Decentralizing Education with Synthesis

I'm co-leading a round in Synthesis, a startup scaling the custom school built for Elon Musk’s kids.

Decentralizing Education with Synthesis

I’m co-leading an investment round in Synthesis with Replit CEO Amjad Masad. It’s a fresh take on early childhood education based on the custom school built for Elon Musk’s kids and the early engineers at SpaceX.

Why a new school? Confidence in public schools is at historic lows. Parents want a change. And people can sense that the Prussian education system, the model for American schooling, just isn’t working anymore. Perhaps fifty years ago you might well pull the same lever every day on an assembly line, but today you hit a different key every second.

Instruction hasn’t kept up.

You can watch videos on the Synthesis model here, but the fundamental concept is teaching kids how to collaboratively work with information like adults do. In a sense, it’s similar to what American education used to be — namely early apprenticeship in the kinds of activities they’d be doing as adults, the system that educated Ben Franklin.

Synthesis is starting out as a complement to existing schools, but already has thousands of happy students and parents. Over time the plan is to add more and more math and science, until eventually it’s a full-blown alternative to the legacy K-12 system. Ultimately that may involve building physical classrooms.

There are several aspects of Synthesis that I think are worth noting, as they are part of a general set of tactics to build opt-in alternatives to failing institutions.

  • First digital, then physical. A full replacement for the education system will eventually require physical locations. Too many parents depend on state-run schools for childcare. However, it’s important to go digital first, then physical. Synthesis is building a networked community online and then, later, creating physical infrastructure as needed be.
  • Scale what can be scaled. Today’s K-12 instruction can be decoupled into (a) curricula, (b) small group tutoring and (c) de facto childcare. While the tutoring and childcare components will continue requiring hands-on attention for each student, the curricula can be created by world class instructors and cost-effectively scaled to millions of children. That means one could have the polish of a Hollywood movie or an AAA-quality game for educational content, which is what Synthesis is working on.
  • Go direct. Legacy media is incentivized to protect legacy systems. Therefore, companies offering an exit must go direct to customers and build their own distribution. Otherwise, they’ll either get politically attacked or forced to fold back into the values of the incumbent system. And so Synthesis is reaching parents entirely through social media and eschewing legacy media corporations.
  • Make exit easy. Our education systems won’t reform from within. The necessary improvements require too much change. The only real solution is to create something better from the ground up that’s so attractive users can’t help but exit the old system. Something like that doesn't arise overnight - it's proved out in stages, by people gradually opting out of the current system, providing feedback and driving features, till the parallel system is better in all respects and ready for broad adoption. This, too, is part of the Synthesis strategy.
  • Win and help win. Finally, the aim of education should be to train kids to grow the global pie for humanity so all can benefit. In other words, kids need to learn how to work together and succeed in a competitive environment so that they can contribute to the common good. And Synthesis believes that teaching values like this is as important as teaching calculus.

Human capital is the bottleneck to civilizational progress. It’s our scarcest resource. To increase the supply, the highest leverage place to begin is K-12. If we can fix that system, we have a base for a better world. That’s what Synthesis aims to do.

Read Synthesis CEO Chrisman Frank's post here and Replit CEO Amjad Masad's post here.
If you have kids ages 8-14,
you can sign them up for Synthesis here.
And if you’d like to join their team, view their open positions here.