New Designs for School
New Designs for School

We’ve all had the experience of truly purposeful, authentic learning and know how valuable it is. Educators are taking the best of what we know about learning, student support, effective instruction, and interpersonal skill-building to completely reimagine schools so that students experience that kind of purposeful learning all day, every day.

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Want a class that functions smoothly and productively? Forget the carrots and sticks; make sure each student has appropriately challenging work instead.

When I trained to become a teacher, I spent countless hours learning to control young people. I learned, for instance, that my students should be trained to SLANT: Sit up, Listen, Answer questions, Never interrupt, Track the speaker. I learned to demand 100 percent of my students’ attention at all times, to use nonverbal hand signals to redirect behavior, and to keep students in their seats. (“My first rule,” my teacher trainer told me, “because trouble starts when students get up.”) I even learned the most efficient way to have students pass out papers. My classroom would be a tightly run ship.

These rules seemed great—until the students arrived. I soon realized that my students, high schoolers in a Title I school in Washington, D.C., had little interest in SLANTing and little desire to observe my carefully crafted rules and routines. Like any group of people, they naturally wanted to interact! My classes became chaotic. I could try coaxing 25 teenagers to follow along with my lesson, but my lessons invariably moved too slowly for some students and too quickly for others. Other students came in late, or missed class altogether. And all of these students, quite understandably, became disengaged. Would you sit and listen to a teacher whose lessons you can’t comprehend?

Ultimately, young people don’t need to be managed—they need to be challenged and engaged.

I was disheartened, at first. I considered quitting. But what saved my career were three essential realizations about learning. First: listening does not equal learning. Second: every single student wants to learn. Third, and most important: to learn, each student must be appropriately challenged every day. Lessons that are too easy, or too hard, breed disengagement, frustration, and hopelessness. Give any young person something that’s just right, and she’ll dive right in.

But how, I wondered, could I do this? After all, I had 25 (or more) students in each class. I didn’t love lecturing at them, but for efficiency’s sake it seemed a necessity. My students had ten months to learn precalculus, or statistics, or computer science. Was there any way to meet 25 individual sets of needs, simultaneously, day in and day out?

Fortunately, there was. I discovered, through colleagues, the concept of blended learning. Rather than trying to lecture to half-full rooms, I realized I could record my lectures and post them online, for students to access when ready. Rather than dragging every student through each lesson at my pace, I could allow students to set their own paces, taking no more and no less time than necessary to learn. Rather than pushing students missing prerequisite skills through advanced content, I could ensure that each student mastered each successive skill before progressing, and I could help each student reflect on the very process of learning itself. Rather than delivering one lesson per class, I could facilitate 25—and make sure that each hit the mark.

It took trial, effort, and continuous tinkering, but over the years I built a classroom where students drive their own learning—and which looks little like the rooms of SLANT-ing students I was trained to manage. My classroom isn’t quiet, my students aren’t always sitting, and I’m rarely in control. My classroom, like the learning process, can get messy and chaotic: students move around, talk with each other, and call out more questions than you’d believe. I don’t mind. It’s through those questions, and the highly organized, student-centered structure that I’ve built for them to explore, that they learn.

And do you know what? Not only do my students learn more, but they “misbehave” much less!

I don’t have to shush student-to-student conversations: they no longer interrupt my lectures, and more often than not they promote learning.

I don’t have to keep students on task: they know that they’re responsible for staying on track.

And if a real behavioral challenge arises, I no longer have to interrupt class to address it: I can pull disruptive students quietly aside and speak to them, while the rest of the class learns.

I no longer manage my students so much as my students manage themselves. They need to do that, in order to learn!

Can this model work everywhere? I don’t know. In my work with The Modern Classrooms Project, a teacher-training nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., I’ve helped to train an interdisciplinary cohort of teachers to adopt blended, self-paced, mastery-based practices like my own; our early results suggest that both teachers and students find these student-centered Modern Classrooms to be better-managed than traditional, lecture-style settings. This is despite the fact that we don’t train teachers in classroom management! We simply change the way the classroom works, and that seems to make a real difference.

Ultimately, young people don’t need to be managed—they need to be challenged and engaged. Let’s train our teachers to do THAT, and our students will fly.

Robert Barnett

Robert Barnett

Math teacher and co-founder of The Modern Classrooms Project​

Robert Barnett is the co-founder of The Modern Classrooms Project, and a Math Teacher and Resident Scholar at the Leysin American School.