Take a moment and think back to when you were in kindergarten.

Activities like capturing tadpoles, making birdfeeders, and building forts filled school days with wonder and excitement. Now fast-forward to 9th grade memories; the magic of the classroom begins to dwindle, right? There’s a reason for this.

When kids enter school around age six, they’re naturally engaged in the classroom; their minds are fresh slates and sponges of curiosity. But research shows that around 9th grade, classroom engagement begins to plummet.

Educators have also identified 9th grade as the make or break year for many students—the tipping point between succeeding or dropping out.

With about 20% of teens dropping out of high school and 5.6 million Americans between the ages of 16-24 (that’s 1 in 7) disconnected from both school and work, it isn’t too wild to say that we have an engagement crisis in the US.


This lack of engagement comes at a high cost to the economy and to taxpayers, who spend $93 billion dollars annually on disconnected youth (those not in school or working) and $1.6 trillion over their lifetime.

But that spending isn’t preparing the population to thrive in today’s workforce.

In fact, 40% of U.S. companies cannot find qualified candidates to fill their jobs, and employers spend more on skills training annually than universities and government combined.

If your head is spinning from this cycle of inefficiency, you’re not alone.

Education experts Esther Wojcicki, a distinguished visiting scholar at Stanford’s MediaX, and Leila Toplic, CMO at LRNG, a non-profit aimed at redesigning learning to match 21st-century needs, had a panel discussion at Singularity University’s Global Summit on how to solve these problems.

They both point to moonshot thinking as a way of addressing these challenges.

What is moonshot thinking?

Put simply, moonshot thinking is when you approach a huge challenge (like disengaged high school students) with a radical solutions-oriented mindset. In this mindset, the focus is on creating solutions that can make 10x improvements to the problem rather than 10% improvements.

Moonshot thinking motivates teams to think big by framing problems as solvable and encouraging “anything is possible” dialogues around how to solve the challenge.

During the panel, Leila Toplic said, “We live in a time of an unprecedented abundance of learning opportunities… but education is fragmented and disconnected from how the world really operates in the 21st century.”

Both Toplic and Wojcicki say outdated classroom education is causing this disconnect, but moonshot thinking around the role of the teacher and the use of class time can change this.

Moonshot #1: Moving from ‘sage on the stage’ to ‘a guide on the side’

Think about it like this: the more a teacher does for the student, the less empowered the student feels. The sage-on-the-stage teaching models make students dependent on the teacher at each step of their learning journey.

The guide-on-the-side model, however, focuses on empowering students through building autonomy in the classroom. Wojcicki says, “We need to empower kids so that they can control their future,” and we can begin this by giving students control over their learning.

But giving up control can be extremely hard for teachers, and it requires a shift in mindset. To do this, Wojcicki says, “The trick is T.R.I.C.K.!” Teachers should engage with their students in ways that foster the following classroom values:

  • Trust
  • Respect
  • Independence
  • Collaboration
  • Kindness

Singularity University Global Summit is the culmination of the Exponential Conference Series and the definitive place to witness converging exponential technologies and understand how they’ll impact the world.

Moonshot #2: Bringing the 20% rule into high school classrooms

Many companies have adopted Google’s 20% principle, where employees can dedicate 20% of their time to a project that inspires them and might improve an area of the company.

Wojcicki is applying this concept in her own classrooms by dedicating 20% of “classroom time” to project-based learning. During classroom time, students get to create and lead their own real-world projects, like a student-published magazine that features stories of student leaders and inspiring members of the local community.

“Give students freedom and a taste of what is coming in the 21st century. This is a wise approach because teachers are not just going to stop lecturing,” said Wojcicki. “No one asks you what your SAT scores were when you apply to a job. They want to know the projects you’ve worked on.”

Self-directed project learning gives students practical experience and work samples to use as they search for internships and careers after college. It also fosters collaboration and teamwork, and it empowers students to find ways to overcome problems on their own instead of relying on their teachers.

How to scale

Unfortunately, this innovative type of learning is often easier to integrate into well-funded schools.

This is one reason why LRNG is working to create experiential learning opportunities, both online and in person, that link disconnected and disengaged students with local organizations like museums, schools, businesses, and libraries.

Paraphrasing William Gibson, Toplic says, “Yes, the future is here, but it’s not equally distributed.”

Scaling new types of classroom learning also requires shifting mindsets within major institutions from evaluating students based on SAT scores to using project-based work examples.

Wojcicki is working on this by targeting college admissions counselors at institutions like Stanford, who have huge decision-making power around changes to high school curricula. She believes that as long as these institutions assess students based on SATs, learning will remain optimized for test scores.

High school teachers need to experiment more with restructuring classroom learning. But administration at both the high school and college level must also welcome moonshot thinking and solutions so that teachers are supported when they want to put new ideas into practice.

Image credit: Shutterstock 

Alison tells the stories of purpose-driven leaders and is fascinated by various intersections of technology and society. When not keeping a finger on the pulse of all things Singularity University, you'll likely find Alison in the woods sipping coffee and reading philosophy (new book recommendations are welcome).