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Top educator Esther Wojcicki on how schools need to adapt for the 21st century

Lara O'Reilly
Executive Producer

Ask most employers about the ideal traits they look for in future employees and chances are they will come back with a list of attributes including words like “creative,” “critical thinker,” or “team player.”

Yet many schools aren’t setting pupils up for success in the workplace, according to Esther Wojcicki, an educator of more than 35 years and founder of the renowned Palo Alto High School Media Arts programme.

“I think the education system does want to change,” Wojcicki said on Yahoo Finance UK’s Global Change Agents with Lianna Brinded show.

Watch the full Esther Wojcicki Global Change Agents interview here.

“They realise things need to change for the 21st century. Last century we were looking for people that followed rules all the time — factory workers — so the number one thing we wanted you to do was follow directions,” she said.

“This century, we want people who can think, people who can communicate, who are creative, who are critical thinkers, who collaborate. That’s what all the employers want ... so in order to get people like this, we have to train them differently,” Wojcicki said.

“The education system is aware of that, but right now we are training them for the last century.”

Esther Wojcicki with students from her Palo Alto High School media arts class. Photo: Supplied by Esther Wojcicki

Wojcicki’s teaching method centres around the acronym “TRICK” — Trust, Respect, Independence, Collaboration, and Kindness. She advises schools allocate 20% of their students’ time to creative projects of their own choosing, from developing apps to gardening.

“80% of the time can still be traditional, top-down, lecture-based, follow directions, take tests,” Wojcicki said. “Just 20% of the time, open that up to kids having their own ideas and opportunity to work on their own projects, projects they come up with, projects they care about, projects that matter to them.”

If “20% time” sounds familiar, you may recall Google has also long-encouraged its employees to spend 20% of their time on their own personal projects — a policy that led to the creation of products including Gmail, Adsense and Google Maps. Wojcicki’s daughter, Susan, was one of Google’s earliest employees and is now the CEO of Google’s YouTube.

In her new book, How to Raise Successful People, Wojcicki Snr. describes Google as “one of the first companies to treat employees like real people who needed to be cared for.”

“You can’t be creative as long as you’re following instructions, so that’s how the education system needs to change,” Wojcicki said on the Global Change Agents show.

Global Change Agents with Lianna Brinded explores the stories of some of the most inspirational women across business, tech, and academia. Catch up on all the latest episodes here.