PORTFOLIO SCHOOL LOOKS and sounds like a Silicon Valley tech firm's rec room--except that almost everyone is under the age of 10. The building's walls double as whiteboards, with nearly every inch covered in colorful, hand-drawn diagrams of constellations and planetary orbits. Along one side, kid-sized scissors and glue sticks are piled neatly next to a 3D printer and laser cutter.
During my visit, a boy with an explosion of brown hair skidded up to me. "We're making movies!" he announced. Around the room, other students were reading, completing lessons on educational software, working on tinker toys. Without the unconscious kid-adult barriers that traditional schools often create, the chatty boy felt free to talk my ear off about how he and a group of his classmates had created characters for a science fiction film about a trip to Mars. He seemed particularly interested in the editing process, where they would get to add Martian backgrounds and other special effects.
Portfolio School is part of a growing movement of "micro-schools." Coined by British education blogger Cushla Barry in 2010, the term refers to educational institutions that emphasize interdisciplinary project-based learning, building social skills such as communication and critical thinking, and tailoring instruction to the needs of each individual student.
The schools tend to focus on teamwork, and they're small by design--with student bodies ranging anywhere from half a dozen to roughly 150 students. The size limitations, informed by anthropologist Robin Dunbar's now famous research on the maximum number of relationships most human beings can comfortably maintain, help the employees stay better connected with their students' individual needs. Portfolio, located in Manhattan's upscale TriBeCa neighborhood, is one of the most elite (and expensive) microschools, focusing on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) subjects.
The movement, which grew from scrappy homeschool roots, has been taken up by nerds who want to hack primary education. Like all startups, the microschool model will rise or fall on its ability to meet customer needs at the right price. Success is far from assured. But could tech-savvy tiny schools be the future?
'FACTORIES IN WHICH RAW PRODUCTS ARE TO BE SHAPED'
KEN ROBINSON IS the star of the most popular TED Talk ever. More than 50 million people have clicked to hear an education consultant with a British knighthood ponder the question "Do schools kill creativity?" (Spoiler: Yep.)
"We have built our education system on a model of fast food," Robinson explains in a follow-up TED Talk delivered in 2010. But there are at least two ways to ensure a good meal when you're cooking for a crowd: "One is fast food, where everything is standardized. The other [is] catered to local circumstances. We have sold ourselves into a fast-food model of education, and it's impoverishing our spirit and our energies as much as fast food is depleting our physical bodies."
The roots of America's education system were transplanted from the German kingdom of Prussia, where eighteenth century monarchs such as Frederick the Great established schools with the goal of molding a disciplined citizenry of dutiful soldiers and civil servants. During the next century, state-run schools played a crucial role in manufacturing a homogenized German identity. In 1807, nationalist philosopher Johann Fichte argued that forging this identity meant that "schools must fashion the person... in such a way that he simply cannot will otherwise than what you wish him to will."
American education pioneer Horace Mann visited Prussia in 1843. Convinced that what he found could benefit the United States, Mann reformed Massachusetts' school system along Prussian lines, and the model ultimately spread cross-country. Mann believed that standardized public institutions could deliver quality education on a wider scale than the hodgepodge locally run schools of the time. But Mann also wanted his "common schools" to assimilate immigrant children to a homogenized American identity. Like other native-born Protestant Americans, he saw public schooling as a bulwark against Catholic immigrants' perceived loyalty to Rome.
American industrialization through the Gilded Age and Progressive Era led reformers to try adapting the private sector's manufacturing efficiency to schools. Enter the "factory model": Drawing on the ideas of education psychologist Edward Thorndike and efficiency consultant Frederick Taylor, public schools adopted principles of "scientific management." Testing, standardized record keeping, and top-down central planning from well-trained administrators were the order of the day to churn out ideal citizens. Ellwood Cubberley, the dean of Stanford's education school, wrote in 1917 that schools were "factories in which the raw products (children) are to be shaped and fashioned into products to meet the various demands of life."
Most school features we now take for granted come from this period. Standardized class sizes, age groups, and curricula began to mirror optimized supply chains. Top-down hierarchies with teachers dictating content prepared students to obey factory foremen. Periods separated by bells mirrored factory shift changes...