A “Modern” classroom model, designed by teachers, helps students stay engaged and connected

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Jul 30, 2019

As a K-12 researcher, I visit a fair number of classrooms. But rarely do I walk away as excited as I felt after visiting Kareem Farah’s classroom. A few years ago, Kareem and his colleague, Rob Barnett—both of whom were math teachers at Eastern High School in Washington DC—dramatically overhauled the conventional classroom model to better meet the learning needs of their students. Their model sparked my enthusiasm because it is exactly what I had wished for when I was teaching middle school math.

While their nontraditional instructional approaches are similar to those I’ve seen in other places, what’s unique about their model is that it is designed by teachers for teachers—and positions teachers, rather than top-down programs, as agents of change. Their model offers a low-cost, straightforward approach to blended instruction that other teachers can adopt and customize with relatively little expense or administrative coordination.

Kareem and Rob now run a nonprofit called the The Modern Classrooms Project to support other teachers interested in adopting the duo’s blended, self-paced, mastery-based practices. After my visit, I checked in with them to capture in their own words what makes the Modern Classroom Project worthwhile for teachers.

Tom: What is the Modern Classrooms Project?

Kareem: I’ve spent my career teaching in low-income public schools. My students always possessed the talent and intelligence to succeed, but struggled due to pre-existing learning gaps, chronic absenteeism, and trauma experienced outside of school. 

I still remember the first math lesson I ever taught. I was shocked by the incredible diversity of learning levels among the students in my room. I tried to lecture, but differentiating to my students’ needs was impossible with one-size-fits-all lessons. My lowest performers were lost while my highest performers were bored, and I was consistently trying to teach to the middle. It was a traditional, low-tech form of instruction, and it didn’t work. I saw that classroom instruction was ripe for innovation, and I wanted an instructional model that would meet the needs of my students. 

In 2017, Rob and I worked together to redesign our classrooms. Knowing that the lecture was a fundamental bottleneck, we replaced lectures with our own instructional videos, which empowered our students to learn at their own pace, in or outside of class. Because students had the time they actually needed to learn, we could also start grading students based on their mastery of content and skills. With this model, we spent our time working closely with the individual students in our classrooms—and ensured that each student truly learned.

As a result of these changes, I won DC Public Schools’ 2018 Excellence in Classroom Innovation Award. I started fielding inquiries from teachers and administrators across DC who wanted to adopt my practices. My model had the capacity to transform other classes, and I decided to lead the movement by founding The Modern Classrooms Project—a nonprofit devoted to changing the landscape of classroom instruction through our innovative instructional model.

Our flagship program is our year-long fellowship designed to transform a traditional educator into a modern educator. The Modern Classroom Fellowship includes a week-long intensive training and continued support throughout the school year. We provide our teachers with a stipend and instructional technology to make instructional video creation smooth. We also offer workshops to schools and districts interested in learning more about our model. 

Tom: What does the model offer teachers?

Rob: There’s a lot that our model has to offer teachers—even those that feel successful with a more traditional approach. I know this from experience! As a lecture-style teacher, I was doing a decent job in a flawed system…but it wasn’t until I transformed my classes using this model that I realized how much better teachers like me could become. The Fellows who’ve implemented our model have found that:

  1. Modern Classrooms are highly differentiated. The best lecturer in the world can’t account for the facts that (a) some students learn faster than others, and (b) different students need different kinds of support to succeed. In a Modern Classroom, where teacher-created instructional videos replace lectures, students advance at their own paces, while teachers spend class time providing targeted support. Differentiation becomes the very essence of instruction.
  2. Modern Classrooms are data-driven. Because our teachers require students to show mastery of each successive skill to move on to the next, both teachers and their students always know exactly how far each student’s mastery has progressed. If a student is falling behind, the teacher will see that and respond to it; if a student is ahead and needs an extra challenge, a teacher will know that and be ready to push. Teachers in Modern Classrooms make their decisions based on where their students truly are, and what each needs to learn next.
  3. Modern Classrooms facilitate high-quality interactions. Most teachers are teachers because they love working with young people, but so many of them are frustrated by the time they spend managing behavior as they try to lecture. Our teachers see much less of this for two reasons. First, the teacher doesn’t need to get a room of students to follow a lecture—the students can watch teacher-created videos on their own time and at their own pace. And second, there are less behavior issues because students are always appropriately challenged. The focus is where it should be: on student mastery.
  4. Modern Classrooms are laboratories for innovation. Our most successful teachers are educators who are eager to try new things to help their students learn—that’s often easier in a Modern Classroom where teachers have many high-quality, but low-stakes, interactions with students, compared to a lecture setting where every lesson needs to be perfect (because it’s delivered only once). We help our Fellows reimagine what their classrooms can be, and let them innovate to get there.

Of course, there are many elements that traditional teaching and Modern Classroom teaching have in common: an educator needs to care about their students, be passionate about content, explain things clearly, and provide interesting assignments. We love working with teachers who meet these criteria because we know that if they are good teachers in traditional settings, our framework and tools help them to be great

Tom: In addition to supporting differentiated instruction, how does the model change the way teachers spend their time?

Kareem: When I was still implementing a lecture model, I was stressed before every class period. No matter how much I planned, I was worried about how the class would go. Everything felt fragile and it led to an increase in anxiety for me and the students. 

The reality is, our students are often anxious due to a variety of reasons. Many are suffering from trauma, others are intimidated by the classroom environment and have low self-confidence, and all of them are energetic young people. To best support our students, we need to be calm, consistent forces in their lives. That is hard to do when you are anxiously preparing for a performance each and every class period. 

Our teachers tell us that our model makes class time much more enjoyable, by removing the stress of lecture and whole-class behavior management. Teachers have an initial increase in prep time, but as a result, they have much more freedom during class. Our teachers get to spend the entirety of class time working with students individually and in small groups, while building strong relationships with students seamlessly throughout the class period. Teaching is no longer exhausting, it is sustainable and enjoyable. 

Tom: How does the model change the dynamic of student/teacher relationships?

Rob: In a traditional setting, student/teacher relationships are often framed around authority. The teacher needs to “control” or “manage” the class so that students will listen to the lecture; when students don’t comply, the teacher must use discipline to get the class back in line. This takes so much time and energy that it leaves little for relationship-building, which must often happen outside of class time.

The Modern Classrooms model reframes this relationship around collaboration. When students, and not their teacher, are in control of learning, the teacher becomes a kind of coach/consultant who gives each student what he or she needs to be successful. The question Modern Classroom teachers ask is not “What do I need to do to get my kids to listen?” Instead, it’s “How can I best support each individual student in learning?” In my opinion, it’s a more productive question to answer.

Of course, supporting each individual student requires that a teacher really knows each student. To that end, Modern Classroom Fellows use several relationship-building strategies. For instance, early in the year, we encourage teachers to step outside of the classroom to have a one-on-one conversation with every student: this helps establish a strong connection with each student from day one and removes any stigma around talking one-on-one with a teacher in class. (Thanks to blended instruction, the students in the room can keep learning even when the teacher is in the hallway talking with students!) We push teachers to continue these individual conversations/check-ins throughout the year, on at least a weekly basis, if not daily. It’s exactly the kind of interaction that a student-centered learning environment is designed to facilitate.

This doesn’t mean that Modern Classrooms are free from disruptive behavior, or that teachers don’t need to impose discipline. They absolutely do. But in a Modern Classroom, teachers can deal with disruptive students quietly, in a one-on-one way, rather than starting the sort of confrontation that can derail an entire class. Students aren’t put on the spot, and “discipline” becomes just another way to keep building strong relationships. With enough support from a caring teacher, that disruptive student will eventually start to shine.

Tom: How can people get involved?

Kareem: We’ve got a lot of great material on our website—including a blended, self-paced, mastery-based version of our in-person training—and we’re always happy to connect with teachers who have questions about our model. In the coming year, we’re planning to upgrade that online course with some of the exemplars, teacher profiles, and dedicated online supports that many teachers have requested.

For more regular updates, we encourage interested teachers to follow us on Twitter and Facebook—we post content there regularly.

Finally, for teachers who really want to work closely with us, we offer a series of customizable workshops to schools and districts across the country. We’ve received inquiries from teachers all over the world and are excited to keep sharing our model.

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Altogether, I’m impressed by how Kareem, Rob, and the Modern Classroom Project teachers aren’t just using tech to add digital pizzaz to their classrooms, but instead leveraging tech’s potential to reconfigure their face-to-face instructional models. In so doing, they also demonstrate that although teachers may not have full control over all the school-level structures that affect instruction, they can still adopt blended-learning practices within the walls of their classrooms that have a significant positive impact on their ability to meet the individual needs of their students.

Thomas Arnett is a senior research fellow in education for the Clayton Christensen Institute. His work focuses on studying innovations that amplify educator capacity, documenting barriers to K-12 innovation, and identifying disruptive innovations in education. Thomas previously served as a trustee and board president for the Morgan Hill Unified School District in Morgan Hill, California, worked as an Education Pioneers fellow with the Achievement First Public Charter Schools, and taught middle school math as a Teach For America teacher in Kansas City Public Schools. Thomas received a BS in Economics from Brigham Young University and an MBA from the Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon University.