yeah. The first game of Synthesis is called constellation, you know, and it's not, and not, not it's. Yeah. There's a reason for that. And it's that, you know, we—there's just something that's so invigorating and enlivening in life when you're working on, I mean, this is why SpaceX and Tesla have been so successful, you know, in one way, is that if you think of the role of, you know, Elon or, or management, I guess. Management seems like a funny word for those companies, but you're trying to align the vectors. Right? So if every employee has magnitude and then, you know, a vector has both magnitude and direction, your goal is to have all these different magnitudes aligned in the same direction.

And it makes it really clear when you can evaluate every decision as to like, does this get us to Mars sooner? And, you know, you can make the argument that there are some choices that people have made that maybe that's not the case or the company's made that maybe that's not the case, but you have that north star.

And I think for us at Synthesis, the north star is how does this help us create a generation or cultivate a generation of super collaborators? Like how can we imbue in these kids something that we ourselves did not get and probably still now do not have, which is the ability to sort of surrender yourself to, to a team and to be authentic in who you are and, and vulnerable, but also strong and in like what you believe? And I think part of that is through reflection and it's a really hard thing to do. So one of the great challenges technologically of Synthesis is having the opportunity to film what's being done, to give those moments back to kids to understand like key decision points they're making along the way.

I probably at the end of this podcast should listen to it. If I was forced to do so, I would probably have some real takeaways as to how I could do better next time. But I, I likely will not, not because—I don't just because it makes me anxious and I'm fearful of it. So for kids, like what if we could have them as reflection, like purposeful reflection and, and receiving course corrections on, on choices they're making and on the product of their work earlier, not in a way that results in a grade or some sort of like pass fail, but really this kind of endless pursuit of, of better. 

So if you buy into that sort of thing and you expect course corrections, rather than they're something you've done poorly, then I think that that's the kind of thing that can create the, you know, fertile ground for super collaborators. So what you're describing when people say, aha, like, that's it. That's the stuff, not just of school, that's the stuff of the, of the working life. Like that's, that's just the most human thing, is that people coming together to solve problems. And to the extent that we're able to do that is really to the extent that we're able to progress as a civilization. And to the extent that we are not able to do this, that, that, yeah, it gets a little bit scary, but I would add one final thing to that, which is imagining the world as it might one day be. There's lots that we put on kids as to how things are and, and the, the tragedies and injustices of the world. And I think that that is all absolutely relevant and should be discussed, but I think we also should carve out time to imagine how things ought to be or how they may look. And I don't think that, you know, utopia visioneering is, is always the worst use of time.

Tim Fish: Yeah. Yeah.

Josh Dahn: I don't think it's a bad idea to try to and I, I have to say, I've come a long way on this. I think early on it felt to me like, no, they need to know the real stuff now. And I, I still believe that, but I do think that we need to be mindful of yeah, putting the future in, in their hands and getting them comfortable with making decisions and calling out things as, as they should not be, because there's something better out there.

And to articulate that vision, I think seems as of one of the, the responsibilities of school.

Tim Fish: And I think your notion of how you're using games to get there. Right? And so one of the things I talk a lot about is this concept, I've talked about in other episodes, is this concept of structured agency. That the game construct provides just the right amount of structure so that you can maximize the agency you give to the team. And without that, and, and you're always tweaking that game design so that it has that right balance of structure so you can give away maximum agency. And the pursuit is to be reducing that to, down to its essential structure. Right. And when you layer on more, then it, it busts up that ability to get to that agency, I think, because we start controlling too much of what we wanna see. And I, I love the way you talked about when you went online and you started thinking about how students choose their, their schedule in Astra Nova. That you broke away from, you broke free from this idea that it has to be a particular way, you know, and that's something that I've always been really curious about that I think we can all learn from in your experience. 

My last question is one around, what are your hopes? You know, as you look out, as you look to that future, as you look to that utopia, what are the things that you hope for in the next several years or decade, thinking broadly about the work you're doing, the work that other students and teachers are doing?

Josh Dahn: The thing that makes me most optimistic is the really deep seated belief that there are remarkable things happening in classrooms and schools around the world all the time. And we are moving closer to making those things legible to others. And you know, Astra Nova is just one experiment, but there are all sorts of experiments that teachers and, and school leaders are, are running all the time.

So I, I guess I'm just interested in finding ways to celebrate good work that's being done. Celebrate experiments that do not work out as planned. I think that transparency and I, I think, I don't know. I feel like it's a, education's a funny thing politically, right? Because there are so many political issues that are, the sides are already kind of marked. It's like, ah, like on this issue, we believe this or this party believes that or whatever, but when it comes to education, I think a lot of people tend to want the same thing. I, I don't think that many people going, you know, thinking about their education that they went through are like, I want a carbon copy of that thing. What, you know, whether that's the horrors of middle school or the, you know, long days of geometry or whatever that is. I think that we all are, are sort of predisposed to openness, to something a bit different. And I, I'm not believing in sort of wholesale, like, okay, this is an entirely new system, but I believe in experiments that bear fruit, I believe in, you know, parents having the opportunity to put their kids in things like Synthesis and other things that happen kind of outside of the hours of school, I believe in schools like just maybe being more honest about what they do really well. I mean, we've done a class at Astra Nova over the years in magic. Oh, not because I think this is Hogwarts, but because I think it's interesting to question the assumption that because a class is called, I don't know, chemistry, that therefore, that thing is inherently more valuable than some other experience for the development of a child.

Now, I, I, again, I don't think that it should only be magic. I mean, I don't think that many parents would necessarily sign up for that, but I think there are so many things that children develop through different experiences that kind of change the way that they view the world. And I think that we should not be afraid to not act as though every chemistry class is the same, or to act as though every sort of math, okay, this linear math progression that, you know, well, pre algebra is pre algebra. Well, it's not really, you do like art of problem solving pre algebra. That's a whole lot different than the pre algebra I did. It's like a different like dimension essentially.

So I just would like us to be more honest about what this thing actually is, and to be able to justify the use of time for these children. So when we say, Hey, like, this is, this is how we think that this year should be spent. Do we really believe that? Like deep down as a school leader, as an educator, as a, someone in a staff, whatever that is like, do you believe that this is the best way, given the resources available to your school or learning community, whatever that is, to, to do this?

And if the answer is like, well, of course not. Well then let's try to reconcile that delta at some level. Because that's where it gets really rich because you put yourself in a position where you're vulnerable enough to imagine what ought to be versus kind of what is, and that's at least for me personally, that's where I found the greatest joy.

Tim Fish: Ah, wow. What a gift. This has been an amazing conversation, Josh. Thank you so much for taking the time to join us. Thank you so much for sharing your insights and putting your work in the world. Thank you for sharing conundrums and thank you for sharing the work that you're doing with Synthesis.

I'm hopeful that more and more students will connect and find a pathway through that and it'll inspire their learning and their, what was the term you used for collaboration?

Josh Dahn: To cultivate a generation of super collaborators.

Tim Fish: Super collaborators. That's it. Cultivate a generation of super collaborators.

And I think that is a powerful, powerful concept. And what I love so much about it is what you said. We're not trying to do everything. We're measuring the work we do against that goal, to create a generation of, of super collaborators. So there's things we'll do and things we won't do. And the beauty of the world today is they can find those things other places. That's one of the lovely parts about our world today. 

Thank you again. Thank you for spending time with us. It's really been a joy. 

Josh Dahn: It's been a pleasure, Tim. Thank you.