We are all individuals, with distinct and dynamic combinations of strengths, weaknesses, preferences and goals. Learning pathways can be customized to match. But people also crave community and feeling part of something bigger.
Independent learners (people who are “hacking” their educations, whether by formally homeschooling, or by supplementing part-time or full-time school enrollment) have access to a wealth of online and offline resources that can be leveraged to create deeply meaningful customized learning pathways, driven by who they are now and who they want to become. The missing piece, in many cases, is a consistent hub with a stimulating, supportive and socially healthy culture, where they can grow intellectually and personally while also enjoying regular communion with peers and adult mentors.
To fill this void, in 2020 we created an online hub offering a modular menu of educational and communal programs for tweens and younger teens. Programs focusing on mastering specific subjects are readily available, so we've focused on filling the gaps with interdisciplinary and/or unique offerings that complement and supplement other activities.
As Peter Drucker famously said, "Culture eats strategy for breakfast." Culture creation is of paramount importance at The Hub, and is driven by these foundational values and principles:
Learn more about our current programming here. And if you're curious to know more details about The Hub's origins, model, and future plans, and how everything fits together, you can read "The Full Story of the Hub."
We also encourage others to use our hub as an inspiration, and our resources and experience as tools to help them achieve their own visions. If you have a serious interest in setting up an online or in-person hub, whether small or highly aspirational—such as the blend of co-learning, co-working and community spaces for all ages shown in these draft conceptual floorplans at the bottom of this webpage—contact us to find out how we may be able to help.
If you’re new to independent learning and just need support with the customization side of things for now, we can help with that too.
Part of our win-win approach is to work with highly talented facilitators (see bios below), give them a lot of autonomy (they're the ones on the front lines, with a good sense of what's needed and how to provide it), and compensate them fairly for their time and effort. Having facilitators who are happy to be there—and are actively participating in projects and activities, while progressing along their own life-long learning journeys—enhances the experience for everyone.
The Hub is part of the Agile Learning Center Network, and a member of AERO and the National Microschooling Center, and will also continue to tap into the collective wisdom and resources of a wide network of partners, affiliates, and supporters.
Quick links to facilitator bios: Svet Georgiev, Julie Martin, Gabriel Mellan, Sarah Otto, Miró Siegel, Rudy Van Daele, Brooklyn Wetzel, Quinlin Willow, Svetlana Zobolotnaia
I've written widely shared articles about the future of learning for the likes of TheAtlantic.com and the NPR/PBS MindShift site, and I’ve curated a site on the topic. One of my most popular education articles was called “To Advance Education, We Must First Re-Imagine Society.” The Hub—inspired by my article research; countless conversations and site visits to other learning centers; and my first-hand experience co-founding and managing pioneering, mixed-ages co-learning groups for independent learners in the Washington, DC area since 2013—is one manifestation of what I believe to be a shared vision to re-imagine both education and how people relate to themselves, to each other, and to the wider community and world.
I’m working mostly behind the scenes, arranging and overseeing all of The Hub’s facilitated offerings. But I also work closely with the facilitators, brainstorming how to best support each student; arrange professional knowledge exchanges with seasoned educators who have experience with complementary programs such as International Baccalaureate, Agile Learning Centers, and the North Star network; and leverage my areas of subject-matter expertise and my extensive personal and professional networks on an as-needed basis. I'm also consulting with families who would like assistance in supporting their children's independent learning, individually or in groups.
My work draws on the following:
I have always expressed my ideas and passion for life through drawing, writing, and photography. I also believe I have a unique connection with younger people, and I find joy in inspiring and supporting kids and teens. These age groups have always been at the center of my work, both as an artist and later as a teacher and facilitator.
After studying drawing and photography at Belhaven University in my home state of Mississippi, I embarked on a self-directed learning journey, attending the Art Students League of Denver and eventually establishing myself as a professional artist and then as a photographer. Later, dissatisfied with my children’s experiences in school, I decided to embark on new adventures in self-directed education and worldschooling when my daughters were 9 and 10 years old. We have traveled to 47 countries, and my daughters, now 16 and 17, have thrived beyond my expectations as they have had the freedom to learn, experience, and explore the world on their own terms. In 2022, we settled in Lisbon, Portugal.
I have been teaching art classes and privately mentoring young creatives for over two decades. Then in 2020, I began facilitating more general learning adventures for groups of teens online. I firmly believe in fostering a holistic approach to education that promotes critical thinking, collaboration, and creativity to address the complex challenges of our world. Adolescence is a transformative phase, offering teenagers freedom and a distinctive perspective to explore who they are, while embracing their responsibilities in society. As a facilitator, my aim is to provide unwavering support, encouragement, and inspiration, cultivating an environment where each student can confidently grow into their fullest potential.
One of the fun tools I have used is a random question generator of thought-provoking questions, such as “Are there moral commonalities amongst diverse people, groups and cultures?” or “Is lying ever a good thing?” I then step into the background and watch what unfolds, occasionally asking a follow-up question or presenting an idea that hasn't been brought up yet. But largely I have seen that teens do a fantastic job on their own of addressing every facet of a topic! I have watched teens marinate in opinions they had never considered, and want to remain in a session even longer than the allotted time. I also like to explore with them the bigger idea of "why do we think the way we think?" and becoming mindful of that.
Julie will be co-facilitating The Hub's micro-academy for ages 12 to 15.
Though I'm Canadian by birth, I've lived in a few other countries, including Morocco, Australia, Malta, and England. Through nearly a decade of traveling internationally with my family, I've been lucky to experience so much of what the world has to offer, and all the while I've taken my learning with me.
I've had the freedom and the space to develop my creativity, and fall head-first into my projects. Whether it be writing books, researching historical topics and mythology (one of my favorite topics), painting or performing arts, I've surrounded myself in knowledge and research, and honing the skills I hoped would help me take off in life. I also grew close to my younger siblings, with whom I spent hours discussing our favorite theories and mythology.
As I've grown into adulthood, I've spent quite a few years helping younger people more broadly, by arranging in-person activities for a homeschool group, mentoring teens, and co-facilitating weekly Project World School online meet-ups for tweens and teens. I also worked in a conventional school in the U.K, where I figured out that, yeah, I absolutely want to work in a learning environment, but without the confines of conventional education—who woulda thought ten years of home/world-schooling would lead me to that decision?
Quin is a co-facilitator for The Hub's micro-academy for ages 12 to 15.
I come from a very typical U.S. education background: graduating from public school, going to university, and working as a public school teacher. During that time, I also had a few atypical experiences that helped shape my ideas and passion about learning and life. The first was moving to Saudi Arabia when I was a young teen, which opened up my mind to the world beyond my community and introduced me to a love of different cultures and ways of life. Later, during university, I lived and studied in Zimbabwe on an exchange with the University of Zimbabwe, and worked with homeless children there.
When I returned to the U.S., I decided to follow my interests into the field of anthropology, getting a B.A. in Cultural Anthropology and a Master’s in Education. I then merged those two interests in what I thought would be the perfect career as a school teacher, teaching social studies, history and English to students in grades 6 through 12.
Unfortunately, during the six years I worked in that setting, I saw too many young people lose their passion and love of learning. Being a teacher is in my soul, though, so when I learned about the world of self-directed education, homeschooling, and unschooling (interest-led learning), I quickly gravitated toward it, seeing it as a space where I could combine my passion and love for teaching and learning with authenticity and freedom. While unschooling my son (10 years old) for a number of years in Washington, DC, where we currently live, we've belonged to several learning communities, and I've had the opportunity to facilitate small groups of students, helping them find and develop their individual interests and passions.
I believe in the power of playful learning, and I value relationships and community. I work to facilitate healthy and happy cultures of learning and growth. My other interests include gardening, hiking, biking, and helping people process their grief after the death of loved ones (part of the full cycle of life that is generally overlooked by mainstream Western cultural traditions).
Sarah will be co-facilitating The Hub's micro-academy for ages 9 to 12.
My name is Svetoslav Georgiev, but everyone calls me Svet. I graduated with a master's degree in animation, but during my studies, I started feeling dissatisfied with the conventional education system. I wanted to make a change, but I had no clue where to start. After completing my degree, I embarked on a globetrotting adventure, visiting many countries on several continents. One day I stumbled upon the concept of self-directed education, and it was like a light bulb moment. I decided to create a self-directed school for visual arts back in Bulgaria. Our weekly in-person sessions bring together students of all ages, and we delve into the exciting realms of animation and game design.
Since then, I've also worked for several global self-directed education platforms and have facilitated numerous very popular online boot camps and clubs with students from all corners of the world. Together, we have explored the amazing worlds of 2D animation, game creation using Unity, drawing, game design, music, programming, and more.
I also have a wide range of other interests—I love diving into topics like geography, world history, mechanics, interior and exterior design, graphic design, fantasy books, basketball, board games, e-sports, and traveling.
As an educator, I'm incredibly passionate about what I do. Creating a space where students feel comfortable connecting is of utmost importance to me. I strive to bring my best self to each session and provide opportunities for students to share and interact. Rather than being the dominant voice, I encourage students to express themselves and help them forge connections with the subject matter and with each other. Above all, I aim to inspire students and foster their interest in their chosen topics. Whenever possible, I also facilitate collaboration, because I believe that teamwork brings out the best in everyone.
Svet will be co-facilitating The Hub's micro-academy for ages 9 to 12.
I was a self-directed learner from a young age, and I felt empowered to make a difference early on. As a youth, I founded the first high-school chapter of Amnesty International in Montana and helped to bring the National AIDS Quilt exhibit to the community. I was also heavily influenced by being a member of a creative teen theater troupe, which encouraged me to explore my individuality while practicing team building.
I used those skills as an adult while working in the fields of music, art, education, and business, including bootstrapping my own event-photography business and working at an indigenous language-game start-up. It was while working as a facilitator at a mixed-ages school in Montana, though, that I found my true calling. Building genuine relationships and offering unconditional encouragement to youth became one of my life goals.
Since then, I’ve also completed Agile Learning Facilitator training, which solidified my commitment to creating educational experiences for kids that respect their autonomy, interests, and natural abilities. A digital native and idea person, one of my favorite things is to connect people with new resources to explore their passions. I have a deep trust in people of all ages to grow and learn to be their best selves without coercion or judgment.
I am now based in Eugene, Oregon, where I'm guiding my own children (ages 10 and 13) along their personalized learning pathways, and leading an exploration-based learning group that I founded. In addition to that and my business pursuits, you can find me using ceramic, mixed media, and assemblage to make visual art, writing creatively in my free time, and dreaming of a future theater troupe.
My journey into self-directed learning (explained in more detail in this interview) began at age 10, when I left the United States with my family to travel the world. We had only intended on being gone for a year, but life got in the way. Over the next 11 years, through 40 countries and countless experiences, I developed a wide body of interests and a passion for learning. Some of these interests include philosophy, mythology, ancient history, game theory, creative writing, poetry, rock climbing and cultural anthropology.
Almost by necessity, creativity and improvisation have become second nature to me. Throughout our travels, I worked with various organizations and initiatives (often learning the necessary skills along the way), including animal sanctuaries, children’s libraries and local conservation initiatives. In addition to this, I’ve also had extensive experience with working online, ranging from website design to social-media management, freelance writing and email marketing. It was through these varied work experiences that my family and I were able to sustain our adventure.
Since 2013, when I co-founded Project World School in partnership with my mom, I have been facilitating social, experiential, and cultural learning for kids, tweens, and teens all around the world. I have hosted more than 15 month-long, in-person retreats for teens in more than 10 countries, and have helped facilitate camp activities at our last six Family Summits. I've also facilitated online classes and discussion groups on various topics for children ages 8 to 13, and spoken about self-directed learning at education conferences around the world.
It is my belief that exploring other cultures through the lens of compassion and understanding can help us lead more fulfilled lives, which in turn can help us create a more peaceful planet.
My childhood was spent between the jungle and beaches of Maui, where I learned to listen to the earth, love the ocean, and wear sunscreen. Later on, while living and working in Beijing, I found my footing as a performative educator and expanded my ability to navigate a complex city, language, and culture.
I create the space to facilitate growth in cognitive understanding, physical ability, emotional awareness, responsibility, relational sensitivity, and ultimately for kids to know themselves and the world around them.
It's important for me to create. Making something brings an authenticity to my role as an educator, using art and tinkering as a pathway to development. I create art, photograph people, make videos, build interactive sculptures, and I love to make a mess.
My work experience includes serving as a museum educator at the Exploratorium in San Francisco and as the creative director of the KID Museum in Bethesda, Maryland. (Read more about me and my work here.)
Gabriel facilitated a STEAM workshop for The Hub.
I am passionate about the new generation and creating spaces for people of all ages to explore who they truly are through playful learning, community sharing, and celebration. I believe that the future of learning is in more choices, self-awareness, and strong community building.
Originally from Moldova, I immigrated to New York in 2002. I studied International Economic Relations (Moldova), Educational Psychology (New York University), Waldorf Education (Sunbridge Institute), Remedial Education (Association for Healing Education), Agile Learning Facilitation (New York and Barcelona), and Non-Violent Communication (New York).
I have been working with children from ages two to 16 throughout my life. As a teenager, I organized games with children in my neighborhood. As a result, several of them learned to speak basic English in just one summer. Later I taught English, French, and Romanian at a private school in Moldova. In New York, I worked at the Brooklyn Waldorf School for seven years as a class teacher; a founding librarian and reading groups teacher; an assessment and learning difficulties teacher; and a homeschool group teacher. Over the next five years, I was fortunate to work with about 200 homeschool families throughout New York City, designing and leading small homeschool coops and teaching all the subjects.
Over the last four years, I have been exploring the vast and diverse world of self-directed learning, both personally and professionally. One summer I immersed myself in a Spanish-speaking environment. It was my first-ever experience learning something in a non-traditional way. It was a challenging and mind-opening experience. As a result, I improved my Spanish and learned a lot about the culture and history of Spain and Mexico, but most importantly, I learned so much more about myself and how I learn best! In my current work with children and their families, I am emphasizing connections to nature, intra-personal and inter-personal skills, and emotional intelligence as my main tools to create a solid foundation for a more natural and deeper way of learning throughout life.
A Parent's Testimonial:
"I feel that Svetlana is a truly special teacher. She knows so much about nature, children, and learning! My children can be very shy with other adults. Both of them opened their hearts to her. She talked to them in a very kind and warm way, explaining things they were interested in, asking them questions and listening to their opinions. She encouraged good communication for all of us." -- R.K. (NY)
Svetlana co-facilitated an explorer's camp for The Hub.
I have been a coach since college. I am passionate about coaching children to become self-directed learners, whether it’s through physical activities or art or academics. After finishing my bachelor’s degree in education, I developed a popular training program at the Walden school in New York City. The children brought their families to the gym to meet me, and eventually the children, parents, and I decided to start a school. In 1984, Life Sport Gym was launched. Since then, parents have introduced us to schools and community centers, where we have created programs that provide a range of opportunities for children to growth and develop.
I believe that a good coach is someone who is interested and observant, connects with children, senses their needs, and helps them know and express their true selves. I coach to acknowledge and maintain a child's self-respect. This is the best way for children to find out who they are and develop the resources to take care of themselves. I also believe that the best learning is built on a foundation of good feelings. These build on themselves when children—through their own efforts, plus the support of caring adults and peers—develop more and more skills and knowledge. The goal is to help children become not just well educated, but also well-functioning and healthy, with the ability to take care of themselves, and to know where to find the necessary resources and support.
Rudy co-facilitated an explorer's camp for The Hub.
A: The Hub's programming is currently centered on online micro-academies for ages 9-12 and 12-15 (the age range will increase to 16 in 2024). This is supplemented with some à-la-carte options for tweens and teens and their parents.
The micro-academy caters to young people who want the best of both worlds: customized learning and community. They may be bored or disengaged in a one-size-fits-all setting, but come alive when given the opportunity to develop skills and knowledge at their own pace, within the context of a program they can help shape, based on their authentic interests. Or they may already be learning in a customized way that engages their minds, but be craving a more consistent cohort experience. (To help gauge if the micro-academy is a good fit, potential participants are welcome to attend one of our open-house mini-sessions, listed here.)
The micro-academy is designed to broaden horizons by exposing young people to a variety of useful skills and bodies of knowledge, in a holistic, inter-disciplinary way. It also facilitates deeper dives to discuss and otherwise explore topics that feel relevant and aligned with their interests, which sets up the optimal conditions for them to integrate and retain knowledge. Additionally, it emphasizes developing the “5 Cs” that are essential to a lot of success in life—critical thinking and problem solving; communication; collaboration; creativity and innovation; and citizenship. There is ample time outside the micro-academy to acquire other skills and knowledge that are needed to meet each young person's and family's goals.
The Hub also offers select à-la-carte offerings, in response to member and community interest, aiming to fill niches that aren't already filled.
The Hub's wraparound support services are designed to help families who would like assistance with finding resources, putting the pieces together, and/or documenting what's being learned. Examples are also provided of curated learning pathways and portfolios. Our Resources page also lists many ideas for how time outside The Hub can be spent.
A: The micro-academy is the heart of The Hub’s program, and is designed for people who consider themselves independent learners, and who enjoy having a communal base that: serves as an extension of their family’s home base; provides consistent social connections; amplifies deep, interdisciplinary learning opportunities; and offers opportunities to work on group projects that are vehicles for learning important, higher-order skills, such as how to manage projects and work effectively as a team.
From The Hub's perspective, enrollment in the micro-academy can be paired with enrollment in any other programs, as long as regular attendance and engagement is practical. The Hub's à-la-carte classes, workshops and activities are also suitable for anyone.
It is up to families to research and ensure that they’re following any relevant regulations and requirements regarding school enrollment and/or homeschooling. A site that contains a lot of information about homeschooling requirements in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia can be found here; its international counterpart is here.
A: In the micro-academy, the facilitator’s role is like a blend between a composer, a conductor and a musician, with the goal of co-creating a beautiful piece of music. As a composer, they bring ideas to the table and offer intellectual and creative challenges. As a conductor, they aim to be attuned to what’s happening with everyone within the group and to help participants develop the skills that foster a healthy balance between meeting individual needs for self-expression and creating a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. As a musician, they are active participants themselves, modeling intellectual curiosity, how to learn, and respectful ways to engage, contribute to the group, and resolve any disagreements.
The facilitator is also like a "guide by the side" on the broader learning journey, working in partnership with parents and children to really get to know each participant and what makes them tick, and to use that understanding to help the young person develop their unique set of strengths and interests, while also helping them manage or overcome weaknesses that are standing in the way of them reaching their goals.
A: To foster the desired level of personal relationship-building, the overall facilitator-to-student ratio for The Hub's micro-academy will never exceed 1:8. (To maintain the integrity of the experience, facilitators have the authority to decide when a given cohort feels like it's reached full capacity; we therefore expect that most cohorts will not end up exceeding a 1:5 ratio.)
For à-la-carte activities organized by The Hub, the person leading each activity will decide the minimum and maximum size they believe will allow them to offer a quality experience.
A: Grade cutoffs are arbitrary and limiting. Individuals learn things (in a meaningful way) only when they’re ready, and no two X-year-olds are the same, whether they’re in the same “grade” or not. On the other hand, young people progress through similar developmental stages that start and end roughly around certain ages, and mixed-ages learning has many benefits, for younger and older children alike. Like human-development age ranges, The Hub’s age range is “ish”—it’s more about maturity level and maintaining good group dynamics, rather than calendar age.
A: "The Full Story of The Hub" (below) explains how everything fits together and where we see things going. Get in touch if you are interested in providing grant funding (to subsidize tuition for families whose children would benefit from such programming, but for whom the full tuition is out of reach, or to help lay the groundwork for expanding this concept in a decentralized way), starting a hub of your own, or want to explore other ideas or share other resources.
We all know that same-aged children can share common ground yet differ in many ways, including in the interests and strengths that shape their lives and eventual career choices. Ten-year-old Zack may really enjoy working with images, and be drawn to art classes, producing videos, and similar activities; Sophie may be more keen on animals, and really enjoy ecology programs, watching wildlife documentaries, and so on. How they learn life’s basics may also differ—Zack’s parents may favor an online curriculum that tracks one set of standards, while Sophie’s may prefer in-person learning that follows a different set of standards, or a more organic approach. A customized education (a curated set of resources and experiences that are tailored to an individual) can serve them well in all instances. Yet Zack and Sophie may also crave a consistent peer group. Meeting both sets of needs—customization and community—can be a challenge.
I’d personally observed this phenomenon as our homeschooled daughter was entering her tween years. She had attended several homeschooling groups (which I’d co-founded and helped manage) in Washington, DC. But after childhood, coordinating everyone’s activities and schedules became more complicated, as young people began to gravitate toward more specialized pursuits that took place at different times and locations. The benefits of customization came at a cost—the primary reason I heard from parents who eventually abandoned this approach in favor of institutions with one-size requirements was that their children missed having regular interactions with the same group of friends.
I saw an opportunity to create a communal space (like a college campus, but on a smaller scale and for all ages) where a range of educational activities could be pursued, in a modular way, to satisfy the desire to balance customization and community as individuals travel along distinct, “this size fits you” educational pathways.
I originally envisioned The Hub as a physical location (depicted in these conceptual floorplans) that would gradually grow to offer a menu of original and third-party educational resources and programs, for everyone from toddlers to retirees; mentoring and other support services; and co-working, studying, gathering, and recreational areas. This was inspired not only by my personal observations, but also my professional research and writing about education, and visits to a wide range of education models (including a very popular Durham, North Carolina homeschooling and family hub, which ticked a number of these boxes during its years of operation).
However, early 2020 threw everyone a curveball. I’d been on the verge of signing a lease for a suite of rooms at a church—where I planned to start with interdisciplinary “micro-academies” for ages six to 12, in which participants could enroll for one to four days a week; an all-ages hang-out space on the fifth day; and a co-working area for parents—when the city shut down. I spent some time in wait-and-see mode, then decided that arranging meetings in person was going to be fraught with too many complications for the foreseeable future, and resolved to offer a more streamlined online concept instead.
I surveyed the online education landscape, attended Zoom classes, consulted members of The Hub’s advisory council (including a professor who had researched online learning best practices), and ran a couple of experimental summer camps. The facilitators and I saw for ourselves that you can’t simply relocate an in-person experience to the virtual world, but also that young people over the age of eight felt very comfortable interacting in this sphere and, if given both freedom and just enough constraints to encourage creativity, could take the digital tools at their disposal and run with them. I also identified a niche The Hub could fill online, to make it easier for learners to balance customization and community. We would provide mix-and-match online programming (initially for tweens, then expanding upward) that emphasized both intellectual and personal growth, while also feeding the soul by encouraging meaningful connections and creative expression.
The Hub officially launched in September 2020, with a “minimum viable product” prototype—a two-days-a-week, interdisciplinary micro-academy for ages nine to 12. Based on a request, I also added “wrap-around services,” to help parents (regardless of their children’s enrollment status) looking for advice about how to curate customized educational pathways.
After making some refinements—such as lengthening sessions and break times—based on feedback from that first handful of participants and their parents, The Hub gradually enrolled more children in the micro-academy and also added complementary “à-la-carte” workshops, forums, clubs, and camps to the menu. Some of these have been explicitly requested; others have evolved from micro-academy activities that have struck a chord. Their themes have ranged from playing and designing games, to multi-media collaborative storytelling, and Socratic dialogue (whose participant-chosen topics have ranged from eels to the Ukraine-Russia war and the size of the universe). Because we view The Hub’s programs as complementing many existing offerings, our Resources page lists online and in-person ideas for how participants can spend their remaining time, in order to round out a customized education.
Our guiding ethos extends to how we work with facilitators (who are supported but also given a lot of autonomy) and our enrollment policies. The Hub’s programs are organized by age ranges, to take advantage of the scaffolding and other benefits of mixed-ages learning, but maturity and maintaining good group dynamics are more important than exact chronological cut-offs. The Hub also strives to offer grants, when possible, to families who can’t afford full tuition. And because a program works best if all participants want to be there and are pulling in the same general direction, we not only meet with applicants to our longer programs to gauge the fit beforehand (mainly looking for a genuine interest in learning and engaging on different topics, and an ability to “play well with others”), but also offer a “no further obligations” separation clause for an initial period of time.
Those who enroll in our programs are either full-time homeschoolers or dual-enrolled in schools with compatible schedules. They’ve been based in the United States, as well as in Canada and several other countries across three continents.
Our inter-disciplinary micro-academy program, with two facilitators at the helm of a cohort (once group size exceeds five), meets twice a week over the course of two terms per year, for four to five hours at a time. The time is divided among shorter activities, which can take the form of games, collaborative creations, discussions, workshops, participant-generated quizzes, or presentations; months-long group projects; and occasional guest speakers and interactive field trips (e.g., a guided walk-through of a historic French town, with participants helping to decide the path in real time). The longer format also allows facilitators to invest the time and energy necessary to take both customization and community to another level.
Topics, themes, activities, project goals and roles are chosen collaboratively by everyone, based on interests, strengths, and areas targeted for improvement. This means that no two terms are the same, as interests, abilities and needs evolve. In lieu of following a fixed curriculum that is limited to just one “subject,” the micro-academy is guided by its objectives (well-rounded intellectual and personal growth, plus feeding the soul) and a daily framework, which can be tweaked at any time to better meet the group’s needs—time blocks have occasionally been shortened, lengthened or rearranged to improve each day’s flow.
Some shorter activities, including certain discussions (from the specific, such as the history of a Native American tribe, to the meta, such as how we know what we know) and games such as the popular geography game GeoGuessr, may involve the entire group; others take place in smaller breakout rooms, whose themes have been as varied as creative writing, math challenges, art, book club, debate club, and Star Wars. A theme may last for only one session, or it may continue for days or even weeks, with one topic naturally feeding into another. The Star Wars-themed breakout room, for instance, led to discussions about character development, narrative arcs, the technology of special effects, the ethics of cloning, and the state of cloning science in the real world.
Participants also spend part of each session working on a big group project, which they present to family and friends to wrap up the term. Past projects have included building imaginary digital worlds, creating a book of collaboratively written short stories, creating an e-zine compilation, and producing a video newscast. The longer projects are also multi-dimensional and inter-disciplinary—the world-building projects, for example, delved into topics as varied as evolutionary biology, geology, history, governance models, sociology, languages, and cultural symbols.
In the same way that people of any age already learn many things in life, anyone who wants to do an even deeper dive into a topic can do so on their own time. They can then offer to share highlights of their findings (for example, one participant recently led a breakout session on music theory), which expands listeners’ horizons, while also helping the presenter to organize and learn to better communicate their knowledge. The interest-based approach boosts engagement, while the group aspect amplifies the benefits, as participants listen to others’ questions and feedback, and build on each others’ ideas. This helps them become more well rounded and develop a better understanding of their options in life; or as technology entrepreneur Paul Graham puts it, it lets paths grow out of projects.
Aside from the Internet and basic office tools, other software platforms have been deployed, as the need arises. These have included Trello (for project management), Canva (for graphic design and videos), and Milanote (a digital whiteboard that has served as a “wonderwall” where everyone can list what they’re curious about—e.g., “why do wildfires start?” and “how is blue cheese made?”—which can then prompt research and discussion).
The facilitators are not expected to be subject-matter experts in everything that’s covered, which would be impossible. Rather, their role is like a combination of composer, musician, and conductor, with the goal of everyone co-creating a beautiful piece of music. They come prepared to suggest activities, guest speakers and field trips, and then make the necessary arrangements on the back end. They also actively participate in everything, modeling qualities such as intellectual curiosity, learning, and grown-up conversation. All the while, they also look for opportunities to challenge participants to think more deeply and creatively, to consider new angles, and to develop valuable “soft skills” such as the “five C’s” (critical thinking and problem solving; communication; collaboration; creativity and innovation; and citizenship), while ensuring that the group culture is maintained.
Having a team of two facilitators per cohort (once the group size warrants) has practical advantages—such as guided breakout rooms, and a colleague to confer with—and also allows participants to interact with multiple adults who bring different life experiences, perspectives, interests, ideas and personalities to the table. (Facilitators have discussed their roles and observations in much greater detail in The Hub’s information session recordings.)
As for the social aspect, participants interact during activities, but connection isn’t just an afterthought; it’s integrated into the format. Ice-breaker games help everyone learn about each other, and facilitators also touch base individually with participants from time to time. If the group dynamic starts to feel “off,” time is invested to get to the root of it, and course corrections are made—for example, one of the facilitators may discreetly check in with a participant who isn’t engaging as much as expected, or an agreement is negotiated to keep video cameras on whenever practical, and to let others know if you need to step away. Discussion is not only tolerated but encouraged during activities, as long as it aligns with the group’s community agreement principles. The Hub’s private communications platform on Basecamp is also used to stay in touch at any time, including during travels or holiday breaks. Some participants have also met up in real life, to lead a field trip or attend a session together in someone’s home, if they happen to live in the same area or are passing through.
Social connections not only feed the soul and enhance mental health; they also pay practical dividends. They form the foundation for a respect-based culture that focuses on how to effectively balance “the me and the we” in order to achieve more as a team than would be possible alone. This culture is built intentionally, by discussing and agreeing to its tenets, which are described in the community agreement living document, and reviewing them if things start to veer off course. (It’s much easier to develop an intentional culture if a cohort starts small and then grows once norms are firmly in place.) Participants who feel more connected to each other are more amenable to the give and take that’s sometimes required to respectfully listen to others talk about interests they may not be as enthusiastic about, knowing their turn will also come. It also encourages them to look out for each other and feel accountable for fulfilling project obligations.
Different group sizes have their pluses and minuses, but the ideal micro-academy cohort size thus far has been between six and eight young people, plus the two facilitators (group dynamics can vary, so enrollment is capped when the facilitators decide that a cohort feels full). This has allowed a high level of personal interaction, while accommodating different interests via breakout rooms. Below six can also work well, and encourages even more bonding, but it can also feel a little fragile at the organizational level (life happens, and the absence or unexpected withdrawal of just one or two children can have an outsized impact). Above eight can work too, and feel even more dynamic, but the amount of time required to give everyone a chance to talk and to make decisions collaboratively can start to take away a lot of time from activities and projects, so it morphs into a very different experience.
Facilitators can gauge whether the micro-academy is meeting its goals by observing—e.g., is Isabel asking more complex questions and stepping up to take on greater responsibilities over time, and does she seem happy to be here? We ask participants and parents for feedback too. But some of the best indicators that we’re doing our job are when children are sad to see a term end (many tears have been shed during final closing circles) and are eager to return, and when parents enthusiastically recommend the program to others.
The Hub’s pivot to an online space has offered a number of advantages, such as greater flexibility, lower geographical barriers to participation (which also expand participants’ horizons, because they get to hear about and sometimes view other locales), and lower expenses (those savings are passed on to families and facilitators). So we’re continuing down this path, while also remaining open to supporting others who might be interested in launching other types of hubs (physical, virtual or hybrid) tailored to their community’s needs.
Over the coming year, we’ll be introducing a new set of à-la-carte programs, including a one-day-a-week “nano-academy,” which will be a streamlined version of our showcase program. Meanwhile, the original micro-academy cohort has aged up with the participants and now caters to younger teens, and a new tween cohort was launched in fall 2023. This has marked our first step toward replicating the micro-academy model, also in an organic and highly decentralized way—a parent whose older child had been attending the micro-academy for several years offered to assist with setting up a new cohort, so that her younger child could have the same experience.
Now, based on requests from parents in other time zones, we're also launching two new micro-academy cohorts in early 2024. There is very likely an organic limit (related to Dunbar’s number) to how many cohorts a central hub organization can support, without changing the essential nature of the experience, so at some point, additional hub-and-spokes networks may arise.
We expect cohorts (some of which might opt to primarily meet in person) to interact to some degree, so that everyone will still have a “homeroom” group, while gaining access to more facilitators, young people, and breakout room options. The details will be decided by those on the front lines, ideally continuing to employ an “agile” approach—researching, identifying and trialing the most promising ideas, then observing, soliciting feedback, iterating and refining. More generally, the point parents and facilitation teams will have a lot of leeway to shape each cohort’s experience and make it as unique as their particular grouping of individuals, carrying the customization and community ethos to yet another level.
(Note: If you'd like to discuss how you might be able to support The Hub's expansion efforts, or are interested in possibly setting up a new cohort, please get in touch.)
This shows how a hub for all ages might look, with co-learning, co-working and community spaces for various tiers of users.
The Hub's communal heart, where members learn, work and mingle.
The Hub's additional meeting rooms and auditorium would be usable by smaller co-ops, community theater groups, and others.