June 03, 2021

Discussing Faults in the Education System and How to Change with Esther Wojcicki

Dana Bernardino

1Huddle Podcast Episode #42

On this Bring It In podcast episode, 1Huddle’s CEO and Founder Sam Caucci sat down with Esther Wojcicki, the Godmother of Silicon Valley, teacher, and author of How to Raise Successful People: Simple Lessons for Radical Results. Esther is a highly accomplished educator, journalist, and entrepreneur, along with being a particularly successful parent. Her one daughter Susan is the CEO of YouTube; her other daughter Anne, is the co-founder of 23andMe; and her third daughter Janet, is a Fulbright-winning anthropologist and professor. 

Esther founded the media arts program at Palo Alto High School, where she built a journalism program from a small group of 20 students in 1984, one of the largest in the nation that now serves over 600 students. Before she began teaching journalism, Esther was a professional journalist for multiple publications, still writes regularly for The Huffington Post, and was the person that Steve Jobs sent his daughter to in high school to mentor. She shares her thoughts on education in a COVID world and what it should look like going forward. 

On this episode of Bring It In season two, Esther sat down with 1Huddle’s CEO and Founder Sam Caucci and talked about what needs to change in the education system today and how educators can best prepare future workers.

Audio available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Google Podcasts. 


Below are some of the insights Esther shared during our chat, edited for length and clarity. You can find more Bring It In podcast episodes here.

  • “As long as you are always worried about making a mistake, you won’t be ready.”
  • “Schools make a huge mistake when they ban cell phones because kids need to know how to use their cell phones to find information intelligently.”
  • “We all learn on our phones especially if you know how to use your phone to learn.”
  • “Isn’t school supposed to prepare you to function in the society in which you live in?”
  • “Why is it that just some people have access and not all of us?”


Sam: You’re in Palo Alto, I assume?

Esther: I’m in Palo Alto. So yesterday I went to school and there were, I would say that out of most of the classes at the school, only 10% of the kids came back. 

Sam: Wow. 

Esther: The rest of them were all remote. And what was interesting for me to watch is what the teachers were doing. They were basically, the kids that were in the class were watching the teacher on the computer who was talking to the kids that were remote. 

Sam: What do you think about that?

Esther: That’s crazy. That’s totally crazy. So the only advantage of going to school then is if your parents want a place to put you while they’re gone to work or something, it’s kind of just that’s it. Otherwise it doesn’t work. 

Sam: It makes me wonder after COVID, you know, also as a tech startup, everybody kept telling me early on, don’t call yourself ed-tech. They got it all under control. They’re all ready for anything. I don’t know if that’s how we feel about that. 

Esther: That is all wrong. A hundred percent. So the schools, they scrambled like crazy at the beginning. And we even discovered in Palo Alto that about 50% of the teachers who said they knew a lot about tech, when push came to shove, they didn’t know anything. And they had to, I mean, we had to teach teachers how to use Google docs. I was like, I can’t believe you haven’t been using it all this time, but I think what happened is they lied a lot. And the reason they did is just because their old system worked and then didn’t see any reason to change it. And the only reason they decided to change it is they couldn’t do the old system, and they knew in the chaos that we were all facing. So, now I’m still working in Palo Alto. I mean, I don’t teach anymore. I stopped teaching in June. I decided I didn’t want to be forced into this. 

Sam: It’s tough to convince people that failure’s okay.

Esther: That’s right, because the whole school system is based on no failure. Failure is considered the worst thing you can do. And kids are afraid of their teacher. They’re afraid to speak out. They’re afraid of what their peers are going to think about them. The whole school system is based on fear and that’s how we keep everybody in line, because they’re afraid. And so that does not enhance creativity. I like your idea of a game, you know, as a way to learn. That sounds great. 

Sam: I always thought that, you know, looking at younger people gets you in a position to understand where the worker of the future is going to be, right? How they’re being brought up, how they’re learning, it’s a good data point to know if you’re going to build workforce training to prepare for the future of work. Right. What was a big topic in Israel at the education summit was how do you get, how do you prepare young people for the jobs of the future, maybe not knowing what those jobs are. 

Esther: Right. Well, that’s a really important thing. How do you prepare young people for the jobs that you don’t know are going to even be, that you can’t even conceptualize? And that’s why I think you have to teach young people how to think. Critical thinking, creativity, teach them how to collaborate, and teach them how to communicate. I mean, if you can communicate and collaborate with other people, think critically, and be creative, you’ll be prepared for the future. I think as long as you are in a situation where you are always worried about making a mistake, you won’t be ready to teach how to learn independently. I mean, it’s all there on the web. You know, I just remember I used to go to the library once a week, literally once a week. And, I had a basket and I would put all the books in the basket and next week I would bring back the other ones. And I haven’t been to the library now, I cannot remember the last time I went. Because whenever I want to look up something, I just do it online. I mean, now Google Scholar, I’ve got all kinds of books. I’ve got all kinds of websites. I’ve got Google to help me find out what I want to learn, it’s just all there. So if we can teach people how to use the web intelligently, that’s why I think schools make a huge mistake when they ban cell phones, because I think kids need to know how to use their cell phones, to find information intelligently. And right now they find a lot of TikTok videos, which are really crazy. But I was thinking about those TikTok videos as I was watching them. A lot of thought and preparation goes into those videos, a lot. And so if people could think of ways to use that same energy and thought process to do other things, it might be a win-win for everybody, a win for them and a win for society, a win for the world, because I don’t know how many of those ridiculous dance videos I’ve seen, I’m sure you’ve seen them too. Do you know sometimes there’s like really old people they’re doing it, and it’s like, I bet it took you a week to learn to do that. 

Sam: No, you’re right. I’ve never, I never thought about it that way. And when you said the banning of cell phones, I had a phone call the other day with this individual who had a job title called Head of Future of Work, at a major Fortune 500 brand. And this person said to me, we’re looking for a product for training and development, but it can’t be mobile compatible.

Esther: That company is in the dark ages. That is ridiculous because we all learn on our phones, especially if we know how to use the phone to learn. I can’t believe that they’re doing that. And I actually wrote a bunch of articles about how poorly thought out the French system was. You know, they banned cell phones in all their schools. And my take on that was, isn’t school supposed to teach you how to function well in the society that you live in? And isn’t this, the age of digital media and just Commedia? And if you ban the number one device to access the media, how are you helping kids prepare for the world they live in? Anyway, I don’t know what’s going on in France now, but I certainly hope they’ve changed their mind. 

Sam: Yeah, it’s there. And I just can’t help, but think even right now, you know, tonight President Biden is speaking on infrastructure. He’s doing his first address to Congress and he’s, um, you know, the argument right now is what is infrastructure? One side is just roads and bridges. The other is like, yeah, there’s a lot more infrastructure now, human infrastructure and broadband access. And there’s childcare. There’s just a lot more. And, you know, I don’t know. I’d be interested in your take on that. 

Esther: So I think bridges, roads, those are all part of the infrastructure, of course. And those have been around for a hundred years, maybe more, but now infrastructure includes TAC, it includes wireless and it includes having access to 5G, having access. Why is it just that some people have access to this and not all of us? It’s just like, are we going to keep people that are poor off the roads? I mean, it’s really a bad, a poorly thought out concept. To not make sure that all people have access to the wifi and to the internet and to all aspects because a lot of information comes out through your phone. Okay. Perhaps we don’t have to, we shouldn’t be giving the phones away. People should buy them, but we should have plans for people that are poor, really poor to access the device too. Especially since the government sends out a lot of very important messages on your phone and how are they supposed to get it? You know, just, all you have to do is turn off your phone for a few days and you’ll feel completely lost. That’s it, just takes a few days. And I remembered, so I’m old enough to remember what it was like without the phone. And if something happened in New York or in Europe, it took weeks for you to find out, you know, because we used to get two newspapers, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. And so the question was like, what happened during the day, if you wanted to get the evening paper, but you never knew what was really going on in other parts of the world, because communication was so slow. So, it should be a right, just like, I also believe that healthcare should be a right. I don’t want to read any more stories about people ending up homeless because they had to pay all their medical bills. We’re a wealthy enough country that we can afford to have people okay, let’s say you can not pay it. Um, you can pay it in different ways. You know, there could be deluxe versions and there could be middle-class versions and there could be lower versions, but we all need to have access. My youngest brother died because we didn’t have access to a hospital because my parents didn’t have proof of payment. I mean, what a terrible thing that is. And, you know, I read about it all the time about people that can’t get into different hospitals or get the necessary medical treatment. And we’re wealthy enough so that we definitely can afford to take care of these people. 

Sam: People, you know, some businesses might think that, you know, when you clock in, you leave everything else, it affects you and your normal life at the door. And then you pick it back up. When you clock out, these things spill over into everything. And, you know, when you talk about healthcare or minimum wage or childcare, they all affect the psyche of a worker. 

Esther: They all affect the psyche of a worker, you know, and I feel sorry when I hear the stories of people that are homeless, you know, most of them had terrible childhoods and they never could overcome that. And, there’s a lot of sad stories out there these days. And I guess that’s probably the reason we can hear about these sad stories is because we all have these devices and they come through every day in the latest, really sad story about this guy in Oakland, that I don’t know, was held down by the police for five minutes and then he ended up dead and he was 26 years old, Hispanic. I mean, it makes you fear the police, and the police are supposed to be our protectors, helping us all live better lives and they have to stop doing this stuff that really puts everybody’s life at danger. 

Sam: Any advice for young people that are trying to get their start, advice for what you think they can do, because so many of the things we’re talking about are gonna relate and I look at my daughter now, four years old, and I definitely act differently when I look at teachers or, law enforcement or the things are gonna impact her in the future. 

Esther: Public schools really should offer the best education to all of us because the public school is the creator of the population of the future. And they should take that responsibility very seriously and make sure that all kids have social-emotional skills and they learn those in elementary school, kindergarten through sixth grade. And I think that’s the main thing elementary schools need to do. In addition to teaching math and reading skills. So math skills, reading skills, social, emotional skills, and these should also help kids feel empowered so that they are willing to take a risk and willing to try new things. And one of the main things you can come out of school with is a sense of self, a sense that you are a good person and that you know how to take care of yourself and that you can also collaborate and help other people do the same thing. We’re all part of a community. So the idea of having all these private schools where people get these ultra-special educations, and then comparing that to the public school. So it’s kind of like having two classes of kids, you know, the ones that get the best of everything and then the rest of us. And I really think the public schools have always been the key to the democratization and the success of America. And if you look around the other democracies in the world, Education is the key. That’s the number one thing and how you feel about yourself, makes a big difference. So that’s, I guess that’s the main thing that I would focus on. My kids, all three of them went to public schools and it never even crossed my mind for them to go to any other school, no private schools, anything. And if we didn’t have a good teacher, one year, the idea was how can you learn to cope? Even if you don’t have the perfect teacher, what can you do to make it work for you? And so instead of having the school and the teacher adapt to your child, the idea was what you can do to adapt to the situation, because nobody can predict what you’re going to have to cope with, who would have ever predicted this pandemic. But it’s really important that people that have thrived in this pandemic are people who said, I’ve got this unfortunate set of circumstances, and I’m going to try to work anyway around it, see what I can do to be creative in the midst of this pandemic. And, I can say to tell you that lots of kids that I’ve talked to, and a lot of my students that I’m still in touch with have done some very interesting things that they never would have been able to do if they had been going to school. I think that’s the way to think about it instead of thinking about what they call the big learning loss. Actually, even the New York Times came out with an article last week in which they said we should not call it the learning loss, because that stigmatizes a whole generation of kids, you know, they might have learned other things. They might’ve grown anyway. So why don’t we just think of it as different learning, learning differently and, yeah, that’s the way I think about it and all my grandchildren have done different things. Okay, maybe they’re not ahead a year in reading, but they’ll catch up. You know, all the kids will catch up, if we keep just stressing. 

Sam: Totally. Yeah. I know we’ve gotten a lot. My daughter’s been a part of a lot more conference calls over the last year. But, Esther, thank you for taking time to talk with me. It was a privilege to meet you. 

Esther: Well, it’s great to meet you and I’m excited about number one huddle. I mean, actually, I’m going to go online and look at it and see what you’re doing and yeah, I want to play. 

Sam: We’ll get you a few games. We’ll let you check it out. 

Esther: Oh yeah. Send me some games, I would love to do that. Congratulations on coming up with a great idea.

Topics Discussed: Education, Technology, Infrastructure, Future Leaders, Future of Work

Dana Bernardino, Manager of Digital Marketing at 1Huddle

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