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“The Most Important Person in Children’s Lives is their Teacher”

May 31, 2019, 16:38 GMT+1
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  • Journalism educator Esther Wojcicki tells us why her approach to raising three highly successful daughters can be applied more widely...

In your new book How to Raise Successful People you describe using the ‘TRICK’ approach to raise your daughters – what’s the thinking behind it?

‘TRICK’ stands for Trust, Respect, Independence, Collaboration and Kindness. I came up with that acronym from trying to figure out what I’d done in the classroom and with my parenting to help my three daughters become so successful [Anne, founder of genetic testing company 23andMe; Janet, an anthropologist and epidemiologist; and Susan, CEO of YouTube].

My goal when they were infants was that I wanted them to be as independent as possible and to be able to think, all of the time. They were effectively guinea pigs, since I didn’t know anybody else who was trying to do the same thing.

Kids’ confidence comes from feeling like they have some form of control and power. For example, after our family moved to Europe, Susan went to live in the Swiss Alps with a French-speaking family for a week at the age of five and thought nothing of it. She already had that sense of ‘I can do it,’ even then. If parents believe in their kids and are prepared to give them opportunities for decision-making, that empowers them.

How did your own approach compare with that of other parents? Did you ever discuss it with them?

My kids and I had friends who would often come over. Their parenting styles were quite different to mine, but I never tried to proselytise or change anyone’s ideas. What I did stemmed from my own childhood, which I describe in the book – I wanted my children to always feel that they had control of their lives, and that they possessed the skills necessary to think their way out of anything.

I do remember telling other parents that the most important person in their children’s lives was their teacher, and that during the earliest phase of their children’s lives, those parents effectively were the teacher. I recall some parents saying they planned to wait until their children started school, which was when they’d really start learning, but my theory was that that was too late. I wanted my children to be excited about learning, excited about life, and empowered to pursue whatever interested them.

You’ve previously suggested that the TRICK approach can be applied to the running of organisations, including school structures – what would that look like?

It would involve giving teachers respect and some control over the curriculum they teach. They’re typically implementers of a curriculum decided by somebody else, with the result that many teachers complain of not having opportunities to be creative. At the same time, teachers can provide the kids with opportunities to work together in small groups on something they care about.

Schools lean towards teaching children to follow instructions, which I do believe is a positive thing – but there should also be chances for them to be creative. My goal would therefore be to set aside 20% of the time in a school day or week for ‘moonshot time’, where kids get to work on their own projects, be it colouring, coding an app – anything not actively harmful or dangerous that they can independently choose and pursue for themselves. If you give students opportunities to be creative for 20% of the time, it follows that you can also give teachers opportunities to be creative for 20% of their time, be it by themselves or alongside colleagues.

If an idea doesn’t work out first time round, it’s okay to try again, or attempt something else altogether. The idea is to encourage situations which help children understand that learning and creativity happen when we’re making mistakes. Some teachers might reason there aren’t enough hours in the day for ‘moonshot time’, but could it be that they’re spending time on things that aren’t actually that productive for the kids? Perhaps those kids will end up being more productive and engaged in what they’re doing if they have opportunities to think outside the box.

As someone very close to the culture of Silicon Valley [Google co-founder Sergey Brin is the former husband of daughter Anne and president of YouTube parent company Alphabet] what are your thoughts on how technology is currently being used in classrooms?

Google’s G Suite for Education is very useful for the collaborative classwork I try to encourage, in that students can edit each other’s work, partner on different types of projects and contribute remotely The input on all the newspapers and magazines my students produce comes via Google Docs [Wojcicki was instrumental in the launch of GoogleEdu and the Google Teacher Academy].

But there are also many other companies out there that encourage what I call the ‘4 Cs’ that are really important for the 21st century – collaboration, communication, critical thinking and creativity. Adobe has a new collaborative design app called Spark, which is free and easy to use, and another called Adobe Premiere Rush for editing videos.

What about technology use outside of school – if the TRICK philosophy is being practised at home, is there a risk that children will independently choose to spend the majority of their time on their smartphone or games console? Is that even a problem?

I do think that there should be limits on screen time. Before the age of 5 it should be extremely limited, and I don’t think there should be any screen time at all before the age of two – none. At 5 and above, screen time limits can become a collaborative project, where the parent says, ‘Here’s a selection of things you can play and engage with online – you get to pick which ones you’d like to do.”

I’d try to ensure that children don’t just learn how to be entertained playing a game, but also learn about the wider world and how to answer any questions they might have. ‘Maybe you can get the answers online? Show me how you’d submit a question. How should you evaluate the answers to that question?’ What I don’t agree with is simply giving kids lots of independence and letting them do whatever they want online – that way lies a rabbit hole.

You’d like to see TRICK principles embedded in every classroom, but given broader education policy trends in the US and elsewhere, realistically, how far are we from that happening?

I think we’re closer than we’ve ever been before, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to happen next year. Everybody’s now aware that kids need creativity and innovation to play a role in changing the 21st century. Kids in private schools are already receiving this type of creative education – my focus is on the public schools where 95% of the kids are. It needs to be accessible to everybody, everywhere, because you never know where that next creative leap is going to come from.

That’s what ‘20% moonshot time’ can do. Employers want people who are innovative and creative, but that doesn’t necessarily come from people who get perfect test scores. Arguably the most creative people are those who didn’t get perfect scores, but thought for themselves and went against the system. Let’s give kids opportunities to be creative within the system, and let’s encourage it for 20% of the time.

Career timeline

  • 1959
    Begins undergraduate studies at UC Berkeley on a scholarship
  • 1984
    Begins teaching English and journalism at Palo Alto High School, California
  • 2002
    Recognised as ‘California Teacher of the Year’ by the California Commission
  • 2009
    Honoured by the Columbia Scholastic Press Association
  • 2013
    Awarded honorary doctorate from Palo Alto University
  • 2015
    Co-authors the book Moonshots in Education: Launching Blended Learning in the Classroom

How to Raise Successful People: Simple Lessons for Radical Results is available now, published by Hutchinson.