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This is a re-post of Eric Rohy’s popular “Reimagining the Classroom Experience” originally posted April 01, 2015

Most educators agree that the current lecture-style approach to teaching is flawed. Almost all classrooms remain stuck in the same centuries-old paradigm of one-to-many instruction: a lone teacher lecturing to a classroom filled with 30 or more students. Admittedly, there are some benefits of the lecture paradigm — examples of which can be found in “Study and Analysis of Lecture Model of Teaching”. In general, though, this approach limits the teacher’s ability to adapt his or her classroom to meet a number of 21st century teaching needs such as individualized and personalized instruction, personalized learning, competency-based grouping and progression, seamless blending of instruction and assessment, and timely impact of assessment results to affect instruction.

While all of these best practices are widely thought to enhance student learning, individually they each present their own set of implementation challenges. And imagine the additional effort of having to fit any of them into today’s fixed-format classroom structure! It’s no surprise that there have been pockets of success in these areas but no widespread adoptions.

There are two key reasons each of these changes have been difficult to implement: first, they have been attempted within the current one-to-many teaching structure, and second, they have been attempted as individual initiatives instead of as a whole set of interdependent next-generation learning practices. Although it takes fortitude, grit and a lot of support, a wholesale implementation of these changes offers the best chance for a successful new paradigm. We need to reimagine the entire classroom model and address many of these needs at the same time so they become mutually-supporting components.

A Four-Part Implementation Process 

  • First, eliminate the one-to-many teaching approach. Students can’t receive personalized instruction and personalized learning when a teacher has to teach to the most common denominator. We can solve this problem with technology by giving every student a tablet device that wirelessly connects to adaptive software in the cloud — and treat them as the students’ own, personal whiteboards, with lesson plans that target their level of mastery; instruction tailored to their individual learning styles and capability levels; and learning modules presented just to them. A single assessment when students first enter the school, regardless of their age, would easily determine at what level of instruction these on-the-tablet lessons would begin.
  • Second, seamlessly integrate assessment with the instruction presented to each student on his or her tablet. Educators know that best-practice teaching involves instructing for five minutes, asking students a few questions to determine if they’ve understood the material, backtracking if necessary, and then moving on to the next topic. Yet most teachers don’t teach this way for two reasons: pedagogical momentum and a lack of technology that integrates instruction and assessment seamlessly so it doesn’t disrupt the flow of the class. With tablets and the right software, this approach is possible on an individualized basis: after every five minutes of individualized tablet-based instruction, students would be presented with a brief series of questions that adapt to their skill level, much as computer-adaptive tests operate today. After that assessment, the next set of instructional material would be customized according to these results. If a student needs to relearn some material, the software automatically adjusts and creates a custom learning plan on the fly. The student would then be reassessed and the cycle would continue. With both the instruction and the assessments integrated into the same software and presented as a continuous “flow” to each student, there is almost no difference between instruction and assessment in the mind of the child.
  • Third, assuming that all instructional material and formative assessments are aligned to achievement standards, there is no longer a need for students to take standard end-of-chapter tests. The formative assessments that are interwoven with their instructional materials provide sufficient data for teachers to gauge student progress through, and mastery of, each topic. Furthermore, these results are available in real time throughout the day and across days and weeks. In reality, there would be little need for interim progress reporting, since the software would reteach topics as needed to ensure full and complete mastery of subjects. However, it would be useful for teachers to know if students are falling behind significantly so they can take alternative remedial steps. Given this model, there is also the logical conclusion that real time data, when aggregated across an entire district, can also reduce or eliminate the need for district benchmark tests. There is no need for interim benchmark tests if an administrator can see, in real time, the aggregate and disaggregated performance of students across the district and their predicted performance on end-of-year summative assessments.
  • Fourth, eliminate grade levels. Because students progress through subject material at their own pace, they can be grouped by ability instead of grade level, similar to competency-based learning approaches currently being tried in various schools and districts. In this idealized model, grouping students by ability supports the project-based learning that is a key component to academic and social development and is used to complement the individualized learning plan provided by students’ tablets.

It would be naïve to think that such a holistic change to classroom structure and pedagogy would be easy. A number of significant funding, process, training, and political challenges would need to be addressed. But embracing a holistic change instead of trying to fit individual improvements within the current classroom structure offers us our best opportunity for true, impactful change in the learning environment. To paraphrase Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, we must be “willing to lose sight of the shore” and make uncomfortable changes to make a significant leap forward in education.