Rules and Tools for Cool New Schools: legitimization protocols for independent microschools


Rules and Tools for Cool New Schools: legitimization protocols for independent microschools

Team members

Brendan Schlagel
Jared Pereira

Short summary

We want to improve protocols for starting schools, with a particular focus on legitimization — how new schools go from ideas and prototypes to schools that others take seriously, and use protocols to gain legitimacy in ways that set them up for more sustainable success.

While we plan to study schools of all sizes, our interest is mainly in small-scale independent schools for adult learners: non-accredited proto-institutions, emerging from local communities, with ambitious designs on bootstrapping particular visions for learning.


What is the existing target protocol you are hoping to improve or enhance? Eg: hand-washing, traffic system, connector standards, carbon trading.

We’re targeting a protocol stack around how schools get off the ground and establish themselves to a point of plausible sustainability. This is an ongoing process, with numerous protocols involved for things like:

  • initial validation: e.g. prototyping individual courses
  • identity formation: e.g. picking a name, making a website, publishing a mission statement
  • affiliations: e.g. getting teachers onboard, partnering with employers for hiring pipelines
  • enrollment: e.g. pre-registration, opening admissions
  • external recognition: e.g. granting certificates or credits, ways to see student work or other artifacts

What is the core idea or insight about potential improvement you want to pursue?

Starting schools is hard! The school creation process is like a stack where many layers are opaque, making it hard to jump between them confidently.

It’s particularly illegible at the early stages, mostly captured in tacit knowledge by in-the-trenches microschool entrepreneurs, or, in the case of well-established schools, obscured by generations of evolution. We want to:

a) make this process knowledge more explicit, and
b) simplify protocols used by successful larger institutions into ones small school builders can use in lightweight ways

For example, we might explore downscaling long time-horizon protocols around admissions or accreditation into simplified protocols suitable for rapid prototyping.

What is your discovery methodology for investigating the current state of the target protocol? Eg: field observation, expert interviews, historical data analysis, failure event analysis

We’ll look at case studies for the formation of established schools, from historical (land grants; charters from kings) to newer schools like Minerva, as well as related work like Ben Reinhardt’s on how research organizations are formed. This will serve as background to draw from in analyzing nascent schools still in the process of establishing themselves.

As the core of our research process, we plan to conduct interviews with small schools in various stages of formation, from growing alternative learning institutions, to pre-launch school prototypes (we know a number of such schools!) and work with the most promising to co-create and test protocol interventions.

In what form will you prototype your improvement idea? Eg: Code, reference design implementation, draft proposal shared with experts for feedback, A/B test of ideas with a test audience, prototype hardware, etc.

We plan to play with prototypes in both software and social protocols.

We’re making software ( that aims to support new learning institutions with infrastructure for group organization and collaborative work. We’d explicitly like to build protocol improvement prototypes into the app.

Example idea: a way to make proto-school landing pages, with seeds / proposals for potential courses along with a way to capture interest.

Additionally we’re interested in designing social contexts for rapid testing (involving software or not), creating things like paths or templates people can experiment with in testing protocols in compressed ways.

Example idea: instead of official contractual relationships with teachers, a simplified protocol for getting friends to agree to low-stakes yet socially significant school affiliation.

How will you field-test your improvement idea? Eg: run a restricted pilot at an event, simulation, workshop, etc.

We (Hyperlink) started life as a small internet school. One way we plan to field-test what we learn is by rebooting Hyperlink-as-school in the fall.

Currently we’re experimenting with virtual spaces for collaborative projects and internet clubs — atomic versions of proto-school structures. We’re interested in how such structures may potentially evolve in the direction of schools, as longer term containers for communal learning.

In addition we’d like to work with a small handful of prospective microschool entrepreneurs to launch pilots of their own new schools, implementing protocol ideas and continuing the feedback loop of improving our software platform to make school-building easier.

An ambitious idea: a week-long school-making conference, helping school creators take the first steps together, launching at the end of the week.

Who will be able to judge the quality of your output? Ideally name a few suitable judges.

Shannon Mattern
Paul Johnson (Pathwright)
Joel Hooks (Egghead)
Yusuf Ahmad
Garrett Smiley (Sora Schools)
Maggie Appleton
Kasey Klimes
Samuel Arbesman
Laurel Schwulst
Max Bittker
Zahra Davidson (Huddlecraft)
Priya Rose (Fractal U)

How will you publish and evangelize your improvement idea? Eg: Submit proposal to a standards body, publish open-source code, produce and release a software development kit etc.

The two primary things we have in mind are:

  • open source code, the Hyperlink app and possible related prototypes
  • a website collecting our research on interesting new schools, how they form, and how they bootstrap their way to some vision of success

The two more speculative things we’re considering:

  • something like Stripe Atlas for independent microschools, a bundle of software / services for school founders
  • a (tongue in cheek) standards body for small schools, like an indie ISO spec for standards new schools should meet

What is the success vision for your idea?

We’ll count this a success if, in ascending ambition, we:

  • publish research that feels meaningfully useful to prospective school creators
  • build software that evolves in interesting ways to support people starting schools
  • help new schools get off the ground and explore a viable path towards sustainability
  • witness a new golden age of microschools, small-scale networked learning institutions proliferating!

Very pleasantly surprised to see educational PIG! :smiley: :smiley: :smiley:

I have been involved in Education innovation for 5 years and can contact 30+ microschools in China, such as waldorf school, homeschooling group, experimental school outside the educational system…(Most will face legitimate problems, but you know, East Asian education is stressful and controlling, so the demand for second-choice is persistent)

It’s a pleasure if I can support your work.

I have already signed up Hyperlink, felt intresting and not hard for the first time visit.



I’d be very interested to learn about more global examples of microschools, on- and offline. Most of the ones we’re most familiar with are pretty US-centric even if nominally remote / online.

In particular, curious how different local concerns and approaches manifest for independent para-institutional schools (link = great collection by Shannon Mattern) geared towards adult learners, outside the schooling system.

A couple other examples that come to mind — I loved reading about folk learning centers in Sweden. And this great conference I went to a while back, the Alternative Art School Fair, published a catalogue with a pretty extensive and diverse lineup of participating schools (it strikes me that “art school” has its own class of protocols, identity, logistical considerations etc!)

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Popping in to say that I love micro-schools and other para-institutional learning spacetimes. School of the Alternative, a revival of Black Mountain College has extended their student application period for the session this May. it’s a good one! @ioio is teaching a class there :slight_smile:
Also many mycology and ecology convergences (thinking of New Moon Mycology Summit) are a wonderful hybrid of festival+school. One conversation I’ve had often is the need for a space for the organizers of such events to cross pollinate their knowledge, experience, and questions - especially around resource management and sharing of labor to make them sustainable.
Please let me know if you host the school-making conference, I feeel there’s many people who I could loop into that space to engage!


School of the Alternative looks amazing, thanks for the link! Love this bit on class structure with the breakdown of “solid classes” (traditional / sequential), “liquid classes” (standalone workshops) and “gas classes” (more emergent pop-ups).

I have a couple books in my queue to learn more about the history of Black Mountain College and hope to visit the BMC museum + art center at some point.

The festival <> school hybrid sort of thing seems like a very interesting direction to explore too. I’ll keep you posted re: potential school-maker conference…DM or email if you’d like to chat more!

Relevant to ideas around better persisting and cross-pollinating knowledge for those organizing these kinds of things — this proposal from @boris looks great too: [PIG] Community Search Engines: Event & Chat Artifacts as Research Building Block