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!
29 responses
"Online group classes in real-time" - what are some/ the best examples of these?
Thanks for the question Max - a lot of the families I spoke to used http://onlineg3.com/OnlineG3/Home.html
Would be great to see some acknowledgement of the fact that public school is free. Most families can't afford to just give up one parent's income, no matter how much they care about their child's education and development.
There are so many educational resources these days, many free, that it's so much easier to homeschool than when my mom homeschooled me in the 80's. I struggle with enunciating what "type" of homeschooling I do with my kids, but usually just say "Unschooler." I like your term better, especially amongst other homeschoolers that use a more traditional, classroom type approach. They look at me sideways when I say "unschooler." We use museum memberships (Art, zoo, nature and science, history, children's, botanic gardens), online classes (currently calculus for five year olds), videos on Amazon or Netflix, books (comic books about physics and biology!), Little Passports for geography, old-fashioned co-ops... Seriously, we have so many fun things to do that we don't have time to spend on workbooks or sitting around a table. An impromptu class at the museum or planting our garden or building calculus models is always much more fun!
Thank you for an interesting article highlighting some of the great variety of programs available to homeschool, unschool, or alternative schooling families. Some may not realize that these programs are increasingly in reach even for families with limited incomes. As a homeschool parent myself, I helped found a program, Academic Antics, which offers homeschool and afterschool classes, clubs, and field trips as a vendor for several local charter schools that make funding available for activities, music lessons, and other learning-related opportunities. We currently have two sites in San Jose, CA and are a 501(c)3 nonprofit corporation. All our programs are hands-on with low student to teacher ratios.
A friend homeschools her daughter in much this way. You can check out her blog at http://www.thescientificmom.com/?m=1
Excellent overview of the Bay area Independent Learning (my terminology of choice) scene. To a point raised above about the financial difficulty some families would face if contemplating taking kids out of brick and mortar school. I'd say "yes, and..."! " There is absolutely a financial and career cost to forsaking one salary. It's also possible to go this route with two working parents (I know many). I also know a few single parents who somehow manage and my hat is in the air to them! The bottom line is that, while I could not in good conscience say *anyone* could choose this route I will assert that many people who are wary for financial and other reasons find a way to manage. And like every choice we make for our kids and ourselves there are always tradeoffs.
I like seeing your overview here, as it pretty accurately reflects our own homeschooling experience. What I wanted to say is that I am often very aware that the reason we are able to do what we do is that I am someone who has the privilege of a good education, and so I know that if I want something for my son I can go looking for it. I know how to be resourceful, I know how to root out resources. And so when you comment "we will see the school system unbundled as a marketplace of classes," I am very aware that not everybody will have the inner and outer resources to navigate in a marketplace of classes. I am so deeply grateful that we have been able to do this for our son, and I take a deep breath and acknowledge how many kids would benefit from this approach and don't have the advocates they need. I suppose the shift has to start with a population somewhere, and I guess we're it. I just hope that eventually, other kids in need can benefit from the model that's developing. Homeschooling has been the best thing for our son, and I can't imagine going back, now that we see what it's like to tailor each subject for his specific level.
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