Before Google, the Wojcicki girls learned from Mom


Photo by Jack Hutcheson

Her daughter Susan is the most powerful woman at Google . Her daughter Anne started 23andMe, a company that dissects your DNA makeup. Her daughter Janet is a PhD anthropologist and epidemiologist.

You have to figure that Esther Wojcicki taught her daughters pretty well.

The mother of Silicon Valley’s well-known Wojcicki sisters is, in fact, being honored today, Digital Learning Day, as one of a small group of “great teachers” who use technology effectively in the classroom. The full-day webcast, including a town hall hosted by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, showcases how technology can improve learning in the U.S.

Wojcicki –or Woj, as she is known at Palo Alto High School in California—has been ahead of that curve ever since she created the school’s journalism program in 1984 and championed “learning by doing,” as she says. “The teacher needs to be a facilitator, a coach, not a lecturer,” Woj explains.

As you might guess, Woj applied her education philosophy to raising her daughters. “My advice to all of them,” she says, “was that journalism taught them how to think, how to get to the most important information first, and how to write clearly and quickly.” She didn’t expect any of them to be journalists (or anything in particular since she sought to empower them to make their own career choices). “But I always felt that if they could learn to write well, it would help them think clearly—which would help them in any profession they chose.”

The Wojcicki girls learned to write by taking journalism at Gunn High School. Janet and Susan (the Google SVP who ranks No. 28 on Fortune‘s Most Powerful Women list) worked on the school newspaper, the Oracle, while Anne, her mom proudly recalls, rose to top editor and also won a scholarship for her sports stories. Today, besides heading her genetics company, Anne has another claim to fame of sorts: She is married to Google co-founder Sergey Brin.

Speaking of genes, they are clearly good here. (Dad Stanley is a big-deal physicist who taught at Stanford and is now leading an experiment to challenge Einstein’s theories; Woj, the daughter of Jewish-Russian immigrants, was the first in her family to attend college and went on to collect graduate degrees galore.) But besides the lucky DNA, the Wojcicki daughters also benefitted from mom’s urging them to learn independently. As Woj recalls, “We used to go to the library with a laundry basket and fill it up with books every week. Susan still has the laundry basket.”

In the 90s, when the tech boom transformed Silicon Valley and the world, the Wojcickis were one of the first families in town to get a computer—a Mac. And Woj steered her daughters to the web. “The idea was not to wait around for the teacher to explain something if you didn’t understand it, but to see if you learn it on your own,” she says.

Today, of course, independent learning is easier than ever—for everyone. “Kids can use the Khan Academy,” Woj notes. “But there are millions of Open Education Resources on the web that will help students learn anything from a foreign language to grammar.”

You can catch Esther Wojcicki in action, teaching and sharing her thoughts about technology and education, today, 10-11:30 a.m. EST, at

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