Q&A with Ana Lorena Fabrega On Mental Models, Critical Thinking, and the Future of Educating Children

"If your kids seem to have an aptitude or intense interest for something that is not school-related, nurture and prioritize that."

You may remember Ana Lorena Fabrega from our interview earlier this year, in which she explained why traditional education is broken, how kids can learn to think independently, and why games are so important in the process of learning.

Fabrega is 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. Last week, the company raised $5 million in funding at a $50 million valuation (and I invested!)

On Friday, Fabrega participated in an hour-long, live "Ask Me Anything" with readers who are part of The Profile's members-only Telegram chat. (To join, consider becoming a premium member here.)

We discussed mental models, independent thinking, and the future of education.

Below are the highlights of her Q&A with the readers:

Q: As someone with two young children, my daughter just turned two, what’s the best way to prep her for a synthesis education?

FABREGA: Give them the freedom to play, explore, and pursue their own interests. In this newsletter, I share 10 tips for Cultivating Creativity from Mitchel Resnick, director of the Lifelong Kindergarten group at MIT.

It’s important to remember that kids are designed, by nature, to play and explore on their own, independently of adults. They learn from anything and everything. They don’t need a robust curriculum, elaborated lesson plans, or fancy digital tools in order to learn. In this newsletter, I share a few simple ideas for kids to learn at home.

Q: What do you do with a child that is obviously brilliant in a certain area but isn't doing the right things to be "successful" in a traditional school setting?

Love this question. If your kids seem to have an aptitude or intense interest for something that is not school-related, nurture and prioritize that. No matter what his or her age, when a child has a serious and productive interest in something, do anything possible to feed it. Let them take lessons or classes or join a club, or spend tons of time in their craft. The best thing parents can do here is to be the perfect enabler. By doing that, kids will devote lots of time to it, and that’s what it takes to become truly accomplished at something.

Q: Does Synthesis plan on becoming a full-blown school alternative? Also, what book recommendations do you have for those thinking about education in the most innovative way?

Synthesis is starting as a weekly, one-hour enrichment program for students who want to learn how to be innovative thinkers, prolific problem solvers, and wise decision makers. We are not an accredited academic institution or a full-time school.

In terms of books that inspire you to think about learning in a new way, here are a few that I like:

— Lifelong Kindergarten: Cultivating Creativity through Projects, Passion, Peers, and Play by Mitchel Resnick

— Free to Learn by Peter Gray

— Timeless Learning by Ira Socol and Pam Moran

Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling by John Taylor Gatto

Q: Are there ways we can implement some learning models from Synthesis into our adult lives so that we too can cultivate independent-thinking (at work, home, etc.)?

At Synthesis, we design simulations that help kids navigate the complexity and chaos that eventually unfolds in our lives. By playing our simulations, kids develop a body of thinking tools—or mental models—that they can use outside our games to make better decisions and solve real problems.

I think learning about mental models is a great way to cultivate your independent thinking. A mental model is an explanation of how something works. At Synthesis we tell kids that mental models are like thinking tools (concepts, frameworks, or worldview) that help us understand life, make better decisions, and solve complex problems. And the mental models we teach them don’t just apply to the games, they apply broadly to life and are useful in a wide range of situations.

Q: What are some specific mental models that you hope children learn from participating in Synthesis?

I will share the 4 simulations we have up and running right now and the mental models that are explored in each:

Constellation is a fast-paced strategy game that challenges students to create the most valuable group of stars in the face of shifting scoring variables. Some of the Mental Models covered in this simulation are Stag-Hunt, Prisoner’s Dilemma, and Resource Scarcity.

Art For All challenges kids to assemble an art collection through live auctions before traveling the globe in a competition for attendance, profit, and harmony. Kids learn about the winner's curse, contingent value, auction theory, probabilistic thinking, and negotiation.

Fire Ridge is a fast-paced collaboration game where teams of students work together to fight forest fires under various conditions. This is our first "massively cooperative" game where the opponent is the fire itself. Kids learn about resource allocation and scarcity.

Fish asks kids to manage commercial fishing waters while navigating scarcity and declining ecological systems. Kids have to manage logistical challenges that are constantly evolving while delving into ethical & market-based questions. Kids learn about the mental model Tragedy of the Commons.

Q: I love that you don't use grades or standard metrics. Is there any way you quantify the impact you're having?

We record the conversations that our students are having in the breakout groups and share them with our families so they see how their kids are improving in the way they reason through problems, synthesize concepts, and apply the mental models.

However, in the intensives program that we are now offering as part of the membership (for kids who want that extra challenge) kids are required to put together a portfolio of all the case studies and problems they solve.

Here's an example of the magic moment recordings that we send to parents:

And regarding assessment, I don't think it should be grades, but feedback loops. Like the real world. What are you able to do? That is the real assessment. Let the assessment of what they know be what can they create and build with what they know. I wrote a bit more about my thoughts on assessment and metrics in this article.

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