Workspace Education: A Conversation with Cath Fraise
Q&A 14 June 2018
By Cath Fraise, Workspace Education
I would like to see a Workspace in every town. Right now, we have several families who drive an hour to come to Workspace. I think that speaks to the power and pull of the model.
Founder and Executive Director
Q: What brought you to the work of transforming the education system?
A: As a child in Australia, I was one of those students who thought the educational system was rigged. Students who could remember names and dates soared through and did very well. I was not one of those students. So, rather than figuring out who I was going to become, I just rebelled against the system.
By my high school years, my passion for redesigning education started to manifest. Dissatisfaction led me to constantly imagine what the ideal learning environment for teens would look like.
It wasn’t long before I felt like I was simply in a holding pattern for university where I thought I could begin my life’s work. I was always thinking there was so much potential with my fellow students, but they weren’t working for themselves, they were working for teachers. The system was just wrong.
I think that the dissatisfaction with education that I felt in my youth is still widely experienced by students, today. And, all my life, I’ve always come back to my desire to solve that problem.
Q: For many, we imagine the opposite happens—they experience the holding pattern and once they get to college, they want to get as far away from education as possible. What had it be a draw for you, rather than a reason to push away?
A: Perhaps university itself was less of a pull and more of an acceptable (or only) path to meaningful work. And, I was ready to get on with solving the real-world problem of education.
Humanity is diverse. And, in traditional education students are so boxed in. In public school, they are making education for the masses—the average. Private school was not much better, siloed subjects and high-stakes testing.
I wanted one place where all different kinds of humans could thrive—where all different brain types were valued and maximized. When humans are given the freedom to roam and explore intellectually, they discover what resonates within them. Little seeds are sown everywhere, and these plantings lead to passions.
Humans want to be useful. They want to contribute. They want to solve problems. This can’t happen when a child is stuck in a classroom and confined to a desk. Children need to explore.
Circling back to your question, I was lucky. The model for traditional education just so happened to unearth my particular passion—a passion to re-think everything from the ground up. How would I design an education system if there were no constraints?
Q: You were deeply passionate about solving this problem all the way back in high school. Once you got to college, where did things lead you next?
A: Surprisingly, I hit a detour. My parents were very against me going into education because they didn’t want me to join a giant bureaucracy. I listened to them and decided that I would go into international trade because I enjoyed economics.
That led me to a position at an import/export company straight out of college. Not surprisingly, after a year, I was enrolled in a teaching program. I thought I could reform the system from the inside out.
When you go to teacher’s college, you are taught how to teach—as if there is one good way of doing everything. It swiftly became apparent people think very differently and there are so many ways to teach. However, when you have 30 children staring at you in a classroom, having a plan is very important to you all of a sudden. It’s no wonder teaching is so systematized. It’s hard to personalize education.
Q: Having gone through the traditional programming of a teachers college, how did you avoid becoming part of the very norms you wanted to change?
A: In my life, people have been my biggest influencers. When I was in teachers college, I had a professor who was a student of J. Krishnamurti. We were in class talking about human conditioning, and we began a conversation about passion.
We decided together that it would be our life’s mission to get to the bottom of how you can make education meaningful and about finding a passion. That was almost 30 years ago, and we’re still talking about it today.
Workspace Education—which we opened in January 2017—is my answer to that discussion. To get to this point, I needed to have children of my own to understand the developmental patterns children have. At the same time, I did a deep dive into Montessori because Maria Montessori was an amazing observer of development in children. That was her whole life.
Between digging into Montessori and raising my children, I continued looking into more philosophies of education. At this time, the internet was just now giving people the opportunity to explore all sorts of different education models—especially those in America.
Q: Were there any similarities you saw within the United States education system in comparison to Australia?
A: I think the core similarity is the failure of both systems to recognize the diversity of humans and that the world needs diverse mindsets to bring out various forms of creativity and innovation. It is not okay to put everyone in a one-size-fits-all solution. We need happy, balanced humans who are good to each other.
I was attracted to homeschooling because I could nurture the uniqueness of my children, as well as give them freedom to explore and meet other families. There is fascinating stuff happening in the the homeschooling world, with different groups of people running their own microschools completely under the radar of mainstream education. These passionate and dedicated parents were actually on the ground implementing all the exciting pedagogies I had been reading about.
I thought, what if we could have all different types of homeschooling groups in the one place and provide them with the resources most children have access to in traditional schools?
Q: Let’s dive into everything Workspace Education provides. How do you describe Workspace Education to an outsider? Who do you serve? What learning models are available for young learners?
A: Let’s start with the heart of our model for education—community. Workspace is not a school. It is a non-profit organization. But, more importantly, Workspace is a community of parents, students, professionals, and educators who are co-creating custom educational experiences for our children.
We started out with all homeschoolers. This allowed us to base our culture around parents taking the lead and seeing the promise, understanding the risks, and actively implementing innovation—creating revolutionary pedagogies from scratch. But now, most of our new families are coming from traditional schools.
Last year, our parent community launched 78 courses. About half of the courses were taught by educators and experts whom our parents brought in, and half were taught by the parents themselves. Our community tends to attract highly educated individuals who tend to be early adopters with a growth mindset—so our students truly benefit from remarkable teachers and parent-mentors.
With homeschoolers, it was easy to have parents participate in the learning throughout the day. Now that we have a mix—learners coming from traditional public and private schools—we are starting to offer some drop-off options for parents who work.
Ultimately, whatever a family can imagine for education, I want to make possible at Workspace.
Founder and Executive Director
We are also launching an Acton Academy at Workspace, which is a great fit for us because it helps children develop the work habits to become self-directed. Workspace has a very free environment. Freedom of movement is very important in education. When children freely move they are constantly making decisions—about what do do and how to act—observing and integrating what is happening in the environment. This freedom also offers more chance for them to have a spontaneous collaboration or a fortuitous meeting. For children who have great executive function skills, the sky’s the limit in our model.
In addition, Workspace has launched Golden Arrow which is an AP-based Humanities and STEM program. This track is for those students who are academically oriented and looking for admission to top schools but who also don’t want to miss out on the opportunity to do deep dives on passion projects.
We’re looking to take some of the intelligent design of Acton Academy and fuse it within Workspace, too. This will apply to any other microschool that we launch in the future. We want to take the best of what’s out there and see if it can be infused into our community of learning.
We’re really just at the beginning of our journey. We have an adaptable model that is evolving, and we’re iterating as we go.
And, we are fortunate to have a facility that can support innovation (and the technology necessary to support it) without a private school price tag. A membership at Workspace Education costs $4,900 per year for a family with one child and an additional $990 per year for each additional child. In addition to the benefits of community, membership provides families with access to our learning space and all the technology in the building, including a research lab, makery, film and performance studio, and prototype lab.
We wanted to keep the membership as low as possible and to provide the flexibility for families to dial up or scale down additional costs to meet their specific budgets. Parent-led classes are typically free, while courses taught by outside educators have a fee.
Q: Does Workspace provide free learning experiences around the same topics that are initially set up as paid options?
A: As members of a parent-led learning community, our parents drive the courses that are fielded every semester at Workspace. So, they have the ability to craft the learning experiences that will meet their budgetary needs.
One parent may bring in an educator who charges a fee to teach a coding class, while another technology-geared parent may teach a similar class for free or bring in a colleague from their professional network who is willing to donate his or her time. We even have a group of parents who are discussing the idea launching a version of the new Acton Academy model within a community context where parents share the responsibility of acting as student guides.
In addition, as part of membership, students can take our Spark-to-Launch courses for free to develop their entrepreneurial mindsets. Plus, they can schedule time with our tech wizard to earn micro-certifications on all the tech in the building, including 3-D printers, audio/visual equipment, professional recording studio tools, and a laser cutter.
We have an on-staff curriculum expert who helps families select from a curated list of open source online educational tools. And, of course, our NYC metro area provides our families with rich museum and cultural access to reinforce academic learning through in-person experiences.
Also, we made a strategic decision to locate Workspace in a thriving business park. This provides our students with a network of professionals from 70 businesses who are eager to support our learners.
This provides an avenue to build on all the hands-on learning accomplished on site through local internships and apprenticeships. You never know when a student is going to connect with someone who will help create that spark, just as my teacher ignited in me.
Q: What’s the path look like on day one for a learner at Workspace Education?
A: On-boarding is a very important part of what we do. Even before the formal process starts, we start with in-depth tours and long conversations that delve into a family’s interests and needs. We provide children and parents the opportunity to interact with community peers. And, we welcome families to our events—open mic nights, hack-a-thons, marketplace, and theater productions.
We have the children interview with our Dream Director who conducts an interest survey and invites the children to talk about all the things they love to do. We ask the parents to fill out a child snapshot. Then, they sit down with me to share the dreams they have for their child’s education and future.
This helps us understand what the child and parent want out of their educational experience and determine if Workspace is a good fit.
If the interview goes well, parents are invited to a series of workshops about our community and course co-creation. We have a lot of possibilities, and it can be overwhelming. So, we help parents focus in on who their child is—understand his learning style and identify learning experiences that light him up.
Everyone has a unique journey. But, by the time every family moves through the process of on-boarding and orientation, what may technically be “day one” for a learner doesn’t really feel like a “first day” at all. They all feel like they are part of the community as qualified contributors to our shared vision.
Q: What’s in store for the future of Workspace Education?
A: Well, I would like to see a Workspace in every town. Right now, we have several families who drive an hour to come to Workspace. I think that speaks to the power and pull of the model.
Near term, we have renovation plans that will add a commercial kitchen to our facility. Recently, thirty Workspace members came together to build a garden. So, these efforts will allow parents to pursue culinary arts, nutrition, farm-to-table, and agricultural programming for our children.
As for our footprint in Bethel, CT, I would love to take our 32,000 square foot facility and expand to 80,000 square feet on our campus. This would allow us to provide care for very young families with a building specifically dedicated to children from age zero to nine.
For younger learners, I’ve been imagining a model where a full day learner would have three hours of Montessori, Waldorf, or Reggio Emilia. Then, two hours of unstructured play and a big lunch together—we’re on 650 acres of land, so we’re set up for that sort of thing. Finally, we’d end with another three-hour block of learning in the afternoon and an hour between 5pm-6pm that would act more like a daycare setting as parents pick up their children.
It would mean having the ultimate flexibility to accommodate diverse family needs. If your family is not a morning family, you could come in for the unstructured play and do the three hours of Montessori in the afternoon. Maybe you’re a three-days-a-week family and you want to do Reggio Emilia during those three days coupled with more traditional learning and unstructured play. At the same time, your older siblings can be in Workspace proper, which has more of a Makerspace feel.
Ultimately, whatever a family can imagine for education, I want to make possible at Workspace.
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