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Micro Schools and Pandemic Pods - change agents in K-12 education

June 29, 2021

Wow. That was our first thought when we read about Micro Schools and Pandemic Pods. The changes in the dynamics of education that have taken place over the last year are just incredible, and the shockwaves just keep rolling.Unhappy with the quality, consistency and suitability of purely online teaching at their local schools during the pandemic, parents got organised. Setting up "Pandemic Pods" of around 10 children, they then hired a private tutor (or one of the parents taught the children themselves), and their own Micro School was born.Now this might seem like just a reaction to a temporary situation. A way to make sure children had more of a multi-sensory, multi modal continuation of learning with a social dimension that the hastily assembled Zoom classes just were not offering, in a time when children most needed stability. We don't think so. This is a key part of the disruption of education that is underway.

The appeal of Micro Schools

It is easy to see why Micro Schools appealed to parents during the pandemic. Children were really suffering with the upheaval of everything around them. Parents were trying to keep working from home whilst keeping an eye on their children, and the need to find a solution was pressing. Small, local, self-contained and safe.The one-room schoolhouse is an iconic part of North American culture. Little red-bricked buildings used to dot the landscape, with as many as 190,000 of them in the US back in 1919. All ages in one room, with multi-modal lessons grouped by maturity and progress, rather than your date of birth. Education was different in 1919, but there was a fluidity of this type of learning environment. The teacher could not be everywhere, and so peer-teaching and a community learning model were natural evolutions here (if the schoolmaster didn't "physically educate" you for talking, that is!). Today there are less than 4000 of these buildings in the country, and they are almost all rural, where population does not allow for segmented age groups. For a long time they were seen as old-fashioned, but the nostalgia for the local, one-room schoolhouse is now taking on a new dimension, and finding its way towards the cutting edge of education. For parents who want to have more control over their children's education, you can see the appeal. The pod agreements take into account the best schedules for the families, as well as the most suitable learning approaches and content for the small group of children that form part of it. Contact with the teacher is daily, and the individualised attention and personalized content that is possible in such a microcosmic group is hard to replicate in all but the most innovative K-12 learning environments.

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Micro Schools step into the future

They have been around for a while. Organizations like Acton have been supporting people to set up their own Micro School within existing schools for years now, and Nola has helped organisations bring Micro Schools into community spaces like museums and galleries.The difference these days is the grass-roots element. When the pandemic hit, and parents began to internalize the new realities of education for their children, it was clear that many schools were falling short. Let's be clear, we have always said (and will always say) that teachers are superheroes. No question.However, aside from the Herculean effort of teachers to shift learning online, the structures and know-how just weren't in place for so many schools. Online learning that truly supports the social dimension, and not just the cognitive one; that is something that does not evolve overnight.Enter parents groups. Where would we be without parents groups on Facebook? This is where recommendations are passed on and decisions are made, and it was natural fertilizer for the explosion in pandemic pods. This San Franciso group quickly garnered over 9500 members, and pods were set up all over the area with members sharing tips and tricks, resources and recommendations.The thing is, that going back is not easy for everyone. Have you ever realised while on holiday that where you live really isn't up to much? Or hired a car and found it tough to go back to your own? When the dust settled, those schooling in pods came to a crossroads - go back to school, or formalize what they were doing and step it up a gear. Micro Schools came into their own. In a Micro school, you can still ostensibly follow the curriculum, but approach it in your way, and broaden it out to include things that the learners are actually really interested in. One of the parents, for example, might teach coding, or the group might bring in a local designer to show the children how to use basic tools to create posters, designs, invites and social media posts. Local, small-batch artisanal education.

An imperfect solution

Sounds good so far? Let's dig a bit deeper. Hiring a teacher between 8 children and overseeing the content and learning approach with regular contact and discussion? You need time and money for that. The families in North America doing this are overwhelmingly white, privileged and without Special Educational Needs, and so the natural diversity of the area is stripped away into homogeneity. Not good. As this article scathingly puts it: "The New Aristocracy Discovers Micro schools-Introducing the newest, oldest way to engineer a feckless elite"We also take away a lot of the dialogue between parents and educators that helps us to shift mindsets and introduce progressive thinking. A parent might be looking for a school that has good discipline and scores high on state league tables, but that doesn't mean the education will help their child to be the best version of themselves. Sometimes the school is old-fashioned and teacher-centered, and sometimes it is the parents who hang on to outdated ideas, but the dialogue is always healthy.

Finding a balance

The Micro School is a great idea. Flexible learning environments, more permeable walls between learning and the real world, personalised pathways through content and malleable schedules to suit the learners and the families.However, they risk being another tool of the elite, to further widen an equity gap that is already far too big. Teachers competing for the biggest paychecks, beholden to the direction of parents who may or may not know their pedagogy from their andragogy. Neurodiverse and BIPOC pupils excluded from the homogenous bubbles of learning that risk marginalization and are just downright unfair.Some organizations are doing something about it. Micro School organization Weekdays are lobbying and campaigning for more subsidies and support to ensure that Micro Schools do not end up as ableist, segregated, and sexist in the type of families who can access them. They are also helping to ensure that teachers who they recommend are thoroughly background checked and receive fair working conditions so that the children and teachers in the Micro School are less vulnerable.

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Micro Schools within schools

This was bound to happen. When the Innocent Smoothie company started a new wave of interest in drinks with natural ingredients, homespun branding and environmental ethics, Coca-Cola saw the challenge and just bought the company; letting them retain their way of working but under the wider company umbrella.That's not the best example, but you know what we mean. Micro Schools are great, but only when equitable and properly run, and so an obvious solution was to bring the innovation in-house. Liberty Schools in Kansas City have installed Micro Schools in all of their regular schools, where small groups of learners can study more personalized pathways within special spaces like makers studios, or even off-site in business, manufacturing, or cultural hubs. Our favorite example is the Hubling approach by Learnlife. They partner with schools who know they need to do something to break out of the mechanistic model of education that still pervades modern schools, but lack the resources or capacity to do this full scale. In partnership with Learnlife, small learning hubs are set up within the school, which are customized with a range of 3D printing, music production, coding, art, and cooking facilities, to name but a few. This means a school can have a self-contained space for the magic to happen, and this is perfectly adaptive to a Micro School philosophy, where the learners can personalize their pathways and focus on what really interests them- away from the hum of the busy school.

A taste of the future

Innovation is not linear. We were never going to emerge from a hugely unsettling pandemic with a shiny new school system, but the seeds have been sown. The pandemic pods showed us that when education is customised, localised and puts the learner at the centre, it can be a powerful experience.What we also learned is that we can't call it progress if it only works for some of us. There is a way forward here, and we don't have all the answers. What we do know is that everywhere we look, from liquid learning to coworking spaces, digital nomads to adaptive learning, the solutions of the future are fluid.They are never one thing, or one model, but the creation of choice, access and innovation. Micro Schools are actually quite a big idea, and we think they have a place in the future of education.

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