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Ari Memar & Esther Wojcicki of Tract.app: “You have to start with the goals and outcomes”

Esther: The US education system is aware of the importance of girls and women in STEM and there are many programs both online and offline to help. We could still do more to help girls see STEM as “cool.” We should make questioning a daily routine. Asking questions is important. Also, we should be using […]

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Esther: The US education system is aware of the importance of girls and women in STEM and there are many programs both online and offline to help. We could still do more to help girls see STEM as “cool.” We should make questioning a daily routine. Asking questions is important. Also, we should be using images in real life in books, magazines and videos showing girls and women connecting to science on a daily basis. Build into the thinking of little girls the design process: ask questions, define the problem, do some research online and off, develop a prototype, test it and redesign if necessary. It can be used in many areas of life.


As a part of my interview series about the things that should be done to improve the US educational system I had the pleasure to interview Esther Wojcicki and Ari Memar — cofounders at Tract.app.

Esther Wojcicki is famous for three things: teaching a high school class that has changed the lives of thousands of kids, inspiring Silicon Valley legends like Steve Jobs, and raising three daughters who have each become famously successful. What do these three accomplishments have in common? They are the result of TRICK, Esther’s secret to raising successful people: Trust, Respect, Independence, Collaboration, and Kindness. Simple lessons, but the results are radical. Esther Wojcicki is a leading American educator and journalist. Mother of YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki, Fulbright scholar Janet Wojcicki, and 23&Me founder Anne Wojcicki, as well as a teacher and mentor to James Franco and Lisa Brennan-Jobs, Esther is widely heralded as the most successful parent and educator in the United States. Esther offers essential lessons for raising, educating, and managing people to their highest potential. She is the author of Moonshots in Education (2014) and best seller How to Raise Successful People (May, 2019). She is co founder of Tract.app (2020) an innovative edutainment platform to empower students by gamifying education using a peer to peer model. She also has a partnership with UC Berkeley Engineering using her pedagogy to teach engineering skills.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share the “backstory”behind what brought you to this particular career path?

Esther: I realized as a child that the only way out of poverty was education. I am the child of immigrants from Russia. When that path worked for me, my goal was to help other people live better lives and thus was born my passion for education. I first started as a journalist because I thought that reliable information could help people. I then switched to education and specifically to teaching journalism. My goal was to empower kids.

Ari: My first job was as an Arts & Science camp counselor at age 13. I don’t think I ever felt more fulfilled in my career than in that moment. Seeing kids excited. Naturally curious. Capable of anything. I think there was always a magnet drawing me back into early education.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

Esther: In the 1985–86 school year just a year after I started teaching, I was threatened with dismissal if I couldn’t get all my students to sit quietly for the entire period and just listen to me lecture. I had already come up with the idea of collaborative learning which was not even conceptualized that time. My students were used to working in groups which was considered “cheating.” in those days. I had to tell my students what was happening and then get them to agree to do nothing but listen quietly the next time the principal came in to evaluate me. They loved the collaborative classroom and wanted it to continue, so they all readily agreed to help me and it worked. My evaluation was good and I got tenure

Ari: My career in education started with Esther. I was having a 30-year-old crisis (is there a name for this?) and reached out to her and said “I want to spend the next decade helping kids. I want to help them find purpose, build existential skills for the future, and most importantly feel good about themselves. How can I help?”. I joined her non-profit for about a year, but couldn’t help but think bigger. WAY bigger. Next thing you know COVID hits and all of sudden it feels like a sign from above to get off your butt and start building. Esther retired from teaching, I left Uber and this chapter in my career was born.

Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Esther: I learned that kids loved collaborative learning, that they learned the most, and it made them enthusiastic about the class. I not only continued this method, but refined it even more when I got my first computers in 1987 so that all my classes were based as much as possible on collaborative learning with limited lecture.

Ari: When I was thinking about a job change, I kept looking too close to where my experience was. It’s natural to place this constraint, as you feel so unqualified for things you’ve never done. It wasn’t until Esther placed her trust in me that I realized nobody is really ever qualified for anything they do. They are winging it. It’s those same existential skills we are trying to teach all kids, that I myself have. And that’s what makes me feel like my success is inevitable.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Esther: I am working on an exciting new project called TRACT.APP with many of my former students. In fact, the CEO Ari Memar is my former student who graduated in 2007 from Palo Alto High. Tract is a way to empower both the learner and the creator. The target learner is between 8–14 and the creators are from 15–22. The goal is to have the teens create gamified learning paths for kids just a little bit younger about topics of interest to them. There is no one more influential in a pre teens life than someone just a bit older. They earn points which they can use to help change the world in many ways. The goal is to empower students to follow their passion and help make the world a better place.

Ari: Where do I even start. Starting Tract is the most exciting thing I’ve ever been a part of. It’s the synthesis of numerous life goals I’ve had: starting a business, aligning my values with the company I work for, helping kids, and attempting to take on the world’s biggest problems like climate change, poverty and hunger. I really hope Tract and other companies like it will be successful. We need companies and leaders who have real empathy and are mission, not profit driven. If Tract is successful, I think the educational access and outcomes will meaningfully shift the trajectory of humankind (in a good way). If our next generation is skilled, empathetic, globally connected, purposeful, and impact driven, I’ll think I’ll die a happy man 🙂

Can you briefly share with our readers why you are authorities in the education field?

Esther: I have been teaching at Palo Alto High since 1980. I started as a substitute in 1980 and then started full time in 1984. Prior to that I taught for at Pacific High in San Leandro,CA and San Carlos High in San Carlos, CA for 3 years. At Palo Alto High, I built the largest scholastic journalism program in the nation from 20 students in 1984 to over 700 today with 5 other journalism teachers. These students publish a newspaper, multiple magazines, produce a daily television program,, have 24/7 radio, and make films. The programs continued to function during the pandemic because they kids were in charge and controlled the zoom meetings and thus were passionate about producing high quality media.. The publications have been consistent Gold and Sliver Crown Winners from Columbia Scholastic Press Association and PaceMakers from National Scholastic Press Association for more than 30 years. Students coming out the program from all socio-economic backgrounds have been exceptionally successful in their careers and in life. The same pedagogy used in the journalism program is utilized in all the schools of High Tech High in San Diego which prioritizes low income students and students who have been failing in other schools. The pedagogy works for all economic levels. All kids want to be empowered to be independent learners.

Ari: Because I have learned from Esther. The Maria Montessori of this century.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. From your point of view, how would you rate the results of the US education system?

Esther:

The US education system did a great job at the beginning of the 20th century when the goal was to get students to learn to read and to be obedient. In today’s world where we are looking for students who are creative, think critically, communicate effectively on multiple platforms, and collaborate effectively, the US school system does a poor job. We are still focused on memorization, test taking, and following directions. Many of the practical subjects vocational arts or creative subjects such as drama, art, ceramics have been eliminated in favor of STEM subjects or AP classes. The system needs to do a better job of empowering students to “learn how to learn” and not stressing memorization. Teachers might find my T.R.I.C.K. method of teaching to be empowering for kids. It means trust, respect, independence, collaboration and kindness. Trust students to be curious, respect their ideas and suggestions, promote independence in learning in all subjects, encourage them to collaborate, and treat them with kindness on a daily basis especially when they make mistakes.

Ari: Poor. For a country with the wealth of the United States, we should be able to do better. Much better. At the root of it I think there are 2 big problems: standardized testing and funding. In a labor economy where factory workers needed to know how to follow directions perfectly, you could maybe justify how we teach kids, but in a knowledge economy where there’s no need to ever memorize anything you can simply look up it’s just not right. Couple that with socioeconomic disparities from elite private schools to low-income public schools and you have a real problem.

Can you identify 5 areas of the US education system that are going really great?

Ari: The US education system does so much for its citizens. Sometimes we focus so much on what’s wrong that we overlook some key strengths; namely keeping kids safe, cared for, fed, socialized and literate. There are a lot of moving pieces and people to make this happen at-scale for every family in the US. Lunch and Breakfast Programs provide free or discounted meals to 30 million kids each year. That’s almost 10% of the US population, and more than 50% of public school students!

Esther: Number one: it is free to all school age children. Number two: it focuses on literacy and does a great job of teaching almost every child to read. Number three: there is a focus on extracurricular activities and they are free or low cost. Number four: there is now a focus on inclusion, including and recognizing socioeconomic differences. Number five: Teachers focus on good relationships with their students.

Can you identify the 5 key areas of the US education system that should be prioritized for improvement? Can you explain why those are so critical?

Ari: You have to start with the goals and outcomes. It’s hard to drive positive improvement when the system itself has incentives that are aligned to standardized test scores and attendance. If you take a step back, I think the goal of the US education system has to be three prong: (1) provide all families with childcare, (2) prepare all kids with existential skills, and (3) develop global citizens. We actually are doing a decent job providing care — schools are safe (and could be safer with gun reform), meals are provided, and afterschool programs are commonplace. It’s the skills and citizenship that’s really lacking. I’d throw away text books, lectures, memorization, tests and give way to more practical forms of learning through real-world projects, more student choice, and non-traditional subject areas. I cannot reiterate enough how destructive the standardized testing system is. Teachers are forced to dedicate classroom time to prepare kids. Kids stress about results. Kids choose AP classes in lieu of their passions in the Arts. Those with financial means spend resources to practice taking the test, and then do better. We need to break this cycle. That’s where I’d start to make changes.

Esther: Number one: change the way we use testing. Cut out standardized testing or change the way we use the results of those tests. Standardized testing such as the SAT or ACT or AP testing creates too much stress and does not improve learning. Testing should be used as a gauge to help teachers know what kids need to learn and to evaluate what they have already learned. Don’t eliminate them; just use them constructively as guides for teachers and parents.

Number two: Give students an opportunity to revise all work within a defined time period even tests. Make revision part of the class, no matter what the subject. That will promote learning and make good grades more attainable. It also de-emphasizes grades.

Number three: promote peer to peer project based learning in all classes at least for 20% of the time. Studies show it is the most effective way for students to learn.

Number four: incorporate technology in an effective way. Teach students how to search and evaluate the results of a search to promote their learning. Just looking up answers does not help students learn. Teach kids how to navigate the web intelligently. I recommend this book: The Joy of Search by Dan Russell.

Number five: change the culture of the classroom to be collaborative and supportive. Coming to school should be exciting and welcoming for all kids. Student need to have a voice and it should be respected. Constructive criticism of the class or the school should be welcomed so kids feel like their ideas matter.

How is the US doing with regard to engaging young people in STEM? Can you suggest three ways we can increase this engagement?

Ari: Technology is a part of everything we do. There is not a single kid in the world who is not interested in technology in some way. The educational challenge is presenting technology in a way to kids that spark their curiosity, drive internal motivation and provide the why behind learning the building blocks around it. Too often when we think about STEM we think of the pain and constant practice of learning difficult mathematical concepts and complex scientific principles. Instead, the narrative needs to shift into understanding the magic of our natural world and the infinite potential of applying technology to improve the quality of life for humanity. As we focus less on the academic side of STEM and more on the real-world applications, we can engage kids at very young ages with (1) projects, (2) mentors and (3) role models to make the field of study feel both fun and approachable.

Esther: The US could improve the teaching of STEM.

Number one: All teachers should promote independent thinking by collaborating with students in picking a real world problem to investigate. The topic should relate in some way to students’ lives and be authentic. When students pick their own topics they are more engaged and learning improves.

Number two: The STEM project should be hands-on and peer to peer and encourage independent thinking. It should encourage students to work with peers since that promotes engagement. The teacher should act as a facilitator and not as a lecturer. Teach kids to search online intelligently to find out what others are doing in solving that problem.

Number three: teachers should help kids accept failure of their project and understand that redesign is part of the process. Help them use an engineering design process to be more successful

Can you articulate to our readers why it’s so important to engage girls and women in STEM subjects?

Ari: There’s still a larger gender gap in STEM fields. Technology is the growth sector in our global economy, and women should be equally represented here. Getting more women into STEM roles means getting more women into executive and leadership roles, and in positions of power.

Esther: Girls need to have equal opportunities in the work world as boys and it is important make them feel empowered in STEM which has traditionally been male focused. STEM training focuses on independent thinking and girls especially need that because in the 20th century girls were taught to obey and focus on appearance. We need all girls to feel empowered to identify a problem, ask good questions, work in teams, recover from failure, realize that there is more than one right way to do something, and have the skills to solving that problem. All students male or female need these skills.

How is the US doing with regard to engaging girls and women in STEM subjects? Can you suggest three ways we can increase this engagement?

Ari: I think the US is trending in the right direction, but there’s still work to be done. Increasing engagement to me starts with having more role models, mentors and professionals to look up to. When you look at professionals in the field and don’t see yourself, that can be a huge demotivator. As more incredible women emerge everyday in STEM fields, we should help share their stories and make them available to kids around the country.

Esther: The US education system is aware of the importance of girls and women in STEM and there are many programs both online and offline to help. We could still do more to help girls see STEM as “cool.” We should make questioning a daily routine. Asking questions is important. Also, we should be using images in real life in books, magazines and videos showing girls and women connecting to science on a daily basis. Build into the thinking of little girls the design process: ask questions, define the problem, do some research online and off, develop a prototype, test it and redesign if necessary. It can be used in many areas of life.

As an education professional, where do you stand in the debate whether there should be a focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) or on STEAM (STEM plus the arts like humanities, language arts, dance, drama, music, visual arts, design and new media)? Can you explain why you feel the way you do?

Ari: I am firmly on the STEAM corner. So many complex technical careers or jobs are being automated or simplified with AI or no-code solutions, such that a new economy of technicians is forming around them. It’s kind of like a new industrial revolution around technology. What this means is that the academic importance of STEM is much less important than how you can apply it. Arts are the purest form of creativity. A source of beauty and joy. A values system and code of ethics. A STEM education needs Arts to accompany it if you want to create something new and meaningful. It’s pretty easy to build something in today’s world. It’s pretty hard to build something new that people love.

Esther: STEAM is the answer. STEAM encourages creative thinking because it includes the arts. How can we even consider leaving out art, music, drama, poetry, literature from our curriculum? Research shows that the arts are so important in critical thinking. They encourage reflective and independent thinking and that is what we need in today’s world. Critical thinking requires out of the box thinking. It requires kids to observe the world from many different angles. We should be focused on STEAM.

If you had the power to influence or change the entire US educational infrastructure what five things would you implement to improve and reform our education system? Can you please share a story or example for each?

Ari: Remove standardized testing. Here’s 5 to start with: State Achievement Tests, ACT, SAT, AP, and STAR. I cannot reiterate enough how destructive the standardized testing system is. Teachers are forced to dedicate classroom time to prepare kids. Kids stress about results. School funding is impacted by results. Kids choose AP classes in lieu of their passions in the Arts. Those with financial means spend resources to practice taking the test, and then do better. We need to break this cycle. Imagine what you could do with that time instead? What if you let kids choose how to spend it? Pick things they cared about and wanted to learn more about? I’ve heard so many incredible stories about what purpose can do to transform one’s engagement and educational outcomes. If we could just take more time to ask what kids wanted, and give them more control over their education I think the results would be transformational. Kids the CEOs of their own education. No longer burdened by any arbitrary test, free to work, learn, and contribute to society in ways that bring them the most purpose.

Esther: I agree 100 percent with Ari. We need to remove standardized testing or use the results of standardized testing in a way that helps students evaluate themselves and their learning, not as a block or source of shame or pride. Years ago standardized testing was used by the teacher and the student to help guide their learning. That should be the role of standardized testing. As for the AP classes and AP tests, if students want to take those, they should have the right to do so, but they should not be used as a tool to get into college. If colleges did not credit those classes, how many students would take them?

The second change I would make is to give more trust and respect to our teachers to allow them to bring more creativity into the classroom. Many classes are boring because teachers are following the rules and implementing the “scripted education” model.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Ari: “Things turn out best for the people who make the best of the way things turn out” — John Wooden. You can’t control what happens to you in life, but you absolutely can control your attitude and your reaction to them. A simple lesson, but a powerful one.

Esther: Winston Churchill: Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm. We need to remember that school is a place to learn and that means repeated revisions or failures until you get it right. Students should be encouraged to be creative, innovative and that means revising failures over and over.

We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

Ari: Elon Musk. The ultimate polymath. Is there any more inspiring CEO living? I think not.

Esther: The new Secretary of Education in the Biden Administration, Miguel Cardona

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Ari: LinkedIn

Esther: Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn

tract.app

Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!

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