We sat down with MUSE School Advisory Board Member Elliot Washor to speak about his philosophy toward educational innovation, and his insights on MUSE Global’s expansion during his recent visit to MUSE School CA. Elliot is an education reform veteran, and has worked in the space for over 45 years – most notably as co-founder of Big Picture Learning.
Share with us a bit about your involvement in MUSE’s early days, and what inspired you to get involved.
When MUSE was initially forming, I brought some notions around programming to the organization. The sustainability and plant-based focus, and the passion-based model – those were the two pieces that were very interesting to me about MUSE. There seemed to be some really good energy and leadership early on, and I was very attracted to the environmental component. I was also curious about how students would feel about having agency around the choices they want to make. I saw that a lot today on campus, as a matter of fact.
PCM was also something I didn’t know about before MUSE – it’s something that focuses more on prevention rather than intervention. That’s what [traditional] schools do, where everything is going well, until it’s not. It doesn’t matter if it’s social, legal, medical, or educational: I try to be preventative in the work that I do in education. And that’s a big task.
You were the person that introduced our founder, Suzy Amis Cameron, to the Forks Over Knives documentary – so you were the spark that started the plant-based transition, really!
She probably would have found out about it from someone else eventually, but…I felt we should be going about making environmental changes – ones that we sorely needed to make – in a different way. Again, it’s about moving from a system of intervention, to a system of prevention.
What you put in your body, how you live in the world with others, and what you do while you’re on the planet to regenerate it and sustain it, not just ignore it. With public schools, it’s difficult to operationalize the environmental piece, and so that attracted me to MUSE, and what can we do to help bring what this school is doing to other communities.
MUSE Global Schools are future-focused – on every student’s well-being, [and for them] to live fulfilling lives within a world we do not know yet!
Could you share a bit about your greater philosophy around education?
For me, there’s a ‘what,’ and there’s a ‘who’ in education. Schools focus on the ‘what,’ i.e., the content and standardization. We’ve [BPL and MUSE] been successful at taking a look at different types of standards, and how students mingle with adults to develop serious relationships around their interests, muddle through their problems, and discover what matters to them. So it’s really about the three M’s – mingling with, mattering to, and muddling through.
So at MUSE, I look to see if teachers and staff are doing something ‘with’ students, and not ‘to’ them. MUSE keeps iterating, and growing, and improving. How they execute, and with the innovation they put in play, MUSE is doing some really interesting work in the area of working with students on what matters to them.
They’re really paying attention to self-efficacy, with particular attention to sustainability around self-efficacy. They’re mixing and entangling their different pillars, more than just having them be siloed. The academics, the environmental and sustainability areas, self-efficacy, PCM and communications – the staff is doing it well, and it’s very wholesome.
If you had any advice for franchisees opening up a MUSE Global school, what would that be?
The leader of the school is very important. It’s not about an org. chart, it’s about relationships, and knowing that culture beats out strategy. You have to get the culture right. And, with MUSE, it’s really about the 5 Pillars, and engaging the families and staff in that philosophy. It’s always hard working with people on something different and new, but you have to be up for that great challenge.
And, every community is different. The sets of people are different. But there’s programmatic features and designs that you want to see iterated. Now MUSE is going to San Francisco and beyond – these new schools are going to use those features from the flagship school and exercise them, and do justice to MUSE Global through their framework.
As we wrapped up our conversation, Elliot left me with the following anecdote:
Mae West went to my high school in Brooklyn. She ultimately dropped out, as many famous people did that went to my high school. Mae once said that, ‘The score never interested me, only the game.’ In education, we tend to pay attention to the score – what grade you get on the test, SAT scores, GPAs. But people lose track of the game.
I never was interested in the score, only the game. And there are people like me – we just see the world differently. If the game is interesting, I’m in it.