5 Lessons from the microschool experience to consider in the era of COVID-19

Devin Vodicka

The microschool concept emerged in the past decade as a natural extension of the learner-centered movement. What was not to love about the idea of small-community embedded campuses that would make it much easier for educators to personalize learning, empower student agency, create purposefully diverse learning environments, and open up the walls of schools? 

AltSchool was near the forefront of this movement and, in retrospect, it is clear that we experienced extreme enthusiasm and criticism, stemming from a bold new undertaking that challenged the status quo. Ultimately, AltSchool’s original vision of scaling a network of microschools across the entire country didn’t come to fruition. At one point, the network was operating seven campuses, each with less than 100 students and some as small as 25 or 30, in New York and the Bay Area. 

Brooklyn Heights

The results for students and families were positive. Learners outperformed their predicted academic gains by 10-40% on average, depending on the year and campus.  After some early bumps and growing pains, family satisfaction was consistently over 90%. But the microschool model proved financially and operationally prohibitive to scale and sustain. Ultimately, AltSchool pivoted to support innovators and educators pursuing learner-centered solutions in the traditional system, and its microschools were transitioned to other operators. 

Suddenly, as Covid-19 wreaks havoc on back-to-school planning, and schools and families struggle to conceptualize what school can look like in the midst of a raging pandemic — lessons from AltSchools’ microschool experience are strikingly relevant. In a world of uncertainty and infection hotspots, “micro” is a more reliable and safe strategy.  In addition to clear benefits for students in terms of their learning, going micro also reduces stressors on parents and children, which is particularly important during an era of overwhelming dynamism as Covid-19 washes across the world.  

Here are five lessons learned that should be considered by every education leader, parent, and policymaker. 

  1. Micro makes sense

Breaking down our factory-like education system into smaller, more flexible pods made sense before. It makes even more sense now. The importance of relationships as a foundation for learning is no secret. The vision for the future of learning that many share, featuring personalized learning, real-world problem solving, and high levels of learner-agency, is notoriously difficult to achieve in the constraints of the traditional school paradigm. 

Now, with the need to contain the spread of Covid, creating these smaller, self-contained learning bubbles makes even more sense. The concept of flexible, mixed-grouping teams has been widely used in other industries, including the shift from industrial-age assembly lines in manufacturing to cellular models that are more adaptable and more effective over time.  These key shifts were addressed in my book Learner-Centered Leadership and there are numerous examples of schools and systems that have re-organized themselves into smaller learning communities.  Now is the time for this model to move from a fringe movement within education to one that is core to how we organize and operate.  

  1. Operational complexities are a significant barrier 

The upside of microschools for learners is compelling: More flexibility, deeper relationships, more agency and choice, the feasibility of a more competency-based progression. There are potential downsides too, especially the smaller peer group, which can be claustrophobic for some learners. But in pandemic times, this is a reality we are all navigating anyway.

A fundamental challenge with microschools is that they require many of the same administrative and operational supports as much larger school buildings, which can quickly create unsustainable inefficiencies. From food service to transportation to building maintenance and security, microschools add complexity and inefficiency, both of which create challenges for independent operators and are anathema to large, centralized bureaucracies. 

But micro learning environment doesn’t have to equal microschool. In this moment, how might school systems create the micro experience in the form of “pods” or “bubbles” that could help contain an outbreak while realizing the benefits of a microschool-like experience? 

  1. Educators roles are different; so set them up for success  

In a micro environment, the role of the educator is different. They have to facilitate across more subject areas. They have to take on even more administrative duties as they help to lead their semi-independent community. So what gives? 

Simplifying the schedule is one step that can really help. Create a simple, consistent schedule with extended blocks for independent reading, software-supported personalized learning, and group projects that challenge students to dig deep into areas of interest. During independent blocks, educators can spend time on individual check-ins. Start and close the day with group meetings that update goals, keep track of progress, and build community. 

In a micro setting, students must take ownership of their learning. The educator role also has to shift in a micro environment. They simply can’t be the center of attention all day long, or the holder of all content knowledge. This shifts more of the cognitive load to students, and requires them to do some of the heavy lifting. This is a good thing for their learning, but a paradigm shift for everyone. 

Technology can help too. Students will spend portions of their day online, using software that helps to personalize learning.  Some learning follows a relatively predictable and linear progression—I will refer to this as “ladder” learning, where a student proceeds from one rung on the ladder to the next.   Software programs that resemble ladder learning systems have been helpful in curricular areas that lend themselves to this approach, including concepts such as math facts and early literacy skills such as letter/sound recognition.  

Learning can also take the form of much more complex, open-ended challenges and projects that have patterns in their resolution but more than one right answer—I will refer to this as “knot” learning, which represents the entanglement and irregular shapes that emerge from a series of knots.  Knot learning is a much more challenging problem and more accurately reflects the thinking we do as adults. Effective educators have been masterfully organizing project-based learning experiences for many years, inspired to do so by the incredible impacts they see in both academic development and social-emotional learning. Tackling real-world challenges builds confidence and competence.

  1. Manage expectations and control costs  

One of the biggest challenges is managing the expectations of everyone involved. We have such deeply ingrained expectations for what school looks like. And it’s natural to want to get all of the good things about micro PLUS all of the good things about macro. One of the (debatably) positive features of the traditional school design is the wide menu of electives and breadth of offerings available because of the scale. Parents and students will ask about ceramics, foreign languages, career and technical courses, physical education, advanced placement. Trying to be everything to everyone in a micro environment is a quick way to see costs grow out of control. 

Mitigating this risk requires a two-part solution. One is actually figuring out how to offer some of this important breadth in a different way. As with any school, the largest budget line is going to be staff. But simply hiring more staff to meet every interest and desire coming from the community will quickly lead to an unsustainable design. Expertise should be tapped, virtually and otherwise, to expand the breadth of what can be offered around the core team of educators. One of the benefits of micro environments is mobility, and community resources should be leveraged as health and safety conditions permit. 

Creative scheduling that leverages teams of educators (even small teams) can provide a greater range of opportunities that could be provided with a conventional “self-contained classroom” approach that relies on educators who work in isolation.  While every context is unique in many ways, we must reimagine schedules in order to sustain microschool concepts.  

The other way to mitigate this risk is to communicate clearly and honestly the tradeoffs of the micro experience. Explain proactively to families that learners will get more attention and support, have more agency and be more empowered as learners, and spend more time on the content that is relevant to them. They will get a chance to dig deep into areas of interest, and learn how to learn. Among the tradeoffs, may be some amount of breadth in electives and offerings. One key way to do that is through a clear and transparent impact framework that defines the outcomes that the community is driving towards. 

  1. Expand how you define and measure student success 

The traditional set of education metrics, heavily anchored on standardized tests, are insufficient to capture the benefits of a micro learning environment. Some of the biggest benefits of a micro learning environment are related to social and emotional development. The development of skills related to collaboration and communication, and mindsets like resilience and agency are as important to success in today’s world as knowledge acquisition. But there are insufficient tools to capture this broader set of outcomes, despite consensus that they are important. 

It is essential to create and elevate a learner profile that makes it clear to everyone, what the system is trying to accomplish and why. Inevitably, a more holistic view of student success will connect more directly to the strengths of a micro environment, where students learn to collaborate deeply, work purposefully toward learning objectives, and find meaningful ways to contribute to the world through interdisciplinary projects (as an alternative to siloed learning). 

It may seem crazy in this moment to try to step back at all – much less to revisit a school model that has proven difficult to scale and sustain in normal times. Schools are under intense pressure to figure something out that will allow for even a basic delivery of services while mitigating risk and  keeping students, families and staff as safe and healthy as possible. 

But timing is everything. And there is no easy path back to school. There is going to be significant logistical and operational effort no matter what the solution – whether it is fully virtual, hybrid, or otherwise.  Due to disruptions in so many facets of our lives, families are going to exercise their agency by pursuing options that meet the needs of their children.  Why not invest that time in taking steps towards an approach to schooling with long term merit and significant upside for learners? 

In the future, technology is only going to get better at helping us manage complex logistics, and improve efficiency related to scheduling, transportation and operations. There will be a significant need to reimagine and repurpose the use of existing spaces, and it will become more feasible to integrate school and community institutions in more sophisticated ways by leveraging technology to assist with logistics and coordination. Why not start this process now?  At minimum, it is at least worth pausing to revisit the micro concept, and considering what lessons its recent history offers for us as we collectively navigate this unprecedented time. 

Please share additional ideas using #LCLeadership

Check out the book Learner-Centered Leadership: A Blueprint for Transformational Change in learning Communities for more insights, reflections, and suggestions.

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