Micro schools: Going beyond textbooks

Micro schools: Going beyond textbooks

Photo: Hemant Mishra/Mint

Inspired by the success of micro schools like AltSchool in the US, educators in Bengaluru are offering their own takes on the concept

Shweta Sharan
Last month, Mumbai-based homeschooler Malvika Joshi made headlines for getting a scholarship for the prestigious BSc programme at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) without having appeared in either the 10th or 12th board exams.
Joshi had won two silver medals and one bronze medal in the Programming Olympiads, though, and this caught the attention of a senior admissions officer from MIT.
It is interesting to read what Joshi’s mother, Surpiya Raj, has to say on the matter: “Malvika was doing well in school, but somehow I felt that my children need to be happy.”
Raj wanted something more than a schooling system where “students are forced to get up early and study only certain subjects, play only certain sports and meet peers of a certain age, that too in a controlled atmosphere. It does not match the natural cycle of children”.
In the UK and the US, micro schools are cropping up, offering exactly what Raj feels is missing in conventional schooling set-ups.
Micro schools seek to combine the best of traditional schooling and homeschooling, but are more than just hybrids. They are handcrafted learning experiences with different educational underpinnings—an Acton, for instance, is different from an AltSchool—but they all share common traits:
• Not more than 100 to 150 students per school and 10 to 15 students a class.
• Mixed-age groups across grades.
• An emergent curriculum that doesn’t progress in a linear manner from one grade to another but in keeping with a child’s learning pace.
• Individualized learning at a fraction of the cost of a regular school.
• Teachers or guides to meet the learning expectations of children of different age groups and across subjects.
• Standardized testing is not used. Instead, children are encouraged to participate in Google or Intel Science Fairs and open competitive platforms for arts and literature.
• Instead of textbooks, hands-on projects, discussions and activities as learning tools.
• Maker spaces that encourage building or projects that encourage invention literacy—art and design are not extra-curricular activities but are part of everyday lessons.
• Students meet twice a week in a shared learning space and for the rest of the week, they use online resources or a flipped classroom, a form of blended learning wherein students access short video lectures on a lesson, either on their computers or phones, and go to class to work on projects, discussions or exercises. Homeschoolers go back to homeschooling. There are variations to this format (for example, Acton operates five days a week).
• Technology is part of the classroom in some form—online resources, tools to build or make things, or to assess a child’s learning and progress.
Much like Silicon Valley, Bengaluru will see four separate educationists coming up with their own variations on the concept. The one common idea that they share is that, unlike IT, healthcare and other industries that have evolved drastically, education in India has not really changed over the past few decades. A micro school is, among other things, a response to this sense of stagnation.
How ‘micro school’ became a buzzword
The past decade has seen micro schools shoot up in different parts of the US almost simultaneously.
In 2009, QuantumCamp started off on a dare that no one could teach quantum physics in a fun, simple way. Cut to 2013, when QuantumCamp began to offer hands-on STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and language and art curriculums to children of grades 1 to 8, with many of its takers being homeschoolers.
Acton Academy, a micro school network founded by Jeff Sandefer in Texas, came up around the same time and offered the regular five-day-week learning programme but in a different way. Children learned online for two hours a day, had hands-on work projects, engaged in discussions and also explored art and sports. There are no teachers but guides to help children take ownership of their education.
More famously, AltSchool—another micro school network, started in Silicon Valley by Max Ventilla—found a backer in Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg, recently announced AltSchool Open, wherein parents or educators could design their own school model. Selected applicants will get to use AltSchool’s proprietary software, services and engineering support. 
An open-source platform 
In 2013, Ryan Chadha and his mother Anuradha Chadha founded Jigyasa the School in Bengaluru, a Reggio Emilia-inspired preschool that offers programmes for children aged 1-6. Anuradha has more than 20 years of experience as an early-years educator both in India and abroad, while Ryan is in charge of operations and marketing.
Ryan Chadha, during a class at Jigyasa. Photo: Hemant Mishra

Ryan Chadha, during a class at Jigyasa. Photo: Hemant Mishra

A typical day at Jigyasa sees children engaged in science or art experiments—for instance, how does water at different temperatures mix? Discussions and ideas are encouraged from children as young as four years old. Some of the responses are stunning.
Ryan plans to expand this preschool philosophy into a five-day-a-week micro school that has concentrated groups of learning, with a progressive curriculum and individualized learning plans for children.
A preschool, he thinks, is pretty much like a micro school. Children can be segregated not by age but in groups and in any other way one wants. When you have flexible classrooms without desks and chairs, you can keep working in small groups and groups keep rotating.
For Jigyasa, Ryan plans a classroom experience involving lot of movement and children from different age groups working simultaneously.
“What would be interesting is if various schools can get together and build one open-source platform. A lot of preschools and homeschoolers have designed fantastic curriculums and learning resources—for instance, on volcanoes or rocks. It would be great if all of this can be collated, so if a teacher wants to have ideas on how to engage students on this topic, she can go on this platform and keep adding. This is the kind of technology that I am interested in, something that is free and can be grown,” he says.
The rolling school model
A few months ago, a friend who was looking for a school for his daughter was critical of the admissions malarkey that generally takes Bengaluru by storm every September.
“If I could, I would only put her in different clubs for science, art and sports in different parts of the city instead of a regular school set-up,” he said. “That way she can travel, learn more and meet more people.”
It would appear that this concept—the rolling school model—has already found a taker in the city.
George Supreeth, Smitha Shivaswamy, Mubarrah Khan and Aditya B.M. are part of a team of educators in Bengaluru that is exploring a teaching methodology called Playjam. This is a micro-schooling method wherein children, parents and educators form small, tightly knit learning clubs that meet in different parts of the city every week.
The Playjam team.

The Playjam team.

“Children do not learn in specific places. They learn all the time,” says Supreeth.
The rolling school model is also Playjam’s way of disrupting education’s dependence on static destinations. “Many big schools are started by builders, and traditionally, the return on investment is calculated on a per square foot basis, much the same way as apartments,” Supreeth adds.
The group will have educators, parents and children meeting in organized set-ups in flipped classrooms and other days will see them go back to the flipped classroom model. Each session will see participants discuss each other’s work, what each child has been working on, etc. This will be conducted in the style of the Pecha Kucha, a Japanese meet-and-greet style that has people making short two-minute presentations each.
Playjam is already operational among a group of parents who meet once a week for projects in art and craft. A person who has been in the group for a long time is allowed to facilitate and there is a shared sense of responsibility. Playjam’s teaching methodology includes techniques like front-loading—introducing subject matter to a child through discussions, activities and practical exercises before getting down to actually learning it.
“Homeschoolers miss out on social skills and team-building exercises. A micro school can solve this problem,” says Supreeth.
Micro schools for homeschoolers
Among the many people who find micro schools interesting are homeschoolers. After all, the idea hits very close to home.
Sandhya Viswan, a homeschooler, educationist and mother of two sons, is considering developing an open-source content app for homeschoolers in India.
“The problem for homeschoolers is that RTE (Right to Education Act) does not recognize us as educational bodies. Unlike registered institutes, many of us do not believe in standardized tests or assessments. Even if the government only wants a portfolio or a blog to show that we are educating our children, this goes against the grain for a homeschooler because we develop the curriculum very organically and to measure it would be to lose the flow. For some parents, micro schools could solve this problem,” says Viswan.
In Mumbai, co-ops exist and are similar to micro schools. These are zonal groups that have planned activities and get together once a month or more, with older children sometimes facilitating learning for the younger children.
Nano schools—smaller still
A few weeks ago, Rajat Toshniwal and his business partner Ami Patel Desai had a seminar in Bengaluru for parents, educationists and entrepreneurs who are interested in new-age micro schools. The response?
“Parents were curious, definitely excited,” says Desai, an author and an educationist who has more than 20 years of experience. “We will have to wait and see how it takes off.”
Toshniwal is an alumnus from IIT Bombay, with eight years of experience in education and school services. Along with Desai, he has developed Oogway Microschools as a platform that will train parents and entrepreneurs to take the concept forward.
“Next summer, we will get our first set of customers, whom we will train. We will give them tools. Much like a micro school, the nano school is one that consists of five to 10 students for one teacher and this is also an idea we are discovering. The curriculum will be developed by us. We will also encourage our facilitators to enrol their children in the same micro school,” says Toshniwal.
The first set of customers may either go on to become part of their set-up or start their own franchises and go forward in their own way. This is somewhat similar to AltSchool’s model of creating an “operating system” for education, except that the curriculum and methodologies are a little less radical than AltSchool’s.
“We have to understand that parental aspirations and children's needs in India are different, and a copycat solution from west is likely to fail,” says Toshniwal. 
Toshniwal and Desai have envisioned Oogway as being less rebellious than AltSchool, for the simple reason that parents in India may not be ready for such a stark change. Still, Oogway plans to be non-academic and yet encourage children to achieve mastery in areas that interest them. 
Like other micro schools, Oogway’s use of technology is very personal. “Technology is a learning process. Bio-wearables are something that we are considering, so that we can track moods or emotions in students according to learning experiences,” says Toshniwal. 
Still an inchoate system
“A lot of micro schooling is still in a very nascent stage,” says Rythm Agarwal, co-founder of The Atelier, a preschool in Sarjapur Road that she intends to develop into a micro school in the near future. “We need to see how we can adapt it to the Indian system.”
Indeed, a lot of it hinges on how parents view the method. At its heart, micro schooling is a very free-spirited approach and many parents baulk at the idea of having no structure in their children’s education.
Sandeep Dutt, the chairman of Fabindia School and Leaning Forward, has spent decades exploring what makes schools work. “In India, many parents are seeking Kota classes like Vidya Mandir, Bansal or Aviral to provide coaching for IIT and medical exams, and whether we like it or not, this is largely what many parents want. Micro schools seem to be niche experiences, unlike the US that is also experimenting with charter schools,” he says.
By their nature, micro schools evolve organically to discover their learning rhythm and franchising the idea could undercut the efficacy of a personalized learning programme.
“In Jigyasa, we will have teachers facilitating different subjects across two or three grades, unlike a designated math teacher. Hiring teachers to make this work could be a challenge,” says Ryan Chadha.
Technology could be another problem, as Indian education systems still don’t know what to do with it. “I have seen teachers from top schools in the city who are not tech-savvy at all. The next generation of teachers might use it more intuitively to look up a problem or a fact, but right now, educators have still not found a way to make it work,” says Chadha.
Would micro schools work in India? In April this year, Advitiya Sharma, co-founder of Housing.com (he quit in March), launched an education start-up called the Genius Learning Labwhich plans to start 500 micro schools across Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru, Hyderabad and Kolkata.  
A bold move, considering that even in the US, only recently did researchers compile data that backs the Small Schools initiative funded by the Gates Foundation—and a small school is vastly different from a micro school. In India, especially, there is very little research and data on education. 
In the US, Yale, Harvard, MIT, Duke and other universities are changing their admissions policies to include more homeschoolers. Portfolios are accepted instead of marks transcripts, admissions are relatively more flexible and PhD holders from these colleges mentor homeschoolers who gain admission. 
And coming back to India, when Malvika Joshi applied to various institutes with only Olympiad medals to show for her talent, the Chennai Mathematical Institute accepted her without a transcript. Maybe our systems have more potential for change than we thought.
Shweta Sharan is a freelance writer based in Bengaluru. In 2012, she started a Facebook community called Bangalore Schools, which has now grown to include more parents, teachers, education reporters, journalists, educationists and policymakers in the city.
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