Outschooling in the Bay Area

Homeschooling is interesting because, if some new approach is going to disrupt the current education system and change it radically for the better, it seems likely it would come from outside the system.

By necessity, parents who homeschool must try new approaches in order to find something that works for their child. With 1.77M homeschooled students in the US - 3.4% of the school-aged population -  this is the community where experimentation / iteration amongst educational approaches is happening the fastest. As a result the future of education is likely to come out of this community.

Yet it is an overlooked community. For various reasons, the mainstream regard homeschooling as a niche approach suitable only for the weird or the wealthy. That’s a prejudice that doesn’t reflect the reality of the growing movement I've observed in the Bay Area.

What I found

I first became interested in homeschooling several years ago after a friend with six kids began homeschooling in San Francisco out of necessity - the public school system wanted to send each of her kids to a different school. Instead of hiring six Ubers each morning she decided to start homeschooling her kids herself.

What she told me about the experience was very different, and much better, than what I expected:
  1. It only takes 2-3 hours of study per day to keep up with the regular school curriculum since the kids were able to study when they were best prepared and motivated. No time was spent on bureaucracy / classroom management.
  2. The kids could deep dive into their own interests, thus learning self-direction and creativity without the requirement to stick to a fixed schedule and curriculum largely driven by logistical concerns
  3. A lot of basic material could be covered through online courses, such as those offered by Khan Academy
  4. A lot of learning occurs outside the home and is social
The last point was the biggest surprise to me. Especially in the Bay Area, there is a wealth of group learning activities that are offered outside of regular school. The Exploratorium, Academy of Sciences and Museum of Craft and Design, to name but a few, offer tours and classes. New microschool startups, such as QuantumCamp which offers one-day per week science programs, are popping up. Parents group together to informally organize their own classes.

For example, one parent organized “Thinkering Day,” where one day per week for 12 weeks, up to 12 kids run through a program of literature, debate and art. The day starts with actors from the SF Shakespeare Festival helping the kids explore literature and drama together - Shakespeare intended his works to be performed, not read and dryly studied out of a textbook. After lunch a parent facilitates a classical debate class. Finally the kids explore art using iPads in a session run by teachers from a startup that specializes in teaching mobile art.

All the activities happen in the beautiful setting of a mid-peninsula park. I observed part of a session and the whole thing seemed like an idealized scene of childhood out of a movie. The parent put together the curriculum because it was something she wanted for her own kids, but she wouldn’t have wanted to hire the tutors just for her own family. As well as that being much more expensive than sharing the costs with other parents, it would have been a worse learning experience for not being a group.

Seeing this, I connected with more parents and interviewed them to find out more. A common vision of homeschooling is of kids studying alone at home and being shielded from outside influences. But that vision doesn’t fit with what I found through those interviews. All the families I spoke with had found or helped create rich group learning experiences outside of regular school and outside of the home. More like "out-of-schooling” than homeschooling. So I started calling it Outschooling for short.

As well as exploring how families Outschooled, I asked what pushed them to try it in the first place.

Why do parents choose to homeschool / outschool?

My interviews with homeschooling parents in the Bay Area uncovered the following three reasons:

     1. Normal schools can’t personalize the curriculum and so deal poorly with asynchronous learners.

Asynchronous learners are students who are gifted, but may develop at different rates in different areas. The balance may well change over time since interests / neurology changes as they grow. That sounds like all of us to an extent. It seems unlikely that most of us can progress at a range of subjects at exactly the same speed, and moreover the same speed as the curriculum is written for.

     2. Learning should be more child-led and less test-driven. Schools kill creativity.

Unschooling is an educational philosophy that roughly says children should learn by living in and interacting with the world normally rather than being contained within an artificial and prescriptive environment like school. The idea is to create self-directed, life-long learners. 

Not many parents take this to the extreme of zero learning structure, but all the parents I spoke with held this view to an extent and wanted their kids to have a less structured learning environment.

     3. Kids with special needs are poorly catered for in regular school.

Dyslexia and other learning differences, especially when combined with the child being very gifted in other ways (“twice exceptional”) make normal school an even worse fit. Large class sizes and static curriculums prevent the personalization that would be needed to give a great education for the individual. If you’re very different from other kids, not only will you suffer academically, but the social environment is also likely to be pretty terrible.

Looking at those three reasons, none seem too controversial. I think the first two would resonate with most parents. And yet homeschooling / outschooling isn’t mainstream. This is because most people have an out-dated view of what learning outside of regular school can be, and because of the practical difficulties of opting out of the current system. It was a full-time job for all the parents I spoke with.

If the outschooling alternative was better understood, and more infrastructure was in place to alleviate the practical difficulties, I think many more parents would opt out of the regular school system.

Outschooling and Future Education

Sending your kids to school today involves them attending the same institution each day in one physical location, working through a curriculum and standardized tests that are planned centrally, and years in advance. This is industrialized, mass-produced education that reflects the era in which the system was created. The curriculum aims to standardize quality, and dealing with one institution is logistically simple (relatively) for the parent who has somewhere to drop their kids off while they go to work.

But the world of the future will value individual creativity, differentiation and directly observable skills more than standardized knowledge and credentials. The future education system will have to deliver “mass customization”, and I believe this will be delivered by an ecosystem of many different institutions - much more like the outschooling I discovered interviewing parents.

Learning experiences will come in several different types:
  • In-person group activities
    • Teacher-led classes, similar to standard school classes
    • Social, interactive, broadening learning experiences e.g. park days, museum and company tours, craft workshops
  • Self-study 
    • Consuming content such as Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs)
    • Self-directed research and experimentation
  • Online group classes in real-time, allowing for student interaction and teacher-led learning
We can expect MOOCs and online group classes to play a much larger role in the future, displacing some in-person group learning. These elements may even take up half a student's learning time, especially for older students, if the experiences of the homeschooling early-adopters are anything to go by. There are already many EdTech startups building technology and services to support this trend.

There are also startups looking to transform in-person learning through incorporating technology into the classroom. But I think the big opportunity is to look for ways to use technology to transform the existing school system, rather than just sell technology into it. We know that improved communications technology allows us to handle complex, real-time, physical world logistics (Instacart, Lyft) in a way that we couldn’t before. Online marketplaces have reduced transaction friction, increased liquidity and enable efficiency through the use of spare capacity (AirBnB, FlightCar). We can apply these capabilities to in-person group learning.

In the future I believe that we will see the school system unbundled as a marketplace of classes. 

Imagine an “Airbnb for learning activities” where parents and kids assemble custom curriculums from a mixture of institutions and individual teachers, both professional and amateur. They collaborate to crowd-fund and crowd-source activities together. Tutors may play a role, but the aim is not to create a marketplace for 1:1 tutoring - small group activities are better value and better learning experiences. Public schools would still provide classes for free in this system, but would offer them course-by-course instead of bundled.

Why now and what next?

The parents of young kids now have grown up with the internet. They have seen first-hand how fast the world has changed and how following the standard path is no longer a sure thing. They know that to be successful, their kids will need to be lifelong learners able to respond to change fast, and will need to cultivate differentiated skills. The current school system isn’t keeping pace with the new requirements and capabilities.

As a result, more will choose to opt-out of regular school and start outschooling. To accelerate this trend, new services are going to be required for:
  • Logisitics: such as transport, family calendars. How will parents and students plan their week, how will they coordinate between multiple institutions and how will kids be able to move between physical locations if they're not always in the same place?
  • Content: normal schools will eventually start offering unbundled courses, but in the short-term it's likely to be school startups, independent professionals teachers and parent / grad student amateurs who provide the activities.
  • Discovery: how will people find the activities or be recommended them, how will they be able to assess quality / suitability, how will enrollment work?

You can already see this starting to happen: Shuddle is a startup that is like Uber specifically for moving kids around between activities. QuantumCamp is a startup school offering a one-day per week science curriculum and you could imagine it become a national subject-specific brand.

Discovery is big missing piece though. There needs to be a marketplace for learning activities outside of regular school with great search, subscription for updates by subject, location etc., consistent enrollment and tools for organizers. I have started to work on this and am calling the project Outschool.

Agree with me and want to contribute? Get in touch!

Mental model for product management: a way to classify features

How do you decide what features you should build next?

A lot of startup and product management advice says that you should decide this by being obsessively focused on listening to your customers’ needs. But at the same time you shouldn’t listen to what they say literally. So how do you interpret what they say?

Here is a mental model I use for classifying features that helps me with that interpretation.

[Thanks to James Brady, Justin McKay and Kirsty Nathoo for reviewing. ]

Hygiene 

Hygiene features make people dissatisfied with your product if you don’t have them. But will never make people love it, or even necessarily use it, no matter how many of them you build and however well you build them.


[Thanks to James Brady for ideas for examples.]

A repeating schedule feature in a calendar app would be a hygiene feature. Customers won’t appreciate your calendar because of its repeat option, no matter how well it works, but if you don’t have it you can expect a lot of complaints.

And that’s the great thing about these features: people will tell you about your product’s obvious deficiencies as they use it. They’ll come in through support tickets, your sales team, social media and user forums. If your product is targeting an existing market, you can also just look down the incumbents' feature-lists. So it’s easy to find these kind of features and justify spending time on them.

They may not be obvious from user-testing of prototypes alone though - people may not think to look for a repeat option when examining mockups of a calendar since they’re not using it for real and don’t have the same concerns as if they were actually using it for work.

If you only build this kind of feature, at best your product will be the same as all the others. 

Performance

The more performance features you have the more customers will like your product, up to a point. These “features" are often actually considerations like speed and simplicity that cut across other features.


The fewer steps it takes to deploy a new instance, the better people will like your PaaS product. The higher the camera and screen resolution is on smart phones, the better people seem to like them. Up to a point.

But it has a 100 gigapixel camera

Performance features often start life as differentiators. Someone makes a technical break-through that makes something possible that wasn’t before “Hey, we can now put a good-enough digital camera into a phone. That means people can do more with fewer devices!” An industry forms around the breakthrough, and companies compete by providing more and more of the same in each generation of the product. And they become really, really good at doing that - and sometimes not much else - which opens them up to disruption over time.

You can find these features by asking customers what they value when choosing a product in your area. And they’ll be prominently referenced on competitor’s homepages along with comparative or superlative adjectives.

Differentiators

Differentiators make your product dramatically better for a group of customers in ways that are difficult to replicate or non-obvious. And yet, when they’re not present, customers won’t notice the lack or tell you about them directly.


It isn’t obvious that making the photos ephemeral would be a good feature of a photo messaging app. But Snapchat has shown that feature dramatically lowers the bar for social sharing amongst teenagers.

Offering software over the internet, so customers don’t need to install it, and charging a subscription rather than up-front license, so customers only pay for what they use is clearly a better model for a lot of enterprise applications. Incumbent enterprise software companies find it incredibly hard to replicate because of their cost structure based on traditional sales - they’ve mostly had to rely on acquisitions to compete at all.

Discovering these features is hard, and this is where product management becomes creative. Famously, customers can't help you here.

     “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” - Henry Ford

So how you do discover these features? I try to think about applying learnings from one context to a different one. I try to let curiosity guide me and to purposefully explore very different ideas even if they seem crazy, or not useful, or like toys. I try to train myself to have brain that can go anywhere and to not shy away from difficult ideas.

Ultimately the only way you’ll know that you’ve correctly identified a differentiating feature is by building it and seeing if people want it. 

Thanks for reading

This is just one lens through which to view the features of your product. As with any tool you choose to use, be wary of this one’s limitations!