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?
These efforts may result in a new schoolwide vision embraced by the overall community that includes a holistic view of what student success looks like and how it will be achieved. Achieving this milestone can lay a powerful foundation for enduring, transformative change.
But then begins the next step: taking the leap in turning bold ideas into a schoolwide reality. And it’s here that educators are showing that the broad array of skills they’ve developed in the classroom have applicability far beyond it.
Some take it upon themselves to design fundamentally different learning models for their students. If they believe technology can aid in achieving their vision, they’ll look for tools and products that best integrate into their vision for how they want learning to happen.
Others will explore the adoption of holistically designed learning models that academically and operationally integrate multiple approaches to learning and include custom daily student schedules. They’ll carefully review the design tenets upon which it was developed, go on site visits, speak with participating teachers, and begin to shape how a new model can be incorporated into their overall vision for their school.
For some, the change will be too daunting and the exploration will end without much beyond. But for the most pioneering educators, the energy around designing and implementing a new approach to learning can be invigorating and provide the energy required to work through the inevitable challenges that stand between idea and execution.
These educators believe that new approaches to learning can be game-changing for their students. They fully recognize the limitations any teacher has in meeting the unique needs of each student and take great professional satisfaction in seeing their students advance and take ownership over their own learning.
They also see the benefits to them as professionals, as they see new roles for educators that are far more collaborative and less isolating than the current role. They’re able to spend less time on administrative details and more on the quality of instruction, diagnosing misconceptions, and building meaningful relationships with their students.
Becoming an educator requires great courage. Leading a classroom of students each day requires talent, hard work, and a fearlessness to be successful. It was a tall order when I was a teacher, and I’m not sure that’s changed.
But what has changed is our capacity to design and implement a fundamentally different classroom—one that’s designed to meet the unique needs of each student each day. The technological advances we’ve seen over the last 25 years provide the opportunity to turn the page on the factory-model classroom in ways that can endure for generations.
If we’re ever going to fully take advantage of these new capacities, it will be because of the courage and resilience of the most fearless of teachers who squarely the confront the limits of the current classroom model, see the potential of new and better ways, and lead the charge to get there.
They are the ones laying our nation’s foundation for the classroom of tomorrow.
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