Micro-schools

What the future of school might look like — as long as we don’t treat it like a silver bullet

I’m not the first person to talk about micro-schools. Small, human-scale schools have served as the preferred choice for most folks throughout the history of schooling. Unfortunately, industrial-age principles of scale efficiency and standardization introduced in the late 19th and early 20th century have completely overwhelmed common notions of what school should be. Most of us take it as given that schools are supposed to be big, impersonal and unable to respond nimbly to individual learner needs.

Now, listen. Before you go off and yell it from the roof tops that this is the silver bullet we’ve been waiting for, just chill. It’s not. There are no silver bullets in this work. I like micro-schooling precisely because it constrains us, it forces us to do small batch testing of new ideas, gets us closer to kids and families.

The intensely personal scale of micro-schooling reminds us that the work of educating the future of our democracy is perfectly imperfect, beautifully messy work.

Lurching after magical, infinitely scalable, perfectly measurable silver-bullet solutions ignores the human work that educating is.

Here’s my working definition of micro-schooling in 2014 and why I think we should build more of them.

1. Modern micro-schools serve less than 153.5 kids.

Psychologist Robin Dunbar’s research suggests that most humans can't manage more than about 150 friendships. The story behind how he came up with Dunbar’s number is fascinating. Read about it if you have a chance. In my experience starting more than 100 schools, I think this number makes sense. When a school gets beyond about 150 kids, it becomes very difficult for adults to keep track of individual students.

Micro-schools embrace this constraint and stay small. The logic behind making schools bigger — to reduce fixed costs and/or diversify teacher expertise had merit 100 years ago when access to information and expertise were more costly. But as the cost of high-quality curriculum moves quickly towards zero, the costs of large schools are starting to outweigh their benefits.

2. Modern micro-schools let students drive a majority of what happens during the school day.

While there are many ways to structure a micro-school, a critical component is a daily schedule that allows students to determine how they spend their time. I think this is critically important because children when they grow into adults they will not have someone telling them what to do everyday. This is certainly the case in college.

Yet many college prep schools are actually quite bad at strengthening a student’s ability to manage themselves in the absence of structure. Yes, this is complicated. Many students need structure to build foundations, but micro-schools have a bias towards loosening the reigns early to ensure that kids learn how to direct, pace and control themselves.

3. Modern micro-school teachers don’t do all the teaching; they manage the quality of learning in many channels.

While the traditional debate about teaching can sometimes degenerate to the virtues of “Sage on the stage” v. “Guide on the side,” a great micro-school requires teachers to manage a wide variety of learning styles. Here’s an example of the ways a student might be able to learn something in a good micro-school:

  1. One teacher to many. Yes, I think you could see Doug-Lemov-style teaching techniques in a micro-school.
  2. One teacher to a few students. Small groups. Flexibility in the schedule provides many more genuine opportunities to teach small groups when they need or want it.
  3. Parent to student. Some micro-schools form from home-schooling parents who realize they can do more together, and great ones integrate this channel as a great to teach content.
  4. Software to student. If you haven’t seen what Khan Academy is doing to help kids learn on their own, you should. Its free. Great micro-schools do much more than blended learning. With no obsolete model to break free from, there’s nothing really to “blend. ” Instead, learning technologies are presented as a vital tools for kids to drive their own learning, more like how we look at Microsoft Office and other productivity tools, core to the work than clever tricks for teachers to squeeze more efficiency out of an otherwise rigid school day.
  5. Tutors. Do you know MATCH Education? You should. Their tutors do more before 9 AM than some teachers do all day.
  6. Student to student (one on one). Below I suggest Acton Academy as a great example of a micro-school. They’ve managed to pair kids up as running partners. And it works. Kids really take this buddy-system-on-steroids role seriously, and it gives the school another powerful vehicle to let learning happen.
  7. Student to student (one to many). I want to find some high-schoolers who hack Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion to work for kids. Kids teaching kids, with the same amount of rigor applied to technique as Doug requires of adult teachers. I think micro-schools can leverage this method in powerful ways that make them far more potent learning environments.

4. Modern micro-schools capture data on progress regardless of how a student learns something.

What makes a modern micro-school different from a 19th century, one-room schoolhouse is that old school schools only had a few ways to teach — certainly no software, no tutors, and probably less structure around student to student learning. In a modern micr0-school, there are ways to get good data from each of these venues. And the great micro-school of the future will lean on well-designed software to help adults evaluate where each kid is learning. I haven’t seen any school get this really right, but the work we hear some are doing suggests that getting this right could provide a major boost to the effectiveness of the modern micro-school.

3 micro-schools

  1. KIPP, 1994. While KIPP today doesn’t provide the flexibility at all grade levels to qualify as a strong example of a micro-school, the first iteration of the program was pretty close. Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin started KIPP as an experiment in a Houston classroom, one that many parents and kids were willing to try. Dear, reformers and funders committed to only “scaling what works,” Someone had to have the guts to try the stuff “that works today.” If you’re only investing in “what works” and refuse to invest in smart, small batch tests of new ideas that will reveal the next thing worth scaling, you’re doing it wrong. Read more about how KIPP got started in Jay Mathews’ Work Hard. Be Nice. : How Two Inspired Teachers Created the Most Promising Schools in America.
  2. Acton Academy. Jeff and Laura Sandefer have two rules for learning guides at Acton — they’re not called teachers: 1. No shaming children. 2. Don’t answer questions. This fidelity to the socratic approach has created one of the most unique and inspiring school cultures I’ve seen. Students own their own learning at such deep levels at Acton, that the school is able to do much more learning with far fewer teachers than other schools. Jeff wrote the foreward to a great resource for people interested in this topic: Clark Aldrich’s Unschooling Rules.
  3. AltSchool. Its still early here, and the software backbone they’re building might be a more important piece of the puzzle than the school itself, but I’m excited to see what we learn from this bay area shop. I hope the massive amount of money they raised doesn’t discourage others. You don’t need $33M to start a micro-school. Please don’t let that number discourage you.

Micro-schools: a good way to make more small bets.

I think we need to do less bet-the-farm education reform in our country.All-in is great for poker, but it rarely teaches us much new in the effort to make schools better. Race to the Top is a good example that’s had some great wins, but deserves some critique — we haven’t learned much about better ways to drive change from the effort; in fact, many would say it discouraged any new ideas that weren’t on the list of approved ideas.

If our problem was broken schools, then big bets on effective repairs might have more merit. But the real issue with schools is that our current notion of what school should do for our society is not in line with the model we’ve got.

Obsolescence — not brokenness — is the problem. We need to explore entirely new methods of organizing our schools, distilling what the most important role for schools might be instead of heaping ever more requirements on an old model.

Micro-schools help us learn more about the future of school faster by reducing variables and bringing us closer to our users — parents and kids.

While many recent micro-school models have come to life as home-schooling parents join forces, there’s a place for this model taking hold within any existing school — public, private, wealthy neighborhood, poor neighborhood.

We need more people trying new ideas in education. Micro-schools are one way.

Our kids need us taking many more little bets on better schooling. Micro-school are one way. There are many other ways, too.

Micro-school or not, I dare you to try something.

Matt Candler is founder of 4.0 Schools, an early-stage, non-profit education incubator training entrepreneurs to launch better schools and learning tools, including micro-schools. You can find him at @mcandler. You can apply to get free help starting your own micro-school or learning tool at 4pt0.org.