If you have kids, you've probably become more involved in their schooling since the COVID pandemic started. Unschooling, homeschooling, online schooling, and more...there are many options in this growing space. I came across Synthesis school on Twitter and tried it out.
In this article, I first cover my experience with the product for two months. Then, I dive into what I learned about the people behind Synthesis.
I had my 8 year "apply" to Synthesis in November. The application process involves watching a short video of different personality types going on a mission to mars. The video is engaging, well-done, and short. The video poses the question of which personality type should lead the mission. Your student then records a short video with their response.
My son's response was a simple one-liner: "The leader should be X". I forget which person he picked, but he gave zero explanation. None. I asked him if he wanted to re-record his response and explain his reasoning, but he declined. We sent it off and I assumed that was probably the end of that.
To my surprise, the next day I received an email inviting me to sign up for the December "cohort"!
The welcome email provides you with a few different days and times. I picked Thursdays from 4-5 pm and I forked over $180 for the month of December. With no idea what to expect, my son and I were excited for the first "class".
The first class
My son's first class was Thursday, December 3, 2020. They send you an email the morning of your class that contains a login link. All you need is the link, there's no username or password to remember or manage.
The link takes you to a basic page with little more than a zoom link. You follow the zoom link to join the moderators and other kids on zoom. The moderators talk for little bit and then start. The other kids are mix of ages and experience levels with the game. Once the moderators start the game, the homepage refreshes and the students can see a basic list of all the students' name and click on their name to join the web-based game.
My son started with a game called Constellation. The image in the header of this post is a screenshot of one of the game boards. The basic concept is your team is put in a zoom breakout room and works together to try and occupy lines on the map. Within the course of an hour, students will play 3-5 games of this, with a few minutes in between each game for quick discussions. That's it. My son said it was fun, but couldn't explain why.
The next classes in December all worked the same way. They changed the rules, scoring, and teams a little bit, but otherwise it was the same. If you look at the month of December 2020, you'll see that the last two Thursdays are Christmas Eve and New Years eve: holidays in the US. I should have considered this before I signed up. If Synthesis didn't operate those days, that's $180 for 3 hours! $1 per minute.
The tweet above made me wonder...maybe they would have sessions? Well, come late December they announced via email there would be no classes those two days. Zing! They referenced an email sent mid November about it...before I had signed up for anything. I was annoyed. My son was so-so on going anymore and I was on the fence about cancelling. The holidays came, things got busy, suddenly it was January. Then, I got the email: I had just paid for another month!
So, shame on me, I should have cancelled in December. I figured I'd give them a second shot in January and once and for all decide whether or not to cancel.
The first January class comes and goes. Same old Constellation, minor rule and score changes. They send an email that mentions some extra sessions available on Saturday and the following Monday. I thought maybe they had figured out they kind of screwed the December people.
I respond that I'm interested in the extra sessions. I get no response. There was no reminder email or email about how to join the extra sessions. Saturday comes. We try the normal login link and zoom and wait...nothing happens. No extra Saturday session after all.
Monday comes. My son was outside sledding in the snow, playing happily with his sister. I called him to come in. He hesitated and asked if he had to. I told him no, he didn't have to, if he wasn't interested in continuing. He begrudgingly came in. That session was when I decided to make January our last month. We used the normal login link and zoom...success! We got the extra session!
Synthesis says you can cancel in the first 7 days of the month. What they don't tell you is how. Looking back at my mails, there was no parent dashboard. No billing dashboard. Nothing. The initial invoice was paid from an email. The only way to cancel is to contact them, as described in the terms of service. I scheduled an email to be sent at the end of the month and considered it done. I used a Privacy card when I signed up, so whether they cancel my account or not, they won't be getting another cent from me.
I don't see the value. Sure, the kids seem to enjoy it, but they also enjoy playing Among Us or any other games. It's not a "school" in any reasonable sense that I can deduce. They even changed their website in the December/January timeframe from synthesisschool.com to www.synthesis.is to reflect this.
The kids don't really have much time to interact and socialize. They recently added a private discord chat to help with this. On the breakout rooms, most of the time is spent talking about the game itself. There was often confusion over teams, bugs, and locations on the game board. Since the moderators can't be in all breakout rooms at once, there were some periods where utterly nobody knew what was going on. Embracing chaos is one thing, leaving a bunch of 8-11 years old to their own devices is another.
They have or are working on more games, but it's unclear when and how students will get them.
Art for All is an auction game where students compete to put on the best art exhibits around the world. From a parent of one of our beta testers for this game: "My house is on fire with this art for al game...Emmett is going bonkers." Mental models covered: auctions and the winner's curse, double-entry bookkeeping, and negotiation.
Fire! is a fast-paced collaboration game where teams of students work together to fight forest fires under various conditions. This is our first "massively cooperative" game, where the opponents is not the other teams, but the fire itself. Mental models covered: positive vs. zero sum games.
Fish asks students to manage commercial fishing waters, extracting the maximum number of fish without damaging the ecosystem. Mental models covered: tragedy of the commons.
Even with more games, I don't think I'd consider signing up again. More about that next...
The Synthesis website has very little information. Nothing about the people involved and their backgrounds. Nothing about topics covered. Nothing about their theory of education. Nothing much at all except people saying how great it is. In a void of information, one is left to their own devices.
While trying to learn more, I started following the CEO, @chrismanfrank on Twitter. He's more active than the official @synthesischool account. What I learned is that he and I hold very different world views. He leans right, I lean left. My decision to cancel was more cemented with the more I learned. I appreciate different opinions, but I don't financially support them.
It's worth noting that I did have a quick 15 minute zoom meeting with Chrisman in early January. We talked mostly about education and kids. He seemed eager to learn from customers and believe is genuine in trying to create a good product. I did bring up my concern with my son getting bored with Constellation, but I'm not sure any follow through was done.
I know it's not ideal to base opinions on social media. The following Tweets are only a subset of Tweets that caught my attention. However, given my experience with the product and void of other information, I felt it important to highlight these for other parents. Maybe I'll save someone else time, money, or frustration.
I'm not entirely sure what constitutes a large practical innovation, but I'm pretty sure this is not true. There's definitely an undertone with this and other tweets of a distrust of experts. Maybe just because it's been to popular as of late...
Teaching is its own discipline. There are advanced degrees focusing on teaching. Countless people have spent decades studying data about what works and what doesn't. I know many top level professionals that are great at their job, but terrible teachers. Plus, all of those people are "experts", it seems maybe their expertise is only useful when it aligns with your world view? Does anyone at Synthesis actually have a teaching degree? Who knows.
“Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.”
— George Bernard Shaw
I'm not sure what to make of this one.
I certainly agree many events of the past 12 months have been concerning. I also worry about our increasing surveillance state. However, jumping to conclusions and spreading misinformation is not helpful. He did later learn that Twitter doesn't support number hashtags, and corrected himself.
This one really gets me: ignoring public health experts.
Yes, that's me in the replies. I knew better than to engage further. If, 11 months into a pandemic, you're still questioning public health officials, a Tweet is not going to sway your opinion.
Though, I will point out, that even in Michigan, kids that go to school can play outside at recess without masks. Outside is a pretty big place, it's hard to believe that he was unable to find an outdoor location nearby to play with other kids without a mask. Also note that the original Tweet did not specify outdoors.
Also, I am unaware of any research indicating that children cannot play happily while wearing masks. Mine seem to do fine.
In fact, you know why there's so little research around kids? They're a protected group. There are many requirements and restrictions around research done with children. BTW, there is some research to indicate kids are spreaders. Also, maybe COVID causes neurological issues. However, all research at this point is very early and probably questionable. It will take years to know for certain what the real risks are.
In my experience, children look to their parents for how to interpret situations. If you are in a constant state of panic, they will be too. If you tell them they're being deprived of their childhood, they'll believe you. However, if you tell them you're saving lives, having a unique adventure few other living people have experienced, enjoying life whatever it brings, they'll also believe you.
Oh, the irony of this one!
Silicon Valley's favorite modern display of worth: workaholicism. Hopefully his wife is spending time with the kids on the weekend?
Although I agree with this in general that it could be done, I'd argue there would need to be serious conversations on whether it should be done.
That's it! I get it, startups are hard and the US education system is broken. However, I'm going to continue exploring other options for my children.
P.S. If you're a tech person, you may also like to know this tidbit: they seem to be using PHP on the backend.
UPDATE February 3: They never acknowledged my cancellation request and attempted to charge my card again!
UPDATE February 4: They acknowledged my cancellation request AND refunded me for the two months I did pay for.