Esther Wojcicki

Teacher and journalist

"Journalism should be included in the curricula of all schools across the world."

The main skills we have to teach to make learning more useful.

I grew up in what we would now consider poverty, because we had very little money and it was difficult to buy food. When I was quite young, around ten years old, I decided that education was the only way I could escape this situation. I'm not sure what inspired me to realize this when I was ten, but I did read a lot. We didn't have many toys and we never went on holiday anywhere, so the only thing I used to do was go to the library. I must have read somewhere that education was the right path to choose, so that became my mantra. That's why, when I was fourteen I found a job I thought I would enjoy, because I thought it would be good to do something I would never lose interest in. I started working as a reporter at a local newspaper. I was still just a young girl, and I had no training whatsoever, but I had the nerve to ask if they needed an assistant. It was all men there, and I remember that they looked at each other and said: «Sure, we need an assistant, we'll pay you three cents a word», so I said: «OK, I accept». That's how I saved up enough money to go to university. It was challenging and highly stressful, but I had a goal, I was determined to go to university.

My aim is to help others understand the power of education. In fact, to me education means empowerment because you learn things that can help you to lead a better life. So, it's my goal to help everyone have this opportunity. I've taught hundreds, even thousands of students who have been successful, very successful, and my theory is that they've been successful because they feel empowered. They feel they can do anything they want so, if something gets in their way or they have some kind of setback, it doesn't matter, they keep trying. Nobody gets everything right the first time round. You learn by making mistakes and persevering. The same is true of life in general.

I teach communication. In order to produce a publication, students need to be able to communicate. If you learn to communicate properly at school, you will also be able to communicate at university and in the real world.

Children shouldn't be made to do everything alone. They have to learn how to work in a team as, in the real world you have to be able to work with anyone, regardless of whether you like them or not.

I teach critical thinking by getting students to go out and gather information. That's what journalism is, you have to find out what's going on in the world and look for primary sources, because you're a reporter. Even if you're writing an opinion piece, you still have to find opinions for both sides of the argument. So, you have to gather information and then work out what's important, and for most people, this is really difficult. That's why you have to practice, and if you practice every day, every week, you become very good at what you do.

Creativity is something you have to practice. It's fine to make lots of mistakes, I'm not concerned about that, but you have to persevere and keep repeating the same thing, no matter what it is. Some creative mistakes may seem ridiculous at first, but could turn out to be very good ideas. I developed the acronym TRICK with my students. TRICK means trust, respect, independence, collaboration and kindness. First comes trust, I trust my students, perhaps sometimes too much, but they've never let me down. I trust they know what they're doing. If they're late to class, I assume they have a good reason. My philosophy is that most kids want to do things well, they want to do a good job and be accepted. So, we have to give them the freedom to come up with their own ideas and think for themselves. A revolution is something that's very difficult to achieve in education. However, there must be one, and in order for it to be successful, we have to change how we think about education. Nowadays, children learn in a completely different way. However, the school system hasn't been amended to reflect this and is still based on lectures and books. Students still have to sit down in a classroom, listen to the teacher, take notes and then sit an exam. No thought has been given to the fact that nowadays, we all use our cell phones to learn about things. Hundreds of years ago, education was based on the premise that adults were cleverer than children and could therefore teach them to be intelligent. However, I think that children are innately very smart, as they've been using electronic devices from a young age. We should give them the opportunity to be creative and to use the information they have creatively. This doesn't mean that we should do away with lectures altogether. I still think that eighty per cent of the entire curriculum should be based on lectures; we just need to change what we do with the other twenty per cent.

It won't be easy to change the system, as it's so entrenched in how things have been done for generations. That's why I want to work with the system as it is. So, we start by changing twenty per cent and see how we get on, then perhaps we can go to thirty per cent. It can be a gradual change. Change is a very difficult thing to achieve for both people and cultures. We all talk about change, but in reality, nobody wants to implement it. Some of the most important discoveries of the last decade have been carried out by children.

Different parts of the world face different challenges, and, if we let them, children can not only be part of the solution to these challenges, but also use the experience as a learning opportunity. We can mix old and new educational systems by using technology to support learning. For example, instead of just giving lectures on the American Civil War, you could ask children to search the Internet to find out what impact the Civil War has had on the world today. If they ask you what the Civil War is, you could tell them to research it on the Internet and find out what repercussions it has had on contemporary society. This is how history should be taught, not how I learned about it when I was at school, which was just to read books and have to memorize a whole ton of stuff, like dates and people whose names didn't mean anything to me, and then sit an exam. I was good at memorizing things, so I got excellent grades, but now I don't remember anything about it, absolutely nothing, and for most people it's the same, they don't remember what they learned in school.

I use a fully combined learning process where the students are in control eighty per cent of the time and where I teach the subject the remaining twenty per cent of the time. The children work together as a team to produce publications. There are deadlines every three weeks, which is when they submit a forty-eight page newspaper in three sections. There are around twelve different types of publications and between six hundred and seven hundred students participate, which is almost half of Palo Alto High School's student body. The newspaper they publish is called 'The Campanile'. There are also several magazines. We broadcast content throughout the entire school every day, which is then stored on the school's website. There are also daily radio programs that students can get involved in if they're interested in radio, and a video production class for those who want to make movies. There's also a graphic design class.

Find out more about Esther Wojcicki

Esther Wojcicki is a journalist and teacher at Palo Alto High School. She is Vice Chair of the global copyright licensing organization 'Creative Commons', President of the Friends of the Lurdes Mutola Foundation to support girls' education in Mozambique and consultant for the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.
How are we using technology in education differently?

We're trying to use more artificial intelligence. A child can answer a set of questions using a computer, then, after learning what the child's mistakes are, the computer can start to teach them, by updating and amending what they learn and by assessing their work. However, we have to be careful. You can't just stick a child in front of a computer for hours on end and hope they learn something. Education is and always will be an interaction between people. We still need teachers. Computers are most effective when children use them to collaborate. This can mean two children sharing a computer, or each child using a different computer and then getting together and talking about what they've done. If it's not something they can apply, they'll forget it.

"Education is and always will be an interaction between people. We still need teachers"

See the full video here.