Meet Zach, Annie, and Wonder
Zach Lahn and Annie Koch are co-founders of Wonder, a school dedicated to helping children prepare for a rapidly changing future.
Wonder is mixed-age, learner-driven school that’s drawing its goals and curriculum from the world around it rather than imitating the framework of other traditional schools. Why? Well, as Zach explains it, the way most schools are set up doesn’t teach kids how to be successful in life.
We believe that education is a prediction of the future. When a student steps into a classroom, at any school, what they learn will be somebody’s prediction of what they think that students will need to know to be successful in the future. The problem is that schools haven’t changed in over 100 years.
When he was growing up, Zach had a lot of energy and an enterprising streak. He started his first business at 12, and took on so much work that he ended up hiring his friends to help him out. However, his school and his teachers didn’t really know what to do with him. He didn’t fit into their mold, and the traditional school environment didn’t give him room to build his strengths.
The world needs people who are entrepreneurial, and willing to take risks—people who think differently and outside the box. And society really rewards those traits, but traditional schools don’t.
When his first child was born, and Zach started thinking about how his son would learn, Zach thought “Well, if he’s anything like me, I want him to have a place that he can go to and work on his skills.”
A bit later, Zach was doing some work with a program called Youth Entrepreneurs. Serendipitously, Annie was on the board. They met and realized they had a shared vision of building a school that offered an entirely new educational experience.
It goes without saying that children are the future of the country and the world. That’s why we’re doing this. We want to help bring up a generation of students that understand how to take what they’re talented with—what they’re passionate about—and use it to change the world.
And he’s not talking purely about the complexity of building a physical space from the ground up, or the financial investment in the project (with a total launch cost estimated at $1.5 million).
When you’re dealing with things that are very important to people, the margin of error is much lower. For the families of our students—their children are the most important people in the world to them. It’s a big responsibility that we take very seriously.
Zach and Annie also agreed, early on, that they would be enrolling their own kids in Wonder as soon as it opened.
If we were going to ask other people to come on this journey with us … we couldn’t do that if we weren’t willing to put our own kids in.We really believe that there is no doubt the future is changing very rapidly. And school isn’t changing at all. So you have to ask yourself “What’s the real risk? A system that’s preparing them for a future that doesn’t exist? Or trying something new and understanding that there will be kinks and bumps along the road, but that we’re doing our very best to intentionally prepare them for that future?”
Once Zach and Annie decided to build a school, they realized the first step was research. A lot of it. Neither he nor Annie had a background in education, but they knew where to look for answers.
We knew that there were schools across the country and across the world that are doing amazing things to help prepare children for the future. For about a year and a half, we traveled the country and other parts of the world, visiting schools and trying to get an understanding of “What does good really look like here?” and “Who is making the best prediction in preparing children for the future?” Putting in the time to visit, and meet with, and talk with other schools took a lot of work and time, but it was absolutely worth it.
Wonder has three main partner schools that they work with, and those schools have shared a lot of information and ideas that shaped the curriculum at Wonder. The structure of the school is also inspired by the Montessori Method. A big tenet of the curriculum, Zach says, is individualized learning.
Part of the key to this task is that every child is completely different. They have different interests, skills, abilities, proficiencies. Since they are all different, we can’t have a structure or a school that treats them all the same.
At Wonder, students get to choose the direction of their learning, but there’s a strong framework that helps them excel. The outcome, Zach says, is “allowing for flexibility within the system while still encouraging excellence in the work.”
We essentially divide the day into two large blocks. We spend the morning working on core skills: reading, writing, math, computer science, history. And then we spend all afternoon working on projects, problems, and simulations in our design studio.
Students starting at age 7 will be immersed in big problems, and asked to solve these problems. They will spend 4-6 weeks working on these problems in the design studio every day, and that work culminates in a public exhibition of learning.
Why this structure? The goal is to prepare students for the experiences they’ll have later in life, where they get jobs, undertake projects, build businesses, and effect change in the world.
We wanted to allow students to have the time to work on a project they wanted to work on, bring to a resolution, and then present their work. We believe that this is represented in the real world.
Look at some of the most innovative companies in the world – they don’t have grades. Your proof of knowledge is the product of your work.
Zach says that one of the things that clicked, right away, with this project was the partnership that he and Annie built.
The keys to a great partnership are shared vision, shared values, and complementary capabilities. You find the person (or set of people) who has those, and working in partnership can be an amazing thing. One of my favorite things about this project has been working with a great partner. We each add value in different ways, and we kind of fill in the gaps for each other. Our minds just work in different ways.
For both Zach and Annie, their kids have also been a key part of the project. They were the inspiration and the driving force behind Wonder; now that Wonder has opened its doors, Zach says they’ll continue to shape Wonder’s growth.
I used to work with a lot of CEOs of organizations, and many of these CEOs got to work with the next generation, maybe a son or daughter. I always thought “Well, it would be great to do that one day.” When this project came up, I realized I have the opportunity to do that now—at a point in my children’s life that’s so formative.