School is really not easy these days. Many students have been out of school for a long time because of the pandemic, and the continued disruptions and anxieties are still breaking the flow of normal learning. What can parents do to help their children thrive and excel in school, particularly during these challenging and anxiety-provoking times?

To address this, we started a new series called ‘5 Things Parents Can Do To Help Their Children Thrive and Excel In School.” In this interview series, we are talking to teachers, principals, education experts, and successful parents to learn from their insights and experience.

As a part of this interview series, I had the pleasure to interview Pamela Briskman.

Pamela Briskman is the Vice President of Education at Galileo Learning where she works to develop innovators who envision and create a better world. A graduate of Stanford University with a BA in design and a BS in product design engineering, Pamela has been working at the intersection of education and design for more than 25 years.

She served as a Teach for America corps member in Oakland, taught STEM at the American School of Antananarivo in Madagascar, and designed learning experiences for the National Science Foundation–funded programs, educational television, toys, and video games. She is also Chief Learning Officer and co-founder at Brainquake, an education technology company with patented game-based learning products that dramatically improve math proficiency. Pamela is a co-founder of Urban Montessori Charter School and Latitude High School in Oakland, CA — the schools her two daughters attend. Pamela gets up early in the morning to row with the East Bay Rowing Club, loves trying new recipes and getting to know new places and people.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us a bit about your “backstory”?

As a graduate of Stanford University with a BA in studio art design and a BS in product design engineering, I have been working at the intersection of education and design for more than 30 years. Following my time at Stanford, I served as a Teach for America corps member in Oakland, taught STEM at the American School of Antananarivo in Madagascar, and designed learning experiences for National Science Foundation–funded programs, educational television, toys, and video games. I’ve also co-founded a math education company called BrainQuake and two public charter schools in Oakland, CA.

About thirteen years ago, I joined Galileo Learning as the company’s first Director of Curriculum and now serve as VP of Education. Over time, I’ve had the opportunity to build and lead a dynamic team of educators, artists, makers, and engineers who brainstorm new activities, source the best materials, and field-test our STEAM-based projects and activities to strike the perfect balance between challenge and fun for the tens of thousands of campers that join us every summer. My team is also responsible for training the hundreds of instructors who bring our program to life at our camps from California to Colorado, to Chicago.

Galileo’s mission is to develop innovators who envision and create a better world. I love getting to practice what we teach by continually redesigning our program to bring more effective, imagination-sparking learning and joy-filled camp magic to our campers, their families, and to our school and community partners.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I had been working in education for about 15 years when my first child was nearing school age. While I felt I had been doing good work in the field, when I began to imagine what type of formal education I wanted for my own daughter, I realized that I wanted more for my child — and by extension for ALL children — than what our neighborhood schools provided. It was as if thinking about school through my parental eyes raised the ceiling on what I could envision education might be. I was privileged to join forces with friends of similarly aged children and colleagues to design and launch Urban Montessori, a public charter school with a vision to serve Oakland’s diverse population with a program combining the tenets of Montessori, Design Thinking and Arts Integration.

At the same time that this was going on in my personal/volunteer life, Galileo was in the process of redefining its mission to focus on developing innovators. It was my job to collaborate with our founder/CEO Glen Tripp, to create an educational approach that would support our new mission. We created the Galileo Innovation Approach (GIA), a pedagogy inspired by Carol Dweck’s groundbreaking work on growth mindset and the design thinking methodology developed at the Stanford To this day, the GIA is still at the center of Galileo’s programs and our company’s values.

Working on these two projects simultaneously enabled me to push the limits on what I thought might be possible in both formal (school) and informal (camp, toys, games) educational settings. I learned that considering the constraints and opportunities in multiple contexts can lead to powerful design breakthroughs.

The formal and informal education worlds have fully come together now that Galileo has a partnership division, Galileo X, with the purpose of collaborating with school districts, charter schools and non-profit community partners to bring Camp Galileo to unduplicated students (pupils who are eligible for free or reduced-price meals, are English learners, and/or who are foster youth) by leveraging funding such as California’s Expanded Learning Opportunities Program (ELOP). I love how continuing to work at the intersection of formal and informal education inspires us to push our program design to better meet the needs of all children.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

One quote I love is attributed to American author and professor John Augustus Shedd (1859–1928) who wrote, “​​A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.” These perspicacious words suggest that we humans are meant to push outside of our comfort zones; that we must take risks to learn, grow and reach our full potential. This notion overlaps with ideas around growth mindset and grounds how I try to approach life both personally and professionally.

At Galileo camps (and at our headquarters), we talk about “Marvelous Mistakes” because we’re all bound to make some errors when we stretch to operate just beyond our comfort zones. Such mistakes are marvelous because they can be our most effective teachers — assuming that we stop and reflect on what we can learn from the mistake and modify our approach until we reach our goal. At that point, we can identify a new destination/area of challenge and continue to push ourselves. In education circles, we call this sweet spot for learning the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). It’s the zone just beyond what we can comfortably do ourselves without help, but not so far afield that we have no chance to succeed.

I’m constantly looking for ways to leave my harbor at work (by experimenting with new ideas or technologies) and in my personal life (by pushing myself on the water, row on a crew team, or with new recipes & techniques in the kitchen). Camp Galileo is designed to support our campers (and staff) to do the same.

You are a successful leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

One of the pillars of the Galileo Innovation Approach is the Innovator’s Mindset which describes 5 qualities needed for innovative work (Vision, Courage, Collaboration, Determination and Reflection). I’ll focus on three of these traits that have been instrumental to my success.

As a leader, having a strong VISION that inspires and motivates others is essential. Most of the objects, systems and structures that we interact with on a daily basis (including systems of oppression) have been designed and therefore can be redesigned assuming a vision for how things might be better. Developing the creative confidence to imagine things that don’t yet exist and then taking action to make those ideas a reality has been a hallmark of my career.

That said, the road to innovation is unpaved and full of obstacles of all shapes and sizes so I’ve found that it’s also critical to be DETERMINED. Understanding from the jump that a project will require hard work and perseverance helps build stamina and maintain engagement. Finally, as mentioned above, framing setbacks as opportunities to learn can keep momentum going and help individuals and teams realize that the process is often just as valuable as the destination.

Third, nearly everything I’ve accomplished in my career has been made possible by deep COLLABORATION with others who have brought their diverse skills, perspectives and ideas to the table. Building high-functioning teams where everyone can contribute as their best authentic-self, where dissent is encouraged and where people are celebrated, yields both the best outcomes and the most fulfilling experience. I value this direct collaboration with colleagues and partners and also with customers who take the time to offer feedback that helps us continually improve our work.

Whether creating a school, redesigning our camp program or producing a training to support camp instructors to use our new digital curriculum, I find myself regularly drawing on all three of these character traits.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Though camp itself is about imagination-sparking learning and big summer F-U-N, we take our jobs very seriously — working full-time, year round to continually improve our programs. Right now, I’m particularly excited about Galileo’s 2024 programming. This summer, we’ll be introducing brand new curriculum across Galileo’s 65+ locations. The updates are based on feedback we gathered from families & staff and the observations of our headquarters team and they represent a significant redesign to our camp rotations and to the individual projects and activities. What isn’t changing is that every activity remains grounded in our proven Galileo Innovation Approach and is designed to inspire open-ended, creative possibilities and game-changing life lessons for campers.

This summer, children in kindergarten through fifth grade will experience age-appropriate activities in each of our three daily rotations: Innovator’s Studio, Idea Lab and Outdoor Adventure. In the Innovator’s Studio rotation, they will practice sustained focus to bring a personal vision to life, taking home impressive, polished project(s) that really work. In the Innovator’s Studio, campers will have the opportunity to meet open-ended STEAM challenges that develop visual design and engineering skills while making projects including a ride-on rocking pet (K-1st grade), a working hand-held vacuum cleaner (2nd & 3rd grade), and a custom pinball machine (4th & 5th grade).

In the Idea Lab, the focus shifts from individual to collaborative projects. In this rotation, campers work in pairs or small groups on open-ended STEAM challenges where the focus is on collaboration, communication and learning through a process of rapid iteration and testing. In fact, in Idea Lab, part of the fun is the spectacular, crushing, crashing and crumbling that follows pushing a physical design to the limit. Campers learn to look critically at their “failures” and, with a growth mindset, glean learnings that enable them to take their designs (and their creative confidence) to the next level.

In Outdoor Adventure, campers will experience exciting outdoor games along with classic, get-your-wiggles-out camp fun. Each day students engage with 2 or more physical team building challenges and collaborative games designed to build community and nurture kinesthetic practice of the Galileo Innovation Approach (including problem solving, collaboration, creativity, etc.)

Middle School campers (rising 6th -8th graders) experience aged up fun. Instead of three daily rotations, they focus on one epic project per week that allows them similar opportunities to collaborate with their fellow campers and flex their imaginations. This summer, project options for middle schoolers include go-karts (where campers learn and practice woodworking skills to design and build a one-of-a-kind ride), remote controlled robots (where they bring an original character to life and add original attachments to navigate fun challenges), and an escape room experience (where they explore a range of puzzle types and flows and then create original clues and a themed room for others to escape).

Finally, we have a revamped Counselor-in-Training (CIT) program for our oldest campers (rising 8th-10th graders). Each day CITs experience an exciting mix of community-building games and engaging activities designed to develop their leadership skills, have opportunities to shadow instructional staff and mentor younger campers in their Innovator’s Studio or Idea Lab classrooms and flex their own design muscles by taking on projects that contribute to camp culture/magic or that enable them to express their own creativity. This program is a great transition for campers who are ready to take on new responsibilities while still having a blast as campers.

For the benefit of our readers, can you tell us a bit about why you are an authority on how to help children succeed in school?

I’ve spent the better part of 30 years focused on teaching and learning — as a tutor, a teacher in American schools domestically, abroad and on TV, as a curriculum writer, an author of teacher professional development, a creator of content to help parents understand and advocate for their children’s education, as a designer of educational toys, board games, video games and apps, as a member of a community of practice at an educational think tank, as a co-founder of a public charter elementary school and a high school, and as an architect of national STEAM-based summer camp programs. I’ve observed hundreds of instructors in formal and informal educational settings and I’ve helped two daughters navigate public schools, private schools and independent studies.

I’ve tried lots of things and made a ton of mistakes always with a laser-focused eye on learning and figuring out the next thing to try to make educational experiences better.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. Can you help articulate the main challenges that students face today that make it difficult to succeed in school?

There are a lot of different challenges that make it difficult for today’s students to succeed in school. While some of these reasons are specific to individual students and their school situations, here are some more pervasive challenges:

  1. The US is facing a teacher shortage and high numbers of existing teachers are experiencing burn out. Before the pandemic we were already short tens of thousands of teachers in this country and, in the last two years, that number has increased by more than 50%. Some of the reasons for this include low wages, high workloads, and challenging working conditions. Further, the 2022 Gallup Panel Workforce Study found that K-12 workers experience the highest levels of burn out of all industries nationally. It’s challenging for students to succeed absent high quality, engaged instructors.
  2. Students struggle to find a sense of community and belonging at school and many struggle with social emotional skills. Students’ sense of belonging improves academic outcomes, and is protective for mental health yet, historically, many students don’t feel seen, heard or valued at school. The stress and isolation of the pandemic has taken an additional toll on student well-being as well as their sense of belonging especially for the most disenfranchised populations. Combine this with low self- and social-awareness or poor relationship building skills, creating community at school is an ever-steeper uphill battle.
  3. K-12 Curriculum is outdated and may lack relevant connections to students’ lives. Despite the fact that innovation is changing the way we live at an increasingly rapid pace, our K12 education system has remained alarmingly stagnant for the last 50+ years. Most curricula still hold to the traditions of siloed subjects, a heavy reliance on abstract concepts, the teacher as an authority figure, and the prioritization of memorization and repetition over creativity. Many students don’t see themselves reflected in the history and literature taught at school. And, too often, new technologies are used to expedite or automate ineffective curriculum or instructional practices instead of changing both the what and the how we do school. All in, this makes it harder for students to engage and find meaning in their learning.
  4. Schools often employ narrow definitions for student success. There are many ways to lead a successful life and, unfortunately for many students, most schools recognize only a handful of these avenues. Standardized testing and rigid curricula can stifle creativity, cater to averages, and fail to meet students’ individual needs. When only certain types of “smart” are recognized, students who have alternate strengths struggle to find success and often fall short of realizing their potential or, even worse, withdraw from school.

Can you suggest a few reforms that you think schools should make to help students to thrive and excel?

I wish I had a silver bullet idea that would help all students thrive and excel in school. At a societal level, our schools continue to follow many of the same practices that have failed for decades while expecting different outcomes. The results of the US education system are unacceptable — especially for students from historically oppressed communities, students with special needs, English learners, unhoused and foster youth and those eligible for free and reduced priced meals.

That said, we must NEVER give up on the goal of helping ALL students reach their fullest potential. Here are a few ideas for reforms:

  • Train teachers and school leaders as designers. At Galileo, we help our campers and staff develop as innovators because, no matter the field, the ability to identify challenges, imagine solutions and bring those solutions to fruition is an important skill for positively impacting the world. To this end, when teachers and school leaders approach their jobs with an innovator’s or designer’s eyes, they institute hyper-local reforms that deeply impact the students they aim to serve. The global Shadow-a-Student Challenge is a great example of one such practice. During the challenge, teachers or school leaders immerse themselves in a student’s life for a day — riding the bus, going to classes, sitting in the cafeteria, etc. It’s an empathy-building experience that, when paired with design thinking strategies, unlocks meaningful insights that leaders can use to create positive change at their schools.
  • Implement Community School models. By adopting an integrated approach to learning that goes beyond academics to address students’ holistic needs, community schools bring diverse and engaged stakeholders together to transform schools into environments that make students feel safe, valued, engaged, challenged, healthy and connected. This model is adaptable to the needs of an individual school’s students, staff, families and communities so it looks a bit different in every setting, and typically includes four programmatic features: (1) Integrated support services, (2) family and community engagement, (3) collaborative leadership, and (4) expanded learning opportunities — all aligned and blended into a high-quality, rigorous teaching and learning environment. Research shows that community schools help foster:
    * Lower rates of absenteeism
    * Better work habits, grades, test scores and behaviors
    * Higher enrollment in college preparatory classes
    * Higher graduation rates

Integrate project-based learning. With its focus on applying knowledge and skills to solve real-world challenges, project-based learning provides rich educational experiences that empower students to explore, create, and solve problems in ways that are both engaging and impactful. Some of the benefits of this type of programming include:

  • Breaking down artificial subject-matter boundaries and promoting deeper conceptual understanding and interdisciplinary learning
  • Nurturing critical life skills like creative thinking, problem solving, communication and collaboration to achieve shared goals
  • Increasing motivation and engagement through relevant tasks
  • Improving self-awareness and social-emotional learning
  • Allowing for multiple pathways to success inclusive of a variety of learning styles

This type of curriculum helps students develop well rounded identities as learners and aligns well with the demands of the modern workplace, preparing students to thrive in school and beyond.

Can you please share your “5 Things Parents Can Do To Help Their Children Thrive and Excel In School?” Please share a story or example for each.

Parents/guardians can have a sizable influence to help their children thrive in school. Here are 5 things you can do.

Talk to your kids about their learning and REALLY listen.

As parents, we often ask our kids to tell us about school without supporting them to share specific details — therefore limiting our ability to best support them. Instead of asking generic open-ended questions (Ex. Q: How was your day? A: Good or Q: What did you do at school today? A: You know, the same stuff) — start by figuring out what you want to know. Then tailor your questions to be specific about that thing.

  • Are they happy? Ask: Tell me something that made you smile today at school.
  • Social? Ask: If you could choose, who would you like to (or not want to) sit by in class?
  • Academics? Ask: What’s one new thing you learned today? Or, tell me about a challenge in class that you just couldn’t figure out.

This article in the Huffington Post is full of excellent questions to get kids talking about school. The more you learn about what’s going on, the more specific questions you can ask which in turn will open up insights into what is and isn’t working at school and how you can help your child thrive.

Practice setting goals as a family and check in on progress.

As humans, we typically get the most out of things when we have specific goals and school is no exception. Identifying goals helps kids have agency in their learning which, in turn, helps them to be more engaged. Start by picking one or two goals that they care about. Kids are much more likely to feel invested — and be successful — in pursuing intrinsic goals rather than extrinsic ones. And then pick your own goals too (one of the best ways you can teach your kids something is by modeling the behavior you want to see.) Consider using the SMART goals framework. Be specific, discuss the steps each person will take, set realistic timeframes (perhaps a month), measure your progress (visuals are helpful), and reward yourselves when you achieve your goals with an incentive you agreed to ahead of time. Working together through the process will keep everyone accountable and build good goal-setting and learning habits.

Support the development of a growth mindset.

For many of us, learning is fun when it comes easy and less so when the going gets tough. Since success in school is primarily about learning new things by pushing into that ZPD sweet spot mentioned earlier, having a growth mindset — that is the belief that your intelligence, abilities, and talents can be developed and improved through effort and experience — is particularly helpful. Much work has been done about developing a growth mindset (see this TED talk by Stanford’s Carol Dweck). Here are three tips to get you started.

  • Embrace “the power of yet. “Carol Dweck’s ideas about “not yet” provide a powerful way to reframe your kids’ efforts: It’s not that they can’t do something, it’s that they can’t do it yet. Remind your child that almost no one (even the best athletes and entertainers in the world) is great at something the first time they try it. So if they don’t immediately excel at a new thing, the good news is that they’ll be a little better at it the next time. And even better the time after that. And so on and so on.
  • Praise thoughtfully. As tempting as it is, don’t praise your kids’ intelligence or talent. Praise the effort they put in, their determination, their progress and the strategies they used along the way. This type of praise helps shape kids who are, in Dweck’s words, “hardy and resilient.”
  • Make it a family affair. As with setting goals, kids aren’t the only ones who benefit from a growth mindset. It’s incredibly powerful for kids to see their parents trying new things — especially if they’re not awesome at them from the start. If you’ve always wanted to draw, for example, get a sketchbook and draw for 5 or 10 minutes a day. Track your progress and let your kids see how much consistent effort you’re putting in. Or sign up to run a 5K, 10K or a marathon (whatever’s just outside your comfort zone). Share your training plan with your kids and let them help you track your incremental progress.

Cultivate Curiosity.

Engagement supports learning outcomes and helping your child develop curiosity about what they’re learning will fuel that engagement. This inclination toward inquiry may come more naturally for some students than others AND helping your child see how what they’re learning in school relates to their lives and future aspirations is a great first step to get the ball rolling. This is especially straightforward in settings where a student’s curricula employ project based learning or hands-on STEAM projects. Camp Galileo’s program fits into this category and, while such projects do have an endpoint, they’re never quite “done.” This means it’s natural to ask questions like, “Now that you’ve seen X, what’s the next question you’d want to explore?” or “If you had more time, what would you redesign?”

Another way to support curiosity is to get kids in the habit of looking at graded papers, paying special attention to wrong answers. Too often completed/graded work ends up in the bottom of a backpack (or in the circular file) never to be seen again. Yet reviewing completed work is a surprisingly fruitful practice for cultivating curiosity, sparking deeper understanding and fostering critical thinking skills. Wrong answers especially highlight areas where our kid’s understanding was incomplete or flawed — and revisiting these concepts with an open mind supports them to delve deeper into those topics and expand their knowledge base. It’s often easier to ask “why” of one’s past/incorrect self than to know what to ask of a blank page and to develop new insights and understanding. Over time, this curiosity practice becomes habitual.

Create a supportive learning environment at home.

As is permissible in your house, providing a dedicated study space — a quiet well-lit area with minimal distractions and easy access to learning materials — can support learning and ground the home-school connection. This can also be a great place to post goals or other artifacts that encourage, inspire and celebrate learning. In addition to the physical environment, consider establishing consistent routines for homework, reading, other learning activities and even sleep! Such routines help ensure that the work gets done with minimal friction while enabling focus and encouraging the development of critical time management skills. Adequate sleep (often overlooked) is crucial for cognitive function, memory, and concentration.

As you know, teachers play such a huge role in shaping young lives. What would you suggest needs to be done to attract top talent to the education field?

Having skilled, caring and dedicated teachers is by far the most important ingredient for a quality education and, especially since the stresses of the pandemic, attracting and retaining top teaching talent is more challenging than ever.

I believe that several factors draw the most talented and qualified people to work in any industry, education is no exception. The most common are:

  • passion/mission alignment
  • opportunity to innovate, invent, and improve
  • competitive compensation

In education, a sense of purpose often draws in passionate individuals. But beyond that, top talent craves the chance to be creative, to innovate, and to see their ideas make a real impact. Unfortunately, in education, especially in the public sector, bureaucracy can sometimes stymie innovation. Further, while salaries in many industries have grown in recent years, teacher pay has remained largely stagnant. To attract top talent to the education field, we need to offer competitive pay along with an environment that encourages and incentivizes courageous innovation.

We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

I would have loved to share a meal with Sir Ken Robinson. He was such an inspiring educationalist with envelope-pushing ideas about creativity, curriculum and schools. Since he’s unlikely to see any social tags posted in this world. I’d love to connect with Trevor Ragan, founder of the Learner Lab. While he’s not a “Sir”, Trevor has distinguished himself by unpacking the science of learning and making it accessible through podcasts, articles and other media. His work is super-well researched and his engaging, story-telling presentation style always leaves me with new ideas to apply to my life and work.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Readers can connect with me on LinkedIn HERE.

Learn more about Camp Galileo HERE.

Learn about our Galileo X partnerships (for schools, districts and community organizations) HERE.

Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!

An Interview with Jake Frankel with Authority Magazine.