The Skinny On Lean Education

Downscaling from Launching Charter Schools to Developing Pilot Programs

Seven years ago, 4.0 Schools founder and CEO Matt Candler set out to change the future of schooling. As a lifelong educator, he recognized that innovations in education were few and far between and that the people who were best able to come up with new, groundbreaking ways to reach and teach the students, parents, and members of our communities, were the educators themselves. So 4.0 Schools was created and launched in order to fund and guide educational entrepreneurs and help them launch new charter public schools in the south east.

Unfortunately, their efforts didn’t churn out the changes in the system they were hoping to see. “Many of those schools when they first were created were not very different,” says Matt, “they were evolutionary or iterative at best.”

But around the same time, a few of Matt’s colleagues asked if they could run an experiment on the side. They wanted to work with teachers in New Orleans (where 4.0 Schools is based) who weren’t ready to quit teaching or launch a new school, but still wanted to try something new.

What Matt and his colleagues discovered was a gap between the people who have innovative ideas about the future of school and their ability to do anything about it. So in just the second year of their organization, 4.0 Schools completely changed focus from expensive, year-long fellowships for educational entrepreneurs, to helping craft pilot programs for educators who want to make a difference.

“There's a lot of assumptions that scaling something to serve all children works, but there's no such thing.” Click To Tweet

One Size Does Not Fit All

One of the things that become readily apparent to Matt is that education isn’t something that can be made to work on a universal scale. “There’s really no such thing as an average child,” he says, “There’s a lot of assumptions that scaling something to serve all children works, [but there’s no such thing.]” With all of the discussion about the importance of personalization, humanity and individualization in this country, Matt thinks it’s important for us to continue to start at “human centric design” and not “institutional bigness.”

So they made the shift from focusing on the building large charter schools with proven – if non-innovative – models to working to nurturing ideas that have promise. “Our craft [is now] engaging people who have huge, big, promising ideas of what school could look like,” says Matt.

This pivot helped shed light on what Matt thinks is a much stronger focus. Rather than launching programs that are generically scaled to fit anywhere, they are able to seek out and utilize input from the students and parents in the community and invite them to be a part of the process of developing these programs.

It’s a lesson learned not only from the process of building 4.0 Schools, but working within the community of New Orleans itself. When he first moved to New Orleans, Matt was certain that, with his background and expertise in the field of education building, he knew what the city needed. But his time working in the city and with the communities has helped shape this vision of working not only on smaller, simpler things, but also on working with the community around you.

The Importance of Community

“What we are trying to do,” Matt says, when discussing the importance of building on the needs of the individuals and communities around you rather than generic scaling, “[…] is acknowledge that […] the nature of what we call school reform is starting to become a more interactive and communal experience.”

In fact, testing with and not on communities is one of the “most powerful concepts” of 4.0 Schools. Matt believes it’s important to cherish the first users who are willing to work with you while your products or methods are in their early stages and still have kinks in them. They are the people who ultimately make your product better. “We do not give parents and students the respect they deserve as co-creators,” Matt says.

Working with people to develop ideas is key to 4.0 Schools’ programming. Something that’s very opposite from what teaching and education is typically like in American schools. “[Teaching] is arguably one of the most isolated and isolating of our caring professions,” Matt observes.  

Which is why, during their programs, their fellowship members come together to work on their individual ideas within a group of peers. It turns out that “heterogeneity is much more powerful than homogeneity,” Matt says, “people are all into learning from one another,” making it a better and more effective way to refine an idea.

“What we are trying to do is acknowledge that the nature of what we call school reform is starting to become a more interactive and communal experience.” Click To Tweet

Finding Success Within the Freedom to Fail

In the seven years since they launched, 4.0 Schools has had a tremendously positive impact on students and their community. It can definitely be considered a success. But that’s not to say they haven’t had setbacks.

Looking back at that first year, Matt reflects on why he thinks it was, as he puts it, a failure. “I thought that people needed a comfortable year to explore everything,” he says, “but what they really needed was the push to ship something in two weeks.”

In fact, Matt thinks there’s something important in the, “raw fear of not knowing if [something] is going to work.” The condensed timeline forces the participants to focus on figuring out the problem they’re trying to solve, but without jeopardizing millions of dollars of funding.

In other words, it gives them the freedom to fail in order to see a better or different way of moving forward. “This is a community where you can participate in a hopeful and rigorous approach to writing some new stories, and [help make] the future of school brighter than the present and more hopeful than the past.”

Check out the full webcast below.

If you’d like to read the full transcript of Marilyn Gorman’s conversation with Matt Candler, you may download it.


Thanks to Shannon Lorenzen for contributing this piece. If you seek to bring the entrepreneurial spirit to your organization, Lean Startup Co. can help.