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 better conversations in your classroom? Let your students start teaching themselves.

When I tell colleagues that, on a daily basis, the students in my classroom both use computers and engage in rich conversations about math, I am often met with skepticism. When students learn from videos rather than direct instruction, my colleagues wonder, when do they talk with each other? Isn’t everyone just staring at a screen?

It’s true that technology in the classroom can be misused. Personal interaction with teachers and classmates alike is absolutely essential to student learning, and when screen-time detracts from those interactions, computers impede learning. Yet by using technology in a highly strategic way, teachers can enhance both the quantity and the quality of these human connections. Used properly, computers don’t replace teachers—they help teachers be even better.

I am proud to teach in a Modern Classroom: a blended, self-paced, mastery-based learning environment in which technology enables improved and more frequent human interactions. Here’s why:

1. By replacing lectures with targeted supports. Traditional classrooms are built around a particular kind of impersonal interaction: the teacher mostly talks, and the students mostly listen. But an online video can deliver a lecture just as well as a human—better, in fact, as students can re-watch videos whenever and as often as they want—and eliminating lectures frees me up to work individually or in small groups with my students. I no longer need to keep my students quiet while I speak, or fear that what I’m saying is going over my students’ heads. Instead, I spend more time interacting with students, and those interactions are of a higher quality.

2. By making every student an expert. When I lectured, I was the primary source of information. Students would ask me questions—if they even felt comfortable doing so in front of the class—and I never had the time to answer them all. I was the center of the classroom, and learning revolved around me. Now that my students are in control of their own learning experiences, each student has the chance to become an expert, and to help their peers, without needing anything from me. When I’m working with one small group of students, the rest of my class knows not to wait for me. Instead, they ask their peers for the help they need, and keep on learning. (This also improves the quality of the questions that students ask me; if their questions are easily resolved, it’s likely a classmate has already helped.) My classes are full of students authentically helping each other learn. It’s a beautiful thing.

3. By individualizing the student experience. Because each student in my class learns at his or her own pace, I get to know each of my students at individuals. I don’t think about how I can hold the attention of 20 students at once, or about what types of practice my entire class needs—I think about what each individual student knows, what each individual student cares about, and what each individual student needs to be successful. I get to know my students as real people! It wouldn’t be possible if I had to teach them in a traditional ‘one-size-fits-all’ way. But because they learn and progress as individuals, I can develop relationships with them as such—and help them grow as learners and as people. It’s the best part of my job.

Is every day in my classroom a perfect example of productive interaction and collaboration? Of course are days when students get distracted, or my plans go off course, or my students just need to work in silence. That’s part of the learning experience, and that’s okay. But in general, I find these blended, self-paced, mastery-based classes to be much more conducive to effective interaction than any other model I’ve seen.

Just think for a moment about the education you’d want for yourself: would you want to be told when to talk, and with whom, and about what? Or would you want the freedom to learn as you saw fit, side-by-side with the partners you chose, with the targeted supports you need to succeed? Personally, I’d much prefer the second option—and I know my students do, too. Used in the right way, the right technologies make that possible.

Photo courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action.

Robert Barnett

Robert Barnett (he/him/his)

Co-Founder and Chief Operating Officer, The Modern Classrooms Project

Robert Barnett is the co-founder and chief operating officer of The Modern Classrooms Project. He has taught math, entrepreneurship, computer science, and law in the United States and Switzerland, and has written about education for Education Week, The Washington Post, and Washington City Paper. A native of Washington, D.C., he is a former City Year corps member and holds degrees cum laude from both Princeton University (A.B.) and Harvard Law School (J.D.).