3 Technologies That Could Make the Future of School Better for Everyone

About the author: Matt Candler is the founder and CEO of 4.0 Schools, a non-profit incubator for education startups. This article originally appeared on the 4.0 Schools blog.

The 4.0 Tiny Fellowship app is live, and I’m fired up about the new format:don’t quit your job, opt-in to what you need, get $10k in capital to pilot breakthrough ideas in a humanizing way with students and families who feel like active participants in building the future, not lab rats in a faceless scientist’s experiment.

We’re looking for people curious about three specific technologies we think might improve how school is done, across the US, for all children:

  • Inclusive Micro Schools
  • Modular Learning Spaces
  • Tech for Choice

Humanizing scale and student-driven pedagogy

Let’s push back on the idea that a school has to be as big as a factory to be effective. What if we made schools small again, so every teacher knows every student, and every student knows every student?

How about 153 students as a starting point? That’s how many people most of us can keep track of, according to anthropologist, Robin Dunbar. Constraining school enrollment to near Dunbar’s number might let us unlock the most under-rated and under-studied pedagogical resources in our schools — students themselves. Keeping schools this small gives every student a fair shot at leading and participating in effective in-person, student-to-student learning.

There’s another reason to keep schools small — cash. As soon as a school gets bigger than about 150, new layers of administration start piling up. Many good people in these layers are helping teachers, no doubt. But I’d like to challenge the notion that ever more vertical org charts are the best way to put resources close to kids.

There’s another reason to keep schools small — cash.

Holding schools near 153 keeps org charts flat and puts a brake on administrative overhead.

Socio-economic and ethnic diversity

Whether it is a collaborative of home schoolers, a low-cost private school, a public charter or a district-managed school, micro school founders in the 4.0 community create schools that increase diversity instead of reducing it. More so than any other resource in our democracy, schools have the potential to unite instead of separate us, and we’re investing in schools that make this an explicit goal.

One of the most humbling things about being a parent of two micro schoolers has been the parent-to-parent talk. I am getting to know people from other neighborhoods, with different life stories than mine. My youngest is in a different school — diverse, but big. Parent-to-parent connections are weaker, less frequent there. Part of that’s my fault, and I need to get off my butt and engage regardless. But things ARE different in this smaller micro school format. I feel more accountable, more known. When its specific children whose names and personalities you recognize, topics like race, class, white privilege, and the future of New Orleans get real — real fast. And that’s a good thing.

Choice through modular learning spaces

One of the most interesting concepts behind micro schools like Jonathan Johnson’s Rooted School and NOLA Micro Schools is something NOLA Micro founder, Kim Gibson, calls porous walls.

In her low-cost private micro school, students get far more exposure to the world around them than they might in traditional schools. One way is through internships and apprenticeships that students — even those in elementary school — create for themselves. Another is where school happens — inside Dryades Public Market.

Staying small means her school can’t do all things for all students with full-time staff. The porous walls concept is critical to giving kids options and meeting individual learning needs while keeping the school small, intimate, and affordable.

As Kim’s school grows, she has to build areas of specialization, for example for kids with learning disabilities, that will require people on site, but she’s committed to exploring creative solutions to getting the best resources to the right number of students while keeping the core school community small, even if that means sharing them across schools. I think sharing across schools could be a really good thing.

What if we let teachers just teach the thing they love, to as many students as they want? For example, what if the very best AP calculus teacher in a city could teach more AP calculus? What if they spent their week on four campuses instead of one, tutoring 1:1 on a hotspot while in transit inside an autonomous self-driving vehicle?

What if we let teachers just teach the thing they love, to as many students as they want?

I’m not suggesting that every great math teacher would sign up for this gig, but what if someone did this, liked it, and could serve more kids this way? Porous walls might help us unlock more ideas that let us get great resources to many more kids.

Micro school operators like Jonathan and Kim will have to rely heavily on modular learning spaces to give their students the choices and specialized services they deserve, but one of the great things about modular learning spaces is their ability to provide personalization and choice for students in existing schools.

More choice, more often, in more places

Some of the best teaching and learning in the 4.0 universe is happening in places that don’t look very much like traditional classrooms – places like Jen Chiou’s CodeSpeak Labs, Tracie Jones’ and Moriska Selby’s Adventure Girlz, and John Fraboni’s Operation Spark.

John is a jazz drummer who taught himself to write software, and Operation Spark is where dozens of middle and high school students enrolled in schools across the city go in the afternoons, evenings, on weekends, and even during holidays — to code. Operation Spark is deep in the heart of New Orleans’ warehouse district, in a space leased to John by Buddhist monks, blocks away from most of the fastest growing startups in the city, where dozens of professional developers make six figures a year. Many of them walk over and teach John’s students when they have free time. And some of their Operation Spark students are jumping on contracting gigs with freelancers and making software developer money while they’re still in high school.

What if this is the future of school — unbundling into an ecosystem of simpler, smaller schools connected via porous walls to dynamic, specialized modular learning spaces?

Seeing so many students traverse the increasingly porous walls between their host school and modular learning spaces like Operation Spark should challenge our thinking about where learning should and could happen in the future.

Can serve students in existing schools

Building and maintaining relationships relationships between John’s teachers and many other schools is critical to the porous walls concept. Operation Spark and host schools share data about the specialized teaching and learning going on there. In fact, after students raved about their experience at Operation Spark, John built a class for teachers to learn software themselves.

How cool is that? Teachers learning to code after their kids went to a modular learning space and came back raving. Props to the teachers and Operation Spark for opening that dialog and challenging old notions of how teachers can learn themselves.

What if this is the future of school — unbundling into an ecosystem of simpler, smaller schools connected via porous walls to dynamic, specialized modular learning spaces?

Modular: on-site, mobile, virtual

Many modular learning spaces need to be off-site to really work; Operation Spark is more effective because its so close to the professional coding community, but others are more flexible.

Some modular learning spaces are on wheels; some set up temporarily on a school campus. STE(A)M truck, based in Atlanta, does both. They can set up shop for up to 20 instructional days on a campus and deliver high-quality maker education, or they can fire up their truck and do pop-ups for students anywhere in the city.

Forgive the quick digression, but this food truck metaphor is an obsession of mine. I believe food truck technology has boosted the diversity of food options for all of us, and I’d love to see modular learning spaces do the same for schools.

Tools for parents, students

A lot of #edtech is just not helping. Much of it is designed to lubricate the existing system without actually challenging the way that system is structured. (Think smart boards bolted onto marker boards glued to chalkboards.) I’m not into making a structurally flawed system suck less; I’m interested in upgrading the infrastructure. Tech for choice isn’t about making the current solution less bad, it is about tech for families and students, not tech for the system.

A lot of #edtech is just not helping.

We’re investing in founders of tech companies whose customers are parents and students. We’re helping them employ tech to level playing fields, empower people more equitably, and let more families exercise more power and control.

Redistribute soft power and privilege by giving people more power

If there’s one thing about the existing system I think needs to change, it’s the way it allocates power and decision-making — in too few people, too far away from students. Too often and in too many places, families and students — including people living in poverty and people raising kids or learning while black — have too little power. When we do talk about increasing power, its usually about giving them more options to choose from, not about letting them in on the creation of those options. There’s lots of talk about demand-side choice, but far too little investment not much investment in their ability to impact the supply side of the equation.

What if we used technology to attack structural issues that keep schools inequitable so every parent could exercise more choice, more often? To empower parents and students who’ve found better ways to learn or teach to serve others, to be providers, not just consumers?

Our vision of the future is a school and learning structure that’s more unbundled, that doesn’t assume big schools are always better. That doesn’t pick the suppliers for everyone. A world where families and students, regardless of zipcode, skin color or income can make more choices, more often, with accurate information about how those choices might serve their children.

4.0 is a community of people working together to make this future of school better for all kids. If you take us up on the challenge, you won’t be alone.

If you’re game to make something better, we’re ready to help. 4pt0.org/tiny.