“I’d make different choices for my new school if I didn’t have the pressure to be perfect on day one.”
— New school entrepreneur—

“New school design is anti-Lean Startup.  You spend eighteen months designing an untested, uniterated school model and then – bang – you open a school that will be around for one hundred years.”
—Non-profit executive—

“Tell me where I can go see [innovation].”
—School leader—

We need a Fab Lab for Education.1 Quickly.

I talk to a lot of educators who want to completely redesign schools and try these crazy things that might be amazing for kids. Let’s give them a canvas. I talk to a lot of parents who have their kids in “good” schools but have a gnawing feeling that their children need more. More creativity. More making. More debate. Let’s give these children more goodness.

I think this could be the same place.

In my dreams, [insert city] would open a Fab Lab for Education.

The Fab Lab for Education is a place where educators with big ideas can prototype new approaches to education and operate them for six weeks at a time with real kids. In other sectors, fab labs are mini-workshops where inventors can make “almost anything” without re-tooling an entire factory. Educators should have a place to try amazing, new ideas without “re-tooling” a whole school.

For educators, getting selected to prototype their big idea is a huge honor and people travel across the country to see their work. By the way, they don’t have to quit their jobs to do this and everyone knows that not all the programs will succeed.

The Fab Lab for Education is a highly flexible and customizable space, kind of like the Exploratorium in San Francisco. Philanthropists stock the lab with all the things needed to test out new ideas: 3-D printers, legos, amazing books, art supplies, post-it notes…  basically whatever the educators need.

Families see it as a great place to send their children for enrichment.

Since educators are not leaving their jobs, schools use the Fab Lab to occasionally replace regular instructional time for their own students.

The Fab Lab for Education team has five jobs:

  1. Build a community of educators with big ideas.
  2. Support the educators, knowing that this isn’t their full-time job and that they will need mentorship.
  3. Help the educators market the Fab Lab for Education to families and students.
  4. Help the educators track data and learn from their prototypes.2
  5. The Fab Lab for Education is free to educators with big ideas, but the team rents out the facility the rest of the time for retreats, camps, homeschool programs, Startup Weekends, etc.

My hope is the operation could break even on fees to outside groups while philanthropy focuses on funding the latest big idea and subsidizes the participation of low-income students.

The Fab Lab for Education is a fountain for new ideas and talent in [insert city]. For some educators, the Fab Lab for Education is the best professional development ever. And every now and then, it is the launching point for the next Jennifer Medbery, John Danner, or Sal Khan.

I’m sure there are hundred reasons why this could fail. But I look at 4.0 Schools in New Orleans, Catalyst Ranch in Chicago, even Mattel’s Project Platypus in California – I think the idea has legs.3, 4 You could even run it like a pop-up restaurant or supper club where families eagerly wait for the next amazing experience to be announced.

The Fab Lab for Education is about more than the latest education technology or teaching method, it’s about creating new learning experiences that address real needs in unconventional ways. It’s a place where you can play with ideas that lead to mastery-based learning, creativity, executive function, and/or increased personalization.  It’s a place where educators not only meet other peers with big ideas, but a larger community of big thinkers such as engineers, restaurateurs and scientists.

For all the talk about innovation in K-12 education, an industry that collects $600Bn a year in taxpayer funds, it’s hard to point to K12’s Bell Labs or IDEO.  Silicon Valley is off to the races in creating an ecosystem of innovators – Startup Weekend EDU, Imagine K-12, Silicon Schools Fund and others are building the type of vibrant community that births great ideas and organizations. But [insert city] can do this too, with homegrown educators who do amazing things every day in relative obscurity.

Time to get serious about R&D and design in K12 education.

We need a Fab Lab for Education.  Quickly.

1 Thanks to Rob Schwartz for giving my half-baked idea a working name. This idea is not to be confused with the fabulous FabLab@School which gives students the opportunity to work on incredible, hands-on projects. Educators need a chance  to “make” too!

2 See Tom Vander Ark’s thoughts on self-experimenting.

3 Note: I’m on the board of 4.0 Schools.

4 Catalyst Ranch and Project Platypus are profiled in Disciplined Dreaming (2011).

Alex Hernandez is a partner at Charter School Growth Fund, a venture philanthropy that provides growth capital for high-performing charter school networks. He leads CSGF’s “next-generation” learning investments in blended learning programs and is eager to talk to social entrepreneurs who want to re-invent schools. twitter: thinkschools


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