2015-10-25_13-48-06

The Rise of Micro-Schools

The rise of the “Micro-school” is in the air — see this New Schools Venture Fund Article and this NAIS Independent Ideas Article to start. Micro-schools are also on my mind. Before these small schools were given this nom de guerre and  — with it — distinction from other “independent” yet not Independent schools such as the venerable Edvisions Collective of semi-autonomous charters, I was happily involved in multiple projects that might be categorized as micro-schools today.

In 2010, I partnered with former Harvard Business School professor Shoshana Zuboff, her husband, businessman/entrepreneur Jim Maxmin and their son Jake as a student designer to create “GlobalCiv: A New Learning Ecology“. GlobalCiv was a learning partnership between individual learners, mentors, and organizations from around the world. Global Civ was a learning ecology designed to connect driven students across the world:

Sanguine voices are heard on a coastal beach in Maine as a group of high-school age young people gather around multiple mobile devices that are networked via live webcast to their peers in China, New Zealand, London, Uganda and Bolivia in a project called “The Interdependence of Global Water”. This international project based learning pod are gathering, some waking at 1:00am to view sea run Salmon return to spawn on the Penobscot River in Maine, United States. These young people are doing more than watching; they helped make the Penobscot River viable for this process again through their combined research, writing, and service efforts. In partnership with indigenous communities, business interests, academics, local, regional and national governments, and conservation biology organizations they have joined a coalition to remove dams and restore native salmon spawning corridors. There study was intense, memorable and had lasting impact on all involved. As these young people wove service and action into their “core” themes of study: society, environment and economics, there lives were changed, and they helped catalyze a movement for new learning around the world. What we find out is that these young people are collaborating together on similar projects in all of the six world regions mentioned and in concert with each other in a new learning ecology. There are no “walls” in this learning ecology, rather these students learn year round, individually and in groups at regional based learning centers where they come to collaborate, problem solve and socialize with other project based learners. The bulk of the work these brave young people accomplish is done in the field, at home, or traveling in “mobile learning labs” utilizing the most innovative eLearning tools imaginable. The blended eLearning networks used to collaborate on the integrated global projects mentioned, here also leveraged to connect domain territory specialists and mentors to young people as they constructed an understanding of quantitative reasoning, social sciences, literature, experimental sciences, and visual arts in integrated project based learning. The ePortfolios of each learner on that beach in Maine and around the world would be constructed to exhibit learner mastery of knowledge territories and to meet international and national standards in education. This is international learning done across cultural, environmental and economic borders; creating a global frontier for critical education.

Then in 2012, building on the success of GlobalCiv I launched Networked Learning Ecology North America with my wife and a group of dedicated regional entrepreneurs. NLENA sought to weave together a mesh network of young people, parents, educators, and partners in the Midcoast region of Maine and across the world. We were working to realize a new ecology of learning, distributed, connected and scalable:

Piper is a 15 year old who lives in Midcoast Maine, US. A year ago, Piper heard about a new way to learn, and decided to take part in a new learning experience called the Maine Networked Learning Project. Known as “the Mesh” to participants, this learning ecology offered Piper the chance to apply her passion for learning in highly experiential and collaborative ways with groups of young people of varied ages, adult and youth mentors with knowledge territory specialties and organizations focused on ensuring sustainable and resilient societies, economies, and the environment. This is a snapshot of her day.

A day in the learning ecology of Piper Hahn

Piper gets ready for her weePiper Hahn’s Networked Learning Ecology by sitting outside sipping tea and looking at her smart phone. She is checking project updates sent from the team she has been working with for the last two months on her Google Reader and Twitter feed. The project Piper is checking in on deals with food justice in the rural communities of her bioregion.

Seeing many updates, and much activity she decides to look at the overall “mesh” schedule for the day. She notices that the MNLP van will be moving across the local region starting in an hour. To get a ride on this local transportation system she has to ride her bike to a station stop or have her parents drop her off at the regional mesh meet-up location. But before deciding this she reviews her weekly schedule on her mobile.

Piper notices that she and three others will be presenting at the local Veterans of Foreign Wars organization to a large group on the history of local food cultivation in the region. She and her Food Justice project group have spent a good deal of time completing ethnographic studies of the areas “locals”. These participant interviews are seminal to their presentation as they show that local sustainability and resilience projects are not “outside” or “rich Peoples” pursuits, but can save local economies and the historical heritage this stakeholder group cherishes. The group has also been working in restoration crews on local farms as a service learning tie in to their studies. The project has been extensive. Piper and her group have covered mathematics, experimental sciences, writing, social sciences and much more in an integrated project framework. They have relied on their mesh mentors, local experts (educators, authors, historians, scientists….), and the internet for research, recording (writing, video) and exhibiting their knowledge and understanding to multiple community stakeholder groups.

As the project presentation pre-work is done, Piper contacts her group via twitter hashtag to remind all that they will need an hour to meet-up before the presentation and to ride their bikes to the VAW hall from the meet-up. Immediately she gets a response from three of the four other group members that they will meet prior to the VAW event. They remind each other that a collaborative learning session will be going on for applied algebra and trigonometry concepts at Noon. This session will be special, as an innovative regional planner from rural Scotland will be mentoring at the Self Organized Learning Environment today along with their local quantitative reasoning/systems thinking mentors. She video chats with one participant letting her know that she will be at the SOLE, and is hoping to get a ride to her house (or dorm) after today’s VAW presentation. That done, Piper checks with her parents (or dorm parents) and decides to ride her bike to a mesh station stop. She then rides the mesh van into town and catches up on posts in her Reader and replies to myriad comments and responses in her network on the way.

At the Meet-up location (a wide open space that reminds Piper of a open market of some kind), she settles in with the other young people in study, discussion and deliberation. Today she takes out her tablet and reads a work in global literature that was suggested by a mentor she has in South Asia. She will take notes on the work over the next hour and send those notes via blog post to the mentor. The mentor, other participants and Piper are involved in a global project combining cultural understandings of place into a wiki resource for future learners to use. She sees connections everywhere in her learning and after being inspired by an experience in India she’s just read about (or had?), Piper adds content for today’s VFW presentation to the shared presentation document for group review.

Piper takes a run with others from the meet-up, and then decides to review the quantitative reasoning skills that figure into the edible re-vegetation project from Scotland being discussed at the SOLE today. Piper will get another chance to apply her growing knowledge and understanding with today’s SOLE because the re-vegetation work they are doing locally is based on the Scottish project being discussed.

After the SOLE, and successful VAW presentation the group meets at a Mesh group members house. The group has grown from five to seven now as the crew who filmed the presentation and ethnographic methods over the last months are with them to discuss editing and working on the script for the groups public exhibition of findings. Piper and her group know that the scientists, mentors, politicians, local and global participants, and their peers will attend the exhibition. This step in their project leads to funding and further action on their multi-year food security project. After Dinner with the host family, rides home for most, and ePortfolio updates. The rest of the week will be full of networked, experiential, and mobile learning directly applied to creating solutions in an interdependent world. 

Then in 2013, I co-designed “The Bridge Year at Kieve-Wavus” again with my wife and long time independent school leader Charlie Richardson. A truly amazing venture, The Bridge Year engaged the Independent School world with a new conversation about what’s possible in education:

The Bridge Year is a year-long, co-educational, learning experience in which students explore their academic core through campus and outdoor projects and field studies which are authentic, integrated, and personalized. Students learn everywhere, have extensive one on one attention and experience life as a daily learning opportunity. The Bridge Year student comes from around the world, the US and Maine representing a wide variety of backgrounds. They are young people seeking transformative experiences that support the growth necessary to unlock their amazing talents, passions, and curiosity for learning and life. At The Bridge Year, students  live their learning.

These projects were successes in the own right, test flights for what’s possible. To quote Zuboff and Maxmin on GlobalCiv in 2010 — the project was “at least a decade to soon “. Yet in 2013 after her experience with Global Civ she wrote of The Bridge Year  “The Bridge Year  fills a major gap in today’s educational landscape. It can provide a gateway to high school  that is critical to the long term success and well being of many young people.  Student-driven , project- based learning  can be a life-changing experience.  When this is combined with personal instruction, exposure to digital learning tools, and an  active learning  community, students can develop the capability for joyous and self-directed learning both in high school and for the rest of their lives.” 

There are parts of these projects in all of the work I do and in my current thoughts design and partnerships. That the rise of the micro-school is upon us — interests me all the more. The projects listed above were my attempt to answer myriad questions about a system of schooling that seemed/s to exist for its own sake– as institutions, not ecologies of education as they need to be.

I remain fiercely loyal to the independence” offered by independent schools, and some charters. That more schools are considering or being advised to create autonomous programs (see Horn et al. in independent thinking) intrigues me. That VC are looking for new school designs and prototypes for the future is equally buoying. What if independent schools en mass, were looking in the same way too? Would this be a significant Bypass, and eventually, to use Zuboff’s language, Mutation in education? It certainly will depend on the market forces driving the change — be it test scores or transformed and highly personalized educational ecologies…..

Independent schools will need to embrace these projects with their missions close at heart, their vision alight and not just in fear of loosing market share. I can imagine and would embrace the laboratories of educational ecologies that may emerge. The national and worldwide wonder at a new very visible movement of change in education, and possibly, just possibly systemic change would be welcome.

Feature Image: https://rbkclocalstudies.wordpress.com/tag/notting-hill-adventure-playground/