The Rise of the Micro-School: Can The Experiment Scale?

Alt School HQ in SF

There’s no agreed definition of a micro-schools, yet they share a few patterns despite having different education philosophies and operating models: they rely on well-designed software, personalisation of the curriculum, a different scale, competency-based progression and flexible designs.

Even the mainstream press has covered this new education trend extensively over the past few months. Ever since Altschool raised over $100m, and even more so since the announcement by Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan of the creation of “The Primary School”, their tuition-free institution in East Palo Alto, micro-schools are becoming an extremely attractive alternative. One can still wonder how they will scale beyond the small tech-savvy, privileged sphere that triggered them and what the benefits of those labs are for the greater student community.

Making sense of the recent media hype

AltSchool, started by Max Ventilla, former Googler, is a software-driven private school franchise on a mission to “rethink how education can serve families in the modern era”. We met with Carolyn Wilson, Director for Education, who has been involved in the teaching space and seeing its exponential changes over the past few decades. While education giants are in a constant R&D process to adapt their offering, AltSchool’s in-house platform team directly builds out the software and features that are useful to their educators. Instead of having to drive teacher’s adoption, the products are educator-driven.

In both AltSchool and Khan Lab School, mixed-age classrooms are key, as well as the ability for kids to switch between a highly individualized instruction and project-based learning (in groups). Children are given more control over their learning, both schools assuming children are extremely capable learners and that your role as an educator is to channel those cognitive capacities. Rethinking the idea of an age-based cohort allows for mentoring and interesting interactions between students.

In the Mountain View-based Khan Lab School, the afternoons are dedicated to project-based learning at the pace of each student through what Orly Friedman, School Director, refers to as “studio time”. Most of the principles underlying his school and how it prepares and empowers its students for the post-industrial world through radical methods can be found in Sal Khan’s book, The One World Schoolhouse.

Khan Lab School in Mountain View

Beyond creating a school, creating a concept

AltSchool has a team of over 100 people today (equally divided between operators, educators and engineers) and calls itself a “network of micro-school”. Beyond creating a school, AltSchool is aiming at fostering a new model for primary education. Venture capitalists backed the for-profit AltSchool, beyond its current schools scattered in the Bay Area, because it can scale.

Khan Lab School, through their programme Center for Learning Innovation, aims at fostering the creation of similar schools, sharing the learnings with schools and networks around the world. A first institution should start this movement in Oakland next year.

Considering the school as a lab: ethics & improvement

The Khan Lab School isn’t your typical school — first of all, the design itself differs from what most of us have encountered through our schooling. Being located in the same building as Khan Academy allows for a largely user-driven design of course materials. Engineers and designers get to see first hand the teachers and students’ workflow. AltSchool also plans to license out the products its engineering team is building in-house to cater to the needs of educators beyond the AltSchool network.

“One of the ways that we continually drive ourselves forward is by taking measure of what’s working and what’s not working.” said Carolyn Wilson.

At Khan Lab School, having a year-round school (there are no summer holidays) and no classrooms (there is a single large space with breakout rooms) is the closest thing I have seen to unbundling the place and time-bound parameter of schooling in the K-12 system.

Replicating the laboratory

However worthy Zuckerberg’s new initiative to serve low-income communities may be, its size for now remains representative of the micro-schools trend. They’re great labs to experiment new ways of personalizing learning and removing a set of preconceived layers of our education system, yet one still has to find a way of making those changes effective at scale.

AltSchool, by licensing its individualized learning model with other educators will be a good way to question if its model can be replicated across the country, and which barriers to entry and to affordability it will face depending on local and differentiated environments. It now has 6 schools spanning SF, Palo Alto and Brooklyn. The next two years should see the opening of several others in Manhattan and SF, and will reach another city, Chicago.

Is “the world’s best-known teacher” able to disrupt the brick-and-mortar model in a similarly egalitarian way as the one by which he provides thousands of hours of free video tutorials? May Sal Khan’s educational R&D laboratory also give way to better learning outcomes outside of Downtown Mountain View?

Khan Lab School

Micro-schools in Silicon Valley are a well-documented attempt at answering some of these questions, and while it’s difficult to see them forcing a rapid systemic change in the school system, we’ll observe with interest whether they have a network effect throughout the country and beyond. Free school networks like KIPP have been successful in fostering change at scale in underserved communities, inspiring imitation beyond borders such as CREE, on the same model, based out of Santiago de Chile.

We hope this trend can lead the way towards a more egalitarian education system at scale, taking advantage of the leap in access that technology can provide.