As a 22-year-old first-year teacher, I was introduced to one of the biggest challenges within our schools. While setting up my classroom, my principal came by to deliver a set of fifth-grade textbooks and an analysis of the starting points for each of the 28 students in my class.
While all of my students were in fifth grade, they were individuals starting at varying places academically.
I worked hard, cared a lot, and spent lots of late nights developing lessons. I tried to learn how to keep the classroom orderly and motivate my students to learn. And I tried to learn all I could from my colleagues who had far more experience, knowledge, and skill than I had.
It was the most rewarding job I ever had … and also the toughest.
When I reflect on why the job was so hard, at the top of the list was the challenge of meeting the unique needs of each of my students each day, specifically the expectation that I was to do this on my own.
What I didn’t realize at the time—and do now—is that the challenge of meeting the needs of each student each day is simply a reflection of the predominant model of schooling: one teacher and 30 or so students in a single classroom. Given how different each student truly is, differentiated instruction can be nearly impossible to pull off.
Despite these clear limitations, far more energy and attention is aimed at improving outcomes within the existing school model than at imagining and developing new ones. Thankfully, that’s changing as educators take the lead both in challenging long-standing structures and embracing new ways to support student learning.
How we’re changing education
Perhaps the best example of educators redesigning schoolwide structures comes from the movement around small learning communities. Often used in high schools, this approach might take a 1,000-student school and break it into four 250-student learning communities all working together on the same campus. It’s a daunting task when one considers all of the scheduling, staffing, and logistical implications (the cafeteria alone!) of breaking up a large high school into smaller ones. But because educators believed that smaller learning environments would more readily enable a more personalized approach to learning, they tackled and addressed the barriers head on.
In many communities, schools and districts that once worked to design and implement small learning communities are now exploring more ways they can redesign the school model to better meet the strengths and needs of each student.
Changing a learning model raises questions: What is the curriculum? How does this change the role of the teacher? How does this change the overall experience for students?