Meet Ana Lorena Fabrega, the Educator Focused on Independent Thinking and Mental Models

"School should be a place where we let kids ask a ton of questions and let kids fail and fail often without making a big deal about it."

By the time Ana Lorena Fabrega was 15 years old, she had attended 10 different schools in seven different countries.

"We moved from Panama to Colombia to Venezuela to India to Mexico to Brazil then back to Panama and then I did college in the U.S," Fabrega told The Profile. "When I reflect on my schooling experience, I realized I didn't remember the things I was supposed to be learning."

As she got older, Fabrega's experience as a student fueled her passion for teaching. She wanted to find ways to inspire young people and spark their love for learning. So she became a teacher. After five years, however, she became frustrated that the traditional school system wasn't designed to nurture children's natural curiosities and interests.

"The way I saw it was that we have taken learning out of context by placing it in this institutional framework that focuses on things like grades, obedience, and compliance instead of the things that really matter, which are the joy of learning and exploration and thinking independently," she says. "We focus on the wrong things because we have the wrong incentives in place."

So Fabrega asked herself the following questions: "How can students be self motivated to learn if they are not given the opportunity to explore their curiosities or the things that excite them? How can teachers cultivate in students a love for learning that lasts forever, when they are forced to teach a one-size-fits-all curriculum that rewards grades and standards over creativity and choice?"

Education, Fabrega thought, shouldn't be about passing tests. It should be about self-directed learning and creative exploration. There had to be another way.

In 2020, Fabrega became the Chief Evangelist at Synthesis, an online enrichment club where kids learn through games and simulations. Students enrolled in Synthesis learn mental models, decision-making, and game theory by playing complex and collaborative games.

"In school, things are very straightforward and we water things down so it's easier to grade," Fabrega says. "With Synthesis, it's the opposite. We make things complex because we know that kids can not only handle complexity, but they actually crave it.”

In this conversation, Fabrega explains why traditional education is broken, how kids can learn to think independently, why games are so important in the process of learning, and so much more.

(Below is an excerpt of the interview, but I encourage you to listen and watch to the full interview here)

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Tara Westover, the author of "Educated," says she has held racist, homophobic, and sexist views. To Tara, the classroom was a safe place where she could express those views out loud, which taught her that she could change her mind. How safe is it to express those types of views in a classroom today?

FABREGA: It's not safe at all. It's not a safe space to talk about things, and parents play a big role here. I was the kind of teacher where I liked to hold these conversations, but then I would encounter parents who would say, "Why are you even talking about these things? These are just nine-year-olds." And I would say, "Well, because they had a question and they were asking me, and I am a trusted educator, so if I don't give them a good answer, they're going to look it up on YouTube or ask a kid on the bus that might give them the wrong answer."

It's so crazy because what Tara talks about there, I haven't experienced in any school. In school, we need to be so careful about the things that we say and the things that the kids talk about because there are all these "taboo topics" we can't touch on. A lot of it comes from the culture of parents and what they feel like kids should or shouldn't know.

I always say that information is power. With the internet, kids can figure things out so quickly. What they need is an adult role model or someone they trust who will answer their questions and say, "I don't know that answer, but let's look it up," and someone who will listen to them and debate their ideas.

The way it's approached in school is almost as if it weren't our problem. And then what happens is the kids go home and parents say, "Schools should be handling this," but there's clearly a miscommunication. So this isn't really being handled anywhere.

I often think about this: If you're not allowed to ask questions as a kid when you're trying to make sense of the world, understand right and wrong, and form your opinions, then when are you going to get to ask these questions? Because as an adult, if you haven't formed your own opinions and your own way of independent thinking, then you're not able to think for yourself. To me, we have it so backwards.

School should be a place where we let kids ask a ton of questions and let kids fail and fail often without making a big deal about it. Those two things aren't happening. We're punishing kids for asking questions and we're punishing them with grades that go on permanent records every time they fail. If they're not getting the opportunity to do these things as a kid, then when are they going to get to do it?

You write that "In school, we learn to play the status game. The grades game. The compliance game." But there's another game we're not taught, which is "the metagame." Can you explain this?

When we design these games [at Synthesis], we are often thinking: What's our purpose with this? What do we want kids to learn through this game?

We don't want them to get really good at "Constellation," which is one of our first games or "Art for All," which is another of our games — that's not our purpose. Our purpose is that there's a lot of value in these games and things you can extract to the real world. What we want is for them to play enough of these games that have layers and layers of complexity, so they are working on the same skills but from different contexts so that they can learn "the metagame," which is the set of skills and tools to master any game.

We use the word "game," but it's not just for games. Really successful people in the real world think: "OK, what's the game everyone is playing? That's not the game I'm going to play. Let me try to see how I can use what I'm really good at and figure out a different way to do something." And that's how they become really successful because they're playing a different game. That's sort of what we want to teach them.

They already know how to play the game of school — most of them do come from traditional schooling. So here, we're like, "Forget about that. You'll play multiple games over a number of years, so you can learn how to think differently and translate it to the real world so you can face these difficult situations." We're teaching them how to recognize patterns in different situations because that's ultimately what we mean when we talk about the metagame.

I recently published a Dossier on Stephen Hawking, and he said, "The greatest enemy to knowledge is not ignorance. It is the illusion of knowledge." As an educator, have you found that to be true?

Absolutely. The way I think about it is that in order to be an effective educator, I've had to unlearn a lot of the things that I learned in school. For you to be able to be an effective educator and an effective learner, you need to be able to question things, hold an attitude of skepticism, and surround yourself with people who are open-minded. Being able to say, "Wait a minute, why do I believe this? Does this make sense or is this something I can let go of? And should I replace it with a new thought or a new way of doing things?"

I've had to do a lot of that in terms of the role the teacher plays and the way we should be teaching and engaging kids. These are all things I've had to unlearn in order to do things right.

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