The Flying-Bike Conundrum
All right, I’ve got a question for you. Imagine this: Three companies create a flying bicycle around the same time. But one company, AstraBike, is slightly more successful than all the others because its design, engineering, manufacturing, and marketing teams work so well together. The competition is intense, as the other two companies want to overtake AstraBike. AstraBike has a difficult decision to make. It only has enough money to grow one of its teams, and if it chooses unwisely, it may go out of business. So which one should it pick? Option A: The design team. If it grows, the designers want to create a new product for the company: a flying skateboard. Option B: The engineering team. If it grows, the engineers want to build a better version of the AstraBike that flies higher and goes faster. Option C: The manufacturing team. If it grows, the manufacturers want to create the AstraBike more quickly for less money. Option D: The marketing team. If it grows, the marketers want to use advertisements to make AstraBike known around the world. So which team should AstraBike grow?
This isn’t a job interview, or an IQ test, or a personality quiz. This is what is called a “Conundrum.” Though a student might encounter this problem or one like it in a public-school classroom, the Conundrum, as defined here, boasts nontraditional origins. Look beyond the Conundrum and, in the distance, you’ll glimpse SpaceX and, yes, Elon Musk.
It’s a Friday in May, and class is about to begin. Middle-school-age kids chatter, swapping stories about their pets until it’s time to work. They’re eager, bright, and funny: typical kids enrolled in an anything-but-typical program. This is Synthesis, a course developed at the Astra Nova School. On the school’s website, its credentials take the lead. “Born at SpaceX, and small by design,” the school is all virtual, meaning there are no physical classrooms for kids. Today’s class, like all Synthesis and Astra Nova classes, takes place on Zoom. Students have logged in from all over the world to work on Conundrums like the tale of the flying bike. They are drawn, perhaps, by Astra Nova’s genesis, briefly referenced on its website. Astra Nova and Synthesis both grew out of Ad Astra — the California-based school for children of SpaceX employees. Ars Technica reported that in 2014, Musk pulled his five sons out of their elite private school and hired one of their teachers to design a new one that would “exceed traditional school metrics on all relevant subject matter through unique project-based learning experiences.” SpaceX families made up around half the student body; the rest hailed from households in the Los Angeles area. Parents waged fierce battles for the few spots available; the Washington Post said it “may be the most exclusive school in the world.” Ad Astra shuttered in 2020, and co-founders Joshua Dahn, Rosemary Rohde, and Tara Safronoff pivoted to online teaching with the Astra Nova School. The same year, Dahn co-founded Synthesis, an enrichment program that was, the school website says, “conceived at Ad Astra, evolved at Astra Nova, and brought to scale” through a for-profit company.
Astra Nova is a bit different from its predecessor. The school moved operations fully online this past academic year. There are about 50 full-time students and 125 who attend part time, occasionally from around the world. About half are homeschooled; others attend regular public or private schools when they’re not in class at Astra Nova. The admissions process looks for students for whom Astra Nova “would be substantially more enlivening than their current school or educational situation,” Dahn says. The Astra Nova approach isn’t for everyone, and indeed, it’s not meant to be. Dahn tells me that he doesn’t believe online school works for all students, and after two years of disrupted pandemic learning, the average parent might agree. Students who choose Astra Nova are a self-selecting group inclined, perhaps, to succeed in this setting. Prospective students must respond to a Conundrum and attend a “demo day” at the school. A family interview is the last step in the process. “We do not care about IQ,” Dahn adds. “Elon will not be teaching your kids, and we try to focus on what matters most.”
Today, the controversial mogul has no ties to Astra Nova or Synthesis at all. Yet to observe Dahn teaching is to search for traces of Ad Astra — and perhaps Musk — in his project’s DNA. Friday’s Synthesis students soon get to work on a new Conundrum. Unlike the hypothetical Flying-Bike Conundrum, the inspiration for the so-called Closing Conundrum is based on stark reality. Developed in conjunction with Hawthorne Elementary School in Elkhart, Indiana, a public school that has since closed after nearly a century in operation, the Closing Conundrum asks students to decide who gets a say over the fate of the school. Should it be the school board? The community? Parents? Consultants? Maybe Hawthorne’s students themselves? The kids prepare to choose three, and after a few moments, their results display on our screens: Most think the school board should decide with students and parents in second and third place. Consultants come in last. The school board, they reason, was elected by the people to make difficult decisions.
The Conundrums are bright and cheerily animated. They’re clearly aimed at kids, though the conversations they inspire at times seem suited for a B-school seminar. In each, a voice encourages students, “Imagine this,” and asks them to immerse themselves in a scenario. The questions are open-ended, and there is never a wrong answer. The point is to think, but to think like who is the question. It’s an ambitious place designed for ambitious kids. If you want your child to become the next Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos, Astra Nova might be a good place to start. In fact, the school might be difficult to avoid. Dahn says the Conundrums have been viewed in over 100,000 classrooms around the country.
As Friday’s class continues, the kids turn to a pair of games. Dahn explains later that Synthesis uses the games so students can “feel the weight of powerful concepts like incentives, risk, scarcity, and trade-offs.” With the first game, Hollywood, they’re tasked with launching their own sci-fi film by purchasing scripts, assembling a cast, and developing a marketing budget. They know more about the concept of silent partners than I do. A second game, Art for All, “asks students to assemble an exhibition of art through auctions and take it on a tour to different cities around the world,” Dahn explains. A scoreboard tracks students’ attendance and profit, and they’re also judged on the quality of their art curation. The school isn’t accredited by any regulating body, and it’s difficult to gauge student progress by traditional metrics. So what do the Conundrums or the Synthesis games accomplish? Maybe the proof is in the kids themselves. They work well together. Dahn visits each breakout group to monitor its progress. In class discussions, the students tend to take the lead with Dahn offering the occasional correction or observation. The kids mostly ignore me, the stranger in their midst, as they focus on each other and their tasks.
The school’s pedagogy is experimental, Dahn says. Families can choose which classes students take each term, and the school appears eager to reach potential students. Astra Nova aims to share “any class, experience, experiment” with “students not in our school,” Dahn says.
Intended for children of middle-school age, Astra Nova offers classes that many families can’t access in traditional public, private, or homeschool settings. Dahn tells me that staff “co-create” the school with students, tailoring it to their interests. The school has offered courses in Shakespeare, planetary science, and bioethics “through the lens of CRISPR,” the gene-editing technology. Full-time students pay $32,500 a year to attend Astra Nova, though Dahn says around 43 percent of full-time students and 11 percent of part-time students receive some form of financial aid. Prospective students can learn something about the school from the Conundrums, which it publishes on its website and makes available to schools through ClassDojo, a popular digital platform for students and educators.
Musk’s name and image regularly appear in marketing for Synthesis: “I heard that Synthesis had something to do with Elon Musk,” a student says in one Facebook ad. A video briefly shows Musk discussing the former Ad Astra school. Yet Dahn sounds frustrated with the sensational headlines engendered by the defunct school’s association with Musk. In a letter on the school’s website, he says there were no flamethrowers at Ad Astra, as one article reported. “The school was exclusive because it was small. It was secretive because it wasn’t properly zoned,” he writes. To me, he says that “what made Ad Astra special was much simpler and far less dramatic; we had a directive to go out and create something new and worthwhile.” Dahn, who has also worked for Teach for America and later at a school for gifted children, where he first encountered Musk’s family, adds, “Since very few educators are given anything like this level of autonomy or opportunity, our hope is that our work at Astra Nova, even in some small way, is useful to educators and parents looking to try something different.”
When Ad Astra began, Dahn tells me, “the prevailing directive” from Musk “was to ‘figure it out and make it great.’” At Astra Nova, that mentality is still intact. Yet Musk’s influence might not end there. The school probably wouldn’t exist without him, and it’s banking, still, that students and families still think he’s a genius, or at least a savvy businessman, even as he undercuts his claim to either characterization. It’s too early to tell if Astra Nova will produce the next Musk, but the promise hangs in the air, shaping ad copy and maybe minds too. “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old, he will not depart from it,” the Bible says. For Astra Nova, the verse might as well be marketing copy.