Off Deadline: Journalism teacher takes aim at critical thinking, internationally

Palo Alto High School's Esther Wojcicki aims to teach young people how to think

Esther Wojcicki -- "Woj" to her friends and the Palo Alto High School (Paly) journalism and English students she has taught for nearly a third of a century -- has embarked on an international mission some see as akin to flying to the moon, a "moonshot" dream.

Her vision is to refocus education to teach young people how to think.

Journalism does that, she believes. Learning to research a story, interview sources, arrange content and write tightly replaces rote memorization and studying strictly to pass tests with analytical skills and clarity of focus, she feels. Those thinking skills are urgently important in today's fast-moving world of technology and instantaneous communication of ideas -- or trivia and propaganda.

In late June Wojcicki (pronounced wo-jis-key) spoke to the European Union's European SchoolNet about her ideas. "I told them the same thing: 'Why aren't we using technology to foster the ability to think?'" she recounted.

She also is working with Mexican educators. And she's still working locally. She has cut back from full-time teaching at Paly to work part time in the Palo Alto Unified School District administration, pushing for a stronger critical-thinking curriculum districtwide.

She and other teachers at Paly have created what is now recognized as the largest high school journalism program in the nation, attracting several hundred students. The program occupies a new, state-of-the-art Media Arts Center, a longtime dream. The curriculum includes a student newspaper, a feature magazine, a sports magazine, video production and a website.

A professional journalist before going into teaching, Woj has been recognized nationally as a teacher. She was named Northern California "Journalism Teacher of the Year" in 1990 and California Journalism Teacher of the Year in 2002. In 2009 she was awarded the Gold Key by the Columbia Scholastic Press Association. She helped update the University of California's statewide journalism curriculum.

Her extracurricular activities include being vice chair of Creative Commons; chair of the board of Learning Matters; a board member of the Developmental Studies Center and Alliance for Excellent Education; and an advisory board member of the THNK School of Creative Leadership.

She blogs regularly for the Huffington Post. "At one point I got a million hits," she recalled.

For more than two years she has produced a daily email-based "Woj's World News," linking recipients to articles she finds of interest for more than 100,000 subscribers.

In early 2015 she and co-author Lance Izumi published a book, "Moonshots in Education: Launching Blended Learning in the Classroom," exploring facets of the huge challenge of melding how-to-think with current curriculum. Its forward by actor James Franco tells how Woj's teaching and real-world learning impacted his life.

She has a personal life: She and Stanford physics professor Stanley Wojcicki have three daughters: Susan, CEO of YouTube (whom Forbes magazine just listed among the top-100 most influential women); Janet, a researcher, assistant professor of pediatrics and a Fulbright Award-winning anthropologist; and Anne, co-founder of 23andMe, a genetics/DNA testing and ancestry-tracing service. She has eight grandchildren.

How does she have time for all that?

"You're not the only one asking me that question," she said in a July 7 phone catch-up chat. "I have a very high energy level, which makes it possible to have classes with 80 people in them.

"The reason I can do it is that everything kind of dovetails; my activities all work together -- plus I don't sleep much."

She believes that the best method of teaching thinking is by imparting techniques of journalism: boiling a subject down to its most important and/or interesting aspects and then writing succinctly and clearly, starting with importance in the lead paragraph or "lede."

A few years back Woj shared her formative ideas with me over lunch at Town & Country Village, across from Paly. Her core idea was to try to get a journalism segment built into mainstream high school classes, whatever the topic. She ran into defensive resistance from fellow teachers reluctant to modify course content and from some skeptical administrators.

But times have changed, after years of national discussion over innovations such as Common Core standards and mounting criticism of standardized testing. She sees educators increasingly waking up to the notion that the most effective thing is not lecturing but engaging students in special projects and challenges -- by definition harder to measure than using standardized tests.

"In journalism and even science writing the kids actually learn critical-thinking skills, which are not being taught in our schools today. It's a tragedy because without the ability to think critically people don't understand what's happening around them.

"During the Brexit vote in Britain the No. 1 search item on Google was 'What is the European Union?'" she said. Better critical-thinking skills "might have made a difference" in the vote.

There is perhaps irony in that Woj began her teaching career at Paly in 1984, the year selected by George Orwell for his famous book, "1984," foretelling a world where thinking is forbidden, even punished.

She took over the venerable Campanile student newspaper (founded in 1918) and became principal founder of the expansive Media Arts Program of today. She worked with fellow teacher Paul Kandell, who joined Paly in 2000 and pioneered Paly's award-winning web-based program, The Paly Voice, and, since 2007, with Ellen Austin, who focused on the Viking sports magazine when it was created that year. Teacher Mike McNulty advised the InFocus broadcast program, founded by Woj, from 1999 until he retired in 2014.

Today a major challenge to thinking may be simple distraction, with the technologies of instant communication invading lives of young and older people alike. Too often the stream, in addition to vast information, conveys just shallow sniping along with the omnipresent marketing of products and political candidates, wherein propaganda obscures analysis. And texting can supplant in-depth conversations.

As with television, Wojcicki believes today's wonderously multifaceted technology can be refocused to enhance the ability to think, individually and freely -- and for the sheer exhilaration of it.

Former Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be emailed at He also writes periodic blogs at

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17 people like this
Posted by anne
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 23, 2016 at 8:15 am

I think the motto might be distilled as: Less School, More Student.

Give them the tools and support, and students are far better off learning for themselves instead of being put through the current mill.

Wojcicki's model seems to be more expansive than described here - to foster self-directed and self-motivated learners. Teacher resistance isn't the only problem. Wojkicki herself acknowledges a transition period is necessary, in which students unlearn being so dependent on external direction, and learn to trust that the system isn't going to punish them for coming into their own.

We couldn't wait for the system to change and decided to homeschool for high school. (We do this through a public district - Fremont and San Jose have programs, among others.) Homeschooling isn't what it used to be - once the domain of the religious, it is now predominantly families looking for a more customized educational path for students the schools are failing in one way or other. There are now more students in homeschool than charter schools nationally, and almost half as many as in private school. KQED recently did a story about how one of the fastest growing segments is educated African American families seeking the best education for their bright boys without the constant negatives of school.

Users innovate. Families can now circumvent the bureaucracy. There are many resources today, even if both parents work. There is a vibrant community of educational innovators in the Bay Area, an educational counterculture of families sharing wisdom, founding microschool environments, even in Palo Alto. The experience has been eye-opening, with a child becoming more indeoendent, learning more, and able to develop a more holistic set if human skills. (And not having to deal with the evil political crap we were treated to in middle school in PAUSD but instead to focus on supporting the education our child needs has probably saved me, too.)

I hope Wojkicki is able to move the administration in that direction. Because what we learned in striking out on our own is just how many negatives the school setup was instilling in our child that we never realized, despite being a close family. We are not anti-school, we are for the kind of independent learner approach Wojcicki is trying to create. It won't be enough to just change the approach, there will need to be allowances for the transition. Our homeschooling group wisdom from experience is to strongly suggest families "unschool" for one month for every year the child was in traditional school. Wojcicki avknowlefges this need for transition in describing trying her model on a very challenged group of English students. I think the best way to move to such a perspective is to make it first available to those who are already ready for it. The popularity of the Connections program speaks to the desire for it in our district. (Users innovate - note to the wise, something Wijcicki already knows: everything topdiwn will not work. Trust the students and their families.)

I wish Wojcicki much success, it will change and save lives.

3 people like this
Posted by Class Size Question
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jul 23, 2016 at 8:55 am

"I have a very high energy level, which makes it possible to have classes with 80 people in them."

80 people in a class? Is that at Paly? Thorwaldsen, please follow up and clarify.

2 people like this
Posted by Joe
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 23, 2016 at 12:44 pm

Mrs. Wojkicki’s general premise about the need to teach “critical thinking” certainly is worth discussion. But underneath this premise lies a deeper question of what is “education”? And a companion question of just how much “education” can the public education system provide children in a K-12 educational setting?

Another nagging question that the topic of “journalism” offers us is just how much opinion can be infused into what is supposed to be “reporting” before journalism has become nothing more than advocacy politics for one point of view or another. Certainly, it’s clear to see in publications like Huffington Post or Sloan that there is no middle way—just a left-of-center/”progressive” point of view. Once this sort of advocacy has been adopted by the teaching staff of any school, it’s hard to believe that “critical thinking” will not suffer as a result. We see that in higher education these days with a predominance of “democrats” in teaching positions, relative to so-called “conservatives”.

One of the tools of “education”, is the ability to write clearly and succinctly. This skill is not one that can be easily taught, but it can be acquired by students who are tasked with frequent writing assignments. Of course, all of these writing assignments need to be reviewed by a teacher, or someone whose role is to provide feedback to students about their writing styles, and how well their compositions dealt with the assigned topics. While teachers might find themselves easily overwhelmed with having to deal with high levels of state now put, technology now exists that easily could allow software to do the necessary spell checking, structure checking, and content analysis. Some newspapers are now using artificial intelligence software to write news articles, which suggests that the analysis software needed to reduce the load of student writing assignments on teachers exists. It also suggests that the role of journalism, if not threatened with extinction, must necessarily up its game so that it is providing value added that software probably can’t.

Discussion of this sort of changing the education paradigm should look at how to increase writing skills of students in addition to focusing on “critical thinking.”

12 people like this
Posted by whatthe
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jul 24, 2016 at 2:02 am

so...Woj thinks lecturing is bad and then goes across the world to lecture? The hypocrisy of her approach in this article highlights her hypocrisy in the classroom. She basically offers NO instruction. Constructivism has its limits. Woz criticizing lecturing is like a lung criticizing oxygen.

12 people like this
Posted by anne
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 24, 2016 at 7:49 am

The difference is that Woj is giving lectures in a context in which the audience is there for a short time to obtain "sticky" knowledge from Woj - they have agency and motivation to be there for that relatively short time of learning on a very specific experience of and topic on education. The audience is taking an hour or so stop in their adult journey of inquiry, and the topic almost certainly augments their professional endeavors.

Her students, on the other hand - at least the ones not in her journalism class - are basically rounded up by law and sequestered away from all adults and normal human activity, with other children their own age (well, ignoring the rampant redshirting) and told they must sit on their butts indoors and take in then regurgitate (being judged on regurgitation) whatever an adult they didn't choose to listen to tells them about something they will almost certainly be deprived of any opportunity to apply because of all the butt sitting and doing what they're told (even after they get home).

Woj is creating a model in which student-led learning is the focus, helping students become lifelong learners. Comparing her eager audience for her short one-of education lectures to students in the Prussian model of education in school is kind of like comparing the meal of the guest judges on Iron Chef to the force feeding of hunger strikers. They're both eating food, but the context, details, and motivations of all involved, make all the difference.

4 people like this
Posted by Avid Reader
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Jul 25, 2016 at 12:17 pm

Journalism is intended to provide objective facts about matters of interest where interested readers can draw their own conclusions about topics important to our times.

But in our geographical area, all the focus, everywhere, is given to telling people WHAT to think, providing information that sways the public into thinking "correctly", according to one or two person's standards, rather than on teaching people HOW to think, and objectively.

It would be way too radical, for this class or any other local person's ideas to be that useful, resulting in true journalism, or even in good critical thinking skills for anyone taking the class.

Our area is just too insulated, from objective facts. It happens over and over again. Why would this class/teacher, be different? What makes them trustworthy?

6 people like this
Posted by Dennis Briskin
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 25, 2016 at 3:07 pm

Education is the process of learning to think ever more precisely. The science knowledge we accept in sixth grade we do not accept in 12th grade and do accept in a Ph D candidate. Eighth grade essays don't fly in college-level English.

Writing is thought made visible. Woj's journalism students may have the bias of emotion-driven teens, but their first tasks are learning completeness and accuracy. Fairness and balance come later. When their articles and editorials are clear, complete and correct, ipso facto they are learning to think critically.

4 people like this
Posted by Dennis Briskin
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 25, 2016 at 3:11 pm

Correction: We do not accept 12th grade-level science in a doctoral dissertation.

The point: As education advances, the knowledge grows and the thinking becomes finer, more precise.

Like this comment
Posted by Jay Thorwaldson
a resident of another community
on Jul 25, 2016 at 3:59 pm

Jay Thorwaldson is a registered user.

In response to the question about class size above, yes, I have personally seen how large her classes can be, especially the newspaper classes. Here's her email response:

"Yes, there were 80 kids in my class in past years and I can do that because (1) I have two former journalists helping out (Wall Street Journal reporter and Washington Post reporter) as aides and (2) last year there was an additional teacher in the class."

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Posted by Longtime Palo Altan
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 25, 2016 at 4:06 pm

Those students need to learn to think objectively, or there will just be 80 more like-minded writers sent out into the world, pre-conditioned to give the public what they think it wants. Journalism is dead, albeit the one fact that the reporter for the Weekly checked. 80 students, 800, 8,000 - they still need to learn how to report accurately, and not create news. I like the comment above that "writing is thought, made visible."

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Posted by Longtime Palo Altan
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 25, 2016 at 4:27 pm

There is nothing wrong with my comment above. But for some reason, no one using a computer from the entire Palo Alto library system is able to comment about any PA Weekly story, it is not just Longtime Palo Altan.

If registered users reading this comment knows of a fix, it would continue the American strides for Free Speech, here in Palo Alto.

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Posted by Town Square Moderator
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 25, 2016 at 4:33 pm

Town Square Moderator is a registered user.

@Longtime Palo Altan,

All posts made from Palo Alto library computers are temporarily restricted due to problems we've had with some comments. As soon as a moderator has reviewed the comment, it is released for view by all, as was your comment above.

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Posted by Robert Bernard Sawyer
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jul 25, 2016 at 8:53 pm

This is a tangent in regards to: comment: Journalism isn't dead, it's just taking a breather! Technology has created a cool template for instant sharing. It's precisely this instance that has driven journalism to the rear, it's still very much there, you just have to dig a little through the noise for it. Journalists, just like artists, will be documented as endeavoring to format written truths, digitally. The digital circumstance however needs cataloguing in perpetuity for lasting impressions. That's what's different now. Less permanence. JMO.

4 people like this
Posted by Class Size Question
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jul 26, 2016 at 12:55 pm

Thorwaldsen, thank you for clarifying.

Woj is great but the elephant in the room (along with the 80 kids) is there's clearly a cult of personality going on here based on the unique circumstances of the situation.

80 kids in a class in high school is entirely unacceptable. I don't care who you are or who else is in there. Make additional sections, empower additional teachers, and get the class down to appropriate class size.

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Posted by Miguel Heller
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jul 26, 2016 at 2:32 pm

@Robert Bernard Sawyer- Intriguing tangent.
Pharmacists come to mind. Their work also changed dramatically. Many medications are sold over the counter, most others are pre-manufactured. Are you expecting less of them now?

Are you saying that the word "Journalism" lost it's meaning? Professional meaning, ethical meaning? Are you saying that we are all "journalists"? or possibly none?

If the word "journalisem" lost it's meaning, all is fine with the following quotes being removed by the moderators of this board:

--“The truth may be stretched thin, but it never breaks, and it always surfaces above lies, as oil floats on water.” Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, Don Quixote
--“The less there is to justify a traditional custom, the harder it is to get rid of it” – Mark Twain
--“All censorships exist to prevent anyone from challenging current conceptions and existing institutions. All progress is initiated by challenging current conceptions, and executed by supplanting existing institutions. Consequently, the first condition of progress is the removal of censorship.” George Bernard Shaw
--“Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed: everything else is public relations.” George Orwell
--”… The sinister fact about literary censorship in England is that it is largely voluntary. Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without the need for any official ban. Anyone who has lived long in a foreign country will know of instances of sensational items of news — things which on their own merits would get the big headlines-being kept right out of the British press, not because the Government intervened but because of a general tacit agreement that ‘it wouldn’t do’ to mention that particular fact. So far as the daily newspapers go, this is easy to understand. The British press is extremely centralised, and most of it is owned by wealthy men who have every motive to be dishonest on certain important topics. But the same kind of veiled censorship also operates in books and periodicals, as well as in plays, films and radio. At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question. It is not exactly forbidden to say this, that or the other, but it is ‘not done’ to say it, just as in mid-Victorian times it was ‘not done’ to mention trousers in the presence of a lady. Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness. …”George Orwell

I copy then post comments before and after they are censored here (tiny sampling). If the word "Journalism" lost it's meaning my postings are meaningless and irrelevant.
If you want to check the comments I post before and after they are censored, please search for:
Vl||/\GE F0O0L (using the correct spelling) palo alto censoring

1 person likes this
Posted by anne
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 29, 2016 at 10:00 pm

I was corrected by someone who saw my comment above: the recommendation for kids who transition from school to a more customized, independent model is to DESCHOOL one month for every year in traditional school. UNschoolilng is an educational philosophy that can be similar, but people can unschool their children's entire education. Unschooling allows kids to have more agency, go deeper into their work, be more autonomous.

My point remains, though. It's important for anyone doing this to recognize the need for a period of transition. I saw a documentary recently (I think by the same person who made Waiting for Superman) in which a number of programs at the high school and university level were trying to transition to a more student-led, project-based model, and the need for a transition period - and lack of understanding that one is needed - was very evident. People who try to change without understanding that may feel they are failing as they don't see results overnight. Students can feel very unsettled or as if they aren't suited to being independent in the transition period - they're used to being told what to do. That really was a main purpose of the Prussan model of education, to produce compliant workers for the industrial revolution. Undoing that doesn't happen overnight.

People often tell me that their kid could not do this because they aren't independent enough - but independent direction like anything else isn't an immutable trait. What Woj is doing is to teach the kids in a way that gives them independence with oversight and mentorship, which helps young people become adults, where scheduling their days up with school-type activities has been shown in research to impair kids' ability to see through tasks they set for themselves.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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