Fab Fridays 36: First Principles Thinking
What are first principles, and why does it matter?
Happy Friday and greetings from Miami!
So... this has been an exciting week.
In case you missed it, here's the story of how Synthesis School grew out of one of the world's most innovative places: SpaceX
Six years ago, Elon Musk started Ad Astra, a secretive lab school on SpaceX campus.
Josh Dahn was Co-Founder and Director of that school. Now, Josh and Chrisman Frank are building Synthesis School to bring the magic of Ad Astra to every child.
Josh and Chrisman believe that in order to build a more innovative world, we need educational experiences designed from first principles to nurture future creators.
What are first principles, and why does it matter?
First Principles Thinking
Elon Musk is constantly doing things that have never been done before.
He dreams the impossible and makes it happen.
His secret? He reasons from first principles.
Here’s what Musk shared in an interview with Kevin Rose:
"I think it's important to reason from first principles rather than by analogy. The normal way we conduct our lives is we reason by analogy. We are doing this because it's like something else that was done, or it is like what other people are doing. With first principles, you boil things down to the most fundamental truths and then reason up from there.”
First principles thinking is a fancy way of saying think like a scientist.
Scientists don’t "assume" anything.
They question their assumptions until they get to the most fundamental truths—the first principles—and then build up from there.
Scientists deconstruct, then reconstruct.
Scientists think and build from first principles.
We don’t teach kids to think like scientists in conventional schools. We teach them to think by analogy.
First Principles Thinking vs. Thinking by Analogy
Tim Urban explains that the difference between reasoning by first principles and reasoning by analogy is like the difference between being a chef and being a cook.
The chef, who reasons from first principles, invents recipes. He knows the raw ingredients (aka the fundamental truths) and how to combine them.
The cook, who reasons by analogy, uses a recipe to create something that’s already been created.
Shane Parrish further explains this analogy by saying that:
"If the cook lost the recipe, he’d be screwed. The chef, on the other hand, understands the flavor profiles and combinations at such a fundamental level that he doesn’t even use a recipe. He has real knowledge as opposed to know-how."
Reasoning by analogy leads to imitation.
Reasoning from first principles leads to innovation.
In conventional schools, kids learn to reason by analogy: accept the default, rely on what they’re told without questioning, and build upon what already exists.
Reasoning by analogy can be extremely limiting.
As James Clear wrote “Be wary of the ideas you inherit. Old conventions and previous forms are often accepted without question and, once accepted, they set a boundary around creativity.”
Imagine a school that taught kids to think like scientists instead.
A school where kids learn to take things apart, test assumptions, and reconstruct from first principles. A school where kids are encouraged to question the default and explore whether better options exist. A school where kids learn to think for themselves.
That's what Synthesis School is all about: an educational experience designed from first principles to nurture innovators.
Here are a few reasons why I'm so excited about this school:
1. Synthesis gamifies the learning process: Kids learn through online team games that are fun, novel, and complex. While kids are entertained playing, they're learning the meta game—the skills and tools to master *any* game.
2. Every day in Synthesis is a new adventure: There’s an element of surprise & novelty in every game that keeps kids on their toes. At times chaotic, quite challenging, and unpredictable. It's much like real life! Kids LOVE it. Check it out!
3. Kids are motivated by the right incentives: Synthesis promotes healthy competition— collaborate with your own team, compete with others. Kids are *highly* engaged because they feel accountable, independent, and properly challenged. No need for external rewards!
4. Kids are not segregated by age: Unlike conventional schools, kids at Synthesis learn in mixed aged groups. I saw 8-year-olds taking the lead in some groups, and 14-year-olds breaking things down for the little ones! Kids of different ages learn and teach each other— just like in real life.
5. Kids learn *on demand*: Kids are focused on winning the game, and get introduced to strategies, tools, and mental models when they need them. Kids get to *apply right away* what they learn— and this is the secret recipe to make learning stick
6. Teachers are facilitators: Their role is to set up the environment so that kids can learn on their own. They observe, ask the right questions, and provide support when needed. Kids are in charge of the heavy lifting
7. Kids learn at their own pace: They all start at the same level and move up when they're ready. As they level up, the games become more complex and challenging—just like in video games. *Every kid* has a chance to succeed.
8. There are *no* grades: At Synthesis, kids succeed by thinking critically about a problem and coming up with creative solutions. The application process is a great example. It's simple and fun, and aims for originality and commitment. Kids are asked to solve a conundrum like this one.
I wrote an article about Conundrums, you can read it here!
Apply to Synthesis School
Enrollment is open for their first course, a collaborative game called Constellation for kids ages 8-14. Each cohort lasts 8 weeks (60-75 min sessions, once a week). There are times in the morning, afternoon, and evening in most of the world’s time zones.
Once registered, you’ll receive the application in your email. Once accepted, you’ll receive the course schedule, and can pick a class to fit your schedule.
The team at Synthesis is on to something special. I can't wait for more kids to be part of this incredible experience that was previously limited to a handful of SpaceX families.
I will be following Synthesis School closely and sharing more. Stay tuned!
Have a great weekend!
Ana Lorena Fabrega