By Dr Lihong and Joseph McPhail
Dear Public School System,
During the pandemic my daughters launched their own virtual school, WEquil School, and are having great success. For this reason, we are reaching out to public school principals, teachers, and other leaders in hopes that we can learn from each other. The remainder of this letter includes six parts explaining what we are doing to improve education outcomes.
Thank you for collaborating with us so that we can help all children reach their potential.
Part 1 - Our story
The past year has been a transformative experience for our family. While the pandemic brought a lot of pain it also brought a lot of opportunity. For the first time our daughters were able to have more control over their learning experience...and what I (their father) saw forced me to rethink my views on childhood education.
After the pandemic hit our daughters took initiative in developing a new approach centered on the belief that children learn best when they are free to follow their interests. They used online tools like Khan Academy, Crash Course and Ted to expose themselves to new ideas and new technologies. After three weeks they had published over 40 lessons on a wide range of topics like Genomics Sequencing, Economics, Statistics, and Positive Psychology.
In short...our daughters were learning and growing more competent at a rate that felt ten times faster than they had experienced while attending their public school, Haycock Elementary in Falls Church, Virginia. For those who are unfamiliar, Haycock is consistently rated one of the top public schools in the country...and for good reason. Our daughters were consistently happy with their teachers and we believe strongly that Haycock is a big reason our daughters have been successful launching their own virtual school and building their own online education tools.
GoGuardian, an EdTech company, heard about WEquil School back in July and interviewed Sumay and Aila about it. You can listen to them using the links below (1-4). They were not following a script and did not prepare much. They just shared their experiences and what they planned (and did later) build.
When schools went online for the Fall Semester we asked our daughters to be open minded and give Haycock an opportunity to work with them. This proved challenging for Sumay who was by this time already teaching several other students how to leverage their passions and use technology to write, build and share their own projects as she had learned to do. Sumay was also working with Wei Jiang, her programming instructor, to build a WebApp to help scale their platform to reach more young people.
By October of 2020, Sumay decided to leave Haycock and grow what she believes strongly to be a solution to many of the challenges she experienced. Over the previous six months Sumay and I had interviewed dozens (now over a hundred) parents and kids to learn more about how to improve childhood education. Many said the same things that she had been saying...public school provided little opportunity to build on each young person's unique strengths.
Leaving Haycock was hard for Sumay and our family. We never intended for her to leave the public education system, and the many wonderful teachers that truly are heroes and deserve more support now than ever.
We supported Sumay's decision to drop out of Elementary school because we see the success that Sumay, Aila, and a growing number of fellow students are having ... so like all parents believe we had to do what was best for our kids.
Part 2 - WEquil School
When the pandemic hit Aila and Sumay founded WEquil School, a virtual classroom and WebApp to address key challenges with the traditional education model. These challenges include a lack of opportunity for young people to pursue their interests, learn about new technologies, practice teaching and public speaking, reliance on a single teacher to determine the value of what they create, and limited opportunity to share their creations beyond the classroom.
WEquil School is also a virtual classroom that allows children of all ages from anywhere in the world to collaborate and share projects with each other. We have found this model to be extremely effective in helping kids grow their confidence, curiosity, and desire to learn and explore.
WEquil School is growing because children learn faster and have more fun when they are empowered to follow their passions and share them with the world. For this reason we are spending our own money to hire more programmers and educators to help us expand. We are already working with educators, parents, kids, and others to help us continually improve our approach. We believe that the best way to achieve our mission is to work with all variety of educators, parents, and students because every child is unique.
All children and parents are free to join WEquil School. Most of our students still go to traditional schools and use our platform as a supplement. We seek only to help all children reach their potential.
To join, just send us your email through our website below.
Part 3 - Our Solutions
To best communicate our solutions we first share what we believe to be core principles of learning. Put simply...kids and adults learn best when they...
Solve real problems
Iterate and improve
Are free to explore
Build on strengths, interests and passions
These are the principles upon which WEquil School is built. The success of our students is evidence that these principles are sound, as well as scientific research regarding the nature of learning.
While these principles may not appear at first glance to be missing from traditional schools, we wish to point out specifically how they fall short.
Solve real problems - At WEquil School kids solve real problems such as how to build Apps, create recipes, write music, make games and design products with 3D Printing. There are many problems kids can solve around the house, in their neighborhood, in their communities, for their schools, and for each other...but that's hard to standardize. Schools standardize projects so they can compare and rank student abilities and check off if they have achieved certain milestones. But kids that solve real problems that relate to their interests are far more likely to learn to love learning, and kids that love learning will learn much faster.
Iterate and improve - Most of value comes from a process of iteration and improvement. Students at WEquil School do not receive grades. They share their creations with other students and mentors who provide feedback and encouragement. They re-create projects all the time...improving with each iteration until they have made something of value or move on to another project. Our students learn that there is no limit to how much they can improve, and grow an awareness and openness to feedback from many people to reach their potential.
Are free to explore - Children that are curious do not need to be told to learn. They only need the tools to explore and mentors who can help guide them. As students mature they learn to help younger students to do the same. Children want to share their discoveries and we provide a platform to do this in our virtual classrooms. This further facilitates the feedback loop that helps young people cultivate their curiosity. When kids are in the habit of exploring they become independent and self-directed in their learning process. We have seen this with our own daughters...who never need to be reminded to make productive use of their time and grow themselves.
Build on strengths, interests and passions - The economy of the future will be driven by technology and creativity. Kids that never learn to cultivate their unique strengths, interests, and passions will have a hard time succeeding because they will not know how to differentiate themselves in a world where machines are automating away all the routine and monotonous jobs. Building on their unique strengths, interests, and passions are the ingredients for rapid development.
Teaching others - Education scientists have shown that teaching is the best way to internalize knowledge and grow one's confidence. For thousands of years kids would teach each other. Oftentimes with older kids teaching the younger ones how to sew clothes, fix tools, learn to read, chop wood, and sing. At WEquil School we have kids of all ages sharing and learning together. We believe that the best students of life learn from everything and everyone, and the best way to learn is to help others understand.
We believe that public schools can incorporate these principles. We also believe that these principles can be improved as can our own platform. That is why we are encouraging representatives of the public education system to reach out and collaborate so we can better help our children.
We believe our public school teachers are national heroes. During this pandemic, thousands of schools and teachers showed tremendous courage and leadership to help our children during this pandemic.
Finally, the mission of WEquil School is to help all children reach their potential. The reality is that this can only happen with the help of public schools, because most parents cannot afford private schools or devote themselves the way we have to our daughters.
Dr Lihong and Joseph McPhail