Perhaps because it’s the holiday season and gifts of model planes, trains, and automobiles are on my mind, but visions of K­–12 learning models are dancing in my head.

A central argument in Disrupting Class was that technology couldn’t be a silver bullet to cure the challenges public education faces. Instead, the model in which technology is used is far more important.

Many seeking to transform schooling with technology haven’t spent nearly enough time thinking about the model of schooling itself and the tradeoffs in connecting to the traditional school architecture, however.

The dominant model in today’s K­–12 public school system is a zero-sum one in which students learn for fixed periods of time with highly variable learning outcomes.

There are many alternative learning models, from Montessori Education to Summit Learning and New Classrooms’ Teach to One.

For a long time, Joel Rose, founder of New Classrooms, has stressed the importance of creating new “learning models so that teachers can meet each student’s needs each day.”

The Teach to One model that New Classrooms has created seeks to personalize math learning for middle schoolers.

In the model, each student receives an individualized learning playlist every day—the precise set of activities and concepts on which each student would work based on her needs. While students cycle through a variety of modalities to learn, which range from independent online work to peer-to-peer learning and traditional teacher instruction, the teachers do everything from traditional teaching to tutoring to monitoring how individual students are faring in their assigned modalities.

This model flies in the face of traditional math instruction in middle school where everyone in the classroom is essentially learning in lockstep. The teacher might say, “today we’re doing quadratic equations,” and everyone works on that concept even if they didn’t understand an earlier foundational concept.

What’s distinct from many other alternative learning models is that the Teach to One model is designed to plug into the traditional school day at a particular interface of schooling. It takes advantage of a traditional middle school’s modular architecture in which there are discreet subject-based courses and a modular class schedule.

A modular architecture is one in which an organization can snap together parts in well-understood, crisply codified ways. The advantage of such a design is that different components can be developed in independent workgroups or by different organizations working at arm’s length, which allows for fast customization.

To illustrate, think back to the toys on my mind this holiday season and consider the “architecture” of a Lego.

Lego pieces have a standard interface that allows them to connect to each other by connecting “studs” to “tubes”—or by fitting the bumps on Legos into holes. This is called a modular interface. The studs and holes are all a standardized size. If they weren’t, then the Lego pieces wouldn’t fit together. This is among the characteristics that differentiate traditional Legos from Lego Duplos, for example.

By having a modular interface, the designers of Lego pieces have lots of freedom to improve the design next to the parts that interconnect so long as they build the studs and holes such that they can connect to the established specifications for other Lego pieces. This is what enables Lego’s designers to create all sorts of pieces—from teddy bears to tiles with Chinese characters.

Just as Lego designers have considerable freedom to design on the other side of the interface, by connecting to schools through a standardized school interface, New Classrooms has considerable autonomy to customize its model. Because it is a self-contained model with few interdependencies with the rest of the school, Rose has observed that districts should be able to pay model providers like Teach to One based on realizing agreed-upon student outcomes.

There are, of course, tradeoffs to modular innovations. For example, a Lego can’t reinvent itself to become, say, an Erector Set. And in schools, an educator can’t rethink the total architecture of school in a modular design. This is a tradeoff because rethinking the architecture of a service is something that is important whenever a sector is underperforming, which is critical as we consider the totality of what school should do for students and society.

But modular designs do create pathways to greater scale than fully rethinking the design of something because new services can take advantage of existing infrastructure and fit into it.

Teach to One arguably doesn’t fully realize those benefits of scale today for three reasons.

First, relative to today’s pay-per-student licensing or purchasing model, Teach to One appears relatively costly.

Second, Teach to One requires a retrofitting of classrooms. It’s not fully plug-compatible with the existing egg-crate classroom structure of schools.

And third, many middle schools don’t use the block schedule that is ideal for the Teach to One learning model that should educate students over roughly 80 to 90 minutes.

But Teach to One’s presence and Rose’s insights on the importance of creating new models create an important thought experiment. What other plug-compatible interfaces exist in today’s schools for which educators could create new learning models?

Every class experience creates the ability to offer a wholly new model. Math may be the easiest place to build these offerings, but it doesn’t have to be the only one.  Given the paucity of robust alternatives for many school systems, Career Technical Education might also be an area ripe for this sort of innovation in conjunction with outside employers, platforms like Big Picture Learning’s ImBlaze, and providers like Project Lead the Way and Pathstream, which prepares college students for high-demand digital skill careers

Rose is right. It’s well past time for far more research and development into building these modular models that could help rethink parts of the schooling experience—and fill up educators’ stockings with more concrete ways to customize school.


  • Michael B. Horn
    Michael B. Horn

    Michael B. Horn is Co-Founder, Distinguished Fellow, and Chairman at the Christensen Institute.