One of the most interesting things I've discovered recently is Astro Nova, the latest incarnation of the school that Elon Musk started on the SpaceX campus in Los Angeles.
Elon recounts in an intervew that he started the school because he didn't believe regular schools were doing what needs to be done in education.
The first principle for his school is catering the education to match aptitudes and abilities, rather than insisting that all students be grouped by grade. The reason for this is that different people love different things and so have different abilities at different times.
The second principle for his school is to teach to the problem, not to the tools. The example Elon gives is teaching people how engines work. The traditional approach is to learn all about screwdrivers and wrenches, and to have a course on screwdrivers and a course on wrenches. But this is a very difficult way to teach people how engines work. A much better way would be to say here's the engine, now let's take it apart. How will we take it apart? Oh, well you need a screwdriver. That's what a screwdriver is for. And you need a wrench, that's what the wrench is for. At this point, something very important happens: the relevance of the tools becomes obvious.
So far Elon has been happy with the results. He says his kids love going to school. In fact, his kids now complain that vacations are too long and that they want to go back to school.
After leaving the SpaceX campus, Astro Nova looked at a number of options for a physical facility, but ultimately decided to permanently be an online-only school for 5th-8th grade, adding 60 students for the 2020-2021 school year:
Most simply, running an online school allows us to best accomplish our mission as a school: more time devoted to singular learning experiences, greater resources committed to serving a more diverse student body, and better opportunities to share our work with students around the world.
True to its mission to teach children creative problem solving, Astro Nova has classes you won't find anywhere else, including:
- Synthesis: The most innovative experience from Astro Nova. An experience that uses coooperation and competition to work through complexity and solving for the unknown.
- Data Driven Decision-Making (3DM): A quantitative reasoning class that uses optimization problems, case studies, and dilemmas to drive deep learning in economics and statistics.
- Conundrums: Short ethical quandaries and problem solving.
To our great disappointment, we learned the application deadline for Fall 2021 was January 4, 2021. Only waitlist spots are currently available, and we've heard that getting in is hard even for SpaceX employees.
Undeterred, I started wondering if I could create a DIY Astro Nova for 5-7 kids.
My conclusion is yes.
This might sound daunting, so let me explain. It's a natural progression of what our family has already done over the last year.
March 2020: Pandemic Shutdown
Our children both attended Green Valley Elementary in San Ramon Valley Unified School District when school closed on March 13, 2020.
What happened next was eye-opening.
Instead of seamlessly moving online the way many businesses did, our school made the lesson plans and materials available and parents were effectively left to teach it themselves.
What this exposed is just how little learning is actually taking place today. My wife and I were floored by how low the bar actually is, despite the fact that we live in a "very good" school district.
After watching an incredibly poor response from our board of education, it became clear that public school is designed around teachers, not students. We were no longer confident our children were getting the education they need and deserve. I wrote about this in The World Has Changed: Will Public School Change With It?
During the summer of 2020, we had no illusions that school would re-open in the fall, so we went looking for the best possible online school we could find. What we found was Dexter, a startup private school based in Texas that perfectly met our needs.
Dexter was created because the founders believed that public school education today is an artisan model that doesn't scale. Teachers are expected to do everything, from creating curriculum, to teaching it, to grading it...to countless other tasks. What Dexter was doing instead was unbundling the teacher into three separate functions: the world's best teachers space-shifted via livestream, learning coaches leading small-group Zoom discussions, and graders responsible for grading and interactions around assignments.
We spent a few weeks watching classes over the summer and were impressed.
So we enrolled our son for the fall.
Fall 2020: Online Homeschool
Unfortunately, the minimum age to attend is 8, so our daughter had no choice but to attend remote public school. This gave us a side-by-side comparison between remote school at Dexter and remote public school.
It was heartbreaking.
We watched our son thrive. He took chemistry 5 days per week, and space class 2 days per week. His math exploded, and despite being a 4th grader, was moved into an algebra class. He also moved up in his reading and writing classes, reading texts well beyond what's available in public school. He often would skip down the hall after class, and once said "Thanks for putting me in Dexter, Dad. I'm learning so much more!"
By contrast, we watched our daughter merely cope. The public school version of remote school was to send a package of handouts, scholastic news magazines, and an assortment of other printed materials for my daughter to complete, then physically return to school. Half of her time is spent doing busy work alone in something the school calls "Me time". Instructional time is low quality, and usually involves the teacher walking through how to complete paper worksheets.
The difference is like comparing an automobile to a motorized stagecoach.
Still, seeing what was possible with our son and having both kids in remote school created a new sense of freedom for our family. It unchained us from geography. And unchained us from the school calendar.
The silver lining of remote school is being able to eat lunch every day as a family. Our children are far closer than they've ever been and play together daily. We've reclaimed hours of each day previously spent driving kids to and from school, and now holidays don't have to mean high prices and huge crowds.
Our daughter started sitting in on some of our son's classes and telling us how excited she was to go to Dexter next year.
We were excited too, and planned to have both kids in Dexter in the fall.
Spring Break 2021: Dexter Debacle
To our enormous surprise and with two days notice, Dexter decided to completely overhaul their program in a move that de-prioritized the remote experience in favor of their on-campus experience in Texas.
World class remote instructors had classes given to mediocre in-person teachers. Livestreams were now a webcam in the back of the room instead of the Facebook Live / Twitch style format we had been so impressed with. Our son's schedule went from 850 instructional minutes (500 Zoom and 350 livestream) per week down to 550 livestream, a 35% reduction. And they decided to completely eliminate Zoom.
All without talking to parents.
Here's why we found these changes so concerning:
- Livestreams only work when everyone gets the livestream. A webcam in a physical classroom doesn't work. Remote students can't see what's going on and can't hear questions. Teachers can't engage with both remote and in-person students at the same time. A hybrid approach like this is what I would expect from a mediocre public school.
- It's not just about seeing, it's about being seen. Switching from majority Zoom to 100% livestream means no one is seeing our son. The community of the classroom breaks. Who would notice if he wasn't there? He no longer sees the faces and expressions of the students in his community.
- On-demand tutoring or "office hours" is not a replacement for facilitated discussion. Defaults matter, and Dexter's change reversed the effort of engaging from instructor to student.
I started reaching out to other parents to find out how they felt about the changes and received dozens of responses just like ours. Most interestingly, I also discovered that Dexter's Chief Learning Officer had left.
After weeks of engaging with the Dexter team in an attempt to understand what happened and revert to the program we loved and signed up for, it became clear the team could not be helped. They believed they knew better. A path I am certain will result in snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
And so, we decided to leave Dexter at the end of the spring 2021 term.
We could go back to our local public school. But the step down from what our son is used to would be soul destroying. And we desperately want the experience our son has had for our daughter. Public school, especially the elementary and middle school programs, is systemically broken and structurally deficient. This is true no matter how "good" you believe your school district to be.
Because Dexter blindsided us, we are out of application cycle for local private schools. Though having gone to both public schools and private schools as a child, in my experience most private schools aren't that different. Just more money. And we live too far away from private schools like Nueva School or Khan Labs that actually are different. We'd rather not move.
One year ago out of necessity I did a deep-dive on homeschooling. I was intrigued to learn it is more common than I realized, and some really smart people were electing to homeschool over all other options. Albert Wenger, a partner at Union Square Ventures in New York, talks about his decision to homeschool all their children despite having access to the best private schools in Manhattan. Susan Danziger, his wife, wrote about it too.
The issue with homeschooling, though, is that my wife and I don't want to be teachers or create curriculum. But what we learned with Dexter is that this isn't necessary. Despite attending Dexter, our son is technically homeschooled. The California Department of Education has no concept of a student attending an online school in another state, so when I talked to them about what we wanted to do, they told me we needed to create a homeschool for our son that would use Dexter as curriculum. We just keep basic records of attendance and coursework.
It was easy to set up, and a 1 page form withdrew us from the school district.
All of these experiences together made me believe I could create a DIY Astro Nova for a small group of 5-7 5th graders (with our son) and 5-7 3rd graders (with our daughter).
Here's how it will work.
Creating our own Astro Nova
The best livestreamers at Dexter own their own content and teach independently. Science Mom offers the best science classes you have ever seen for 3rd-5th grade. Our son took Chemistry and Earth Science live online this year, and Science Mom is planning Biology for fall. Her class is three days a week, which we could supplement with one day of small group discussion with our own learning coach.
Last summer I hired several tutors for our children. One recently graduated summa cum laude from UCLA and tutors our children 1:1 for an hour per day. She is open to the idea of expanding into a learning coach role. We also hired a high-achieving high school student from Dougherty Valley High for each child to help daily with homework. That has worked well and we'd probably continue the same.
Using the livestream for core content plus Zoom for small-group discussions, there are many good options for classes. Art of Problem Solving has good live online honors math classes, and their Beast Academy program is hands down the best math program available for 3rd-5th grade. Coding With Kids has good small group live online computer science classes and Great Books Junior Virtual Academy is a potential solution for reading.
Thus, a draft list of classes for fall is:
- Honors Math 5A/5B
- Science: Biology
- Social Studies
- Computer Science
- Design and Design Thinking
It turns out Astro Nova is not proud of how selective their program is. They want every child to have an Astro Nova style education. So they open sourced the curriculum for many of their classes, including 3DM and conundrums. They have also spun out Synthesis and offer it independently. Our son is enrolled in it.
I bounced my DIY Astro Nova idea off a friend who works at Nueva School to see if she thought it was crazy, but she said it was doable and would help me find instructors.
At this point, I could begin to visualize a schedule:
This solution takes the best of what worked for us at Dexter and upgrades it with the Astro Nova approach. It allows adding a course on design and design thinking, which I have long wanted for our children, and it allows me to address other challenges we had with Dexter:
- In-person experiences: if we're able to get students in the Bay Area, in-person experiences and real-world relationships could be part of the program.
- Time zone: a Texas time zone schedule means scheduling challenges and a very early start. Our DIY Astro Nova will run on Pacific time.
- Peers: our son scored in the gifted and talented range on the CogAT. I'd like him to have more peers than he did at Dexter.
- Quality: UC Berkeley and Stanford students and recent grads are an excellent local talent pool for learning coaches. I noticed the caliber of Dexter's staff decline while we were there.
My wife and I think a lot about the social and emotional needs of our children. About how important real world experiences are. There is no question there are some tradeoffs with live online school. But a book called Hold On to Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More Than Peers, by Gabor Maté, M.D and Gordon Neufeld, Ph.D, an international authority on child development, changed our perspective. We saw how shelter-in-place brought our family closer, and we believe the challenge of school being online can be balanced with in-person activities after school.
One final convenient side-effect of our DIY Astro Nova is that it bypasses the in-person school environment, which will continue to be broken for some time. Dr Fauci doesn't expect the U.S. to be able to vaccinate young children until early 2022. This means that masks, social distancing, and sitting alone in rows during lunch is going to continue. Not to mention the fact that the long term effects of getting Covid-19 are unknown and could be serious.
Do you have or know a child entering 5th or 3rd grade in the fall who might be interested in our program?
If so, please let me know! I'd love to talk to you. We're actively looking for students who could be a good fit.
Have thoughts or suggestions? Also, please let me know!
In the same spirit that Astro Nova is open sourcing their content and processes, I'd like to share everything we're doing as openly as possible so others can benefit.
I'd like every child to have an education like this. To look forward instead of backward. To be set up to thrive today. And tomorrow.
- Cover photo by SpaceX