I’ve decided to invest in a startup that I believe has enormous potential to shape the future of education. But to do that, we’re going to need your help.
It’s called SchoolHouse, founded and led by Brian Tobal, who has a long history of working in educational innovation, most recently as Head of Academics at Flatiron School (acquired by WeWork). We’ve had a series of conversations over the last year and I consider him to be one of the sharpest minds in the industry.
Here’s the idea: virtual classes aren’t working for the vast majority of young people. Not exactly a controversial opinion.
Students are tired of endless Zoom calls as a poor substitute for school. Parents are frustrated by having to teach their kids at home for months on end. Teachers are unhappy at having to expose themselves to sickness just to do their jobs, while being underpaid.
The solution: create “learning pods” made up of small groups of 4-8 students and hire an experienced educator to teach them in person.
In the short term this is ideal for the school closures and social distancing that are expected to continue in the U.S. until at least mid-2021.
But in the long term, we have the potential to completely reshape what school looks like. These “micro-schools” can pop up wherever there is a small group of kids (or adults) eager to learn, can be focused on any subject, and provide parents with unprecedented control over their children’s education.
SchoolHouse is creating a toolkit of parts that can be assembled like LEGO blocks, enabling anyone to “build their own school.”
SchoolHouse’s first group of learning pods was a resounding success. 100% of the participating students and parents decided to continue to the next semester.
Their formula is very simple: Put a great teacher in a room with a small group of students, give the teacher full agency to teach in the best way they know how, and spectacular results will follow.
The magic comes from teacher attention: there’s no question that a student receiving ⅙ of a teacher’s time instead of 1/30 is going to learn far more effectively. Small groups allow the teacher to adjust the content and pacing to the needs of the students, instead of forcing them onto a rigid timetable.
It also allows pods to learn anything they want, including traditional subjects like math, reading, and history but also rocketry, falling in love with science, unusual foreign languages, or experiential, project-based topics.
These micro-schools can meet almost anywhere space is available: commercial storefronts, religious centers, local parks, backyards, or even just a dining room table. By drawing on existing local networks and meeting in nearby places, pods invite parent involvement and ensure everyone is bought in to their kids’ education.
As much as I love online education, I’ve found that it doesn’t work for the kindergarten to fifth grade age group. At this age kids need to socialize with each other in person. They need to connect with a teacher in a way that unfortunately isn’t yet possible virtually. And too much screen time isn’t healthy for them.
By working in person, learning pods can address many of the shortcomings of online ed, without necessarily just reverting back to how schools have always been run. This modular, flexible approach also means that parents can use it as much or as little as they like. You could start with a one-student pod that more closely resembles tutoring, and add other students to the group over time. Pods can meet full-time 5 days per week as a complete replacement for school, or after school as a supplement to fill the gap between online and hybrid learning, or anything in between.
SchoolHouse recruits the top 5% of teachers. To qualify, they have to have a minimum of 5 years of experience, an advanced degree, and stellar recommendations from both past students and fellow teachers. Every precaution is taken to ensure that learning pods are protected from COVID exposure. Teachers are tested every week and use personal protective equipment, and all CDC social distancing guidelines and state regulations are followed.
What I’m most excited about is the potential to create multiple alternative pathways for kids to receive an education. I remember my own school experiences, constantly feeling like I was misunderstood and ignored. Some subjects moved way too slow to keep my attention, while others were way too fast for me to keep up.
All the teacher’s attention went to the most gifted or the most troublesome students, while the majority of us in the middle slipped through the cracks. I was fortunate to have other ways of learning that kept my innate curiosity intact, but I know many others weren’t as fortunate.
There isn’t one “right way” for kids to learn, and we shouldn’t try to force one onto them. Imagine the possibilities of learning pods that can move more slowly or quickly, or combine subjects in ways that align with what students are actually interested in.
Imagine mixing ages and grades together so older kids can learn leadership and responsibility, and younger kids can learn from their peers. Imagine the impact we can have on special needs students by designing the entire learning environment from top to bottom to meet their needs.
Brian’s team has raised a sizable first round of funding, and I’ve joined as an angel investor because I’m certain the future of K12 education looks very different than the past. The SchoolHouse team is signing up outstanding teachers at a rapid pace, and is ready to expand the first pilot into a larger group of learning pods.
Here’s where we need your help: we are looking for a group of parents who are willing to try out this new educational format and form new pods for their kids in the new year.
This can be anything from a single student working with a teacher one-on-one to start, all the way to a group of 8 students in your neighborhood.
They are also exploring the possibility of forming adult learning pods. Imagine how cool it would be to meet up with a small group of adults in your area who share similar interests – like philosophy, economics, literature, or even productivity – and study a topic of your choosing, led by a highly qualified instructor, with all the logistics and planning taken care of.
If you’d like to be part of the micro-school movement, please opt in by submitting your email address below. I’ll send you updates on SchoolHouse’s progress, my own discoveries as I learn more about micro-schools, and invite you to an open Q&A session with Brian in the coming weeks. Whether you are a parent or interested in joining a pod yourself, are looking for full-time or supplemental pods, or just want to stay informed on SchoolHouse’s journey, we want to know who you are.
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